Middle East update: January 8 2019


Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is back on its bullshit in and around Idlib province. The former al-Qaeda affiliate has been on the offensive against the so-called National Army, the latest moniker for Turkey’s rebel proxy force. On Tuesday it reportedly captured four villages in the al-Ghab plain in western Hama province, and there’s no sign it’s planning to stop there. HTS nearly controls all of Idlib, and further expansion is going to put it in immediate proximity with the actual Syrian national army on the frontlines of the conflict. Which seems like a dangerous possibility to me.

Further east, Russian military police have begun making regular patrols around Manbij in support of Syrian forces that have only recently moved into that area–having been invited in by the Kurds after Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal last month. The Russians are presumably there to act as a tripwire for Turkey, which might be willing to risk a clash with Syrian soldiers to take Manbij but almost certainly will not risk a clash with the Russians. Democratic Union Party (PYD) leaders, meanwhile, say they’re ready to fight the Turks if they invade northeastern Syria. Which is all well and good, but Afrin showed pretty conclusively that they’ll lose that fight without some help from somebody–if not the US, then Damascus and Russia.

As far as the will they-won’t they US withdrawal is concerned, there’s apparently not much to report from eastern Syria. US soldiers there are operating pretty much as usual, with no indication that any kind of redeployment is imminent. Which may itself tell you something about whether or not the withdrawal is actually going to happen. At LobeLog, Paul Pillar suggests that Trump is being reined in by the hawks in his administration:

The de facto reversal of Trump’s withdrawal decision is a victory only for those like Bolton, who still avers that the Iraq War was a good idea, that never met a U.S. military intervention in the Middle East they didn’t like and never stop seeing regimes they would like to change with force.

The prospective result is an indefinite stay of the U.S. troops, which does not extinguish the IS threat and incurs the negative consequences that unwanted foreign occupations tend to incur. Anyone worried about terrorism should be aware that such occupations furnish the prime motivation for suicide bombers. In the Syrian case, the U.S. military presence also furnishes propaganda points for the Assad regime, which did not invite the Americans, and for Iran and Russia, both of which it did invite.

Somebody really better clarify what’s happening for the Kurds. Even if you don’t care what happens to them with respect to Turkey, the Syrian Democratic Forces are holding an estimated 800 ISIS prisoners, most of them foreign fighters. If the US withdraws they’re not going to waste manpower and resources continuing to hold those guys. Which means either their home countries will have to go collect them–which, so far, nobody seems interesting in doing–or there’s a real risk that they’ll go free, either because the SDF deliberately freed them (maybe with a free ride to the Turkish border, not that I’m suggesting anything untoward) or because it simply couldn’t maintain their captivity. That’s a lot of radicalized fighters with interesting passports.


United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres wants the Security Council to deploy 75 observers to Hudaydah to monitor the ceasefire there. The UNSC has to act by January 20, when the initial observer mission’s authorization expires. The ceasefire continues to hold in principle despite violations on the ground, but unless some progress is made toward separating and redeploying fighters from both sides soon it is unlikely to hold for much longer.

The Pentagon says it’s seen no “credible” evidence of prisoner abuse at UAE-run detention facilities in Yemen, from which I can only conclude that it requires its personnel to wear blindfolds and earplugs whenever they go into one of those places. The Associated Press, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all found plenty of credible evidence of torture in those prisons, so I guess the question is whether the DoD is stupid or just assumes the rest of us are.


John Bolton visited Turkey on Tuesday to smooth over differences about a possible US withdrawal from Syria and the fate of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, and boy were the Turks happy to see him:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scolded and snubbed visiting White House national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, saying that he had made a “very serious mistake” by demanding protection for U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Turkish media reported that Erdogan refused to meet with Bolton, though a Turkish presidential spokesman said the meeting was “never confirmed.”

Erdogan’s remarks, during a speech in Ankara, were a response to comments Bolton made Sunday in Israel outlining conditions for a U.S. troop departure from Syria. Those conditions included protection for thousands of Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been trained and armed by the United States to fight the Islamic State militant group.

Sounds like a fun visit. Bolton met with İbrahim Kalın, a close Erdoğan adviser, and that apparently went so well that afterward Bolton abruptly canceled his planned press conference and bolted for the airport. Prior to Bolton’s arrival, Turkish media reported that Ankara would be demanding that the US take back any weapons it had provided to the YPG before leaving Syria, and turn over its 16 Syrian bases to Turkish control, demands to which I think we can assume Bolton didn’t agree.


A car bomb killed two police officers at a checkpoint in Tikrit on Tuesday. Presumably ISIS was responsible though it didn’t make any claims to that effect.


Benjamin Netanyahu has been fixated on formalizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan lately, pressuring the Trump administration to recognize it as Israeli territory and making pronouncements that Israel will never give the occupied territory up. There would seem to be two reasons for this–one, Israel has an election coming up soon, and two, with Arab leaders bringing Bashar al-Assad back into the fold (and thus his Golan beef with him), Netanyahu wants to make his position clear to them. In doing so, as Akiva Eldar notes in the link above, he risks tossing aside all the anti-Iran diplomatic inroads Israel has made recently in the Arab world in favor of strengthening his position as the leader of the Israeli far right.

As expected, the Egyptian government announced on Tuesday that it’s closing the Rafah border crossing from Gaza into Egypt now that the Palestinian Authority has withdrawn its personnel and left the facility in Hamas’s hands. The crossing from Egypt into Gaza remains open for Palestinians who are returning home.


According to Saudi media, the kingdom’s security forces killed several (perhaps as many as seven) “wanted people” in an operation in predominantly Shiʿa Qatif province. Qatif’s Shiʿa are fairly restive, owing to the considerable systemic discrimination they face in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, and are in turn frequently targeted for heavy-handed suppression by police and other security forces.


The Dutch government on Tuesday accused Iran of conducting two assassinations of Iranian nationals on Dutch soil, one of a suspected anti-government terrorist in 2015 and the other of an Iranian Arab activist in 2017. This triggered European Union sanctions against two Iranian individuals and the country’s military intelligence service. In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted this:

Which is not exactly responsive to the charges from the Netherlands, but also isn’t wrong.

The Trump administration brought in another Iran hawk on Tuesday, hiring Richard Goldberg away from the Foundation for Bombing Iran Defense of Democracies to serve on the National Security Council. This is a smart move. I mean, FDD has been writing Trump’s Iran policy from outside the administration this whole time, so why not just move them right into the White House? Far more efficient that way.

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