Middle East update: December 14 2018


A spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces reported on Friday that the SDF is close to driving ISIS out of the town of Hajin in Deir Ezzor province. That would deprive ISIS of its last town of any significant size and reduce it to a small enclave along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River approaching the Iraqi border. The SDF believes there are still some 5000 ISIS fighters holed up in that enclave, so there’s still some work to be done before they’re entirely eliminated. And of course there’s always the possibility of an ISIS counterattack gaining back some of its lost territory.

That possibility will be substantially increased if Turkey makes good on its repeated threats to launch a full-scale invasion of northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia. The SDF, of which the YPG is the largest and most active faction, has already said it will respond to a Turkish offensive, which would surely mean putting its anti-ISIS efforts on hold again. The Turkish military has reportedly deployed assets along the Syrian border and is amassing Syrian proxy forces west of the Euphrates to join the potential fight. The Turks at this point look to be targeting predominantly Arab areas on the Syrian side of the border, where their proxies would be welcome and where there’s no or very little US presence.

The Turks are also threatening to attack Manbij, which is west of the Euphrates and where Turkey has been frustrated by what it perceives as no movement to implement the security agreement it reached with the US earlier this year. Turkey says the YPG is still in Manbij though Manbij town authorities deny this. Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan talked by phone on Friday to try to get a handle on this situation, and, I mean, who the hell knows what came out of Trump’s mouth but the buzzword seems to have been “coordination.” Turkey and the US need to “coordinate” more, or to “continue coordinating.” It’s nice to see everybody talking in concrete specifics.

My guess would be that the Trump administration will try to appease Erdoğan in Manbij in return for his agreement to at least hold off on attacking the YPG until after the ISIS operation is concluded, at which point Ankara can go nuts. By then Washington will be willing, per its now fairly extensive tradition, to cut the Kurds loose anyway. The administration will want some Turkish assurances about opposing Iran’s regional misdeeds or whatever, but they’re not going to buck a NATO ally in order to defend a bunch of Kurdish leftists whose usefulness as proxies has largely been exhausted.


Well you’ll be pleased to know that the new Yemeni ceasefire in Hudaydah lasted a whole part of one day before the fighting started again. Great success! I kid, I kid. There’s usually some skirmishing that goes on in the immediate aftermath of agreements like this–the question is whether it’s allowed to spiral back into full-on conflict or is nipped in the bud in favor of steps to deescalate the situation. Which in this case is going to require the United Nations to get involved directly. UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths made a plea to the Security Council on Friday to authorize “a robust and competent monitoring regime” in Hudaydah to oversee both the ceasefire and the planned withdrawal of combatants away from the seaport and eventually out of the city altogether. A “small-scale” UN monitoring team is already heading to the city next week as a stopgap, but ultimately a larger mission is going to be essential.


The Iraqi government on Friday summoned Turkey’s ambassador to protest Ankara’s repeated violations of northern Iraqi airspace in pursuit of PKK fighters. Turkey has conducted strikes in northern Iraq at least twice this week and in general conducts such strikes with impunity. Even lodging a protest like this is fairly new ground for the Iraqis.

What is not new ground for the Iraqis is using live ammunition against protesters, which they did on Friday against a crowd of around 250 demonstrators in Basra. No injuries were reported. The crowd had surrounded a temporary provincial council headquarters and was protesting against corruption and a poor local economy.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man in the West Bank on Friday and wounded at least 75 protesters in Gaza. Obviously the Gaza protests have become a weekly event, but Palestinians in the West Bank protested on Friday against ongoing Israeli military operations around Ramallah.

Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly rushing a new bill through the Knesset that would improve his chances of remaining prime minister even if his legal troubles catch up with him. The bill would force the Israeli president to designate only party leaders to form the government after an election–under existing law the president can tap any member of the Knesset. This would bar President Reuven Rivlin from going around Netanyahu and choosing another member of the Likud Party in the event the party does well in next year’s election but Netanyahu is deemed too legally compromised to serve as prime minister.


With Oman’s fossil fuel resources running out, analyst Nima Khorrami Assl argues that Muscat’s recent diplomatic outreach to Israel is as much about diversifying its economy as any regional geopolitical issues:

Instead of austerity measures, Muscat sees economic diversification as a solution, making it the top priority in its Vision 2040 development plan, issued in 2017. The plan, a repackaging of Oman’s Vision 2020 launched in 1995, focuses on modernizing agriculture, creating technology and startup ecosystems, boosting tourism and establishing free industrial zones near the port cities of Salalah and Duqm.

Israel can be of immense assistance to Muscat, especially in the agriculture and the high-tech sectors. While Oman can source these technologies from other countries, it also recognizes that Israeli leadership increasingly values having relations with Arab states as part of its wider strategy of countering Iran. Following the lead of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in slowly warming up to Tel Aviv, the public meeting between Netanyahu and Sultan Qaboos, during which he officially called for the recognition of Israel, puts Muscat ahead of the curve in pursuing normalization and all its economic and strategic benefits.


You’ll be pleased to know that the same people who brought you Ahmed Chalabi: Champion of the Iraqi People may have found their new Iranian proxy–Reza Pahlavi. Yes, that’s right, the son of the former shah who was so popular that his subjects practically chased him out of Tehran in 1979:

Back in Iran, Pahlavi’s family is enjoying something of a comeback. Iranian protesters are chanting apologies to the royal clan, who ruled for 54 years. Satellite TV stations that manage to evade Iran’s censors are celebrating the monarchy’s pre-revolutionary heyday, which many Iranians are too young to remember. Some Iranians are even treating the possible discovery of Pahlavi’s grandfather’s body earlier this year as an omen of his family’s return to power. 

Pahlavi’s remarks Friday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will focus on Iran’s future; he also will engage in a question-and-answer session. It’s an unusually high-profile event for Pahlavi, who, according to an institute official, sought out the opportunity. And it could mark an important moment for the notoriously fragmented Iranian opposition 40 years after the country’s revolution. 

“There’s a nostalgia for the monarchy because people view it as a better time,” said Alireza Nader, founder of the New Iran Foundation, a research group. “There are signs of genuine support for Pahlavi, and he can capitalize on it.”

Oh yeah, absolutely. Remember when there were signs of genuine support for the Iraqi National Congress? This is just like that. I mean, given their track record obviously the fine neoconservatives at WINEP are the folks I want figuring out the intricacies of my country’s Middle East policy, and the idea of installing some expatriate wanna be prince who’s been living in the West since 1977 and may or may not have any actual support inside Iran? Well that’s just too sensible not to work!


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