Middle East update: December 15-16 2018


A US-led coalition airstrike on Saturday destroyed a mosque in the town of Hajin that was reportedly being used as an ISIS command center. The Syrian Democratic Forces say they expect to have full control of the town “soon.”

A car bombing in the city of Afrin killed at least nine people on Monday. This comes after car bombings hit three other Turkish-controlled border towns over the past week and suggests that the YPG or some other Kurdish faction is involved.

If these bombings don’t increase the likelihood of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, that may be because the invasion was already a foregone conclusion. Turkish rebel proxies are reportedly training in Aleppo province for their eventual deployment against the YPG. On the other side, the YPG’s political arm, the PYD, has reportedly rejected an offer from the Rojava Peshmerga, who are affiliated with the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party, to help patrol the Turkish border. Since Ankara has good relations with the KDP, the US in particular seems to have pushed the PYD to accept the offer in the hopes that it might reduce tension on the border. Apparently the intra-Kurdish rivalry was too big a hurdle for the PYD to get over–though reportedly the US is still leaning on them to change their minds.

Things are looking up for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from a friendship standpoint. On Sunday he was visited by none other than Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who as the only world leader currently wanted on war crimes charges at The Hague is something of a role model for President Assad. Bashir’s visit comes at a time when the Arab League is debating whether to normalize ties with Assad’s government because, well, it isn’t going anywhere. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey would have no problem restoring relations with Assad’s government if he were to contest and win a “democratic election.” Because there’s nothing that the current Turkish government values more than a free and fair democratic process.


Hudaydah’s ceasefire left at least 12 people dead and another 25 wounded over the weekend in multiple clashes between Houthi and pro-government fighters. That makes three straight days of fighting since the “immediate” ceasefire was supposed to take effect on Friday, and in response the United Nations announced on Sunday that the immediate ceasefire will now begin on Tuesday.


According to Çavuşoğlu, Donald Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the G20 summit in Argentina that he’s “working on” arranging the extradition of religious leader Fethullah Gülen to Turkey. Gülen is of course wanted for, well, because Erdoğan says so, but also because he was allegedly the mastermind of the attempted 2016 coup against Erdoğan. He’s also a legal US resident. Extraditing him is first a legal issue and only secondarily a political one–or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work–so if Trump really said this to Erdoğan then he either meant that he’s planning to go around the legal issues or he was just talking out of his ample ass once again. Either way it was outrageously inappropriate.

If Gülen were extradited, then in the best case scenario he’d likely be dropped into a very deep hole and left there to die. Erdoğan and company make it sound like they want to put Gülen on trial, where he’d be able to testify to all sorts of things about his past relationship with Erdoğan, but I still have my doubts that they really want that.

The Turkish government also says it intends to keep bombing the PKK in Iraq whether the Iraqis like it or not. Sultan Recep’s commands must not be undermined by a mere provincial governor like the prime minister of Iraq, after all.


The Iraqi government on Sunday laid the cornerstone for a rebuilt al-Nuri mosque in Mosul. The 12th century mosque was the site wherein ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph Ibrahim in 2014, and was destroyed in fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS last year. It’s expected to take five years to rebuild the mosque.


Hundreds of people protested in Beirut on Sunday to express their exasperation with the ongoing dysfunction at the center of Lebanese politics. Over seven months after May’s election, Lebanon still does not have a government and the prospects for forming one don’t seem to be improving.


BuzzFeed has a transcript of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat’s last meeting with Middle East Peace Guru Jared Kushner, prior to the announcement that the US was moving its embassy to Jerusalem. It’s…quite something. Definitely worth a look if you need a chuckle.


James Dorsey has a fascinating new piece up at his blog looking at the ways in which the Qatar boycott has been tied up with Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, and what that says about the politicization and corruption of international sports:

With the 2018 World Cup in Russia behind it, the soccer world’s focus shifts to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Politics and the Gulf’s internecine political and legal battles have already shaped debate about FIFA’s controversial awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar. The battles highlight not only the sport’s dominance in the Middle East by autocratic leaders but also the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that is at the root of multiple scandals that have rocked the sports world for much of this decade and compromised good governance in international sports.

Three men symbolize the importance of soccer to Gulf autocrats who see the sport as a way to project their countries in a positive light on the international stage, harness its popular appeal in their cultural and public diplomacy campaigns, and leverage it as a pillar of their efforts to garner soft power: Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his nemeses, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi sports czar, Turki al-Sheikh, one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest associates.


The Saudi government says it “rejects” the resolution that the US Senate passed on Thursday rebuking Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for his role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It contained “blatant interferences in the Kingdom’s internal affairs,” you see, because murdering people in cold blood is nobody’s business but the Saudis’, and possibly the person being murdered although we’re flexible on that.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an interview on Sunday that he’s looking for a way to back out of a $13 billion arms deal with the Saudis. Not agreeing to sell weapons to the Saudis in the first place would be my advice.


According to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, senior Iranian General Ghodratollah Mansouri, who fought in the Iran-Iraq War and led Iranian anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria, accidentally killed himself while he was cleaning his gun. No, seriously, that’s their story. I know of no reason why the IRGC would be looking to murder this guy and I have no idea what kinds of demons he might have been battling personally, but I feel fairly confident saying that this isn’t actually how he died.

Blogger and Iranian dissident/political prisoner Vahid Sayyadi Nasiri, who began a hunger strike in October to protest his incarceration and the inhumane treatment he’s received, died on Wednesday. Nasiri was incarcerated in September 2015 and charged with “insulting” the Supreme Leader in online posts. Definitely a legitimate crime. He was released but then detained again this past July. Anyway, the important thing to remember here is that, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says, the Iranian government can’t possibly repress its own people.


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