Middle East update: January 29 2019


A suspected ISIS suicide bomber struck the offices of the “National Salvation Government” in Idlib on Tuesday, killing at least one person. The National Salvation Government is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s governing wing for Idlib province. Meanwhile, the Syrian army shelled the town of Maarat al-Numan, killing at least 11 people. This in itself violates the Idlib ceasefire, though Syrian media claimed the shelling came in response to rebel ceasefire violations (the “they started it” defense).

To the east, ISIS is down to its last few kilometers of territory, but the Syrian Democratic Forces still say it will take weeks to wrap its anti-ISIS operation up. Cynically you could argue they’re stretching out their offensive in order to slow down a potential US withdrawal from Syria, but the official explanation is that many of the remaining ISIS fighters have families with them, and so the SDF is taking it slow to minimize civilian casualties. In light of the potential US pullout, SDF leaders are now talking openly about integrating their force into the Syrian army. Of course they still need to reach an agreement with the Assad government. The Kurds who form the bulk of the SDF don’t really have another option besides Damascus if they’re going to forestall a Turkish offensive, and that puts Assad in a strong position to refuse any Kurdish demands as far as regional autonomy might be concerned.

Despite all the complications, Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller argue that quitting Syria is still the right choice for the US:

By the sound and fury of the political reaction in Washington, you might think Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria was akin to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany. Sen. Marco Rubio described the withdrawal as “a major mistake” that would “haunt the administration.” Sen. Ben Sasse opined that Trump’s generals “believe the high-fiving winners today are Iran, ISIS and Hezbollah.” Sen. Lindsey Graham all but linked Trump’s decision to this week’s ISIS suicide attack. All three congressmen are members of the president’s Republican Party. Just about everyone in the foreign policy establishment accused the president of betraying the Kurds who had been doing most of the fighting against ISIS.

There are risks in departing Syria, but there are far greater ones in staying. That’s particularly true if the U.S. cannot achieve the goals it has set publicly, and if Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime continue to have their way. Paradoxically, staying in Syria under these circumstances can make America look weak, too.


An explosion, probably a motorcycle bombing, in government-controlled Mokha killed at least six people on Tuesday. It’s unclear who was responsible but both ISIS and al-Qaeda are active in Yemen so either is a strong candidate.

The big prisoner exchange that the Yemeni government and the Houthis negotiated last month is faltering over the details, but a smaller exchange took place on Tuesday. The Houthis released a Saudi prisoner who had fallen ill, and in return the Saudis pledged upon his arrival in Riyadh to release seven Houthi prisoners.


Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri says that this is a “decisive week” in terms of forming a government just shy of nine months after Lebanon’s parliamentary election last May. Lebanon has been mere days away from settling its political beefs and forming a government for at least three months now, and it’s not clear whether when Hariri says “decisive” he means that this is finally going to be the week it happens or that this is the week the whole process is finally going to break down entirely. I guess we’ll see.


The entire Palestinian government of (former) Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah up and resigned on Tuesday, a reflection of the failure of this alleged “unity” government to achieve any sort of Palestinian unity. Hamdallah’s cabinet was approved by leaders of both Fatah and Hamas, but their unity push fizzled out and Hamdallah has lost public support due to a weak economy and tax increases. Seeing as how those two parties are still at one another’s throats, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will presumably select a more partisan cabinet to replace it.

The Palestinians have accused the Israeli government of forcing international peacekeepers to leave Hebron in order to remove “witnesses” to its West Bank annexation policies. Which, yeah, probably. West Bank settlers are reportedly pretty psyched to see the peacekeepers leave.


Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Executions and the leader of a new international investigation into the Jamal Khashoggi murder, was reportedly denied access to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday. Callamard is apparently taking this in stride, chalking it up to a late request and giving the Saudis more time to come around.

Saudi authorities on Tuesday announced that they have suspended 126 municipal government employees on corruption charges. The charges are ostensibly part of the anti-corruption drive that began in November 2017, assuming you believe that was legitimately an anti-corruption drive and not just an excuse to shakedown wealthy Saudis for some quick cash.


A double bombing outside a police station in the city of Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchestan province left three police officers wounded on Tuesday. The Sunni Islamist group Jaish ul-Adl claimed responsibility.

Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, a military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Defense Minister Amir Hatami told Iranian media on Tuesday that Iran will not negotiate away its missile program despite threats of sanctions from France and other European countries. However, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, reiterated to state radio that Iran has no plans to increase the range of its missiles, which currently top out at around 2000 kilometers.

As this resistance to negotiating over its missile program suggests, Iran hasn’t yet knuckled under to the Trump administrations “maximum pressure” campaign. Indeed, the heads of the US intelligence community testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that the administration’s Iran policy is both failing and unnecessary:

Iranian hard-liners could be empowered, sporadic unrest is uncoordinated, and Iran’s regional behavior has not moderated and may even become more aggressive in the face of perceived increased US/Saudi/Israeli hostility and US-led economic pressure, the 42-page annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said.

Iran continues for now to abide by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that Trump withdrew from last year, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told the Senate Intelligence panel today. But Iran is having internal debates if it should resume elements of its program if it does not receive the economic benefits world powers agreed to in exchange for its rollback of its nuclear program, US intelligence officials warned.

“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence panel at a briefing today.

“However, Iranian officials have publicly threatened to reverse some of Iran’s JCPOA commitments — and resume nuclear activities that the JCPOA limits — if Iran does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal,” Coats said. “Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year.”

Iran may turn to Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency to try to get around US banking sanctions, and while I have no idea if that will work the idea appears at least to be raising additional concerns in Washington. Moreover, the newly imposed US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry are likely to hamstring efforts to tighten the screws on Iran’s oil program. The Trump administration has sought to insulate US consumers from the effects of its foreign policy, particularly when it comes to higher gasoline prices. But now it will be lucky if these Venezuela sanctions don’t raise gas prices on their own, and trying to restrict two major oil suppliers at once will almost certainly cause them to go up.

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