Middle East update: January 17 2019


In the wake of Wednesday’s suicide bombing in Manbij, the Syrian Democratic Forces on Thursday promised to “escalate our military operations” to defeat ISIS and root out sleeper cells. That effort is likely to be hindered if the US proceeds with withdrawing from Syria as Donald Trump appears to want, and if you think that’s a compelling reason for the US to stay in Syria so be it I guess. But please come up with a better argument in support of staying than this guy did:

Conducting “raids and other types of special operations on a quick-turn basis” has been central to the US mission in Syria, said Luke Hartig, who worked as a senior counterterrorism official at the Pentagon and on the Obama administration’s National Security Council (NSC) and is now a fellow at New America, a Washington, DC–based research organization.

Hartig said Trump’s withdrawal will make it harder for US troops to carry out operations against ISIS themselves and also to support the partner forces they’ve trained for the job. He added that the US has learned the value of this kind of effort through its long involvement in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have a lot of experience from 17 years of doing operations that shows that a small number of US forces can greatly enable a larger number of partner forces,” he said. “There’s a lot of value to having us there to enable their operations when they go after targets. The closer you are to the threat, the better the information and intelligence you get.”

Yeah, damn, Afghanistan is going great and it’s definitely a testament to what a different small numbers of US forces can make. After 17 years the Kiwanis Club of Kandahar is kicking the crap out of the Afghan military, so it’s obviously a massive success. We should be modeling all our foreign military interventions after it.


The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are hoping to end their talks in Jordan on Thursday having finalized the details of their planned prisoner exchange, both in terms of the list of prisoners and the logistics of the exchange. The two sides also apparently agreed to hold another meeting at some undetermined time to discuss difficulties in implementing the agreements they reached at United Nations-sponsored talks in December. And of course I’m talking here about Hudaydah, where a ceasefire remains technically in place but has not really been implemented.

The UN Security Council approved a larger monitoring team for Hudaydah in a unanimous vote on Wednesday, but the monitors almost lost their boss on Thursday. Somebody attacked a convoy carrying retired Dutch General Patrick Cammaert just outside the city–both the Houthis and pro-government militias accused one another of the deed–though only one vehicle was hit with gunfire and Cammaert was unharmed.

The Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking has alleged this week that the Houthis are disappearing and torturing women in the territories under their control:

A Yemeni rights lawyer on Thursday told the AP the women were rounded up from cafes and parks the past months. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fears for personal safety, he said their families are searching for their missing daughters.

The Yemeni anti-trafficking group said it obtained new information showing that the rebels were carrying out atrocities such as “abuse, torture, and forced disappearances of women and girls in secret and illegal prisons.”

The Houthis deny these allegations, calling them rumors intended to discredit their rebellion.


New Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress. She’s a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights and of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. And now she’s on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which could change the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine issue in Congress:

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Middle East panel chairman Ted Deutch, D-Fla., are all proponents of anti-BDS legislation, setting up a potential flashpoint with Omar and the left’s progressive base.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously voted to advance another bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, last year. That bill seeks to levy financial and possible criminal penalties on companies and employees that comply with United Nations efforts to gather information on companies affiliated with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

But with Omar on the committee, the politics of advancing any anti-boycott bill become much more complicated.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been overhauling the upper ranks of his security apparatus, replacing both his director of military intelligence and the commander of Egypt’s Western Military Region late last month. The reason, according to Al-Monitor, is the ongoing failure to secure Egypt’s border with Libya:

Ali Ahmad, a researcher at the newspaper As-Safir, told Al-Monitor by phone that Sisi’s recent and unexpected decisions follow the ongoing failure of Egypt’s intelligence services to improve security in the Western Desert and other parts of the country. Ahmad said that arms smuggling operations across the Libyan-Egyptian border, reported as on the rise, were the main reason behind the personnel changes.

Islamic extremists appear to be trying to take advantage of the current environment to spread their influence in the Western Desert. Several attacks carried out by them have dealt painful blows to the Egyptian security services. The militant groups, some of which are involved in arms smuggling, oppose the regime and want Sharia imposed in Egypt. Some of them claim affiliation with the Islamic State.



Trade between Qatar and its pal Turkey is estimated to have topped $2 billion in 2018, an over 50 percent increase from 2017 and a sign that the ongoing Qatar blockade is absolutely working just as Mohammad bin Salman predicted. That figure is only going to go up, as the Qataris pledged last year to invest $15 billion in the Turkish economy.


The Saudi government has been rebuilding Awamiya, the town it destroyed in 2017 ostensibly because of the presence of Shiʿa militants but likely in order to facilitate this rebuilding project. Saudi authorities hope that a major development project in the restive Qatif region will dispel resentment among the region’s frequently mistreated Shiʿa community. Appeasing the kingdom’s Shiʿa minority is ostensibly one of the elements of Mohammad bin Salman’s reform agenda, though winning over Saudi Shiʿa is likely to be a long-term project after decades of official persecution.


According to the International Crisis Group, the Trump administration (Donald Trump’s BS aside) has internally concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign to bring Iran to its knees is, in a word, failing:

The Donald Trump administration conducted a preliminary internal assessment of its Iran “maximum pressure” policy this month and determined that it is not working, according to a new report. Such an assessment could drive administration efforts to try to provoke Iran to leave the nuclear deal, possibly by urging a potential inspections crisis at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), some experts said.

“So far, there is little evidence that the administration is meeting any of its possible goals,” the International Crisis Group writes in the new report, “On Thin Ice,” on the third anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal.

“A preliminary internal assessment by the administration described to Crisis Group purportedly concludes that the U.S. approach has yet to curb Iran’s behaviour or entice Tehran back to the negotiating table,” the ICG report says, citing in a footnote an interview conducted by the group with a senior US administration official this month.

While it’s tempting to feel some schadenfreude here, this is actually a fairly dangerous development. As Laura Rozen notes up there, if the administration thinks its campaign isn’t working then it’s like to look for ways to escalate. Which could take us in some precarious directions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.