Shithole update #1 (Middle East): January 11-12 2018


To the extent that anybody’s eyes are still on Syria, right now they’re on Idlib province, where fighting has escalated to levels perhaps not seen in western Syria since Bashar al-Assad’s forces captured eastern Aleppo back in 2016. More than 100,000 people have already been displaced in this fighting, which kicked up a notch on Thursday when rebels announced that they were launching a counterattack against government forces that had been advancing through southern Idlib for the past several days. Rebel factions have said they’re making gains, but with no air support and no real air defenses it’s hard to see how any gains could possibly be sustainable.

Ankara is warning that the Idlib fighting will create a new “wave” of migrants headed for the Turkish border, something that the Idlib “de-escalation” plan it negotiated with the Iranians and Russians was supposed to prevent. On the other hand, Syrian state media is now openly accusing Turkey of aiding the rebel counterattack, which would definitely be outside Ankara’s purview and a major new development if true.

Tangentially related to the fighting in Idlib is the question of who has been attacking Russian military bases in neighboring Latakia province. The Russian defense ministry said on Friday that its forces had found and eliminated the rebels who shelled its Khmeimim airbase last month, but their announcement doesn’t appear to have specified who the attackers were. War Is Boring’s Paul Iddon examines some of the (frequently bizarre) claims that have been made about these attacks.

Citing Russia’s efforts to take over the Syrian peace process, Paul Pillar criticizes the Trump administration for butchering its Middle East diplomacy:

These developments further move Russia into, and the United States out of, a leading diplomatic role in the Middle East. They come on the heels of the Trump administration, with its announcement regarding Jerusalem and the U.S. embassy to Israel, going beyond any of its predecessors in not even pretending to be an honest broker in another major Middle East conflict, the one between Israel and Palestinians. Stung by its self-induced isolation from that move, the administration has since tried to bludgeon its way back into a diplomatic role on that conflict by threatening the Palestinians with an end to relief for refugees if the Palestinians do not approach peace-making the way the Trump administration wants them to do. This clumsy threat is a tacit admission that the United States under this administration has forfeited the confidence necessary to be a diplomatic leader.

I’m not sure how much room the US had to act as a diplomatic leader to begin with, after Iraq, drones, torture, etc., but Trump has clearly made things worse in that regard.


The Houthis claimed on Thursday to have fired a missile at a Saudi military base in Najran province, but a) they said nothing about whether it hit what they fired it at and b) the Saudis didn’t say anything about shooting a missile down. So I’m not really sure what to believe there. Also on Thursday, and in a bit of a surprise, Tareq Saleh–the nephew and former top bodyguard for the dearly departed Ali Abdullah Saleh–called for the Saudis to work with him to bring Yemen’s civil war to an end, and not really in the “total victory” way I think the Saudis have had in mind. This is a much more tempered position than I’d have expected from Saleh, given his recent experiences with the Houthis.

The United Nations issued a very “pox on both houses” report on Yemen on Thursday that criticized Iran for supplying weapons to the Houthis, a serious violation of the UN’s Yemen arms embargo. But it also leveled strong accusations at both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for, among other things, killing thousands of Yemeni civilians via airstrikes, turning the country into a humanitarian nightmare, and supporting factions (like southern Yemen secessionists) whose ultimate aim is to break Yemen apart.

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Yemen researcher Nadwa al-Dawsari has an interesting look at the on-again, off-again relationship between tribes in central Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

The spread of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen is sometimes mistakenly blamed on tribes. The mainstream narrative claims that the extremist group is embedded in the country’s tribal and social fabric and that tribes offer AQAP safe haven and protection. Since the start of Yemen’s war in September 2014, the relationship between the group and the tribes has been explained in sectarian terms, with AQAP fighting alongside Sunni tribes against the Shia Houthis.


Bayda Governorate is one of the areas where AQAP’s activity in the region has increased since late 2014. The group has been engaged in the conflict against Ansar Allah, a Zaydi-Shia rebel group known more commonly as the Houthis, a development that has reinforced the perception that AQAP has built an alliance with local tribes. In reality, prior to the conflict in Yemen, the tribes had largely obstructed AQAP’s ability to expand and gain influence. It was not the sympathy of local tribes but the offensive in Bayda by the Houthis and forces loyal to the late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh that created chaos, fueled grievances, violated tribal honor, and exacerbated conditions that allowed AQAP to gain strength.


The Turkish and US governments are playing diplomatic tit-for-tat again, issuing dueling travel warnings for their citizens. Both warnings cite the threat of terror attacks and of “arbitrary detention.”

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says Turkey will no longer extradite terror suspects to the United States until the US hands Fethullah Gülen over to Turkey. Now, as I remain convinced that Erdoğan doesn’t actually want to get Gülen back because he’s worried about the kind of beans the cleric might spill, I can only conclude that Turkey’s president doesn’t want to extradite terror suspects to the US anymore for some reason.


The US Department of Justice is going to open an investigation into Hezbollah. Hot damn, it’s about time somebody in Washington started looking into these guys. I’m sure it will be a rigorous investigation, too, not just some excuse for the Trump administration to do even more anti-Iran stuff.


Large-scale clashes took place between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza on Friday. The cause, as you might expect, was Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision, which continues to justifiable rankle the Palestinians. Two Palestinians were killed on Thursday amid similar protests.

In Gaza, Hamas is trying to walk a very fine line between retaining its credibility by opposing Israel and the Jerusalem decision while not fomenting so much unrest that it leads to violence and another full-scale Israeli military incursion. With ISIS just over the border in Sinai taking aim at Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza pushing the envelope with rocket attacks against Israel, Hamas suddenly finds itself in a situation where it’s not the most extreme group in Gaza and that’s new ground for them. The recent near-daily protests that Hamas has been organizing are a way to try to split the difference. Israel, for its part, is more focused on Hezbollah right now and so it may be less likely to escalate things in Gaza than it usually is.


Cairo is set to impose curfews over parts of northern Sinai in response to ISIS activity there.

Meanwhile, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi might actually have a living, breathing opponent in March’s presidential election:

“The party leaders took a decision for General Sami Anan’s candidacy and informed him of the decision and there was no problem at all and no objection,” from him, said Sami Balah, the secretary general of the Arabism Egypt Party.

Anan is the former chief of staff of the Egyptian military. Assuming he actually manages to get on the ballot, he’s going to get creamed.

Disrupted relations between Egypt and Sudan over border disagreements and Turkish designs on the Red Sea are causing problems for the region’s biggest potential flashpoint: Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam. Sudan supports the dam’s construction but Cairo is afraid that it could choke off Egypt’s share of Nile waters, which would be a genuine catastrophe for the Egyptians. Three party talks over the dam involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia were already difficult enough without these new tensions. The Egyptian government has reportedly proposed that the World Bank mediate negotiations over the dam, but the other two countries have yet to respond to that suggestion.


When Vice President Mike Pence makes his long-delayed Middle East trip later this month, one of his jobs will be to attempt to patch things up between Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The two countries have taken similar public positions on the Jerusalem move and the Trump administration’s approach to Israel-Palestine more generally, but behind the scenes they’re clearly not on the same page. And then there’s the thing where the Saudis maybe possibly might have tried to organize a coup against Jordan’s King Abdullah recently.


Donald Trump announced on Friday that he will renew waivers for nuclear-related sanctions against Iran for another 120 days, but there were a few catches. Rather than write about this, I’m going to direct you to this piece by LobeLog’s Derek Davison, who in my opinion is a really nice person and you should check out his work sometime:

The White House announced on Friday afternoon that Donald Trump will extend waivers on sanctions against Iran for another 120 days, under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). However, in its announcement the administration made it clear that this is the “last time” Trump will issue these waivers unless the deal is substantially renegotiated, something that neither Iran nor the other parties to the deal (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) have shown any inclination of doing.

Trump’s “this is your last chance” statement about the nuclear deal masks what I think is a more subtle and dishonest approach to killing the deal than just outright killing it. By continuing to inject this “will he/won’t he” uncertainty into anything having to do with the JCPOA, Trump succeeds in keeping foreign companies out of Iran for fear of running afoul of future US sanctions, and thereby leaves the deal in place while denying Iran the benefits. The hope is that Iran will eventually become so fed up that it walks away from the deal itself, thereby taking the blame for the deal’s failure. Reza Marashi explains:

Trump’s team is not fooling anyone: They are trying to kill the nuclear deal, but in a way that will allow them to evade blame. With most attention currently focused on protests inside Iran, the White House will likely continue working overtime to deter foreign investment by creating perpetual uncertainty around the deal while simultaneously reissuing core sanctions waivers. Their goal is as simple as it is nefarious: Make the deal so unattractive to the Iranian government that it chooses to walk away from it, which would allow Washington to blame Tehran, even though it’s Washington that is actively collapsing the agreement.

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