Middle East update: January 14 2019


Turkish officials spent the day responding to At Real Donald Trump’s threat to crater their economy if they attack the Kurdish YPG militia after the US leaves Syria (assuming it does in fact leave). For example, here’s a close adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu criticized Trump’s “threatening language” and said he “will not get anywhere by threatening Turkey’s economy.” The tweet may have upended whatever progress Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thinks he made toward a withdrawal agreement that protects the YPG, though as I noted yesterday I have my doubts that Pompeo really made any progress on that front. Later in the day Trump reportedly spoke with Erdoğan by phone and they apparently discussed improving cooperation in Syria, so maybe this particular tempest is over now. I’m sure it will be fine, I mean it’s not like the US is storing nuclear weapons in Turkey while our president threatens them, right?

If a deal is to be made it will center on the “safe zone” Trump mentioned in his tweet, though the specifics and implementation of such a thing are difficult to fathom. Turkey will want a YPG-free buffer zone along the border of some yet to be determined width–they’ll probably demand more than 20 miles–while the YPG would want control of historically/majority Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria. But some of those areas lie pretty close to or right along the border, so they’d likely be inside a buffer zone, and then you have to reckon with repeated Turkish vows to crush/obliterate/etc. the YPG altogether, which are not consistent with accepting a safe zone and calling it a day. You also have to eventually reckon with the Syrian government, which doesn’t want Turkey squatting on its territory indefinitely any more than it wants the US doing so. On top of that there’s no obvious enforcement body or mechanism that could oversee a safe zone arrangement, especially once the US is gone. The whole idea seems more like a way for Trump to declare victory and get out than an actual way to stabilize the situation.

Elsewhere, HTS boss Abu Mohammad al-Julani told his group’s media outlet on Monday that he has no intention of governing Idlib province. Rather, he intends to turn it over to a “civilian” authority, one that I’m sure would be completely impartial and above board. HTS has wrested control of almost all of Idlib from Turkey’s Free Syrian Army proxies, raising concerns about a potential clash with the Syrian army and increasing the pressure on Ankara to clear Idlib of jihadists as it’s supposed to be doing under the terms of the regional ceasefire agreement it negotiated with Russia last year.


In addition to complicating Ankara’s relationship with the US, Turkey’s hostility to the YPG has been playing into its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia, as James Dorsey writes:

In a sign of strained relations with Saudi Arabia, Turkish media with close ties to the government have been reporting long before the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that Saudi Arabia is funding the YPG. There is no independent confirmation of the Turkish allegations.

Yeni Safak reported in 2017, days after the Gulf crisis erupted pitting a Saudi-UAE-Egyptian alliance against Qatar, which is supported by Turkey, that US, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian officials had met with the PKK as well as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey says is the Syrian political wing of the PKK, to discuss the future of Syrian oil once the Islamic State had been defeated.

Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency reported last May that Saudi and YPG officials had met to discuss cooperation. Saudi Arabia promised to pay Kurdish fighters that joined an Arab-backed force US$ 200 a month, Anadolu said. Saudi Arabia allegedly sent aid to the YPG on trucks that travelled through Iraq to enter Syria.

Assuming there’s some fire behind all this smoke, we could see the Saudis, UAE, Egypt, and other Arab states come to the YPG’s aid after a US departure. I don’t think they’d put troops in Syria–and even if they did it wouldn’t be much protection for the YPG–but they could send cash and weapons, and help broker talks between the YPG and Damascus. Most Arab governments are coming around on Bashar al-Assad anyway and they may view the YPG as a way to blunt Iranian influence in eastern Syria–much as the US did before Trump announced the withdrawal.


One Egyptian police conscript was killed and four other people wounded by a roadside bomb on Monday in northern Sinai. ISIS would naturally be the leading suspect.


One Arab country that is apparently not inclined to normalize relations with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is Qatar. Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told reporters on Monday that Qatar shan’t be reopening any embassies in Damascus anytime soon and still opposes the Assad government’s reintroduction to the Arab League. Qatar was one of the biggest backers of Syrian rebel groups during the civil war, and unlike the Saudis–another major rebel benefactor–the Qataris aren’t particularly interested in wooing Assad away from Iran by making nice with him. On the other hand the Qataris do have decent relations with Iran, so their lingering hostility toward Assad is a little awkward.


The Saudis, meanwhile, are denying reports that they’ve already reopened their embassy in Damascus, though even if they haven’t it’s likely only a matter of time before they do.

Before he cut his Middle East excursion short to return to the US for a family funeral, Pompeo visited Riyadh and came away telling reporters that the Saudis “reiterated their commitment” to hold accountable everybody responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. I don’t want to pick on Pompeo if he’s mourning somebody’s death, so let me just say that if he genuinely believes this then I’ve got some wonderful real estate opportunities I’d like to discuss with him at his earliest convenience.

Pompeo also claims he talked about human rights with Mohammad bin Salman, but let’s just say that human rights activists are…unconvinced:

Experts and former officials say Pompeo’s failure to address human rights abuses broke with a decades-long American diplomatic tradition and represented a missed opportunity to deliver a tough message that Washington would not turn a blind eye to the trampling of civil liberties in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East.

“They’ve made it clear they’re going to stand behind MBS,” said Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch, referring to the crown prince.

While Pompeo and other U.S. officials might privately convey to Riyadh their concerns over Khashoggi’s murder, Prasow said it’s hard to see how that would have an effect “because Mohammed bin Salman has a very strong basis to assume that the U.S. will not alter its behavior regardless of what he does.”


The Bomb Bomb Iran echo chamber is humming along:

Instead of listening to his own intelligence agencies or the IAEA, the president’s national security adviser prefers to cherrypick his Iran nuclear analyses from every pro-war right-winger’s favorite arms “expert,” the Institute for Science and International Security’s David Albright. But the Trump administration isn’t running the Iraq War playbook or anything. Nothing to see here.

British-Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016 over espionage charges, has begun a three day hunger strike to protest the conditions in which she’s being held. She reportedly needs better medical care.

Meanwhile, with the Iranian economy struggling and most Iranians struggling right along with it, there’s growing popular resentment toward the children of the Iranian elite and their often very publicly flaunted wealth:

The young elite, some with government connections, flaunt their wealth on Instagram and in the streets of the capital, Tehran, sporting designer clothes and flashy cars and vacationing at posh resorts.

They are promoted to state jobs, granted lucrative scholarships and travel with ease. Even the granddaughter of the late leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was photographed last year in London with what appeared to be a $3,800 handbag — though some have speculated that it was fake.

But few in Iran can afford such comforts as costs rise and wallets shrink. And Iranians have started speaking out against inequality and a culture of nepotism that they say favors what are called the “aghazadeh,” or “noble-born” children of the elite.

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