Middle East update: January 17 2018


Turkey seems to be walking back a bit from its “imminent” attack on the YPG in Afrin and Manbij. On Wednesday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ told reporters that Turkey will take action in northern Syria unless its demands are met, which is a bit less provocative than “the shooting should commence any minute now.” Turkey’s demands are basically that the US stop supporting the YPG and that it drop plans to form and train a new “border security” force in YPG-controlled territory. Just a couple of days ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was calling that planned force a “terror army” and talking about “strangling” it, so again I would suggest that the rhetoric from Ankara has been tempered in the past couple of days.

On the other side of this spat, Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that the US is not considering building a Syria-Turkey border fence, which is a rumor that’s been irritating Ankara in recent weeks.

There will be a new round of United Nations-led Syrian peace talks in Geneva Vienna next week, which will hopefully build on the glorious successes of the last round of talks when they almost got both delegations to stay in one place for the full duration of the event. These UN-led talks are in competition now with the Russian-led Syrian “congress” planned for Sochi that is also supposed to happen later this month (January 29-30). That event is sadly being imperiled a bit by disagreements between Russia and Turkey over the Russian-Syrian offensive in Idlib province and Turkey’s apparent unwillingness to deal with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in its role as Idlib ceasefire guarantor.

The AP looks at the situation in Homs, pre-war Syria’s third largest city and sometimes called the “capital of the revolution.” Homs was taken by Syrian government forces back in 2014 and remains more or less a ghost town today:

Amid an ongoing civil war, no western countries have stepped up to help finance Syria’s reconstruction. The governorate has renovated the old covered marketplace as well as some of the city’s old churches, and the city’s famous Khaled bin al-Waleed mosque is undergoing renovation. But most of the neighborhoods are still sprawling ruins.


The residents who have trickled back are using their own money or U.N. assistance to fix their homes just enough to be livable.


Homs Gov. Talal Barazi told The Associated Press that 21,000 families — or 30 percent of Homs city’s original population of 1.2 million have returned.

On the plus side, all those Syrians who have been hoping that the United States would set up shop in Syria permanently got a little thrill on Wednesday, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a speech to the Hoover Institution in which he talked about an open-ended American commitment there. There is nothing more thrilling than an open-ended American military commitment, am I right? Tillerson seemed to suggest that the US will stay in Syria at least until Bashar al-Assad is no longer running the country, which seems like it could be a while. As he was delivering this speech, by the way, the White House for which he works was refusing to meet with a delegation from the Free Syrian Army looking for more US support.


ISIS has claimed responsibility for Monday’s double-tap suicide bombing in Baghdad. It’s interesting that it took the group two days to claim this attack–sometimes ISIS does take awhile to acknowledge its handiwork, but generally not for relatively low-scale attacks like this and almost never when it comes to attacks in Baghdad.


Yemen as of January 17–green is Houthi territory, red government, white AQAP (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

Since the Yemeni government asked so nicely, Saudi Arabia has agreed to pump a cool $2 billion into the country’s central bank to keep the Yemeni rial from completely tanking. That’s actually double what the Yemenis had requested, and it will help pay public sector salaries and inject a little money into the country’s collapsed economy. Hey, Saudis, way to go. Bomb two orphanages this weekend for your trouble, OK? You guys earned it.


The Trump administration’s decision to halve its support for the UN Relief Works Agency sends a powerful message to Palestinian leaders that the US is prepared to shut down schools and medical clinics for Palestinian refugees if that’s what it takes to make peace. It’s a major sacrifice, but it’s one we’re prepared to force other people to make.

UNRWA has often been a point of controversy among right-wing Israelis and their American compatriots. It exists outside the regular UN refugee office and they argue that it perpetuates the Palestinian refugee issue–this is the “can’t they just get over it already” strain of anti-Palestinian thinking. What really perpetuates the Palestinian refugee issue, of course, is that there continues to be Palestinian refugees. Where most other refugees at least have a hope of repatriation some day–or rather the ability choose between repatriation and assimilation–there’s no place to which the Palestinians can be repatriated.

In Jerusalem news, Benjamin Netanyahu says that his “solid assessment” is that the US will move its embassy to Jerusalem this year. Logistically it probably could do this, no matter how much Rex Tillerson tries to talk up the idea that site selection and construction could take years–the fact is that the US consulate in Jerusalem could serve as an embassy with very little preparation. The Trump administration wants to delay the actual move so it doesn’t create even more regional tension than it already has. And, lo and behold, Donald Trump himself told Reuters later in the day that the embassy move ain’t happening this year, no matter what Bibi says.


Would-be presidential contender and human rights activist Khaled Ali says that the Egyptian government is obstructing his efforts to get enough signatures to get on the March ballot. Egyptian police are allegedly intimidating Ali’s supporters and campaign workers, and furthermore there are apparently campaign billboards for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi already plastered over downtown Cairo, even though campaigning isn’t supposed to start until late February and, uh, Sisi hasn’t even actually said he’s going to run again.


Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani has turned up in Kuwait, where he’s allegedly being hospitalized in order to recover from his alleged detention in the United Arab Emirates.

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