Middle East update: January 15 2018


At least 38 people were reportedly killed on Monday in a double suicide bombing in Baghdad’s Tayaran Square area. Casualty reports are contradictory, as they often are in these situations, but the highest count I’ve seen says that over 100 other people were injured in the attack. This is the second terrorist attack in Baghdad in the past three days and interrupts a period where the city has been relatively at peace. Whether it portends a new extended period of violence or not obviously remains to be seen.

Haider al-Abadi’s election deal with the Popular Mobilization Units’ political alliance (the Fatah list) didn’t even last until the proverbial ink was dry on the proverbial paper. Abadi appears to have been stung by the criticism he received for aligning with the PMU parties from, for example, Muqtada al-Sadr, and so he tried to renegotiate the terms of this ad hoc alliance and Fatah leaders told him to get bent.

Talks between representatives of Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil on Monday seem to have gone pretty well, with the Iraqi government describing “an atmosphere of trust” surrounding the session. The two sides have a long way to go to hash out all their differences though.

A number of intelligence agencies now believe that erstwhile caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive somewhere in a rough triangle inside Iraq, with its points at the Iraqi town of Baaj, the Syrian border town of al-Bukamal, and the town of Shirkat south of Mosul. He’s been seen in and around all three of those places over a period of time going back to 2015. If they have this right then the Iraqis could slowly tighten the area in which Baghdadi is still able to move freely until they leave him with nowhere to go. Baghdadi’s survival means little to ISIS operationally but his capture (and maybe his death though that could go either way) could be a major blow to the group’s propaganda.


Officials with the Free Syrian Army are lobbying the Trump administration for a revival of the CIA’s Syrian rebel assistance program, and they know exactly which button to push:

“We endorse President Trump’s statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action. Until now on the ground it’s the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance,” [senior FSA official Mustafa] Sejari told Reuters by telephone from Washington.


“With every U.S. statement about the need to confront Iran’s influence, Iran has been expanding in Syria while moderate forces that are backed by Washington see aid being dried up and are weakened,” Sejari said.


“We asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support.”

To be clear, the FSA encompasses groups that run the gamut from political opponents of Bashar al-Assad to groups whose extremism is practically indistinguishable from, and who often fight alongside, al-Qaeda. If the Trump administration reopens this program it will say a great deal about its priorities in the Middle East.


The United Nations says that four new USAID-funded cranes have arrived in Hudaydah to help replace cranes damaged by the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on the port city. The cranes should help port workers turn ships around more quickly and get aid to the Yemeni people faster. They’re not enough, but “enough” is a ridiculous concept here since the only thing that would really help the Yemeni people would be for the Saudis and the United States to stop trying to kill them all, and it doesn’t really seem like that’s in the cards just now.


The Turkish government is working on a plan to build a new canal that would connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara around the western edge of Istanbul. The effect would be to reduce shipping traffic through the already overtaxed Bosphorus and to turn the European half of Istanbul into a geographical island. It would also be a money maker, since Ankara can charge ships for using it, which it can’t do with the Bosphorus owing to international agreements on the use of straits. It’ll have to be a money maker, because the initial infrastructure costs of a project like this promise to be massive. There are also serious environmental concerns regarding both the seas involved as well as the region through which the canal would run.


A Palestinian protester was shot and killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Jayous on Friday. He’s the fourth Palestinian known to have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year.

Meanwhile, Israeli cabinet members Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, who are more responsible than anyone short of Benjamin Netanyahu for gutting the Oslo peace process, are criticizing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for gutting the Oslo peace process. You really can’t make this kind of thing up.

Abbas delivered a speech on Sunday in which he made the mistake of even bringing up the Jewish settlement of Mandatory Palestine–and that is a mistake because it wins Abbas no points internationally and because it’s irrelevant to the current status of the Palestinians (Israel, whatever you may think of its foundation, isn’t going away). Bennett and Lieberman criticized him for rejecting Israel’s right to exist. But this is an 82 year old man who was really never up to the task of leading the Palestinians but was thrust into the role anyway, and who has spent most of his past couple of decades repeatedly getting shivved by the United States and pissed on by Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli right. He’s just watched an American president hand all (let’s be honest) of Jerusalem to Israel for nothing, proving conclusively that Abbas’s entire career as a Palestinian leader trying to reach an accord with Israel via American mediation has been a 50+ year-long joke. So I think we might be able to forgive him for being a little intemperate. For the fringe duo of Lieberman and Bennett to blame Abbas’s January 14, 2018, speech for killing the peace process, after everything those two have personally done to kill it over the past decade give or take, takes nothing short of an astonishing amount of balls.

On Monday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s central council took a step that I’m sure will have Bennett and Lieberman beside themselves: it voted to rescind the PLO’s recognition of Israel until the Israelis recognize a Palestinian state. The measure they approved also recommended that the Palestinian Authority suspend security cooperation with Israel. Oh those intemperate Palestinians, taking from Israel the same thing Israel has flatly refused to give them. In India on a state visit, Netanyahu said “the root of the conflict is the basic refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any borders,” an argument that might carry weight if any Israeli government since Rabin had shown even the slightest interest in ever recognizing a Palestinian state in any borders.


On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi delivered a televised address in which he tried to assure the leaders of Sudan and Ethiopia that Egypt wants peace and good relations with both countries, an effort to ratchet down recent tensions in the region. Someone inside the Sudanese government told media that the country’s recent decision to close its border with Eritrea and deploy troops to that part of the country was due to a joint Egyptian-Eritrean buildup on Eritrea’s side of the border, but so far there’s been no evidence of that and the Sudanese line now is that it was done in response to an unspecified “threat.”

Meanwhile, Mohamed Sadat’s presidential ambitions appear to be kaput. The nephew of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced Monday that he will not stand in Egypt’s election in March. He cited Egypt’s authoritarian political climate (hey, he’s not wrong), and said he “feared for the safety of his supporters” if he ran–which, to be fair, all four of those guys seem really nice. HA HA RACK EM! Anyway what this likely means is that Sadat wasn’t going to be able to get enough signatures to get on the ballot, either because he just couldn’t find enough people willing to sign or because Sisi was screwing around with him.


UAE officials say Qatari fighter jets intercepted two UAE commercial airliners en route to Bahrain on Monday. The Qataris denied this claim, which comes on the heels of Qatari accusations that an Emirati military plane entered Qatari airspace earlier this month, also en route to Bahrain. The Qatari government filed a formal complaint with the UN over what it says is the second such incident since mid-December.


If you’ve been bemoaning the fact that you couldn’t book a room at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton recently, weep no more: the hotel is ending its service as the Saudis’ ad hoc prison for the absurdly wealthy and is going back to just being a hotel. For the absurdly wealthy. It’s taking bookings starting February 14 for the low, low price of about $650 per night, if you’re a real cheapskate who can only afford a bottom of the barrel room.


Donald Trump’s plans to arbitrarily renegotiate the terms of the Iran nuclear deal aren’t going to get any support from Moscow, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov:

“We will not support what the United States is trying to do, changing the wording of the agreement, incorporating things that will be absolutely unacceptable for Iran,” Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.

Of course, the Trump administration presumably saw this coming, which is why it deliberately omitted Russia, and China, and Iran itself, from its plan to redo the agreement.

Finally, Paul Pillar argues that Trump doesn’t have to change the deal, or to pull the US out of it, to kill it. In fact, he’s already killing it:

Nobody knows if Trump will carry out his threat to stop waiving nuclear sanctions and to withdraw from the JCPOA if his demands are not met. He may be lying about this just as he lies about so many other things. But he does not have to execute the threat to continue on his course of piecemeal destruction of the JCPOA. Each step in that process makes the agreement less attractive to Iran and increases the chance that the Iranians will throw up their arms in dismay and disgust over U.S. noncompliance and declare the agreement null and void.


The Trump administration already has violated not only the spirit but also the letter of the JCPOA by, for example, urging other member states of the G-20 to end commercial ties with Iran. This violates the commitment in paragraph 29 of the JCPOA for the parties to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.” The more that the United States piles additional sanctions on Iran, ostensibly for non-nuclear reasons, the more this negates the effects of relief from the nuclear sanctions.


Even just the sowing of doubt about the future of the agreement has economic effects—by encouraging wariness in the private sector about doing any new business with Iran—that make the JCPOA less attractive to Tehran. This week’s White House statement, bristling with threats to pull out of the agreement, serves that purpose for Trump.

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