Middle East update: February 22 2019


The Syrian Democratic Forces on Friday completed another evacuation of civilians from Baghouz. Some 30 trucks carried mostly women and children out of the town, the second such caravan this week. The SDF says it’s hoping to completely empty the town of civilians by Saturday, at which point the ISIS fighters remaining inside may decide to surrender or may try to fight it out against an expected SDF assault.

The SDF is understandably quite pleased that the Trump administration has decided not to withdraw all US forces from eastern Syria after all. The 200 “peacekeepers” Washington plans on leaving in place will be joined by some 200 more US military personnel who will be remaining at the US-controlled military base at Tanf, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, leaving a total of 400 US soldiers in Syria indefinitely. The idea of leaving soldiers at Tanf is something the administration has been considering, but this is the first time they’ve confirmed it as far as I’m aware. The hope is that the 200 US soldiers in eastern Syria will serve as the anchor for a multi-national force of up to 1500 soldiers deployed by various European countries to maintain a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria–safe from Turkish attack, safe from an ISIS resurgence, and safe from the possibility of the SDF cutting a deal with the Syrian government.

Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman says the decision to leave troops in Syria, especially at Tanf, represents a victory for National Security Advisor John Bolton and his efforts to start a war with Iran:

Maintaining a presence in Syria, particularly at Tanf, which straddles a potential Iranian supply route through Iraq to Syria, has been a goal of Bolton’s for months. During a January trip to the region aimed at reassuring allies that the United States was not backing down from its strategy to counter Iranian aggression, Bolton reportedly discussed with Israeli officials the plan to leave forces at the base as a way to diminish Tehran’s influence in the region.

Tanf was originally a U.S. outpost to train local Syrian fighters. But as the Islamic State has steadily crumbled, Tanf has become a crucial buttress against Iranian influence. Officials in 2017 established an “exclusion zone” about 34 miles around the garrison, which allows U.S. troops to claim self-defense in striking Iranian or other forces moving through that area.

But a continued U.S. presence at Tanf, which is far from the fight against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, poses major risks. An incident at the garrison in 2017 involving the transport of an Iranian port-a-potty nearly led to a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces, illustrating just how quickly even minor events could escalate on the complex battlefield there.


Israeli soldiers gunned down a 15 year old Palestinian boy and wounded at least 40 more people during Friday’s Gaza protest. Israeli officials claim they were responding to rioters attempting to throw explosives over the Gaza fence.

Acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz is apparently the person who really cheesed off the Polish government last week with comments about Poland’s role in the Holocaust, which prompted the Poles to cancel a planned summit for leaders of the Visegrád 4 in Israel. Specifically, Katz said that Poles collaborated in the Holocaust–which is true even if the Polish government doesn’t want to hear it–and “suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk”–which I grant you may be a little bit inflammatory. Katz is refusing to apologize, to answer what I’m sure was your burning question. He seems like a nice guy, really. Meanwhile, a member of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, is claiming that Katz’s remarks are part of an Israeli plan to “extract money from Poland” in the form of Holocaust reparations, and boy there’s certainly nothing antisemitic in that reaction.

At LobeLog, Paul Pillar looks at Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power,” the far right Kahanist party with which Benjamin Netanyahu has now aligned himself. These guys also seem very nice:

The Kahane-associated parties were extreme even for Israeli politics 25 years ago, but the continued rightward drift of those politics has permitted a rebirth of the Kahanists. Otzma Yehudit exemplifies the sort of reincarnation of outlawed parties under a different name that has occurred elsewhere, such as with Islamist parties in Turkey.

Otzma Yehudit embodies Kahane’s ideas and professes a fondness for his methods. The party calls for the annexation of the West Bank, undiluted Israeli rule over all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and the expulsion of “enemies of Israel” to Arab countries. When the party’s current leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was invited to disavow Kahane’s racist ideology, he scoffed at the idea of doing so and said that Kahane was his rabbi and his teacher. Ben-Ari has argued for the removal of most Arabs from Israel. During the Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2012, he said, “There are no innocents in Gaza, don’t let any diplomats who want to look good in the world endanger your lives—mow them down!” Another party leader and former aide to Kahane, Baruch Marzel, has organized parties to celebrate Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 killed 29 Palestinians praying at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.


Just before he started draining the DC swamp, Donald Trump reportedly helped hook up his US financial backers with big spending Gulf investors:

Last spring, President Donald Trump introduced a potential Qatari investor to a friend and inauguration donor seeking a few billion dollars in investment to buy an unfinished nuclear power plant in northeastern Alabama, according to interviews the donor gave to a Tennessee media outlet published this week.

Tennessee businessman Franklin Haney, 78, told the University of Memphis’ Institute for Public Service Reporting that Trump introduced him to the Qatari at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, of which Haney is a longtime member. He said the introduction to the Qatari, whose name he said he did not recall, came a couple weeks after he was introduced in March to Trump’s then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen, whom Haney briefly hired as a consultant.


Mohammad bin Salman has been looking to do business deals all over Asia on his current tour through the region, and on Friday he landed a big one: a $10 billion deal with two Chinese firms to invest in a new “refining and petrochemicals complex” in China’s Liaoning province. Under its terms Saudi Aramco will deliver as much as 70 percent of the complex’s oil needs and own 35 percent of the facility.

By the by, I misjudged MBS on Thursday when I said he was probably going to keep his mouth shut about China’s Uyghur internment policy. In fact, he defended it:

“China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its national security,” Prince Mohammed, who has been in China signing multi-million trade deals much to the annoyance of his Western allies, was quoted as saying on Chinese state television.

Xi Jinping, China’s leader, told the crown prince the two countries must strengthen international cooperation on de-radicalisation to “prevent the infiltration and spread of extremist thinking”.

I suppose this makes sense. I mean if anybody can sympathize with a government imprisoning a bunch of people en masse with little or no justification, it’s got to be MBS. I guess the interned Uyghurs should consider themselves lucky they weren’t invited to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to air their grievances. Still, for a monarchy that pretends to leadership in the Sunni community, openly supporting the mass incarceration of a large number of Sunnis simply because they’re Muslim is, uh, not a great look.


The Iranian navy kicked off a major three day military exercise at the mouth of the Persian Gulf on Friday. Among the equipment being tested is Iran’s new Fateh submarine, which is reportedly capable of firing cruise missiles.

In case you’re wondering, the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is still complying with the nuclear deal. The United States is, of course, not in compliance with the deal, and the Iranian people are suffering for it:

Because of sanctions, Iran’s health sector is struggling to keep up with soaring prices of medications and medical instruments, doctors tell CNN.

European banks, fearing secondary US penalties, are reluctant to do business with Iranian companies even those not blacklisted by the US. Medical companies have had to resort to paying intermediaries exorbitant sums to secure needed supplies, including imported medicines and medical instruments which have more than tripled in value during Iran’s rapidly dropping currency, health professionals explain.

“Sanctions is the first problem in our country and in our system. We can’t transfer the money and make the preparations for surgery. It’s a big problem for us,” says Dr. Mohammad Hassan Bani Asad, managing director of the Gandhi Hotel Hospital. “We have the procedures, but we don’t have the instruments. It is very difficult for patients and maybe leads to death of some patients.”

Though most of Iran’s medicines are domestically manufactured, much of the primary materials, many of them imported, are in short supply. And while the state provides universal healthcare, some of the treatment needed for critical cases cannot be covered by state insurance.

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