Middle East update: January 18 2019


An airstrike on the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz on Friday killed at least 20 people according to Syrian state media, 23 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The anti-ISIS coalition (i.e., the US) is presumably responsible. The SOHR says that ten of the dead were ISIS but the rest were civilians trying to flee fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

A little further west, Turkey is warning the Syrian military to stay out of Manbij, which is kind of mind-boggling considering that Manbij is, you know, in Syria. Ankara wants to be sure that Damascus doesn’t take advantage of a potential US withdrawal to cut a deal with the Syrian YPG militia and begin restoring its control over parts of northern Syria that the Turks would prefer to control for themselves. There’s little reason for the Syrian government to worry about these warnings because it’s exceedingly likely that the Turks are bluffing–they would have to be unhinged to go to war with Syria, and therefore potentially Russia, over Manbij.

Iraqi Popular Mobilization militias say they crossed the border and attacked ISIS in the Syrian town of Susa on Friday, killing and wounding some 35 of the group’s fighters including a couple of fairly high-ranking commanders. The PMUs are trying to lock the border down to keep any ISIS elements fleeing the SDF offensive from entering Iraq, a task that’s made more complicated by the fact that the Iran-backed PMUs and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition aren’t really on speaking terms.


The Iraqi government declared on Friday that it will put all of the country’s borders under its control, including those in Kurdish territory previously managed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Baghdad did say that it will employ local (i.e., Kurdish) residents at its border posts, so I suppose that means many of the people currently manning those facilities could keep their jobs under the new management.


This weekend’s Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut may be sparsely attended, owing to the ongoing debate in the Arab world about whether and how quickly to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad’s government. Where the heads of state of seven members of the Arab League (apart from Lebanon, obviously) were originally supposed to attend the event, now only Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed are expected to be there. Some 20 countries will be there, but most at lower levels of representation. Before the summit, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called for Assad’s government to be reinstated in the Arab League, though that’s not even a settled issue within the Lebanese government, which remains gridlocked in part over disagreements between its pro- and anti-Assad factions.


Mahmoud Abbas has used his rubber-stamp Palestinian Supreme Constitutional Court (DCC) to dissolve the Palestinian parliament. This move, a sign of Abbas’s growing authoritarian streak, is intended to sideline a potential successor/rival and to allow Abbas to replace the body with a new assembly more tightly controlled by him and his allies:

So the SCC will do what the president needs when he needs it. But why did it move to disband the PLC at this time? One explanation has to do with succession. Just as the court was used earlier to shove Dahlan aside, it was used this time to strip the PLC’s last elected speaker, Hamas’s Aziz Dweik, from a position which (according to the constitution) would place him next in line for the presidency.

But more than the presidency is at stake. Although Abbas suggested that new PLC elections could be held, nobody expects those to come (except if they took place only under areas Fatah controls). Palestinian democracy, imperfect as it was, is now a faded memory and a set of empty promises for the future. Some Fatah leaders have floated the idea that the PLC is not really needed and it is, instead, time to start building a state by electing a “constituent assembly,” one that would move beyond the interim governance structures set up under the Oslo accords.


You’ll be happy to know that the network of DC remoras gorging themselves on Saudi lobbying money, while diminished after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, is still in pretty decent shape:

Many lobbyists ditched Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but several clients are still sticking with their lucrative patron. And at least one of those lobbyists met with a key Senate staffer at a lawmaker’s birthday party the same day his firm donated to the lawmaker’s campaign.

Lobbying disclosure and Federal Election Commission forms reviewed by Al-Monitor reveal that former Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., donated $1,000 in unused campaign funds to the campaign for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla. — the same day a McKeon associate met an Inhofe staffer on behalf of the Saudis. The Saudis paid McKeon $450,000 three days after Khashoggi’s death, according to lobbying disclosures for the six months through Nov. 30.

The California Republican, who now heads the McKeon Group lobbying firm just outside Washington, told Al-Monitor that the donation was unrelated, although the payment occurred on the same day.

“I’ve had some money left over in my campaign fund,” McKeon said. “I served with Jim Inhofe when I came to Congress in 1993, we’ve been friends ever since and I have supported him on his campaign.”


US authorities apparently detained Press TV news anchor Marzieh Hashemi earlier this week as a material witness, not a suspect, so she’s not expected to remain in custody much longer. They haven’t revealed the case in which she’s supposed to testify.

The Trump administration’s decision to put on a whole anti-Iran shindig in Poland next month was an obvious attempt to exploit internal disagreements in Europe over whether to knuckle under to the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign or to try to uphold the JCPOA and maintain commercial ties with Tehran. And it’s exploiting them so well that a bunch of EU countries may skip the event entirely. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has already announced that she won’t be there, and so far it’s known that at least France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom are thinking about skipping or sending low-level representation, which is still a snub.

That said, it’s looking increasingly like Europe is in fact coming over to the US position on Iran, mostly over things not directly related to the nuclear deal:

In Tehran on Jan. 8 during a meeting with European envoys, Iranian officials abruptly stood up, walked out and slammed the door in an extraordinary break with protocol.

The French, British, German, Danish, Dutch, and Belgian diplomats in the Iranian foreign ministry room had incensed the officials with a message that Europe could no longer tolerate ballistic missile tests in Iran and assassination plots on European soil, according to four EU diplomats.

“There was a lot of drama, they didn’t like it, but we felt we had to convey our serious concerns,” one of the diplomats said. “It shows the relationship is becoming more tense,” a second said.

The Europeans are considering new sanctions against Iran, and with the Iranians already frustrated with the slow pace of European efforts to set up a way to circumvent US sanctions, Tehran may be approaching a breaking point.

Iran is having far less trouble doing business with China than with Europe. China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) has reportedly offered Iran’s National Oil Company a $3 billion deal to develop Iran’s Yadavaran oil field in order to double its production capacity. China is currently exempt from US oil sanctions and is apparently looking to maximize the value of that exemption. Because European energy firms have gotten out of Iran for fear of running afoul of the US, SINOPEC has been able to make major demands in negotiations, like requiring Chinese equipment, making the potential agreement quite lucrative from Beijing’s perspective. 

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