Middle East update: November 2 2018


According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian government shelling killed at least eight people on Friday in the town of Jarjanaz, inside the demilitarized zone in Idlib province. Government forces and some rebel groups in the province–Hayat Tahrir al-Sham being most prominent among them–have continued a low-level exchange of fire in and around Idlib since late September, even though a Russian-Turkish ceasefire arrangement technically went into effect there a couple of weeks ago.

To the east, US forces are now reportedly patrolling the Syrian-Turkish border, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, in an attempt to force Turkey to stop attacking YPG positions there. The US-led anti-ISIS coalition says it regularly patrols northern Syria and hasn’t adjusted the frequency of those patrols in response to the past several days of Turkish shelling, but did say that it’s talked with both Turkish and SDF officials about the need to stop the violence. The SDF has suspended its coalition-backed offensive to try to wipe the last remnants of ISIS out of Deir Ezzor province because of repeated Turkish attacks.

Although the Turks formed a unified military command for its Syrian rebel proxies back in December, the actual process of integrating them into a single force hasn’t really gone anywhere, mostly because nobody–Turkey included–really seems to want to make it happen:

But apart from this cosmetic unification, a national structure has largely failed to materialize on the ground due to the challenges of organizing it and resistance from some of the armed groups’ leaders. Although Turkey’s rebel allies announced their merger over a year ago, they still have separate leaders, structures, agendas, and areas of influence, and the central command of the national army has no control or sway over them. This is because individuals and commanders benefiting from the current situation see any integration as a threat to their interests.2 For example, many of the rebel groups that left Deir Ezzor to join the fight in the Euphrates Shield region still aim to go back and liberate their areas, while local groups within the structure prioritize staying in the area to maximize their influence.

Yet fears that Turkey might cut off their support and funding—or disband them and bar access to Turkey, where many of the fighters’ relatives live—have so far kept the groups from rejecting integration outright. Therefore, many factions have agreed to merge but continue to take advantage of Turkey’s weak influence on the ground to maintain their influence. Turkey’s authority is reportedly strong near border areas such as Jarablus and al-Rai, where it has more forces, but it gets weaker further south, where local groups are enforcing their power. “The groups who want to create zones of influence are heading away from the border toward the cities of al-Bab and Akhtareen,” said Nawar. Consequently, most of the rebels’ violations against civilians and power struggles between factions are taking place in those areas, especially in al-Bab.

Despite its publicly stated desire to professionalize its allies through training and accountability mechanisms, Turkey is unable to enforce the national army framework on its divided allies. Ankara fears that the use of strict measures (such as by terminating groups’ funding) could lead to armed resistance. However, Turkey is in no hurry to professionalize them, as the current divisions still allow Turkey to control them.


Hardline Iranian media is crediting the Houthis with a great victory now that even the Trump administration appears to be demanding an end to fighting in Yemen. I realize that’s propaganda, but assuming Yemen does get a ceasefire in the next 30 days as Mike Pompeo and James Mattis have suggested, it’s pretty offensive to suggest that any belligerent in Yemen has “won” anything. Most of the Yemenis who have died by the tens of thousands in this war, the children who are dying of hunger and preventable illness at a rate of one every ten minutes, had no more interest in the Houthi cause than they did in the Saudi cause. They were quite literally in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s shameful for anybody to plant their flag in those dead bodies and proclaim victory.

So far the chances of a ceasefire are looking bleak anyway. Fighting is still raging in Hudaydah, where it is reportedly threatening several of the city’s remaining hospitals, and the Saudis conducted at least 30 airstrikes overnight in Sanaa. But as I noted earlier this week, Mattis did implicitly give the Saudis permission to keep waging their full scale war for another month. It would be naive to think they won’t use that time to improve their position and weaken the Houthis as much as possible.


The US and Turkey traded sanctions relief on Friday. Washington lifted sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers in light of Ankara’s decision last month to free US pastor Andrew Brunson. The Turks then returned the favor, lifting their own sanctions on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Turkey continues to hold several local employees of US government agencies, the State Department mostly, and is also detaining two dual US-Turkish nationals, NASA contractor Serkan Gölge and a chemist named Ismail Kul. The Trump administration doesn’t seem to have much interest in going to bat for any of them the way it did for Brunson. I’ll leave it up to you to guess why.


Fish are dying off by the thousands in the Euphrates River in Iraq’s Babylon province, the latest example of the water crisis that’s gripping the entire country. The combination of chronic water shortages, massive pollution, and unlicensed/unmonitored fish farming in the river is being blamed for the die off.


Friday’s weekly Gaza protest was smaller and quieter than in previous weeks, and consequently Israeli soldiers “only” seem to have wounded seven people. Egypt is once again trying to mediate a settlement between Hamas and the Israeli government, and the presence of Egyptian officials at the fence line on Friday, as well as Hamas’s desire to reach an accord, may have contributed to the diminished demonstrations. The Egyptians are trying to arrange a deal whereby Hamas ends the protests while Israel eases its blockade on Gaza.


Gunmen, later claimed by ISIS, attacked a tour bus near the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Minya on Friday, killing at least seven people. The victims all appear to have been Christians, who have become ISIS’s favorite targets in Egypt.


Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, told Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper on Friday that officials believe that Jamal Khashoggi’s body was dismembered and dissolved in acid following his murder in the Saudi consulate on October 2. That’s the first time anybody has gone on the record with the acid story. The pattern so far in this investigation has been that Turkish officials leak information anonymously to the press, give the Saudis some time to react, and then go on the record with whatever they leaked. Forensic evidence in the Saudi consul-general’s residence apparently supports this latest theory, which explains why the Turks have been unable to recover any of Khashoggi’s remains.

The brutality of this act, assuming this version of events is true, is like something you’d encounter in a particularly violent comic book or movie. It’s difficult to imagine how a real human being came up with the idea to do these things to another human being, let alone when you consider that the person who did come up with the idea has been working in a high level position in Saudi Arabia–maybe the highest level position in Saudi Arabia–for some time now. It certainly makes the disdain for human life that the Saudis have shown in Yemen more explicable.


Of course, no matter how many bodies the Saudis dissolve in acid, we must never forget that the True Evildoers in the Middle East are the Iranians, for some reason. Monday will see the full reimposition of all US sanctions against Iran, including the strongest oil and banking sanctions. Already there are reports that, for example, Iranian planes are being denied refueling in Turkey, and Donald Trump is tweeting memes about the whole thing:

To be clear, people may die as a result of these sanctions if Iran can’t finance the importation of basic medical items (see below). They will certainly suffer from these sanctions regardless. But cool meme bro.

Mike Pompeo announced on Friday that the US will be issuing eight waivers for current Iranian oil importers, but did not name the eight recipients. The list is believed to include India, Iraq, South Korea, and Turkey, and it does not include the European Union as a single entity. The waivers are all temporary and conditional on recipients’ efforts to reduce or eliminate their importation of Iranian oil. The Treasury Department has ordered the SWIFT banking network to cut off designated Iranian entities as of Monday. It’s been a little unclear whether Treasury would take that step but assuming SWIFT goes along with it–and depending on how many banks wind up on the US blacklist–Iranian bankers will once again be cut off from the global financial system. Which would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for European governments to create the “special purpose vehicle” they’ve talked about creating to protect commercial interaction with Iran from US sanctions.

This is not exactly what Iran hawks wanted–they would prefer to cut off all Iranian banks from SWIFT and be done with it, and they would prefer zero waivers to eight. But the waivers are probably a smart move–giving large Iranian oil buyers like India time to wean themselves off makes it more likely they’ll eventually come into compliance with the sanctions than just demanding they go cold turkey. As for the banking end of things, this seems to be as far as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was willing to go in order to minimize the risk of a serious breakdown in the US-Europe financial relationship. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see just how extensive these banking sanctions wind up being. Certain Iranian financial institutions may be permitted restricted access to SWIFT in order to finance the purchase of humanitarian goods (food, medicine, etc.), but we’ll also have to wait and see how that might work in practice. So far the administration doesn’t seem terribly interested in ensuring that the Iranians are able to bring those items into the country.


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