Middle East update: January 6-7 2018


The fighting in Idlib province continues to intensify, and at this point I think we can officially scrap any notion of “deescalation.” For now the Syrian army’s goal remains the Abu al-Duhur airbase (they’re nearly there after capturing the village of Sinjar over the weekend), though they also want to take the eastern part of the province to secure the main highway between Aleppo and Damascus. Whether they’ll stop there or continue in an effort to take the entire province is unclear and will determine just how big a humanitarian disaster this situation turns out to be. Potentially it could be a massive one–it’s believed that there are currently over 2.5 million people in Idlib, the province’s population having swelled with refugees from other parts of Syria. Whatever your feelings on the jihadis who currently control most of Idlib, those people don’t deserve being displaced–again–in the dead of winter.

An explosion in Idlib city on Sunday killed at least 23 people. It’s not clear who was responsible, but there appears to be no sign that it was an airstrike so it was likely a car bomb. There are pockets of ISIS fighters still hanging around Idlib and of course there’s been a constant low-level conflict between rebel groups in the province for months now. The target may have been an office belonging to a group called Ajnad al-Kawkaz, a foreign fighter unit (from the Caucasus, as the name suggests) that is affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

In Ghouta, meanwhile, the Syrian military said on Sunday that it had broken the rebel siege of a base in the town of Harasta, where some 200 soldiers had been trapped. It’s unclear if this will lessen the ongoing Syrian/Russian air campaign in the Damascus suburb, which killed at least 17 civilians over the weekend.

Elsewhere, Russian forces reportedly shot down a crude drone before it could drop its payload on the Hmeimim airbase south of Latakia on Saturday. And the Jordanian government says that it will use a crane to drop humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered Rukban displaced persons camp on the Syrian side of the border. Amman has been resisting calls to open its border to allow aid into Rukban due to suspicions that there are ISIS sleepers in the camp who would attempt to enter Jordan.


Based in interviews with aid workers and displaced persons themselves, Reuters is reporting that Iraqi authorities are forcing people to leave displacement camps and return home under conditions that are potentially life-threatening, to places that haven’t been cleared of ISIS booby traps and where basic services have yet to be restored. Why? For political reasons, naturally:

Managing more than two million Iraqis displaced by the war against Islamic State is one of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s most daunting tasks. But critics say he is more interested in winning elections in May than alleviating the suffering of displaced Iraqis and returning them safely home.


Authorities are sending back people against their will, refugees and aid workers say, to ensure that the election takes place on time. People must be in their area of origin to vote and if they do not get home, this could delay the election.


Abadi is riding a wave of popularity after defeating Islamic State in Iraq and is anxious the election should not be held up.

Abadi’s wave of popularity isn’t going to last, at least among Sunnis, if these policies keep up. But beyond that, if it’s a crime to force refugees to return to war zones, and it is, then it’s for damn sure a crime to force internally displaced persons to return to places that are functionally equivalent to war zones in several crucial ways.


The Saudi-led coalition lost one of its aircraft in northern Yemen on Sunday, but while the Houthis claim they shot it down the coalition says it crashed due to technical problems. Both pilots survived and were reportedly recovered by the coalition.

Meanwhile, the departed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress party chose a new leader on Sunday: former agriculture minister Sadeq Amin Abou Rass. Notably, the party’s statement announcing the appointment mentioned neither any other members of the Saleh family (Ahmed Saleh has been viewed as his father’s natural heir but his cousin, Tariq Saleh, is also apparently still kicking) nor the Houthis (which raises some questions about where the GPC now stands amid the civil war).


A committee of Arab League foreign ministers has announced plans to seek international recognition of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, which I’m sure is going to be very well received in Washington and Tel Aviv:

The committee – created at an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on December 9, just days after Trump’s declaration – is hoping to reverse the decision and “to assert that it has no legal effect”, Safadi told reporters at the summit.


“We [the Arab League] will confront the decision by seeking a [UN] resolution, an international one, to recognise a Palestinian state on 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital,” he said.


“We have specific requests, the most important of which is the recognition of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital according to the June 4, 1967, borders.”

Yep, Donald Trump will love that. Interestingly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are participating in this effort even though both governments have allegedly been lobbying other Arab states to support the Kushner Accord, which hasn’t yet taken its final form but will undoubtedly look to fuck the Palestinians over massively.

While this is going on, the Israeli government is actually trying to slow down the Trump administration’s move to scrap funding for Palestinian refugees all in one fell swoop. Benjamin Netanyahu would dearly love to mothball the United Nations Relief Works Agency, which deals with Palestinian issues, and transition its work to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which deals with refugee issues more generally. This is because the UNRWA stands as a constant reminder that Israel was founded on the back of a massive human displacement that has never been and probably never will be rectified. It’s embarrassing, you know? But Netanyahu also doesn’t want a sudden, gigantic Palestinian refugee crisis that would risk turning world opinion against him, so he’d like the Trump administration to slowly reallocate its UNRWA contributions to the UNHCR, thereby forcing the UN to slowly transition its Palestinian mission over to the UNHCR.

The Israeli right doesn’t really even recognize a Palestinian refugee issue anymore, because today’s Palestinian refugees are mostly the descendants of people who were displaced in 1948 and/or 1967 and I guess refugee status isn’t transferable generationally or something. They think, wrongly, that shuttering the UNRWA would put an end to Palestinian identity and force people living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to renounce their national identity and assimilate into the countries in which they now live. Aside from the difficulty that poses–and we can certainly criticize the governments of those states for mistreating their Palestinian refugees–legitimizing that mass displacement without so much as a discussion on compensation is profoundly immoral.


Former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq says he will not challenge Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in this year’s presidential election, despite having previously expressed interest in running. Say, I wonder what could have happened to change his mind?


A group of Kuwaiti activists imprisoned for participating in anti-corruption protests back in 2011 are on a hunger strike. There are 14 prisoners now on strike–one began his last week and the others over the weekend–over the hypocrisy of official Kuwaiti statements expressing support for the recent protests in Iran.


Late last week, Saudi authorities arrested 11 princes for staging what some outlets are calling an “anti-austerity protest” at a palace in Riyadh. As much as I’d like to draw some sweeping conclusions here about Saudi Arabia’s economic struggles and the consolidation of power behind Mohammad bin Salman and to say something about Saudi repression, I can’t do that because these 11 sacks of crap were protesting a decision by King Salman to stop paying their electricity and water bills. Which would be rough if these people were, say, teachers in the Saudi public school system, or construction workers, or something. But these are 11 shithead princes who surely make more than enough money just for hitting the ancestry lottery to pay their bills themselves. That said, this royal belt-tightening isn’t going to go over real well while MBS is busy dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on paintings and fancy houses and the like.

Human Rights Watch is criticizing Riyadh over the September arrest of religious scholar Salman al-Awda. He was allegedly detained for refusing to tweet a specific message of support for the Saudi boycott of Qatar and instead tweeting his own call for reconciliation, which, yeah, that’s bullshit. This is not Awda’s first run-in with the Saudi government, but he’s been a reliable regime supporter since 1999, when he was, ah, released after a five year stint in prison for mouthing off about the Saudi-US relationship. I mention this story because it relates to this piece from Russian Middle East analyst Yury Barmin wherein he argues that MBS is taking steps to diminish the power of the Wahhabi family and the conservative Saudi clerical establishment:

In the past few years, the Saudi authorities have been gradually and cautiously limiting the extent of the Sheikh family’s power. In August 2010, for example, the late King Abdullah issued a decree that only state-vetted scholars were allowed to issue fatwas.


Under King Salman, and his son – MBS, more drastic measures have been taken. In April 2016, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was stripped of arresting powers which curbed its policing functions. In December 2016, the king appointed more moderate clerics to the Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious body in the country. And in 2017, music concerts were allowed, mixed public events for both genders were held, and cinemas were scheduled to reopen after 35 years.

As Barmin notes, this doesn’t mean a Saudi-Wahhabi divorce is in the works. That would require an end to the arbitrary Saudi justice system, which is based on the interpretation of Islamic law by religious jurists rather than a written legal code enforced by a state judiciary. There’s no sign MBS is planning to take that step, at least not anytime soon.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is claiming victory over recent unrest (here’s another summary of what we think the protests were about), which it claims was “caused” by Iran’s foreign enemies. And it’s true, the protests that started on December 28, which don’t seem to have been all that large to begin with, are petering out–though they haven’t entirely faded away. But more than 1000 people have been arrested for participating in the protests, and that kind of crackdown isn’t going to engender any love for the Iranian government (especially not among young Iranians–the average age of those arrested is said to be under 25). Some of those arrests have been characterized as “preventative” by Iranian officials, which is interesting because I didn’t think pre-crime was a thing yet.

Iranian investigators hard at work

There’s a risk for the government now of new protests breaking out over these arrests, perhaps among the crowds of family members who have taken to gathering outside of Evin Prison in Tehran to demand their loved ones’ releases.

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