Middle East update: February 16-17 2019


DEVELOPING, MAYBE: The New Arab is reporting that the SDF has made a deal with the remaining ISIS fighters in Baghouz that calls for a five day truce and the relocation of those fighters to “an area in the Syrian desert.” The SDF has also agreed to allow food shipments into the town in return for ISIS releasing 300 of the human shields it’s been holding (see below). I’m generally reluctant to include things I only find on New Arab so take this with a grain of salt or two unless/until it gets more widely reported.

Syrian Democratic Forces officials say they expect to defeat the ISIS fighters still holed up in and around Baghouz “in the coming few days.” The going remains slow in large part due to the estimated 1000+ civilians the group is holding inside the town as human shields. With the US ready to withdraw from Syria once this last ISIS enclave has been captured, the question of what to do with all the foreign fighters the SDF has captured looms very large. The SDF isn’t going to waste resources on holding them once the US goes. Enter Donald Trump, once again making a great argument for taking his iPhone away:

Trump’s underlying point here is correct. Europe should take these fighters back and put them on trial. It’s not the SDF’s job to do that on Europe’s behalf. The Syrian government could put them on trial, but those same European governments still believe as a matter of policy that the Syrian government is illegitimate. That said, making this point in two tweets that are the equivalent of throwing a ransom note tied to a rock through Europe’s front window is, uh, not the way to go about it.

Speaking of the imminent (?) US departure from eastern Syria, the SDF’s General Military Council announced on Sunday that one of its goals after defeating ISIS will be the “liberation” of Afrin and the return of its original, predominantly Kurdish, residents. That’s probably not going to be well received by Turkey, which is currently occupying Afrin and has led an effort to systematically change its demographics by displacing those Kurds and settling displaced Arabs there instead.

Needless to say the only prayer the SDF has of surviving the US withdrawal, let alone “liberating” Afrin, is to make a deal with the Syrian government to oppose Turkey’s presence in northern Syria. Bashar al-Assad and the Russians have been urging the SDF’s Kurds to make a deal but Assad has taken a hard line with respect to the Kurds’ desire for regional autonomy. The Pentagon, on the other hand, says it will have to sever its relationship with the SDF if it makes a deal with Assad. This would mean no more US weapons and training, but on the other hand the US is leaving so what difference does any of that make to the Kurds? Russian weapons work too, and training is less important than staying alive.

Elsewhere, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s pragmatic approach toward its tensions with Turkey may be causing the group’s more radical members to split off and go their own way:

Although HTS leaders didn’t oppose Turkey placing observation posts around Idlib, they were uneasy with the Turkey-backed opposition groups adopting an anti-Kurdish agenda to please Turkey. HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani, after installing the Syrian Salvation Government in the areas the group captured at Idlib, extended an olive branch to Turkey and the moderate rebel groups it supports. Golani first revealed HTS’ support of Turkey’s military plans to advance on Kurds east of the Euphrates River. He then began a purge of the radical wing of his organization that caused a split with influential member Abu Yaqzan al-Masri. Golani also banned the issuing of fatwas (religious decrees) by any source other than the group’s general council.

Abu Yaqzan had come to Syria in 2013 and joined Ahrar al-Sham, later transferring to Jabhat al-Nusra, the forerunner of HTS. He is known for his anti-Turkish fatwas and opposed the Turkish operation slated for east of the Euphrates, saying Islam has no place in a war between a secular army (the Turkish Armed Forces, TSK) and an atheist party (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, YPG).

There could soon be other splits from HTS. Abu Malik al-Tali, a Lebanese commander of Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS at the Qalamoun front in the summer of 2017, is named among those likely to leave.

HTS doesn’t seem to be terribly sorry to see these guys leave. In fact, shedding itself of its really extreme elements might allow it to be absorbed by Turkey’s “Syrian National Army,” and HTS would likely come to dominate that proxy coalition. Golani increasingly seems content to hold on to Idlib (with Turkish support, if possible) and call it a day, while it’s these hardcore radicals who want to resume the full-scale war against Assad. Presumably Golani understands that to do so would be suicidal.

The Global Public Policy Institute, based in Germany, says it has catalogued over 300 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since late 2012. It attributes roughly 98 percent of them to the Syrian government and its allies and the rest to ISIS. Expect to see these findings bandied about in discussions of the war and potential war crimes charges related to it, but the chances of anybody facing war crimes charges over this conflict is pretty small. I suppose if a few really senior ISIS commanders wind up in captivity they could be bundled off to The Hague, but it’s more likely they’ll die in combat. Rebel leaders who wind up captured will be tried by the Syrian government, and it would be shocking to see anybody from the Syrian government handed over for international criminal proceedings.


According to the United Nations, the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have had a breakthrough in talks over implementing their ceasefire agreement in Hudaydah. Specifically, they’ve reached an agreement on the first phase of their mutual withdrawal from the port city, and have an agreement “in principle” on phase 2, withdrawing from Hudaydah province altogether. The UN hasn’t offered any specifics beyond that, but this is a big development considering that the ceasefire has been hanging by a thread of late.

On the downside, a lot of places including China’s Xinhua service reported heavy fighting over the weekend between the Houthis and Saudi forces along the border in Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province. Houthi media is claiming that their forces have killed “dozens” of Saudi soldiers and seized positions on the Saudi side of the border, but those reports are unconfirmed.

It’s little mentioned because the war and its resulting humanitarian crisis are more immediate, but one of the long-term legacies of the Yemen war is going to be Yemen’s now-massive land mine problem:

Nearly four years after Saudi Arabia plunged into Yemen’s civil war, Saudi and Yemeni commanders say that hundreds of thousands of unmarked land mines planted by their opponents, the Houthis, have emerged as perhaps their most formidable defense.

The hidden explosives, the commanders say, have helped keep the conflict close to a standstill despite the superior air power and other resources of the Saudi-led coalition.

The mines have also killed as many as 920 civilians and wounded thousands, according to mine removal experts. Rights groups and other monitors say the minefields will leave Yemen riddled with buried explosives that could kill or maim unsuspecting civilians for decades before the devices can all be removed, as they have in Afghanistan, Colombia and Cambodia.


Israeli forces wounded 19 Palestinians during a violent protest at the Gaza fence line on Sunday. One Israeli soldier was wounded, reportedly by an explosive device thrown by one of the protesters.

The Israeli government announced on Sunday that it will withhold $138 million in remits to the Palestinian Authority in punishment for the PA’s policy of giving financial aid to the families of those killed or imprisoned by the Israelis. The PA argues that this is a simple welfare benefit for families who have lost a potential breadwinner (in some cases the main breadwinner), but the Israelis insist that it’s a financial incentive for terrorism.

Benjamin Netanyahu is back down to two jobs from the three he’d held since November. That’s when Netanyahu, who was already serving as foreign minister and of course prime minister, took over Israel’s defense ministry in the wake of Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation. On Sunday, handed the foreign ministry to Israel Katz, who also serves as his intelligence minister and transportation minister. He’ll hold the job until April’s election. Netanyahu was spurred to make the move over complaints that he was giving the foreign ministry short shrift while focusing on his other responsibilities.


Insurgents attacked a military checkpoint in the northern Sinai early Saturday, reportedly killing 15 Egyptian soldiers and raiding the compound for weapons. Seven of the attackers were also killed, according to Egyptian authorities.


Echoing the Indian government (more on that in a bit), Iranian authorities are blaming Pakistan for Wednesday’s Jaish ul-Adl attack that killed 27 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Sistan and Baluchestan province. The Iranians have also accused Saudi Arabia and the US of involvement in the attack, but this is different. While there’s long been suspicion that the Saudis funnel support to Jaish ul-Adl, it’s certain that the group operates out of bases on the Pakistani side of the border. So the Iranians aren’t so much accusing Pakistan of contributing to the attack (and in fact Jaish ul-Adl is a problem for Islamabad as well) as of failing to do something about the group behind it.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Munich Security Conference on Sunday that the European “special purpose vehicle,” aka INSTEX, set up to facilitate trade with Iran, isn’t going to be enough to save the Iran nuclear deal. Although its purpose is to allow European firms to do business with Iran while insulating themselves from US sanctions, INSTEX is limited in scope to humanitarian goods that are already permitted under those same sanctions. Which doesn’t mean it’s pointless, because it protects the financial transactions necessary to allow Iran to purchase and import those goods, but does mean that it won’t enable anywhere near the level of economic activity Iran expected when it signed the nuclear deal back in 2015. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has already begun demanding that Europe ditch INSTEX. More on that in a later update.

Iran apparently has a new submarine, the Fateh, that can fire cruise missiles. Good for them. I thought about picking one up for myself but the financing on those things is ridiculous.

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