Middle East update: January 22 2018


Rebel shelling of Damascus’s old city on Monday killed at least nine civilians and wounded over 20 more, according to Syrian state TV. And that pretty much does it for Syria, I guess, so let’s move o-

Oh, right, the other thing. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin continues, with Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army allies reportedly capturing “several” villages in the YPG-held enclave on Monday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Kurds were able to dislodge them from a couple of those villages. There were conflicting reports about whether or not Turkey and the FSA had captured Buseyra mountain, a strategic high point in the area, but it seems as though they did briefly take it but were later driven off by the YPG. Ankara says it wants to create a 30 km deep “safe zone” in Afrin that could be used to move Syrian refugees back across the border at minimal risk, similar to what’s been happening in regions that Turkey and the FSA have captured further east. What it really wants to do, of course, is pound the YPG, which it considers indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been warring with the Turkish government on and off for decades.

The US is stuck watching one ally go to war against another, in this case an ally that’s been of little help but that is of great geopolitical importance (Turkey) going to war against an ally that has very helpful but is geopolitically insignificant (the YPG). It’s an uncomfortable spot in which our very savvy leaders have put themselves, which is why their only response so far has been some mealy-mouthed talk about how concerned they are and about how they recognize Turkey’s security concerns. Apparently the Kurds aren’t allowed to have security concerns, in Syria or in Turkey–well, at least not when the Kurds’ security concerns don’t align with Washington’s interests.

The US is reportedly talking with Ankara about establishing a security zone in Afrin, and I suppose anything that might stop the fighting is OK but, uh, talk about things that could have been locked down months ago. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counts at least 24 civilians and 54 combatants dead so far in this operation, so those are 78 lives that maybe could have been saved if the US had really been concerned about appeasing Turkey and protecting the Kurds–or if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hadn’t locked himself into a policy of bloodlust against the Kurds because it plays well with nationalist voters.

Finally, Paul Pillar picks apart the Trump administration’s justification for leaving American troops in Syria indefinitely:

Behind a façade of continuity, the deployment of U.S. armed forces in Syria for the purposes that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described in a speech this week represents a departure from what such forces were originally sent to Syria to do. The Trump administration is having U.S. troops participate indefinitely in someone else’s civil war, for reasons that are quite different from the original stated objective of helping to quash the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The new reasons do not stand up to scrutiny in terms of defending any threatened U.S. interests. The administration has in effect made a decision to immerse the United States in yet another foreign war.


The Houthis and Saudis traded atrocities on Monday, with the Houthis killing at least 12 people by shelling a military parade in Taiz and the Saudis killing at least nine people in a couple of airstrikes outside of Saada.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN envoy for Yemen, is quitting his gig next month. I can’t imagine why he would be tired of not being able to get anybody involved in this wretched war to take any steps toward ending it.


Mike Pence told Benjamin Netanyahu exactly what he wanted to hear in his speech to the Israeli Knesset on Monday. After an interruption as Arab legislators were thrown out of the chamber for protesting Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, Pence told the chamber that said relocation would be completed next year, well ahead of the schedule Rex Tillerson laid out when he was attempting to band-aid this particular bullet hole. The New York Times says that Pence “scarcely mentioned the Palestinians,” and gosh, it’s almost like this administration gives even less of a shit about them than previous administrations did.

Josh Keating writes that Pence’s Middle East trip has taken on the appearance of “a Farewell Tour to Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” and while I think you can argue that the US and Israel bid adieu to that idea years ago, he’s not wrong about Pence.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Brussels on Monday renewing European Union support for East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine. The Israelis have never had any intention of letting that happen and now, after Trump’s embassy decision, they don’t even have to pretend to be open to the idea. But the EU support does strengthen the Palestinians’ position if and when they reject the Kushner Accords.


The New York Times’ Declan Walsh has a lengthy profile of Qatar and the impact of the Saudi Quartet’s blockade. It’s far too long and broad for an excerpt to do it justice, but I think of particular interest is what Walsh describes as the “personality cult” developing around Sheikh Tamim, Qatar’s emir, as a direct result of the blockade:

And the boycott has backfired in some respects. The trade restrictions have forced Qatar into deeper economic ties with Iran, while Tamim has become the object of a fervent personality cult. The emir’s image adorns billboards draped off skyscrapers, and he is lionized in saccharine songs hailing his steely leadership. “He’s the embodiment of the philosopher king,” said Dana al-Fardan, one such balladeer.

Having actually lived in Qatar, I can attest to the fact that the Thanis have long been popular but you never used to see the emir’s face plastered all over everything or hear songs written in his honor. In an effort to force regime change in Doha, the Saudis have actually made Tamim more popular. That’s what I like to call the “Mohammad bin Salman Effect,” which is sort of a reverse Midas Touch in that everything he undertakes eventually produces the opposite of its intended result.


What you’re seeing here are a couple of maps of the Persian Gulf that the UAE has produced in recent weeks, one of which is on display at the new Louvre branch in Abu Dhabi, and I think we need to have a bit of a talk. UAE, what are you doing baby? Not only do both of these maps put Musandam in the UAE rather than marking it as what it is, an Oman exclave, but, uh, where’s Qatar?

What the actual Persian Gulf looks like, for reference

Are these maps looking ahead to when climate change sinks Qatar into the sea? Because I’m pretty sure Bahrain is going first. Are they from some parallel universe where Musandam doesn’t belong to Oman? Or are you all trying to tell us something? Anyway I’m sure it’s all a simple mistake, but you might want to fix the one in the museum. I don’t think the Louvre is big on actively misinforming people as part of some petty regional pissing match.


James Dorsey writes that Mohammad bin Salman’s declared commitment to “moderate Islam” might apply within Saudi Arabia, but it certainly doesn’t seem to apply to the kingdom’s ongoing overseas proselytization efforts:

The reforms notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia has yet to indicate whether it has reduced its long-standing funding for ultra-conservative educational and cultural facilities even though Saudi financing vehicles like the World Muslim League have re-positioned themselves as promoters of tolerance and humanitarianism. The league operates the Brussels mosque.


The League’s secretary general, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, has in the last year argued that his organization was “a global umbrella for Islamic people that promotes the principles and values of peace, forgiveness, co-existence, and humanitarian cooperation” that organizes inter-faith conferences.


Algerian media reported however that the kingdom’s assertion that it promotes moderate and more tolerant strands of Islam may not be universal. “While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

Saudi support for these overseas Wahhabi projects benefits them in two ways: it buys them credibility with religious types at home and it gives them a vehicle by which to counter Iranian proselytizing. That’s a competition that doesn’t really have any winners.


The European effort to do something, anything to Iran to appease Donald Trump so he’ll leave the nuclear agreement intact is continuing. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, for example, accused Iran of ignoring a UN resolution regarding its missile program on Monday in what is likely a test balloon for new European sanctions against Tehran. Rex Tillerson, who is also invested in making Trump happy to preserve the deal, is visiting Europe this week in part to work up some kind of collective agreement to punish Iran for, well, it doesn’t really matter. The missile program is the easiest target.

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