Middle East update: January 25 2019


The head of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Kobani, told AFP on Friday that he expects ISIS’s remaining elements in eastern Syria to be fully defeated within a month. The SDF has forced ISIS out of most of its last enclave around Hajin, but the group still holds some mostly rural territory near the Iraqi border. The group remains in dialogue with Bashar al-Assad’s government over some kind of arrangement in northeastern Syria that can protect the SDF from Turkey once the United States has left.

Speaking of which, Turkish artillery has been firing on YPG militia positions in Tal Rifaat for the past three days, most likely in anticipation of a ground operation there. Tal Rifaat is the last pocket of YPG-controlled territory in the Afrin region in northwestern Syria. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told supporters in a speech on Friday that he expects to establish a “safe zone” across northern Syria in a matter of months, whether in partnership with the US and/or Russia or as a solo project. “Safe zone” is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s unlikely to be a very safe place for any Syrian Kurds (or at least Kurds suspected of ties to the YPG or its political wing, the PYD). For a change, Erdoğan tried to justify his invasion of northern Syria, citing a 1998 agreement Turkey reached with Damascus that he claims allows Turkish forces to enter Syria in response to threats from the PKK (Turkey views the YPG/PYD as simply a rebranding of the PKK). Somehow I doubt Assad would agree with his interpretation of that agreement.

As for that whole US withdrawal, it may not really be a full withdrawal. The Trump administration is reportedly kicking around the idea of pulling US forces out of eastern Syria but leaving them in place at Tanf, the military base the US occupies along the Jordanian border. Tanf was originally set up to train and house a proxy rebel army to fight ISIS west of the Euphrates River while the SDF handled the group east of the Euphrates, but when the Syrian army took care of that the base, which sits on a main regional highway, instead became another theoretical way to limit Iranian transit into Syria. Even if you believe the US has a legal justification to be in eastern Syria right now, which is dubious at best, it has no justification for continuing to occupy Tanf. The base serves no purpose in the War on Terror and so its occupation isn’t covered even under the most tortured interpretation of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. And there’s certainly no international law permitting the US to squat there.


At least six people, including a civilian child and five Yemeni soldiers, were killed on Friday by two land mines in Bayda province. Five civilian adults were wounded. The civilians triggered the first mine, and then a group of soldiers attempting to come to their aid triggered the second.

We’re a month into the ceasefire agreement in Hudaydah and so far neither side has shown any interest in implementing its goal to withdraw all combatants from the city, a process that was supposed to begin on January 7. Neither side is particularly interested in talking about it, either, with the Houthis blaming United Nations monitors for allegedly being biased against them and pro-government forces blaming the Houthis for not upholding their agreement. Meanwhile humanitarian aid from Hudaydah’s seaport still isn’t reaching people who need it, and if there’s no movement soon the whole ceasefire is likely to collapse.


Israeli soldiers killed one Palestinian protester in Gaza on Friday and a 17 year old Palestinian kid in the West Bank whose crime was apparently throwing stones at passing Israeli cars. Definitely justifiable cause for an extrajudicial execution.

A day after Hamas rejected the next $15 million Qatari payment to Gaza’s public sector workers due to some unknown Israeli conditions, the Qataris announced that instead they’ll be sending $20 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza under UN oversight. The funds will reportedly be used for a “job creation project.”

The US military has decided to purchase Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system to provide regional missile defense to US soldiers abroad. There’s one kind of glaring issue here, though, which is that Iron Dome has only really ever had to defend against low tech rockets fired from Gaza–and it’s not even clear how good it is at that–and the Pentagon wants to use it to hypothetically defend US forces against advanced Russian and/or Chinese missiles. It probably can’t do that, making this purchase little more than an extension of US aid to Israel. On the plus side, Iron Dome is only supposed to be a temporary missile defense option, filling an immediate need while the Pentagon flushes billions more dollars down the toilet hires Raytheon or some other contractor to build a more long-term defense system.


ISIS says its forces in Sinai attacked a government military unit last week and “captured a Christian criminal research expert” who was “involved in the government’s campaign against militants.” According to Reuters, two sources in the Egyptian government have confirmed the story.


The ostensible “Center for American Progress,” the DC think tank that as far as I can tell spends more time fighting progress than championing it, has decided to stop taking funding from the UAE. Why it was ever taking funding from the UAE to begin with is beyond me, but I’m sure there’s a good progressive rationale for subjecting your research to the influence of an ultra-reactionary despotic state. CAP says its UAE money never influenced any of its output, because of course it didn’t, and essentially blamed Donald Trump for forcing it to divest itself of Emirati largesse.


The World Economic Forum took place in Davos this week, and while I suppose this annual gathering of the world’s greatest sociopaths is noteworthy, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to write about it. Yes, I could have mentioned that the favorite recreational activity at Davos is apparently an exhibition whereby the attendees get to LARP as a refugee for a little while, which they all this is great fun because, again, sociopaths, but is that really that important? But Ishaan Tharoor has got a Davos angle worth our attention I think–the Saudi Rehabilitation Tour:

Just a few months ago, Saudi Arabia was placed under the heat lamps of international scrutiny. The steady drip of revelations surrounding the covert abduction and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inflamed the U.S. Congress, led to protests in various capitals around the world and blackened the reputation of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA found had ordered the plot.

But Mohammed and the Saudis were defiant in the face of international censure. They were defended by the Trump administration, which focused its ire instead on Iran, and received only timid reproach from European governments wary of isolating a key customer for military hardware. And if it wasn’t clear that the West had largely moved on beyond the whole Khashoggi affair, events this week at the World Economic Forum made it all the more obvious.

The Saudis sent a large delegation to the Swiss Alps, including their economy, finance and foreign ministers. The country’s oil giant, Aramco, staged a lavish party Wednesday evening for executives and bankers attending the forum. In various conversations, Western politicians and business executives indicated their unwillingness to turn their back on the kingdom.

“We have long since dealt with the Khashoggi case,” Swiss President Ueli Maurer told local news agency SDA. “We have agreed to continue the financial dialogue and normalize relations again.”

We’ve long since dealt with it! Long since! How, you ask? Who knows? But it’s dealt with, OK, so can we all go back to wrecking the climate while making obscene amounts of money and executing dissidents on the down-low like we used to do? Please?

Well, maybe not entirely. The European Union has apparently put the Saudis on a “draft list of countries that pose a threat to the bloc because of lax controls against terrorism financing and money laundering.” It’s on there with such luminaries as Afghanistan, Iran (!), Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. I swear I can hear the wailing in Riyadh from here. The list is mainly based on the Financial Action Task Force’s information about how well countries are cracking down on money laundering and other financial misdeeds. It should be stressed that this is a draft, so there’s still time for the Saudis to buy lobby their way off of the final list.


The Trump administration’s most recent tactic to turn the international community against Iran, dredging up questions into Iran’s past nuclear weapons research, apparently isn’t going anywhere:

American officials have been ratcheting up pressure at the International Atomic Energy Agency in recent weeks, threatening new sanctions and advocating for more aggressive inspections, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg and interviews with diplomats.

However, the efforts are falling flat, say three diplomats who participated in a meeting convened next to the U.S. IAEA embassy last week in Vienna.

It’s a rare pushback for the U.S. at the IAEA, whose inspectors have been instrumental getting past UN sanctions applied against Iran. The episode illustrates the rising difficulty American officials face in convincing allies to follow the U.S. on Iran.

What the US wants to do is provoke a standoff by getting the IAEA to request inspections at a site the Iranians will resist having opened up to inspectors. But so far the IAEA, which says it needs specific evidence of a violation in order to justify that kind of request, isn’t playing along.

The United Kingdom has agreed to send its foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, to the Middle East summit the US is organizing in Poland next month, but only if the event includes a meeting to discuss Yemen. The US has been concerned that Hunt wouldn’t attend, given that the event is (US objections aside) little more than a chance for the Trump administration to bash Iran some more. Many European countries are considering sending sub-ministerial delegates to the event, which would be embarrassing for the US.

If the Trump administration can’t get the rest of the world to back its financial and diplomatic efforts to bring Iran to its knees, then you know what that leaves. At LobeLog, Jim Lobe and Ben Armbruster argue that Trump’s political struggles at home and his increasing reliance on a network of anti-Iran hawks both inside and outside of his administration are increasing the likelihood of a military confrontation:

Donald Trump’s domestic troubles, combined with the current makeup of his foreign policy team, provide a confluence of circumstances, perhaps a perfect storm, to pull the United States into a war with Iran.

Indeed, the walls are closing in around Trump. The president’s poll numbers—once seemingly impervious to an already unprecedentedly tumultuous administration—are sinking, even among his most ardent supporters, as he increasingly boxes himself into the corner of a government shutdown for which the public says he’s largely responsible. At the same time, impeachment looms on the horizon. House Democratic committee chairs are winding up for some serious investigations into a whole range of alleged misdeeds by the president and some of his Cabinet appointments, and Robert Mueller is wrapping up his investigation into Trump’s highly questionable ties to Russia.

In short, Trump’s position has never been weaker. And despite what appears to be his personal desire to extract U.S. troops from the Middle East, as shown by his order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and his assertion two weeks later that Iran’s leaders “can do what they want” there, his deepening political problems may make war more attractive.

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