Middle East update: March 26 2019

Hello and welcome to our next-to-last week here at WordPress! I’m packing things up and moving to Substack starting next week, when I’ll be posting in both places by way of transitioning to the new site.


ISIS conducted an overnight attack against a Syrian Democratic Forces checkpoint in Manbij, killing at least seven people. Just when you thought it was safe to go out again.

A bit to the west of Manbij, Turkish and Russian forces on Tuesday carried out coordinated patrols for the first time in the Tel Rifaat region. Tel Rifaat is under Kurdish control and would be a prime target for the Turks should they decide to expand their footprint in northern Syria. The coordinated patrols are presumably an attempt by the Russians to satisfy Turkey’s security concerns so that it won’t be tempted to expand that footprint.

Speaking of Turkey and the Kurds, the US is continuing to try to come up with a “safe zone” solution for northern Syria that satisfies the interests of both parties and, well, it’s not going so well. The problem is that both the SDF and Turkey have made control of northeastern Syria a red line issue, and there’s not a lot of room for compromise there. US attempts at building a European peacekeeping force have struck out, and a proposal to create a “third force” of Syrian Kurds who aren’t aligned with the YPG/SDF and thus might be acceptable to Turkey is farfetched, to say the least. At some point the Kurds may have to break off their alliance with the US in order to cut a deal with Russia and the Syrian government, but we’re apparently not at that point yet.


A Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Tuesday in Kitaf, in northwestern Yemen, struck a hospital and killed at least seven people. Just more of the keen targeting and deep concern for civilians that we’ve come to expect from the coalition.

Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians held a rally in Sanaa on Tuesday to mark the Yemeni civil war’s fourth birthday and show support for the Houthis. The demonstrators chanted slogans critical of the Saudis, the US, and Israel too because that’s how they roll I guess.


The Turkish government is irritated with the US for…well, lots of things, these days. But a new grievance got tossed on the pile earlier this month when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a summit between the leaders of Cyprus, Greece, and Israel in Jerusalem. Turkey has issues with all three countries, of course, but it was particularly aggrieved about this summit since one of the topics was a proposed “EastMed” pipeline project. That project would bring offshore Israeli and Cypriot natural gas to the European market via Greece, bypassing Turkey entirely. I assume it’s pretty clear why Ankara would be miffed about that. Turkish claims in the Eastern Mediterranean could make exploiting those gas deposits difficult, particularly for Cyprus, and tensions in the region are likely to increase as those deposits are developed.

Despite the Turkish economy’s weakness, Steven Cook expects the ruling Justice and Development Party to do well in local elections on March 31:

No one ever prospered by predicting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political demise, but on the eve of Turkey’s local elections this weekend, he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seem weaker than ever. If he were not feeling political pressure, he would not be featuring the grotesque video of the Christchurch mosque massacre at campaign rallies, nor would he be accusing the opposition of supporting those who want to divide Turkey. His interior minister would not be loudly touting the fact that Turkey defied the United States when it invaded Syria and took over Afrin. Hammering away at Western Islamophobia, the perfidy of the main opposition party, and resistance to the United States are excellent ways to mobilize the Turkish electorate to support AKP candidates in the upcoming municipal elections.

The 81 cities and almost 1,000 towns whose mayoralties are in play on March 31 are crucial because controlling cities and towns means controlling the patronage that keeps the AKP machine going—why would any business leader continue to curry favor with the AKP if some mayor from another party is in charge? Heightening Erdogan’s anxiety is the recent raft of awful economic news: The economy is in recession, inflation is at 20 percent, unemployment is at 13.5 percent (youth unemployment is 12 points higher), and per capita GDP has fallen. Even so, given Erdogan’s political skills, the AKP’s willingness to rig the outcome, the weakness of the party’s opponents, and the lack of courage among the would-be opposition, the ruling party will likely enjoy another victory.


Things were mostly quiet in Gaza on Tuesday as the truce Egypt brokered between the Israelis and Hamas overnight seemed to be holding, but that all changed later in the day. Rocket fire out of Gaza provoked retaliatory airstrikes from the Israeli military, most of them targeting Hamas facilities. There have been no reports of casualties but expect things to continue through the night, though Egyptian officials plan to resume their mediation efforts.

Donald Trump has finally proven to be a uniter after all–his decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan has bridged the Middle East’s two greatest divides and drawn condemnation from several Arab Gulf states–including rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE–and Iran. I’m sure that’s what he meant to do. The Israeli government, meanwhile, is positively glowing about the move, and it’s even asserting a “self-defense” exception to the international law that rejects territorial conquest. That’s an exception that doesn’t actually exist, and is based on an extremely bespoke recounting of the 1967 Six Day War, but whatever. Go nuts. It’s also already begun suggesting that the same standard would allow it to lawfully annex the West Bank, which was inevitable but I’m a little surprised they’re going there so quickly.

With AIPAC holding its annual conference this week, Al-Monitor’s Bryant Harris says the organization is downplaying its efforts to lobby Congress to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement because of the problems that effort has caused for Democrats:

Instead, AIPAC is directing its activists to ask Congress for a nonbinding resolution condemning the BDS movement. Reps. Bradley Schneider, D-Ill., and Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., introduced the bipartisan resolution in the House alongside Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ben Cardin, D-Md., in the upper chamber.

“Congress and successive administrations have sought to deepen bilateral economic ties and protect Israel against pernicious boycott efforts,” AIPAC’s 2019 lobbying agenda states. “Congress must continue to stand by US allies against discriminatory practices that are contrary to US interests.”

The temporary retreat comes as the new Democratic leadership in the House is still figuring out how far to take the anti-BDS fight amid Republican efforts to paint the party as anti-Israel. While only two House freshmen support BDS, the AIPAC-backed anti-BDS bills have exposed a bruising intraparty debate among Democrats with several lawmakers, including high-profile presidential candidates, coming out against the bills on free speech grounds.


The New Arab is reporting that ISIS militants attacked a worksite in middle Sinai’s Maghara region on Tuesday, killing at least ten people.


The Trump administration imposed additional sanctions on Tuesday against 25 people and entities in Iran, Turkey, and the UAE, all suspected of fundraising for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The main target appears to be Ansar Bank, which the State Department says has raised more than $800 million over the past 18 months, give or take, to fund IRGC operations.

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