Middle East update: January 21 2019


It would appear that Monday’s Israeli strikes in Syria are the result of a full weekend of back and forth exchanges with Iranian forces there:

The Israeli military said on Monday that it had attacked Iranian military targets in Syria, capping an exchange of blows in a rare, direct confrontation between the two antagonists that risks escalating the fight over Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.

Israeli military officials said the latest strikes, most likely the broadest wave in months, were in retaliation for Iranian forces launching a surface-to-surface missile from the Damascus area on Sunday toward the northern part of the Israeli-held Golan Heights. They said that the missile had endangered a ski resort and other areas where civilians were present, but that it had been successfully intercepted by Israel’s air defenses.

The Iranian missile, in turn, was fired shortly after a strike against a weapons store in Syria, for which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel strongly hinted that his country was responsible.

Israel’s acknowledgment of its strikes reflect a shift in policy, with the country increasingly taking responsibility for specific attacks in Syrian territory after years of ambiguity.

This helps to make some sense of the flurry of activity we discussed yesterday. There’s no real mystery about this new Israeli openness to talking about its strikes on Syria. Israel has a parliamentary election on April 9, and since Netanyahu is serving as interim (?) defense minister these muscular demonstrations will help him increase his popularity on the Israeli right. Netanyahu’s right-far right coalition is practically a lock to maintain its majority in the Knesset, despite Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption investigation, but the more seats he can win for his own Likud party at the expense of his coalition partners the more stable his next government will be.

A suicide bomber attacked a joint US-Syrian Democratic Forces convoy in Hasaka province on Monday, injuring several Kurdish fighters. ISIS claimed responsibility, not that there was much doubt.

Speaking of the SDF, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed on Monday that Ankara will not allow that force, and specifically its YPG component, to operate in any hypothetical safe zone it established in northern Syria. The US has been talking up the idea of a safe zone as a way to keep Turkey from attacking the YPG once the US withdraws from Syria, but there’s no guarantee Turkey wouldn’t still go after the YPG even with a safe zone, and the Kurds are unlikely to just give up northeastern Syria.


At LobeLog, Austin Bodetti says Yemenis are turning to solar power as a way to mitigate some of the hardship their ongoing civil war has wrought:

Little about Yemen would suggest that it represents the next frontier for renewable energy. Since 2015, the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have fought Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for control of the country as human rights activists accuse both sides of participating in war crimes. Concurrent cholera outbreaks, famines, and other humanitarian crises have left Yemenis no time to devise a comprehensive response to climate change and environmental degradation. Despite these dire circumstances and in part because of them, solar power has taken Yemen by storm in recent years.

The Yemeni civil war has led to the destruction of countless electric power systems, more than halving the availability of electric power throughout the country. The conflict has also contributed to a shortage of fuel, which accounted for 70 percent of electricity generation in Yemen in 2010. Given these challenges, Chinese-manufactured solar panels offer the best alternative.

“For most Yemenis, there was no choice but to buy solar panels for light and their basic electrical needs,” Safia Mahdi, a Sanaa-based journalist who won recognition for documenting this phenomenon, told LobeLog. “The majority of Yemenis have relied on solar panels for the duration of the war.”


Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri reports that some Shiʿa clerics in Najaf have begun a program meant to improve the dialogue between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiʿa communities:

Clerics and other religious figures from Najaf’s Hawza Illmiya, a prominent Shiite seminary, have launched the Dialogue for Social Cohesion in Iraq, a community cooperation initiative reaching out to western and northern Sunni governorates recently liberated from the Islamic State (IS). In the first phase of the initiative, a delegation from Najaf visited Anbar University Jan. 10 for meetings to open channels of communication with Sunni scholars and other religious figures, professors, students, intellectuals and civil society members.

Jawad al-Khoei, who oversees the Dar al-Ilm in Najaf and co-founded the initiative, told Al-Monitor in Anbar, “[The goal is to] promote the concept of equal citizenship among all Iraqis and uphold values of shared living and co-existence.”

Without knowing more about the program it seems like the kind of thing Iraq needs in order to fend off any kind of resurgence of ISIS or a successor group. ISIS revived itself on Sunni grievances, and the best way to ensure it doesn’t come back is to address those grievances (at least some of which are legitimate).


The Qataris are continuing to test the notion that money can’t buy you love, this time by investing some $500 million in Lebanese government bonds to try to stabilize that market. Concerns over Lebanon’s high national debt and its possible restructuring caused a panic in that market earlier this month.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Nablus on Monday, after the man allegedly attempted to stab one of the Israelis.


Hamas officials say that the Egyptian government is mulling over a plan to build a new commercial crossing between Egypt and Gaza that would cut the Palestinian Authority out of the loop and potentially lessen Gaza’s dependence on Israel. As far as I can tell there’s been no comment from the Egyptian government so take it all with a grain of salt, but Cairo may be interested in turning itself into Gaza’s patron so as to position Egyptian firms to receive international aid contracts for the enclave.


Saudi cleric Ahmed al-Amari has died in government custody. Amari was arrested last August, probably because he was close to another cleric who is a well-known critic of the Saudi family and is also still in government custody. One of the innovations of the Mohammad bin Salman era is that the Saudis don’t even tolerate criticism from religious scholars anymore, where previously they exhibited a bit more lenience for critics in that sphere. I guess that’s a kind of progress, right?


The Germany government has banned Iran’s Mahan Airline, Iran’s oldest private airline, effective immediately, bowing to US sanctions pressure. The US has accused Mahan of running Revolutionary Guard flights to Syria and has imposed terrorism sanctions on the airline.

There’s been a recent surge in caterwauling among the anti-Iran echo chamber over a new report from the essentially pro-war Institute for Science and International Security that alleges Iran has failed to fully disclose its past nuclear weapons work to the International Atomic Energy Agency. That accusation was then amplified by the objectively pro-war John Bolton. I’m not sure why these guys are still trying to take apart the nuclear deal since they already got what they wanted with Donald Trump’s decision to abrogate it, except insofar as they’re still jonesing for outright military conflict. At LobeLog, Peter Jenkins wonders what this line of attack is meant to achieve:

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commits Iran to refrain from engaging in activities that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The commitment came into effect in January 2016. The stolen warehouse material relates to Iranian nuclear weapon activities prior to 2004. Whether or not, prior to 2004, Iran ran a site producing components for nuclear weapons is irrelevant to a post-2015 JCPOA commitment. A belief that something was happening prior to 2004 cannot serve as a reason to suspect that the same thing is happening in 2019. In fact, since Iran’s Supreme Leader ordered a stop to nuclear weapon research and development in late 2003, it is very unlikely that Iran is still running a site “charged with producing components for nuclear weapons.”

It may be, however, that ISIS—not to mention the Israeli suppliers of the stolen material and John Bolton—wants the IAEA to revisit Iran’s historic nuclear weapon activities, which used to be referred to as a “possible military dimension” (PMD). If so, they are likely to be disappointed. The PMD file was closed in December 2015. That was when the IAEA Board of Governors noted (in resolution GOV/2015/72) that “all the activities in the Road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme were implemented in accordance with the agreed schedule,” and further that “this closes the Board’s consideration of this item.”

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