Middle East update: January 16 2019


In an attack that could have major ramifications for US Syria policy, an ISIS suicide bomber on Wednesday struck a military patrol in Manbij. There are multiple conflicting casualty reports but at least 16 people appear to have been killed in the blast and likely more than that, with at least four of them being US service personnel. The target was reportedly a restaurant where the US patrol was meeting with members of a local militia, so the potential for civilian casualties here is high.

Apart from the casualties, this attack will potentially impact Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw US soldiers from Syria. Despite Mike Pence’s you-couldn’t-make-this-up statement to a crowd of US diplomats that “ISIS has been defeated” hours after the bombing, nobody who isn’t shilling for Trump actually believes that to be true. They didn’t before today and they certainly don’t now. That’s not a good argument for leaving US forces in Syria–ISIS is never going to be so militarily defeated that it can’t pull off a suicide bombing, so making that the condition for withdrawal means never withdrawing. But it is a (maybe the) key premise of Trump’s professed rationale for getting out. This attack shows it quite clearly to be a false premise.

So what is Trump going to do now? He could decide to rethink the withdrawal altogether. Conversely he could return to his original idea for a rapid withdrawal, the one he first floated last month before John Bolton apparently talked him into a more methodical process. Certainly Turkey is hoping for the latter, or at least to avoid the former, and they’ll probably argue that this attack proves that the Kurdish YPG militia and its Syrian Democratic Forces coalition cannot secure northern Syria and only Turkey is truly up to the task. Turkey’s rebel proxies are still positioned to attack Manbij and northeastern Syria if and when the US gets out of the way. The international uncertainty around Trump’s Syria policy is compounded by the apparent uncertainty within his own administration, as various departments are reportedly scrambling to figure out what to do, frequently at odds with one another, and generally appear to be freelancing without any real guidance from the White House.

Prior to the attack, there was a lot of attention being focused on the possibility of establishing a “safe zone” along Syria’s northern border in order to appease Turkey and avoid a military confrontation with the SDF. The details and logistics of such a thing escape me but Ankara has at least paid lip service to the idea. The SDF likewise said on Wednesday that it would be happy to help create such a safe zone…provided it were under “international guarantees” in order to protect against “foreign intervention.” This should be considered the SDF’s outright rejection of what’s really on offer, which is a safe zone controlled by Turkey. Russia, meanwhile, is calling for all of northern Syria–including presumably the parts Turkey already controls–to be returned to Syrian government control. This is the only outcome that seems viable, assuming Damascus could assure the Turks that it will secure the border to Ankara’s liking. But that route hangs Turkey’s proxies out to dry and requires the Turks to give up territory where they’ve already started investing in infrastructure and setting up local governing bodies–or in other words, territory it kind of looks like they’re trying to annex.


Yemen’s government and the Houthi rebels began talks in Jordan on Wednesday to work out the details of the prisoner swap upon which they agreed last month. Much of the optimism generated by last month’s peace talks has turned to trepidation over a recent Houthi drone strike and the fragile and frequently violated ceasefire in Hudaydah, but if the prisoner deal goes through it could be an important momentum boost for further negotiations.

Meanwhile, Nick Turse reports that US Air Force documents make it clear that the Pentagon has been playing a far bigger role in the Yemeni war effort than it’s admitted–even to Congress:

The documents underscore the continuing frustrations for critics of the war, including those in Congress, over the lack of transparency around U.S. military support for a war that has killed thousands of civilians and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

The United States is “not a participant in the civil war in Yemen nor are we supporting one side or the other,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said last month, echoing a long-held position in the Pentagon.

But official Air Force documents obtained by Yahoo News show that the U.S. military has been even more deeply involved in that war than previously indicated.  Despite unambiguous claims by the U.S. military to the contrary, the United States has trained members of the Saudi-led coalition, specifically, according to the files, “for combat operations in Yemen.”

And at Al-Monitor, Samuel Ramani says there are signs that Russia is beginning to build a relationship with moderate Houthis:

Although Russia is typically circumspect about political factions that seize power through extralegal means, Moscow believes that diplomatic engagement with the Houthis is possible because of their history of political compromise. Mareb al-Ward, a prominent Yemeni journalist, told Al-Monitor that the 2009 truce with Saudi Arabia and temporary cease-fires in 2016 were proof that the Houthis could engage in effective dialogue given the right incentives. While hard-liners who surround Houthi control the movement’s military activities, Ward noted that other senior leadership figures such as Mohammed Abdulsalam have engaged in direct dialogue with Saudi Arabia.

These informal divisions within the Houthi movement have convinced Russia to emulate the strategy it implemented in Afghanistan, where Moscow has sought to engage with “moderate” Taliban members who are interested in a political settlement. On Oct. 26, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with a delegation of Houthis led by Mohammed Abdulsalam to discuss a potential peace settlement in Yemen. The reaction from the Houthi delegation was positive. Shortly after meeting with Bogdanov, Abdul Malik Arji, a member of the Houthi political bureau, spoke to Russian state media outlet Sputnik and stated his support for Russia becoming a venue for intra-Yemeni peace talks.

Assuming they’re not just trolling, the Russians could play an important role in encouraging the Houthis to negotiate. Having Moscow’s support could make the Houthis feel less isolated and more confident in their international position.


Turkish authorities are trying to arrest and extradite Enes Kanter, a center for the New York Knicks, for funding Fethullah Gülen’s organization. Put an Interpol red notice out on him and everything. Kanter is active in the Gülenist movement and a frequent and very public critic of the Turkish government, though most people outside of Ankara don’t actually consider those things to be inherently criminal offenses. The Knicks are playing in London on Thursday, but Kanter couldn’t make the trip over concerns that he might be arrested or, according to him, worse. I’d say we’ve reached Peak Gülen here but I think we all know that’s not true.


According to Israel’s Reshet 13 TV, Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-unveiled Israel-Palestine peace plan would give the Palestinians some 90 percent of the West Bank along with part of East Jerusalem as their capital. Major Israeli settlement blocs would be absorbed by Israel while settlements outside those blocs would have to be evacuated and the Palestinians would be compensated for lost territory. East Jerusalem’s holy sites would lie in Israel but with Jordanian and Palestinian involvement in their management. There’s no reason to believe this is accurate unless and until the administration actually makes its plan public, and at any rate there are a huge number of details that would need to be addressed–the status of Palestinian refugees, Gaza, whether the new Palestinian state would control its borders and have any right to defend itself, etc.

The administration is highly unlikely to release a plan during Israeli campaign season for fear of putting Benjamin Netanyahu on the spot. But regardless of when it does–if it does–BuzzFeed’s Emily Tamkin and Alexis Levinson say that Israel is, for a change, likely to be a major factor in the already-unfortunately-upon-us Democratic primary:

The Democratic Party’s progressive wing has long pushed for more criticism of Israel policy. Young people and people of color in particular feel a sense of solidarity with Palestinians, and argue that the progressive movement, if it is to be intersectional, must include Palestinian rights.

But the issue has remained a low public priority and one actively suppressed by party leaders as when, in one visible moment, the chair of the Democratic convention refused to recognize a voice vote against recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2012. Changing Democratic demographics and increasingly open Republican support for permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank has increasingly shifted Americans’ views of Israel along partisan lines.

A Pew Research poll last year found just 27% of Democrats said they sympathized with Israel, down from 38% in 2001. (Republican sympathy has climbed from 50% to 79% in the same time frame.) And younger voters are dramatically less supportive than older voters, according to the 2018 poll — just 32% of adults age 18 to 29 said they sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians, compared to 56% of voters aged 50 to 64 and voters over 65.

Quantum physicists estimate that this Democratic primary should last approximately 45 Earth years, so luckily there’ll be plenty of time to cover all the major issues.


The Egyptian government says that its security forces have killed five ISIS militants at their “hideout” outside the northern Sinai city of el-Arish. True to form, the Egyptians didn’t release any details about when this alleged incident occurred nor whether Egyptian forces suffered any casualties of their own.


Bruce Reidel recounts how King Salman has taken the already pretty oppressive Saudi kingdom to new heights of authoritarianism and brutality:

Salman has twice changed the line of succession without any explanation. Two crown princes have been dismissed to open the door for the king’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is under house arrest, quarantined from his own family. Apparently the king and crown prince regard Mohammed bin Nayef as a potential rival for the loyalty of the royal family.

The fate of the former crown prince is emblematic of the repression of the Saudi system under the Salmans. The kingdom has never been a human rights beacon, especially not for women or Shiites. But in the last four years it has become a brutal, repressive dictatorship. Women’s rights activists have been detained, tortured and abused by the crown prince’s henchmen. Hundreds of Saudi business leaders, including royal family members, were detained and shaken down for money and property in 2017; dozens are still in jail. Most famously, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, apparently at the crown prince’s direction in Istanbul, although the king has defended his son.


Despite its failed attempt on Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that the country’s space agency will be ready to make another attempt at launching a satellite into orbit “in a few months.” That’s sure to be happy news for the Trump administration, which has admonished Iran not to make space launches because the technologies required are so similar to those needed for ballistic missiles. And speaking of the administration’s Iranophobia, Iranian TV news anchor Marzieh Hashemi was arrested by US authorities after flying into St. Louis on Sunday. The FBI held her in custody for two days before allowing her to contact her family. It’s unclear why she was detained. Hashemi was born in the US under the name Marie Franklin before converting to Islam and moving to Iran, where she’s now a prominent anchor for PressTV’s English language service.

Paul Pillar writes about the possibility that the Trump administration, which has really ratcheted up the falsehoods about Iran’s nuclear program of late, may be trying to lie itself into a war:

The danger of Trump’s falsehood about the JCPOA is that the resulting misperception may form the backdrop for a sales campaign by the current administration to launch an offensive war against Iran. Other misperceptions the administration is cultivating complement Trump’s lie about the JCPOA. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, states, “we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons.” That assertion is contrary to the U.S. intelligence community’s judgment but Bolton has never hesitated to ignore intelligence judgments that do not support his objectives.

The assertion also is contrary to the history of Iran’s nuclear activities. The Iranian regime clearly did have an interest in nuclear weapons and did technical work to that possible end a couple of decades ago. As a pariah state, the regime kept the nuclear weapons option open for several more years. When given the opportunity, however, to get out from under nuclear-related sanctions and lose some of the pariahdom if it accepted restrictions and scrutiny that would keep it a non-nuclear weapons state, the Iranian regime took that opportunity by negotiating and signing the JCPOA. If that bargain collapses, and especially if the Iranians face the threat or reality of military attack and seek a strong deterrent against such attack, then their earlier interest in nuclear weapons may return. But if so, they would be responding directly to actions of the Trump administration, not to any “strategic commitment” of Iran itself.

Speaking of Iran’s nuclear program, the International Crisis Group assesses the Iran nuclear deal on its third anniversary and wonders if it can survive Donald Trump:

The JCPOA’s fate now seems to depend on a three-way race against the clock: the U.S. is trying to bring maximum pressure to bear on Iran in the minimum amount of time in the hope that Iran’s economy crumbles; Iran is exercising patience in the hope that the Trump administration fails, becomes distracted or is ousted from power in 2020; and Europe has embarked on an earnest but largely symbolic scramble to prevent the deal’s derailment by offering Iran enough economic and diplomatic incentives for it to remain in the deal without deepening the trans-Atlantic rift.

Against the low probability of renegotiation, given Tehran’s reluctance to validate Trump’s pressure policy, or of regime change, and considering Iran’s extensive experience in surviving economic duress and suppressing dissent, Washington might succeed in strangling Iran’s economy without achieving any of its goals. Instead, it could lead Iran to evade the deal’s nuclear constraints or to use its proxies to target U.S. assets in the region. Both steps in turn could provoke a military confrontation. To add another element of uncertainty: political jockeying in both capitals is likely to increase in the run-up to Iran’s 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections (and a potential transition to a new supreme leader), and the U.S. presidential election in 2020.

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