Middle East update: November 5-6 2018


As you may have heard, the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to eradicate ISIS from its last chunk of territory east of the Euphrates River has ground to a halt, partly because of stiffer than expected resistance from ISIS but mostly because Turkey has started shelling Kurdish positions in northern Syria in preparation for another invasion. The US is now undertaking joint patrols in northern Syria with the YPG in an effort to deter more Turkish attacks, a situation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described to reporters on Tuesday as “unacceptable.”

The Atlantic Council’s Aaron Stein argues that the US might be able to back Turkey off by reopening discussions on the US-Turkish joint roadmap for Manbij, just across the river. The US and Turkey have begun joint patrols outside of Manbij, but the next step is to negotiate the formation of a new governing council for the town and so far Washington hasn’t been moving fast enough for Ankara. That’s all fine, and might even work for a while, but ultimately Turkey seems committed to dislodging the YPG east of the Euphrates as it’s done west of the Euphrates, and the US, allied with Turkey but dependent on the YPG not just to take out ISIS but also to provide the justification for a longer-term, Iran-focused US deployment in northeastern Syria, still doesn’t really know what to do about that.

Meanwhile, according to the New Arab, Israeli cabinet minister Zeev Elkin suggested to Russian media on Monday that Israel might attack the S-300 air defense systems that Russia has recently supplied to Syria. Those systems have made it more difficult, though certainly not impossible, for Israel to carry out offensive airstrikes in Syria, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they were in Israel’s crosshairs. But if they were to attack an S-300 battery and kill a couple of Russian advisers or something in the process, that could get very ugly.


While fighting in and around Hudaydah may be at its highest level yet in the Saudi-led coalition’s five month offensive there, the Houthis are claiming that they’ve fought the coalition to a stalemate and stopped its advance. Coalition forces have been pressing on three points–Hudaydah’s university campus, its airport, and the eastern approaches to the city center, and so far the Houthis seem to be holding them off on all three fronts. This has, of course, come at a terrible humanitarian cost–thousands of children in Hudaydah are suffering from acute starvation due to the fighting, and thousands of civilians are reportedly trapped by the fighting in southern Hudaydah, with no access to humanitarian relief.


The US-Turkish relationship may not be as frayed as the situation in Syria suggests. Only a couple of weeks after Turkey released US pastor Andrew Brunson from prison, the US put heavy bounties on the heads of three senior PKK leaders on Tuesday. The largest is a US$5 million reward for information on PKK co-founder Murat Karayılan. The US officially considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but this move is obviously meant as a present for Erdoğan.

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told a German newspaper on Tuesday that “in the long term, it would be more honest for Turkey and the EU to go down new roads and end” negotiations over Turkey’s possible accession to the EU. This is an unprecedented degree of candor from a top official in the EU, which has been stringing Turkey along with no intention of ever admitting it as a member since the 1980s. Hahn argued that focusing on membership talks has precluded talking about alternative kinds of partnership between the EU and Turkey, which is probably true, but I’m sure Erdoğan will use his remarks to maximum political effect.

The New York Times notes the irony of Erdoğan acting as murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s avenging angel using the same “tactics” he’s used to stifle dissent and free press in Turkey:

The tactics Mr. Erdogan has used against the Saudis are much the same ones he has perfected against political enemies at home — leaks planted by government sources and reported by friendly news outlets, which he then cites to destroy his opponents.

That approach has become a staple of the president’s arsenal to spread intimidation and to crack down on dissent. He has been able to employ it so effectively, including against the Saudis, partly because of a compliant news media that he has fashioned over 16 years in power.

But the same pro-government media outlets that have been a useful tool in the Khashoggi case have also published virulent content against many of those detained under the state of emergency. They include a well-known philanthropist and civil society activist, Osman Kavala, whom Mr. Erdogan described as “the Soros of Turkey,” referring to the vilified billionaire George Soros.


One of the most important exemptions the US issued in its new round of Iran sanctions (see below) was to Iraq, specifically so that Baghdad could continue buying desperately needed electricity from Iran. Iraqi politics are been rocked by the resumption of sanctions, and with Iraq dependent on both the US and Iran to some degree it’s likely that things are going to get worse in Baghdad as US-Iranian relations deteriorate.


In the context of complaining about negative media reports and their impact on the tourist trade, Lebanese Tourism Minister Avedis Guidanian rhetorically asked the Daily Star on Monday if there’s “a place dirtier than” Egypt. He was making the point that Egyptian media, unlike Lebanese media, knows “how to sell the country.” This, he said, explains why Egypt gets lots of tourists even though it apparently sucks there, I guess? As you might expect, Guidanian issued an apology on Tuesday. For the record, I’ve been to both Egypt and Lebanon and they’re both very nice. Egypt has a lot of poverty and some very overcrowded and poorly managed urban areas but it’s hardly alone in that regard. And anyway, Beirut has had literal rivers of garbage flowing through it in recent years, so it’s not exactly the archetype of cleanliness these days either.


The Israeli government may embark on an ambitious new desalination project to refill the Sea of Galilee. The sea has been depleted by climate change and overuse and is approaching dangerously low water levels, so the plan is to pipe desalinated water from the Mediterranean inland to restock it. The project may depend on a wet winter this year, though. Without enough rain to bring the Galilee’s water level up a bit, the sea could reach the point of no return before the project can get going.

The BBC looks at the recent general thaw in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, which is causing some pretty white-knuckle feelings among Palestinian leaders who seem to have a growing sense that they’re about to get sold out in favor of a grand anti-Iran coalition.

Meanwhile, the contours of a larger Hamas-Israel peace agreement in Gaza are beginning to take shape:

Arab media outlets have begun reporting details of the agreement, though Israel’s government has offered no information about it to its own citizens (and has even denied any involvement). The goal is a three-year cease-fire. The reduction in violence would enable more significant measures to improve Gaza’s economy, including expanding fishing zones, opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and allowing more Palestinians to enter Israel.

The proposed agreement is being aided by Qatari promises to provide major financial aid to pay the salaries of Gaza’s civil servants and allow Hamas to create thousands of additional civil service jobs. Longer term, the goal would be to build a new airport and seaport for the city and to bring it gradually back under Palestinian Authority control so that international aid could go through the PA rather than the largely blacklisted Hamas.


At LobeLog, Emile Nakhleh puts the conviction and imprisonment of opposition leader Ali Salman in the context of Bahrain’s increasing authoritarianism:

As the Bahraini regime prepares to hold parliamentary elections late this month, it realizes that the legitimacy of such elections is in question because the opposition has refused to participate. The opposition has based its refusal to boycott the elections on the valid argument that the regime fully controls the elections, which are neither fair nor free. The opposition is signaling pro-democracy countries, especially the United States and Britain, that Bahrain, which used to defend the constitution under the late Emir Isa bin Salman, has moved away from democracy and the one-person-one-vote rule to an apartheid regime in which the majority has no rights or freedoms. King Hamad and his regime are following in the footsteps of the strongman rule in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and in the UAE under Muhammad bin Zayed.


The Qatari government went through a bit of a reorganization over the weekend:

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, ordered a Cabinet shuffle on Nov. 4 that put experienced executives and younger royals in top positions. Tamim appointed Qatar National Bank CEO Ali Ahmed al-Kuwari to a new portfolio that combines the Commerce and Industry Ministries under a single new ministry. Qatar Petroleum CEO Saad al-Kaabi was appointed minister of state for energy affairs, and new ministers will lead the Justice, Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs, and Municipality and Environment Ministries.

Tamim also issued decrees restructuring Qatar Petroleum and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which has assets worth roughly $320 billion. The emir named Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to serve as QIA chairman and Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani as chairman of the Qatar Financial Markets Authority.

The moves don’t appear to signify any problems within the Qatari economy and in fact might have taken place sooner were it not for last year’s Saudi-led blockade. With Qatar having ridden the blockade out in fairly good shape, it can make moves like this without looking like it’s panicking.


Saudi officials told the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday that they will definitely bring “all the perpetrators to justice” in the Jamal Khashoggi killing. It’s unclear whether that will include the “clean-up team” that Turkish authorities now allege the Saudis sent to Istanbul a week after Khashoggi’s October 2 murder for the purpose of destroying evidence at the Saudi consulate and the consul-general’s residence. If true it would strengthen the argument that this was not a rogue operation carried out by a few bad apples in the Saudi government but was a methodical (for the Saudis, anyway) operation that must have been known to high-level Saudi officials. Which continues to be Turkey’s argument.

Saudi Twitter bots and trolls are apparently trying to get a campaign going to boycott Amazon.com inside the kingdom as punishment for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Khashoggi killing. Khashoggi was a Post columnist and the Post is owned by Amazon boss and real-life Hank Scorpio analogue Jeff Bezos. It remains to be seen whether the boycott will gain any traction–and how Bezos will respond if it does.


The Trump administration on Monday issued eight temporary waivers to its oil sanctions on Iran, to China, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. All are large Iranian oil importers and will be expected to drastically reduce those imports while these waivers are in place. It also exempted deals relating to civilian nuclear projects at Arak, Bushehr, and Fordow–all of which have some implications as far as nuclear proliferation is concerned–as well as for development work at Iran’s Chabahar seaport, in particular a rail line that will connect the port to Afghanistan and is seen as essential for Afghanistan’s economic development.

The SWIFT banking network issued a vague statement on Monday that it will be cutting off some unspecified Iranian banks. This presumably means it’s complying with Steve Mnuchin’s demand that it follow US designations in removing Iranian institutions from the global financial system, though it can’t come out and say that because doing so would probably violate EU law. And more sanctions are apparently on the way, so we can look forward to that.

For their part, the Iranians insist that they’re going to keep selling oil no matter what and say that they’re still selling their “required amounts of oil” to make ends meet. Of course it’s only been, uh, two days since the sanctions went back into place. Points for optimism but I think we should probably wait a little while before we declare a great Iranian victory over the perfidious US sanctions. The Iranians insist that they’re prepared to negotiate over whatever issues the Trump administration has, but only if the US returns to the nuclear deal and resumes abiding by its requirements. That’s not going to happen. And anyway since the Trump administration’s overriding issue is that it wants regime change in Tehran, there’s not a lot for everybody to really talk about.

Iranian hopes are largely relying on Europe to come through with its “special purpose vehicle” to protect commerce with Iran from the reach of US sanctions by effectively setting up a barter system. Iranian oil sales would be conducted in “credits” that could then be redeemed for valuable prizes products from European companies, sparing everyone from having to use a bank or, worse, the US dollar. But the SPV is realistically months away from being ready and it’s being set up by the Europeans, who are constantly only one strong US shove away from abandoning the whole idea and telling Iran to go f itself.

While this is all going on, let’s remember who’s really going to be paying the price for the Trump administration’s lust for regime change:

In a briefing last week, journalists pressured Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook on the lack of “safe channels” for humanitarian trade and the pervading fear that even if companies sell food and medicine in Iran, “they will be targeted by US sanctions.” Hook’s response was as perfunctory as it was telling: “The burden is not on the United States to identify the safe channels.” He claimed that the “burden is on the Iranian regime” to ensure that its financial system “complies with international banking standards” and is thus able to facilitate humanitarian trade.

Hook’s claim is ludicrous. The reluctance of many banks to trade with Iran stems entirely from the fear of U.S. regulators—even when conducting transactions that are in principle exempt from sanctions—and not risks endemic to the Iranian financial system, which are commensurate with those in many developing markets worldwide.

Iran is currently experiencing the reemergence of shortages in medicine and the rising cost of basic foods exacerbated by the forthcoming U.S. sanctions. It is increasingly clear that the suffering of ordinary Iranians is an intended effect of the Trump administration’s policy. This is no surprise. As journalist Barbara Slavin has smartly observed, why would Trump care about Iranians when he disdains so many of his fellow Americans?

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