Middle East update: January 9 2019


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that the US is leaving Syria whether or not Turkey agrees not to attack the Kurdish YPG militia once the withdrawal is completed. This is pretty much a complete contradiction of what John Bolton has been saying, though Pompeo did add that the US would nevertheless ensure the YPG’s protection, somehow. So at this point the administration’s Syria policy is Whatever You Want It To Be. If nothing else, history tells us that this is going to end in a way that screws the YPG, so as I said on Monday they would be smart to continue their dialogue with Damascus.

With questions still swirling about what exactly the US is going to do and when, if ever, it’s going to do it, the main players in northern Syria are turning to the only other Great Power-ish presence in the country, Russia, to sort things out. Both Turkey and the YPG have been and/or will be making their case to Moscow–the Kurds in particular are looking to the Russians to broker an agreement with Damascus. So far the Russians haven’t made any nod toward either party, and there’s at least some reason to wonder whether they’re all that excited about jumping into this particular mess.

At Al-Monitor, Gulf analyst Giorgio Cafiero explains the rapid developments of the past couple of weeks, as Arab states have begun scrambling to make nice with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad:

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, which mostly opposed Assad’s regime early in the Syrian civil war and supported (albeit to various extents and in different ways) the Sunni-dominant anti-Assad rebellion, have now begun to see their challenge as bringing Syria back to Sunni Arab states’ orbits of influence and further away from non-Arab Iran and Turkey. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the main problem with Syria’s regime is not the regime per se, but rather its closeness to the Islamic Republic, Riyadh’s archenemy. Thus, working with Assad would not in itself be a negative issue for Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi so long as Damascus pivots away from Tehran, even if that appears unrealistic given how much Assad’s regime owes the Iranians.

Odds are good, however, that the GCC states that are reopening their diplomatic missions in the Syrian capital will be keen to work with Russia on numerous security and economic files in the war-torn country, which badly needs rebuilding assistance. Given that Moscow and Tehran, while closely aligned on Syria, do have competing and conflicting interests in the Levant, as both seek to be the Damascus regime’s top ally in the post-conflict period, the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis would much prefer Russia coming out on top of Iran in this regard.


United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths reported to the Security Council on Wednesday that the fighting in Hudaydah has seen a “significant decrease” since last month’s ceasefire agreement, with the combatants “largely” abiding by its terms. But he did warn that more needs to be done to implement the technical terms of the ceasefire, which in turn is important for maintaining momentum toward another round of peace talks.

The World Food Program is threatening to cut off humanitarian aid shipments to Yemen unless the Houthi rebels stop interfering with the delivery of that aid. An AP investigation previously found that the Houthis and militias aligned with the Yemeni government are routinely blocking food aid from reaching civilians (particular civilians believed to support the other side) and diverting it to combatants, and the WFP says it has evidence supporting that allegation. Yemeni aid groups are demanding that the WFP provide more specificity in its accusations before cutting off aid altogether.


Congress is once again considering whether to punish Turkey over its purchase of Russian weapons and its continued detention of US citizens and diplomatic staff. Congressional hostility toward Ankara eased somewhat last year when Turkey released US pastor Andrew Brunson, but the Democratic-majority House in particular has brought those tensions back to the fore. Potential penalties could include throwing the Turks into a briar patch kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program. Of course Congress is at a standstill over Donald Trump’s border wall/fence/thing, so this is a purely hypothetical discussion for the time being.


Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militias, still spread all over Iraq in the wake of their campaign against ISIS and whose political arms are ascendent in Baghdad, are increasingly lording it over Sunni populations in ways that threaten to reignite the same Sunni grievances that ISIS exploited during its 2014 rise:

Now, with major combat over, the militias — some with roots dating back to the Saddam Hussein era, others that emerged to fight U.S. occupation after 2003 and yet others that formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State — are setting their sights on political and economic goals.

They are fanned out across Iraq’s Sunni heartland, including the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, home to Iraq’s most-populous Sunni city of Mosul. In Sunni towns, the militias have established political and recruitment offices and operate checkpoints along major roads (and even smaller interior pathways), levying taxes on truckers moving oil, household goods and food.

Some militiamen have engaged in “mafia-like practices,” several Iraqi and U.S. officials said, demanding protection money from both large and small businesses, while shaking down motorists at checkpoints to permit them to pass.

The militias are also deciding which Sunni families are allowed to return to their homes following battles against the Islamic State, say analysts who study the groups. In several towns, militia leaders have compelled local councils to invalidate the property rights of Sunnis on the grounds that they supported the Islamic State. The practice has led to major demographic changes in traditionally mixed Sunni-Shiite areas such as Hilla and Diyala.


The anti-Qatar boycott will be turning two this year, and the BBC reports that the Qataris are doing pretty well for themselves in spite of it, for one unsurprising reason in particular:

Ultimately though, it is Qatar’s vast gas reserves – the third largest in the world – that is enabling it to shrug off the blockade after the initial scramble to secure alternative supplies of food and consumer goods.

The world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, it shipped 81 million tons in 2017, or 28% of the global total. Qatar also exports 600,000 barrels of oil a day, but it left oil producers cartel Opec at the start of this year to focus more on gas. It said the move was unconnected to the boycott.

Money may not be able to buy you happiness, but an almost incomprehensible amount of money can apparently keep your people fed even in the event your neighbors all decide to start blockading you.


The Saudis are cutting oil production by 800,000 barrels per day in January, in an effort to boost global prices, and are planning an additional 100,000 bpd cut in February. Prices are back up to around $60/barrel, still well off the $80s/barrel level they hit in October but an improvement–for the Saudis at least–from the sub-$50/barrel point they hit last month.

The UN has granted Saudi national Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun refugee status. She has been holed up in a hotel in Bangkok, refusing to return home because she renounced Islam and could face the death penalty in the kingdom. She’s requested asylum and the Australian government may accept her.


Iranian officials said on Wednesday that they did arrest US Navy veteran Michael White last summer, confirming reports that began to emerge earlier this week. Tehran has not said why White was detained though presumably it was over some sort of espionage charge. He’s the fourth confirmed US national in Iranian custody–a fifth, former FBI agent and CIA contract worker Robert Levinson, vanished in Iran in 2007 and there are suspicions that he’s also in Iranian custody though there’s been no new information on his whereabouts since 2011.


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