Middle East update: December 13 2018


The Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly advanced deeper into Hajin on Thursday, putting additional pressure on ISIS’s last Syrian outpost, while also warning that a renewed Turkish offensive in northern Syria would interfere with the Hajin operation. The SDF even reported that it’s captured Hajin’s town center, though that’s unconfirmed and probably pending the outcome of whatever counterattack ISIS can muster.

Turkey is, of course, preparing for just such an offensive. It’s moved substantial military assets to the border and has at least 15,000 of its rebel proxies ready to participate on top of regular Turkish soldiers. If the attack does come, it will probably come at multiple points along the border simultaneously to stretch the YPG as thin as possible. SDF leaders are promising to resist any Turkish attack.

It will also come with a risk for US military personnel now assigned to observation posts along the border. A Pentagon spokesperson on Thursday told reporters that any Turkish incursion into northern Syria would be “unacceptable” from the US perspective. It’s unclear what that means. The US has routinely left the SDF to twist in the wind despite promises that it would defend them, and if you include Iraq this is a pattern of behavior the US has exhibited toward the Kurds since the end of the Gulf War. The Kurds have often been useful for the US, but they’ve never been a priority.


In what I think you’d have to say is an improbable turn of events, the Houthis and Yemeni government managed to reach agreement on a ceasefire for Hudaydah on Thursday, at the conclusion of their peace talks in Sweden. They also reached ceasefire agreements for the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa to boot, and came to a less definitive accord on “easing” the long-standing siege of the city of Taiz. But the Hudaydah piece is the big ticket item. Houthi and government troops will begin withdrawing from the port in the coming days under United Nations supervision, then from the city over a longer period, and government forces agreed to reopen the main highway between Hudaydah and Sanaa–a major development from a humanitarian perspective.

Negotiators also firmed up their agreement to reopen Sanaa airport, with the Houthis agreeing to allow the UN to handle inspections at the facility. Obviously it remains for all of these agreements to actually be implemented, but this round of talks in itself was–and I can’t believe I’m about to type this–an unabashed success. It’s hard to imagine that they could have accomplished any more than they did. But, uh, are these agreements all going to be implemented? We’ll see.

The US Senate voted on Thursday to end American involvement in the Yemen War by invoking the War Powers Act in a historic vote that could set a precedent for future Congresses to claw back some of their war-making powers. OK, probably not, but still. The vote itself is meaningless as far as Yemen is concerned, since the House already voted to stick its fingers in its ears and shout LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU anytime anybody mentions Yemen for the rest of the year and since Donald Trump almost certainly won’t sign this resolution even if Congress and its new Democratic-majority House (and more Republican Senate) passes it next year. Still, the vote does have some symbolic importance that shouldn’t be entirely discounted.


Turkish aircraft conducted airstrikes in Iraq’s Sinjar and Makhmour regions on Thursday against alleged PKK targets. Damage and casualties were unknown.


Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri says that “hopefully” Lebanon will have a government by the end of the year. It’s only been over seven months since the election–what’s the rush? Hariri is refusing to give one of his party’s cabinet ministries to a Sunni party aligned with Hezbollah, even though his party dropped 13 seats in May’s election and frankly probably should lose something.


Hundreds of people protested in Amman on Thursday against–you know what’s coming–austerity. The International Monetary Fund is still requiring the Jordanian government to tighten belts, and the protesters say that Prime Minister Omar Razzaz hasn’t done anything to trim government expenditures or crack down on corruption or ease the pain on Jordanian workers the way he promised he would when he got the job over the summer. Now police have reportedly started arresting people for using anti-monarchy slogans on top of their anti-government slogans, which is not a great sign from the Hashemites’ point of view.

Razzaz did, at least, take some steps earlier this month to improve conditions for Gazan refugees. His government now allows the 150,000 or so Gazans in Jordan to own property, which might actually help boost the Jordanian economy. Unlike West Bank refugees, Gazan refugees in Jordan do not have a path to Jordanian citizenship and generally live in dismal, second-class circumstances.


The Israeli army has declared the West Bank city of Ramallah a “closed military zone” after a day of violence in which Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians and a Palestinian attacker killed two Israeli soldiers. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested and dozens more injured in clashes with both Israeli forces and groups of settlers. Also on Thursday, the Israeli government announced that it would be retroactively legalizing around 2000 already built and heretofore illegal West Bank settlements.

Meanwhile, the Fatah party has been criticizing Iran for its support of Hamas:

Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee and the PLO’s Executive Committee, made scathing comments against Iran on Nov. 27, saying it’s the No. 1 sponsor of the rival Palestinian factions’ division.

The Fatah-led PA controls the West Bank. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union, Israel and several other countries, ousted Fatah from ‎‎the Gaza Strip in 2007. The PA, however, still controls Gaza’s purse strings and uses its financial power to try to control Hamas.

Ahmad said Iran is interfering with the internal Palestinian struggle by funding Hamas directly. He made his comments on the same day Iran announced, during the Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran, its decision to financially “adopt” families of Palestinians killed and wounded in the Great Return protests along the border with Israel. The weekly protests began last March.

In a TV interview, he said, “If Iran had good intentions, it would have adopted all of the Palestinian revolution martyrs. But it did not even adopt one martyr in Jerusalem, only those who were killed in Gaza, because it wants to ensure the continuation of the division — its trump card in political maneuvers.”


In addition to voting for an end to US involvement in Yemen, the Senate on Thursday also passed a sternly worded resolution condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. That’ll show him. The House might take up the resolution next week but then again it might not, and anyway what difference does it make?

MBS’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, has left Washington and probably his gig as Saudi ambassador to the US, in order to become national security adviser to his father. Khalid hasn’t exactly managed the Khashoggi situation well–it’s not like his brother gave him much to work with, to be fair–so this is probably as good a time as any for him to scram.


An AP investigation shows that Iranian hackers have been targeting officials at the Treasury Department who are involved in sanctions policy, as well as other prominent figures involved in the Iran debate in DC:

As U.S. President Donald Trump re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran last month, hackers scrambled to break into personal emails of American officials tasked with enforcing them, The Associated Press has found — another sign of how deeply cyberespionage is embedded into the fabric of US-Iranian relations.

The AP drew on data gathered by the London-based cybersecurity group Certfa to track how a hacking group often nicknamed Charming Kitten spent the past month trying to break into the private emails of more than a dozen U.S. Treasury officials. Also on the hackers’ hit list: high-profile defenders, detractors and enforcers of the nuclear deal struck between Washington and Tehran, as well as Arab atomic scientists, Iranian civil society figures and D.C. think tank employees.


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