Middle East update: January 25 2018


The Turkish government essentially threatened to go to war with the United States on Thursday, warning US forces embedded with the Kurds around Manbij that if they don’t skeddadle they could be in for a very bad time. This is likely bluster–Ankara and Washington don’t get along very well, but Turkey actually attacking American soldiers would be an insane escalation–but it does show just how much the US-Turkey relationship has frayed.

The US may not be Turkey’s biggest concern here. The events of the past several days have clearly shown that the Syrian government’s threats about how it would defend its borders and shoot down Turkish planes in its airspace were all for show. Turkey got Russia’s permission to carry out this invasion and that was that. And anyway why would Damascus want to defend Afrin when the Kurds have made it clear they don’t plan on giving it back? Well, that might be changing. YPG leaders in Afrin on Thursday called on the Syrian government to defend Syrian territory, i.e. Afrin. If this leads to a rapprochement between the YPG and Damascus then the chances of the Syrians, and Russia for that matter, intervening go up considerably. It’s also a pretty big rock to throw into the pond that is the US-YPG relationship.

Elsewhere, Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights both say that those coalition airstrikes that are allegedly killing so many ISIS fighters in the town of Shafah, in Deir Ezzor province, have also been killing civilians–at least 13 of them. And more UN-brokered peace talks got underway on Thursday, this time in Vienna. There’s little reason to expect any major developments, but even a bit of positive momentum would be nice, particularly with Russia’s Sochi congress coming right on the heels of this round of UN talks. It’s still not clear if opposition negotiators are going to attend Sochi, though it now seems clear that the Kurds will not.

Finally, I want to highlight something that Slate’s Josh Keating wrote on Wednesday because, while he’s not the first to say this, it bears repeating at every opportunity. While it is true that ISIS hasn’t disappeared and that it could still resurface as a territorial threat (it hasn’t gone anywhere in terms of being a terrorist threat), you have to take every US pronouncement on ISIS at this point with one or more grains of salt. Why? Because Washington needs to hype the ISIS threat to help justify its decision to leave troops in Syria indefinitely:

The general line that officials and commanders have settled on is that while ISIS has been defeated as a territorial power, U.S. troops need to remain to make sure it doesn’t re-emerge. There’s some logic to this: ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, was similarly thought to be all but defeated a decade ago. And as the suicide bombing that killed dozens of people in Baghdad last week dramatically demonstrated, ISIS can still pose a threat, even without control of territory. But unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. can somewhat plausibly claim to be helping the government maintain stability, in fractured Syria, where the U.S. is not cooperating with the central government, the rationale for keeping 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground is a little murkier.


Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out several goals for America’s continued involvement in Syria, including blunting Iran’s growing influence, supporting the predominantly Kurdish forces that did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS, and pressuring Bashar al-Assad to step down. While it seems increasingly quaint to note it, Congress has not authorized the president to use military force to accomplish any of these goals. The U.S. was already on tenuous legal ground using the 2001 authorization to use military force against al-Qaida to go after ISIS in Syria. Continuing to use it after ISIS is essentially defeated would be ridiculous.

The reason those troops are staying in Syria is almost entirely about Iran, but it’s easier to make the case for their deployment if you throw a little ISIS in there too.


While I am studiously trying to ignore Davos, this particular bit of news does seem important:

Iraq called on Thursday for foreign investors to help it rebuild after defeating Islamic State and making progress in reuniting the country, saying it would need up to $100 billion to fix crumbling infrastructure and war-torn cities.


Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said help was needed with dozens of projects, as Iraq prepares for a major donors conference in Kuwait next month, which will be held together with the World Bank.


“It’s a huge amount of money. We know we cannot provide it through our own budget” Abadi told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.


“We know we cannot provide for it through donations, that’s almost impossible. So that’s why we (have) now resorted to investment and reconstruction through investment. This is a way forward and we can achieve it,” he said.

Frankly $100 billion seems low based on images we’ve seen from Mosul, Fallujah, etc. But Abadi is right–Iraq can’t afford it without international help. Abadi also talked about Iraq’s need for support from countries that don’t get along with one another (Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example) and asked that everybody please keep their grievances with one another out of Iraq’s business.


The Houthis on Thursday released US citizen Danny Lavon Burch, an oil company worker whom they’d arrested in September, and sent him to Oman. Where, by the way, Houthi leaders are also heading for preliminary talks on maybe restarting some kind of Yemeni peace process.


Donald Trump, the president of the United States of America in case that had slipped your mind, is in full “it’s my party” mode when it comes to the Palestinians. And it’s no wonder, since the Palestinians have been very, very unfair to Donald:

  • First they reacted badly to his very smart, very stable move to declare US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even though that declaration totally took Jerusalem off of the table and so the Palestinians should have been really, really happy that they finally knew they weren’t getting any part of the city.
  • Then they started complaining about the very fair Kushner Accords, even though the Kushner Accords are going to be so, so good for the Palestinians. In return for giving Israel big chunks of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem and as well as control over Palestinian borders, airspace, and security, the Kushner Accords would have required Israel to say something really nice about the Palestinians at least once every six months, and how are you going to get a better deal than that?
  • Then they complained about Donald slashing half of America’s promised assistance to the United Nations Relief Works Agency, literally taking food and basic necessities away from the Palestinians. This decision was meant to make the Palestinians feel good about themselves by getting them off the UN dole and into good, productive jobs doing, uh, you know. Stuff.
  • Now they’ve insulted Mike Pence, the American vice president who wanted nothing more than to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land so that he could tell the Palestinians to eat shit and call it ice cream express America’s continued interest in being an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine peace process. But the Palestinians wouldn’t even meet with Pence! Sad!

As a result, Donald says he’s thinking about not being such an honest, even-handed peacemaker anymore:

US President Donald Trump has questioned whether peace talks with Israel will ever resume, blaming the Palestinians.


Mr Trump said Palestinians had “disrespected” the US in the wake of his controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.


“Respect has to be shown to the US or we’re just not going any further,” he told reporters at Davos.

Clearly, of the three parties involved here it’s the US that has been disrespected and not the Palestinians, who currently live in either the Gaza open air prison camp or the parts of the West Bank that Israel doesn’t want. They’ve been treated with the utmost respect throughout this process. Donald followed this up by threatening to cut the rest of US aid to the Palestinians, because what better way to show you love and respect someone than by kicking them in the proverbial nuts a few times?


Iranian state media is pushing a report that Iranian intelligence has seized weapons and ammunition smuggled into Iran by the Saudis. The weapons were allegedly seized in raids against Kurds in western Iran and Baluch separatists in eastern Iran. There’s no particular reason to believe this story but the fact that it’s out there at all is important.

Finally, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen has more on European efforts to placate Trump and preserve the Iran nuclear deal:

While some experts say that the Europeans have nothing to lose by trying to see if there are positions and actions that would keep the United States on board the agreement, others are urging Europe to instead take steps to insulate its companies from the threat of US secondary sanctions. (The next waiver deadline for US nuclear-related Iran sanctions is May 12.) Looming over everything is concern that an erratic and unpredictable Trump may not be satisfied no matter what fixes Congress and the Europeans are able to come up with.


“What the Europeans are indicating to me, is this is part of the tactic to keep the US president on board, [but] we are being very clear this is not a reopening of the negotiations,” Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview from London today regarding the transatlantic consultations.


“My sense on what is happening on the European front right now is to say to the Americans … ‘Look, we will open up talks with the US as part of a transatlantic working group. … We can maybe persuade the US president we are working together on addressing other areas of concern, like ballistic missiles, but in a completely separate track to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action],'” Geranmayeh said, using the acronym for the formal name of the nuclear accord. “So, not reopening or a renegotiation of the agreement, but it is a side agreement, with the potential, the hope, to bring in Iran at some stage.”

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