Middle East update: November 9 2018


Multiple sources are reporting a fairly substantial battle between pro-government forces and Syrian rebels around the village of Halfaya in Hama province. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights pro-government forces attacked rebel positions there, leaving at least 22 members of the Army of Glory (Jaysh al-Izza) faction dead. State media is saying that it was a counterattack in response to rebel machine gun fire. This incident seems more serious than the small-scale fighting that’s continued in northwestern Syria despite the imposition of a Turkey-Russia negotiated ceasefire several weeks ago, but whether it’s serious enough to break the ceasefire altogether is unclear at this point.

The SOHR is also saying that US airstrikes in Hajin on Friday killed 26 civilians, 14 of them children. This comes a day after US strikes killed seven civilians in the village of Shaafa, outside of Hajin. The US-led coalition has been stepping up its air campaign around Hajin in order to maintain pressure on ISIS while the Syrian Democratic Forces pause their ground offensive in the area.

The AP says that two children among the Druze hostages the Syrian army freed from ISIS earlier this week were killed by ISIS fighters amid the fighting that led to their liberation. That makes four of the hostages killed by ISIS–one was executed back in August and another died due to the wretched conditions of their captivity.

Turkey has reportedly reopened a border gate with the Afrin region of Syria, a move that should speed up Ankara’s annexation of northern Syria allow refugees to perhaps relocate from Turkey back into Syria more easily. Elsewhere in Turkish-controlled Syria, the city of al-Bab has reopened its venerated covered market for the first time since most of it was destroyed back in 2016 in fighting between Turkish proxies and ISIS. Al-Bab’s covered market is centuries old, dating back into pre-Ottoman times though much of its architecture now is Ottoman.


Here’s something interesting:

The Trump administration is ending the practice of refueling Saudi coalition aircraft, halting the most tangible and controversial aspect of U.S. support for the kingdom’s three-year war in Yemen, people familiar with the situation said.

The move comes amid escalating criticism of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war. Lawmakers from both parties have demanded that the United States suspend weapons sales to Riyadh and cut off aerial refueling of aircraft flown by the Saudi coalition, which monitoring groups have accused of killing thousands of unarmed civilians.

…or maybe not. The Saudis say they asked for this, which may be a bit of a face-saving thing but strongly suggests that it won’t mean a thing as far as hampering their air campaign. Ending refueling would have been a blow to the Saudis two years ago, or even a year ago. But they’ve improved their own aerial refueling capabilities since then. Where the US could really make a difference in stopping the Yemen slaughter is in ending weapons sales, maintenance support for Saudi aircraft, and targeting assistance, but you’ll note that none of those things appears to be on the table. The Saudis probably did this in the hopes that congressional critics of the Yemen war–who may have a lot more influence in the next Congress–will be satisfied and drop the issue. Initial reports suggest that’s not going to happen.

The Yemeni government on Friday announced a major new offensive against Hudaydah, with “national army forces” advancing on the city from the north and west “with the support of the Arab coalition.” Meanwhile, the United Nations says some 445,000 people have already fled Hudaydah since June due to the fighting there. Government forces don’t seem to be making much progress, though the Houthi rebels there are severely undermanned and outgunned so it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to hold out forever.

As I mentioned yesterday the Trump administration is thinking about designating the Houthis a terrorist group, which would certainly cut off the group’s non-existent support in the West but would otherwise just make it harder for the UN to negotiate with them to try to find a way out of the conflict. You could chalk this completely idiotic idea up to the stupidity of the Trump administration, but that assumes the Trump administration is acting in good faith. It’s more likely they’re just running down the steps in their “fuck Iran” playbook and they don’t really give a shit what that means to the people who have to live with the consequences.


A group of nine Kurdish political parties has come together to fight back against a renewed government effort to stamp out the Kurdish languages in Turkey:

According to [Kurdistan Socialist Party Deputy Chair Bayram] Bozyel, the new platform has three main objectives. The first is to encourage Kurds to use the language more. Kurdish is spoken almost exclusively in rural areas, but in urban centers, Turkish is the dominant language in the street and many young Kurds remain disconnected from their mother tongue.

“How can we, Kurds, protect our language? How to use it more in daily life? This is our first goal and we need to show a strong will here,” Bozyel said.

“Second, a language cannot be protected only through usage in daily life. Assimilation cannot be stopped unless it becomes an official language and an education and market language,” he said. “It could become official with Turkey’s permission; hence Turkey and the government are a party to this problem. We want Kurdish to become a language of education in Turkey and the Kurdish regions, along with Turkish, to be taught from primary school to university and be an official language.”

The third objective has an international aspect. Referring to Turkey’s EU accession bid and membership in UN institutions, Bozyel said the platform would seek international support to put pressure on Ankara. Even if Kurdish “cannot become an official or education language at a stroke,” the aim is to popularize its usage, he added.

Eradicating Kurdish (mostly Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji, the predominant Kurdish tongue in Turkey) has been Ankara’s goal for decades. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan informally relaxed some restrictions on using the language in the 2000s when he was pursuing a peace accord with the PKK, but when he decided it was better politics to resume Turkey’s long-standing war/ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds those restrictions quickly came back and have arguably gotten worse.


Iraqi activist and analyst Ahmed Twaij argues that, with ISIS (mostly) beaten in northern Iraq, it’s time for the US to start evenly distributing its aid money to all parts of the country in order to ease the unrest in Basra:

Since 2014, the U.S. government has provided more than $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to support the nearly 6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq. The U.S. government has since pledged more funds to promote IDP returns to these war-stricken areas of northern Iraq. However, to promote nationwide stability, this partnership must include support across all of Iraq. Between 2016 and 2017, the U.S. Defense Department, through the Iraq Train and Equip Fund, provided $2.7 billion worth of assistance toward training Iraqi security forces for the campaign against the Islamic State, widening the security gap between north and south after Iraqi government troops were withdrawn from Basra and moved to the front lines in northern cities such as Mosul, Tal Afar, and Tikrit.

With the Iraqi security forces already debilitated following the 2003 war, the power vacuum allowed many spaces to be occupied by southern Iraq’s historic tribal entities that have exploited citizens through intimidation, blood money, and revenge attacks, causing ongoing violence in many neighborhoods across Basra.


Gaza’s health ministry says that Israeli soldiers shot and killed one man and wounded 37 other people in clashes along the Gaza fence line on Friday.

Qatar is pumping $15 million into Gaza to pay the salaries of civil servants who have grown increasingly destitute and desperate in the face of Hamas’s budget cuts and to provide some aid to poor Gazans. It’s the first installment of a $90 million total package that’s being distributed by the Qataris themselves–Israel agreed to this deal only if the money would not go to Hamas.


Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Erdoğan, has told Turkish media that he believes Jamal Khashoggi’s Saudi killers dissolved his body in acid after his murder on October 2. This isn’t exactly a confirmation, and I’m not even sure how Turkish investigators would confirm something like that, but it does add some heft to previous anonymous leaks to the same effect. As far as anyone knows there’s no evidence to support this theory, but Khashoggi’s remains still haven’t been found so there’s no evidence to support any theory as to their whereabouts. This theory at least fills in a few blanks. As I am definitely not a chemist I have no idea if this is actually a plausible scenario. But I do know that if the Saudis believe they’re being maligned then there’s a simple way for them to clear things up by producing Khashoggi’s body.

The Norwegian government announced on Friday that it’s halting arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Germany made a similar move last month. The Norwegians offered no explanation, though they mentioned “recent developments in Saudi Arabia and the unclear situation in Yemen.” Presumably this is about Khashoggi, because if they were going to suspend arms exports over Yemen they’ve had more than three years to do so.


We’ve talked about Mujahedin-e Khalq around here before, but the Guardian has published a new and quite detailed profile of the creepy cult opposition/terrorist group that might be of interest:

Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi came to Albania to rescue their daughter. But in Tirana, the capital, the middle-aged couple have been followed everywhere by two Albanian intelligence agents. Men in sunglasses trailed them from their hotel on George W Bush Road to their lawyer’s office; from the lawyer’s office to the ministry of internal affairs; and from the ministry back to the hotel.

The Mohammadis say their daughter, Somayeh, is being held against her will by a fringe Iranian revolutionary group that has been exiled to Albania, known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). Widely regarded as a cult, the MEK was once designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and UK, but its opposition to the Iranian government has now earned it the support of powerful hawks in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Somayeh Mohammadi is one of about 2,300 members of the MEK living inside a heavily fortified base that has been built on 34 hectares of farmland in north-west Albania. Her parents, who were once supporters of the group, say that 21 years ago, Somayeh flew to Iraq to attend a summer camp and to visit her maternal aunt’s grave. She never came back.


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