Middle East update: February 2-3 2019


A roadside bomb in Manbij killed at least one person on Saturday when it struck a bus carrying a group of teachers. Another four people were reportedly wounded in the blast. ISIS, which has carried out a handful of attacks in Manbij over the past month or so, is the likely culprit. In Aleppo, 11 people died when their apartment building collapsed on Saturday. Normally building collapses aren’t our purview around here, but this one was a direct result of damage suffered during the battle over Aleppo in late 2016 so in my book that makes these people casualties of war.

Aircraft from the US-led coalition apparently bombed the Syrian army on Saturday near the area where the Syrian Democratic Forces are still fighting ISIS in Deir Ezzor province. Two Syrian soldiers were wounded in the strike. The coalition claims that the Syrian army attacked the SDF and so the airstrike was defensive in nature.


The United Nations chartered a boat in the Red Sea to host weekend meetings between representatives of the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. The UN has been trying to arrange talks to salvage the Hudaydah ceasefire the two sides negotiated in Stockholm in December, but the Houthis were unwilling to meet on government-controlled territory. So enter the boat, a neutral alternative. Talks focused on implementing the longer-term provisions of the ceasefire, like a withdrawal of combatants from the city under the terms of the “regional redeployment committee.” The Stockholm agreement has stalled on this point and it’s threatening to undermine the entire arrangement. It’s unclear at this point whether the talks produced any positive results.

Similarly, the Jordanian government is reportedly planning to host neutral site talks between the two Yemeni sides in the next few days. These talks will focus not on Hudaydah, but on breaking a separate impasse over the prisoner exchange that was also part of the Stockholm agreement.


Unidentified gunmen shot up a bus carrying ten Iranian pilgrims north of Baghdad on Sunday. Seven of the pilgrims were wounded in the attack, which has so far gone unclaimed.


Also similarly, the Egyptian government is reportedly hosting officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two main Palestinian organizations in Gaza, to try to restart talks on some kind of unity arrangement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The Egyptians are trying to calm tensions in Gaza in a way that also pushes Qatar out of the picture. The Qataris have been engaged in their own effort to calm tensions in Gaza by showering the besieged region with some much-needed cash, but hostilities between the Israeli government and Hamas (egged on by Cairo) have upended that effort. The Israelis, meanwhile, have begun reinforcing the fence they’ve built around Gaza to enforce their blockade on the enclave. It wouldn’t be surprising if the reinforced barrier looks like the third grade drawing of a steel border fence that Donald Trump has been showing to people, as a little solid from Benjamin Netanyahu to his pal.

Violence in the West Bank is on the uptick, but because it’s election season and the perpetrators have been Israeli settlers rather than displaced Palestinians the Israeli government surprisingly doesn’t seem all that concerned about it:

While Palestinian and United Nations officials have condemned the violence — Nickolay E. Mladenov, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, described the shooting in Al Mughayir as “shocking and unacceptable” — Israel’s right-wing government has remained conspicuously silent, wary of alienating settlers and other potential supporters in an election year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking a fifth term, is vying with other right-wing rivals for the settlers’ support. He is facing bribery investigations and his strongest political challenge in years.

“Thou shalt not murder?” Tamar Zandberg, leader of the left-wing party Meretz, wrote in a Facebook post, noting the resounding lack of condemnation from government officials. “Silence. Everyone sees the election on the horizon, and the settler lobby is stronger than any moral standard.”

The biggest threat to Netanyahu’s continued reign is going to come from slightly less violently psychopathic former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz rather than anyone on what could generously be called the Israeli left. In fact, as Netanyahu struggles to fend off a fellow warmonger, the Israeli Labor Party is on the verge of an electoral catastrophe:

The corruption scandal bedeviling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be a gift to his election opponents on the center left, but instead they are plagued by infighting and, in the case of Israel’s Labor Party, near mutiny. 

It is a familiar story in democracies around the world: the collapse of left-of-center alternatives amid the rise of right-wing populism and increasing political polarization.

But in Israel, the left has a particularly thorny problem. It is unable to dissociate itself from the failure of the peace process that began under Labor with the signing of the Oslo accords 25 years ago. 

Labor has been shedding voters ever since. And now, Israel’s founding party — and the political home of national behemoths such as Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir — is reaching a crisis point less than three months before elections, with polls projecting it will win a paltry eight or nine of the 120 seats in parliament, down from the 19 it currently holds.

The proportion of Israeli voters describing themselves as center-left or left is now at a mere 20 percent. And while Labor leader Avi Gabbay’s decision to lurch the party to the right hasn’t helped the party rebuild its base, it’s the Israeli right’s deliberate efforts to sabotage Oslo (starting with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and continuing through both of Netanyahu’s stints as PM) have paid off better than anybody could possibly have predicted. Oslo was a fundamentally flawed agreement from the start, but its failure has very much been engineered.


The Egyptian parliament is considering a measure that would extend presidential terms from four to six years, which would potentially allow Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to remain in office until 2024. Sisi is in what’s supposed to be his final term in office, so if this comes to pass it will simply delay the point at which he needs to either eliminate term limits or come up with some justification why he should be allowed to serve for a third term. Assuming the extension passes parliament it will then be subject to a national referendum to amend the constitution. But Sisi’s had no difficulty rigging elections in his favor so that’s a mere formality.


The Saudi government, in an effort to free up more private sector jobs for Saudi citizens, has begun making it harder for foreign workers to remain in the kingdom by imposing new fees and restrictions. It’s working–well over a million foreign workers have left Saudi Arabia over the past two years. The only problem is that Saudi citizens haven’t been taking their vacated jobs, so Saudi businesses are suddenly finding themselves short of workers. Efforts to get more Saudi women into the workforce might help in some areas, but at its core the issue is that Saudi men simply don’t want to do relatively low wage unskilled jobs. Investments in high tech, entertainment, and tourism/hospitality might create some better paying gigs, but the kingdom is apparently also thinking about easing up on foreign workers to stop their exodus.

This isn’t specific to the Saudis, but at LobeLog the Arab Center’s Charles Dunne looks at how multinational corporations have helped to support authoritarian governments in the Middle East:

When the global resilience of authoritarianism and its causes are considered, the role played by governments, leaders, and international organizations and their policies in confronting or abetting dictatorships worldwide is often the focus of discussion. President Trump’s apparent affinity for autocrats, for example, has frequently been linked to the recent success of populist strongmen worldwide. In fact, there is evidence to suggest many of the globe’s authoritarians look to him as an inspiration.

But it would be a mistake to focus on politicians and governments as the only agents capable of making or breaking authoritarian regimes. Beneath the surface of official policies, democracy promotion strategies, and international human rights resolutions, nongovernmental actors have a major influence on the persistence of global authoritarianism. In particular, the international private sector has succored authoritarian regimes for decades, providing investments, arms, advice, technology, and lobbying power that help keep many dictatorial regimes afloat and shield them from the consequences of their domestic abuses and occasional international adventurism. Together, international corporations and repressive regimes in the Middle East comprise a sort of “authoritarian-industrial complex” that bolsters the political status quo in the region, helps governments resist internal pressure for change, and incentivizes external powers to prefer the apparent stability authoritarianism engenders over the messy unpredictability of free societies and accountable governance.


Insurgents attacked a Basij militia base in Sistan and Baluchistan province on Saturday, killing one Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps technician while wounding five others. Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni extremist group that’s active in southeastern Iran and across the border in Pakistan, claimed responsibility.

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