Middle East update: February 1-2 2018


BuzzFeed has a decent roundup of what’s been happening in Afrin. No “news” as such, but if you haven’t been following the story and want to get caught up you could do worse.

The Trump administration says it may Do Something if it continues to receive reports of the Syrian military using chemical weapons. In addition to the big headline-grabbing reports accusing Damascus of using sarin gas, there have been innumerable reports (including several recent ones in Ghouta) of the government employing chlorine gas, which is a chemical weapon but (because chlorine has civilian applications) isn’t controlled in international law the way nerve agents like sarin are.

Elsewhere, on Thursday at least 28 people were reportedly killed in Syrian government airstrikes across Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama provinces. The strikes are part of Damascus’s ongoing push into Idlib. In a bit of a breakthrough, the main rebel negotiating body says that it will participate in a process to rewrite the Syrian constitution that was set in place during the congress in Sochi earlier this week. The High Negotiations Committee didn’t send anybody to Sochi, but says as long as the constitutional process remains under the auspices of the United Nations–as the congress set it up–then they’re cool with it.


Though the open fighting in Aden has subsided, southern separatists still control most of the city and Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr is still besieged inside the city’s presidential compound. The conflict threatens to open up gaps in the hitherto united Saudi-UAE front, since the Saudis have been supporting the Yemeni government while the Emiratis have been backing the separatists. The two regional powers thought that they could each cultivate a faction and thus get everybody pulling in the same anti-Houthi direction, but clearly the south Yemen fault line is too big to suppress.


An explosion in the boiler room of a tax office in Ankara on Thursday was caused by a bomb, according to Turkish authorities, who say they’ve identified and killed the bomber. Another eight people have been arrested in connection with the bombing, which doesn’t seem to have caused any serious casualties. The alleged bomber is believed to have entered Turkey illegally from Syria but beyond that no information has been released as far as I can tell.

Also on Thursday, two Kurdish attacks, one in southeastern Turkey and the other in northern Iraq, killed three Turkish soldiers.

The Turkish government continues to imprison Taner Kılıç, the head of the Turkish branch of Amnesty International. A court ordered Kılıç’s release on Wednesday but a second court overturned that ruling on Thursday. At least Ankara knows who the real bad guys are. Kılıç is accused of membership in a terrorism organization, because all laws in Turkey now basically boil down to “does Recep Tayyip Erdoğan like you?” If the answer is “no,” then chances are somebody will figure out how to put you behind bars.


Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri on Thursday called on his Amal Movement supporters to stop protesting against President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement. Berri and Aoun are longtime frenemies whose relationship took a sharp turn south this week when a recording surfaced of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (Aoun’s son in-law) saying derogatory things about the speaker. The two men spoke by phone on Thursday, and representatives of their parties met on Friday in an effort to calm things down.

In other good news, the Lebanese government says it will not force Syrian refugees to return home to potentially unsafe conditions. It would, understandably, like the international community to do more to help it accommodate those refugees.

On Friday, the US Treasury Department levied sanctions against six people and seven entities suspected of ties with Hezbollah.


The New York Times‘ Declan Walsh says that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s electoral games in Egypt are part of a bigger global trend in favor of autocrats, driven in large part by a greater American willingness to indulge them:

As he cruises toward victory, Mr. Sisi need not worry either about foreign censure: President Trump has hailed the Egyptian leader as a “fantastic guy,” and most other Western leaders have been largely silent.


Across the world, autocratic leaders are engaging in increasingly brazen behavior — rigging votes, muzzling the press and persecuting opponents — as they dispense with even a fig leaf of democratic practice once offered to placate the United States or gain international legitimacy.


The global tide is driven by a bewildering range of factors, including the surge of populism in Europe, waves of migration, and economic inequality. And leaders of countries like Egypt, which had long been sensitive to Washington’s influence, know they run little risk of rebuke from an American president who has largely abandoned the promotion of human rights and democracy in favor of his narrow “America First” agenda.

As much as America’s interest in human rights has only been cosmetic in the past, I think it’s fair to say that Trump is a new low in that he doesn’t even pretend to care about such things. It’s a difference of degrees but it’s not meaningless.


Speaking of the bottoming out of human rights, Emile Nakhleh writes for LobeLog about Bahrain’s very bad year:

This past year in Bahrain, much like those preceding it since the popular uprisings of 2011, was one of unending repression and persecution of human rights activists. Yet, the Trump administration and the British government, arguably two of the most influential actors in Bahrain, have remained silent in the face of al-Khalifa atrocities against human rights activists, especially within the Shia majority.


When it comes to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other serial violators of human rights and basic freedoms, the American and British governments have allowed arms sales and lucrative money deals benefitting them to trump their traditional commitments to the principles of justice, democracy, peaceful dissent, and freedom. They seem to view Bahrain and its autocratic Sunni neighbors as “cash cows” with an unending source of money. Washington and London are constantly pressured by hordes of lobbyists and consultant—retired diplomats, senior military officers, businessmen, think tanks, and some academics—who do business with autocrats and tribal potentates to take a lenient attitude toward these repressive regimes.

Again it’s a different of degree more than a shift in US policy, but these regimes definitely seem to be more at ease brutalizing their people of late.


Giorgio Cafiero writes that the Saudis are investing heavily in Yemen’s easternmost province, Mahra, and that it’s raising eyebrows in neighboring Oman:

The underlying reason may be Saudi Arabia’s aim to militarize their presence in al-Mahra. On Jan. 18, sources claimed that the Saudis deployed reinforcements to Nishtun port, situated within close proximity to the Omani-Yemeni border. Also, Riyadh recently announced its plans to open a Salafist missionary center in al-Mahra. Reportedly, Yemenis and non-Yemenis are buying real estate in al-Mahra at prices far above their value. Some are thought to be militant Sunni fundamentalists who fought in other parts of Yemen.


Oman, which wields significant influence in al-Mahra, negatively views the coalition’s deepening involvement in the Yemeni governorate where Muscat seeks to preserve the sectarian balance and the security landscape’s status quo. There is significant cross-border trade, giving Oman vested economic stakes in al-Mahra remaining peaceful and fortressing the sultanate from violence-plagued territory in Yemen and extremist forces. Undoubtedly, Oman has deep security, economic and cultural interests in keeping al-Mahra safe from Yemen’s conflict.


Mohammad bin Salman is planning to make his first US tour as crown prince in early March. He’ll be trying to drum up business opportunities by visiting the Bay Area, Texas, Boston, and New York, and of course he’ll be checking in with his pal Donald Trump in DC.


The Iranian parliament rejected Hassan Rouhani’s austerity-heavy budget earlier this week, an exceedingly rare show of defiance that likely reflects economic concerns raised by those street protests in late December. Rouhani was looking to drastically scale back cash transfers and fuel subsidies, the effect of which would come down hard on Iranian workers and the lower classes. Parliament should be voting on a revised budget in the next couple of days. It remains to be seen what changes have been made and whether they’ll be enough to win approval.

Iranians are feeling worse than ever about the state of their economy, according to a new IranPoll survey whose findings I wrote up for LobeLog:

When asked about the state of the Iranian economy, 68.9 percent of respondents say it is either somewhat or very bad. This is up from 63.4 percent in June of last year. Moreover, the percentage of respondents who say conditions are very bad has gone up from 33.9 percent last June to 40.7 percent. When asked whether the economy is getting better or worse, 58.4 percent say worse and 31.3 percent say better, compared with 50.2 and 39.1 percent, respectively, in June. Only 17.3 percent say that their own family’s economic situation has improved over the past four years, down from 23 percent in May of last year.

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