Middle East update: March 30-31 2019


The Kurdish YPG militia attacked a Turkish military position in Afrin with mortars on Sunday, killing at least one Turkish soldier. The Turks returned fire but there’s no word on any YPG casualties.

Arab leaders turned up in Tunis on Sunday for the 30th Arab League summit, and unsurprisingly the Golan was one of the main items on the agenda. The leaders agreed to pursue a resolution at the United Nations Security Council rejecting the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, though obviously that’s a doomed effort given that the United States will veto it. The summit also ended with a call for improving relations with Iran “based on good neighborliness, non-interference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or threats, and refraining from practices and actions that would undermine confidence and stability in the region,” though it’s unlikely that signals any new intention to improve, say, Saudi-Iran relations.


Turkey held multiple local elections on Sunday and while the results are unofficial it would appear that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party took a bit of a drubbing in the country’s largest cities. Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavaş won the Ankara mayoralty, which has belonged to AKP since the party was formed in the early 2000s and the incumbent mayor, Melih Gökçek, joined it. The CHP also held on to the mayoralty of Izmir, which is not surprising. In Istanbul, whose mayoralty AKP has controlled since 2004, things are a bit more interesting. Former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s lead was a scant 0.2 percent at last check, with 98 percent of the vote counted. CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu is saying it’s “very clear” he won, and even Erdoğan is suggesting AKP may have lost. Both parties are now apparently declaring victory. There have been no updates from Turkish media on the Istanbul race in some time as far as I can tell, which given that most Turkish media is effectively state-run raises its own set of questions.

Even a narrow victory in Istanbul combined with the loss in Ankara would be an embarrassment for AKP. Al-Monitor calls it a “rebuke” for Erdoğan, and that’s not inaccurate (losing Istanbul, where he used to be mayor, would definitely be a slap in Erdoğan’s face) but I think it might be overblown. AKP has been losing ground in major urban areas–where voters are less religiously conservative, less nationalist, and more skeptical of Erdoğan’s efforts to increase his own power at the expense of democratic checks and balances–for a while now. Turkish electoral maps increasingly resemble US electoral maps, with liberal voters concentrated in small urban spaces and huge areas of less populated rural spaces whose voters skew very conservative. These results are a continuation of that trend, perhaps sped up by Erdoğan’s mismanagement of the Turkish economy.

It appears some AKP voters may have stayed home as compared with last year’s general election, but I’m not sure you can attribute that to anger with Erdoğan or to the simple fact that local elections usually see lower turnout than national elections. And AKP seems to have done pretty well for itself outside of the big cities. Losing the Ankara mayoralty would be a blow to the party, and losing the Istanbul mayoralty would be a bigger one, but probably not a particularly serious one, and at any rate Erdoğan has stacked the political deck so far in his favor that no mayoral election can really threaten him. Where this election might generate some real change is in terms of Erdoğan’s governing style. If, and it’s a huge if, he concludes that his constant demonization of the political opposition is beginning to fall on deaf ears, there’s a chance Erdoğan might try softening his rhetoric for a while. But he always comes back to the same narrative (that the rest of the world is conspiring against him because everybody wants to destroy Turkey), and even if he does try another tack for a while it’s likely he’ll get back there again.


An estimated 40,000 people protested at the Gaza fence on Saturday to commemorate Land Day and the one year anniversary of the start of the Great March of Return, the weekly Gaza protests in which upwards of 200 people have been killed by Israeli soldiers. Those Israeli soldiers killed at least four more people on Saturday and wounded more than 300, amid claims that protesters were throwing rocks, explosives, and burning tires over the fence. All of this was…actually smaller and less violent than what Israeli authorities expected, and so on Sunday they went ahead with plans to reopen Israel’s main crossings into Gaza at Erez (for commerce) and Kerem Shalom (for people). The Israelis closed both on Monday due to last weekend’s clashes in Gaza.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited Israel over the weekend as part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fascist outreach program. Amid speculation that he would announce the move of Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem, Bolsonaro instead announced that he would open a new Brazilian trade mission in Jerusalem. This is obviously short of an embassy, and it reflects Bolsonaro’s unwillingness to risk Brazil’s commerce with Islamic countries, who might have cut ties with Brazil in response. Netanyahu categorized the mission as a first step toward an embassy move.


Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani abruptly left Sunday’s Arab League meeting in Tunis after its opening session. He didn’t offer a reason, and the rest of the Qatari delegation stayed, but absent any other justification it seems likely it has something to do with the ongoing Saudi-led blockade of Qatar.


Lots of extremely cool Saudi news this weekend. For one thing, an internal review of the treatment of Saudi prisoners has apparently found about what you’d have expected it to find:

Political prisoners in Saudi Arabia are said to be suffering from malnutrition, cuts, bruises and burns, according to leaked medical reports that are understood to have been prepared for the country’s ruler, King Salman.

The reports seem to provide the first documented evidence from within the heart of the royal court that political prisoners are facing severe physical abuse, despite the government’s denials that men and women in custody are being tortured.

The Guardian has been told the medical reports will be given to King Salman along with recommendations that are said to include a potential pardon for all the prisoners, or at least early release for those with serious health problems.

It also turns out that the zesty text messages from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to his mistress that leaked a couple of months ago were probably pilfered by the Saudis. Presumably they were angry that Bezos’s Washington Post was so critical of their decision to murder one of its columnists last year. So that’s nice.

Lastly, perhaps you recall that back in November 2017 a minor Saudi prince who was almost certainly acting on behalf of Mohammad bin Salman procured Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Salvator Mundi painting ostensibly to have it displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Well, now it’s missing. Its scheduled September unveiling was canceled with no explanation, and nobody at the museum, nor at the actual Louvre (the Abu Dhabi museum has licensed the name but they’re otherwise unaffiliated), appears to have any idea where it might be. The Louvre in Paris was hoping to borrow the painting for a new exhibition this fall to mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, but that would appear to be unlikely at this point. It’s possible MBS has decided to keep the painting for himself, or that lingering questions about whether or not it’s actually da Vinci’s work have embarrassed the crown prince. Or that he’s worried about displaying such an ostentatious purchase at a time when he’s been ostensibly targeting elite Saudi corruption and instituting some austerity-like economic reforms.

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