Middle East update: February 6 2018


The United Nations is calling for a general monthlong ceasefire in Syria, and given how quickly the violence there has escalated in recent weeks it’s not hard to see why. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 47 people were killed in government bombardments of Ghouta on Tuesday, after 30 were killed the day before. Rebel shelling on Damascus killed at least three people. At least another six people were killed in airstrikes on Idlib province, and one Turkish soldier was killed late Monday while working to set up a military outpost south of Aleppo. That area is a bit out of the way for the YPG, so the soldier may have been killed by somebody else–there are rebel and regime-allied forces that are opposed to Turkey’s deepening incursion into northern Syria. Also, it looks like the Turks are gearing up for some good old fashioned urban warfare in Afrin city, which should cause lots of casualties. A ceasefire sounds like a good idea at the moment, but consequently it’s also probably not going to happen.


Aside from the fact that they don’t have much to do in Iraq at this point, Al-Monitor says that the drawdown in American forces there is being timed to help boost Haider al-Abadi’s political fortunes. Abadi is popular now due to the Iraqi victory over ISIS, but if he’s also able to position himself as the guy who told the Americans that it was time to start shoving off he can score even more points with most Iraqi voters. There is no chance, however, that this drawdown is going to become a complete withdrawal. America doesn’t really do that kind of thing anymore, if it ever did.

After a falling out over the Kurdistan independence referendum last year, the Kurdistan Regional Government is trying to repair its relationship with Iran by pledging to prevent cross-border attacks by Iranian Kurdish groups based in northern Iraq. The KRG needs Iran to mediate with Baghdad on its behalf, and it is also trying to broaden its regional network after its two strongest foreign backers–Turkey and the United States–also abandoned it over the referendum.

A new Pentagon audit finds that at least nine M1 Abrams tanks have managed to work their way from the Iraqi military into the hands of Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization militias. This is just another example of the Pentagon’s keen ability to keep track of all the hardware $700+ billion per year buys.


Yemen government-aligned forces have reportedly captured the town of Hays, in Hudaydah province, after 48 hours of fighting that saw at least 85 fighters killed on both sides. Hays lies at an important crossroads, so there is some logistical value to its capture.


Rex Tillerson is reportedly going to visit Turkey in the near future, where the Turkish government will tell him that they want to “mend our trust.” Of course, by “mend our trust” what Ankara means is “let us keep killing Kurds,” so just bear that in mind.


Lebanon’s oft-squabbling political leaders–President/Maronite Michel Aoun, Prime Minister/Sunni Saad al-Hariri, and Parliament Speaker/Shiʿa Nabih Berri–pledged on Tuesday to work together to counter what they categorized as “threats” from Israel. Those threats are two-fold: Israeli plans to build a border wall that the Lebanese government says cuts across its territory, and recent Israeli suggestions that Lebanon is encroaching on its offshore gas rights. So congrats to Tel Aviv I guess for unifying Lebanese politics.

Analyst Joe Macaron sees a potential realignment in Lebanese politics happening around the upcoming parliamentary election. Syria is beginning to lose its place as the overarching political issue in Lebanon, and so the anti-Syria March 14 Alliance and pro-Syria March 8 Alliance are both losing a lot of the glue that’s been holding them together. Meanwhile, Hariri and Aoun have been working together since the 2016 deal that saw them both established in their current offices, and Berri seems increasingly uneasy with this Maronite-Sunni rapprochement. Hariri is trying to peel Aoun away from Hezbollah at the behest of his bosses back in Riyadh, and there are signs he might be succeeding. If things deteriorate into a “Shiʿa vs. everybody else” scenario, instability is likely to follow.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed one Palestinian man in Nablus on Tuesday and another near Jenin, and left six other Palestinians in critical condition. The army entered Nablus to track down a suspect in the murder of an Israeli settler earlier this week, and the man who was killed in Jenin was a suspect in a similar stabbing murder in January.


The Egyptian government is going to start investigating anyone who calls for a boycott of the country’s upcoming sham presidential election in March. Sounds like a healthy political environment.


In a news conference on Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stressed that the government must respect the public’s grievances, and then tried to steer the discussion away from the economy and on to political and social liberalization (where he’s on much stronger ground):

“People have criticism and objections on the economic issue and they have a right. But the objections aren’t only economic. They also have something to say about political and social issues and foreign relations,” Rouhani said at a televised news conference.


“Our ears must be completely open to listen and know what the people want. The government is trying to solve the problems with all its power.”

Slate’s Joshua Keating wonders if the Iran nuclear deal might not have been a mistake due to the compromises the Obama administration made around it:

At the time, turning a blind eye to what Saudi Arabia and its allies were up to in Yemen might have seemed like a reasonable compromise in order to win Salman’s grudging acquiescence. A regrettable but necessary sacrifice, given what was at stake—keeping a weapon of mass destruction out of Iran’s hands. Looking today at the emaciated bodies of children lying in the 45 percent of Yemeni hospitals still operating—the others having been closed due to lack of funds or deliberately targeted airstrikes—it seems less clear that the trade-off was worth it.


And it’s not just Yemen. Since 2015, the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts have only become deeper, more violent, and more intractable. From the half-million people killed in Syria to the rise of ISIS to the massive refugee crisis that has strained the world’s humanitarian capacity to its breaking point and contributed to the rise of right-wing populists in the West, it’s much harder now to say that Obama made the right decision in prioritizing the Iran deal above all else. The concessions the U.S. had to make in order to get the agreement were judged at the time as necessary to prevent the worst-case scenario—an Iranian nuclear weapon. But what if what’s happened since is the worst-case scenario?

I think Keating is generally a decent analyst but this is a bad take. The Iran deal is doing what it was meant to do, which is to reduce the right-wing justification for a war with Iran by demonstrating that Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon. That the Obama administration felt it needed to help the Saudis destroy Yemen as repayment for their acquiescence to the accord is a product of the decades-long toxic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and Washington’s unwillingness to define which of those two nations is the senior partner in that relationship, not of the accord itself. If you want to blame Obama for something then blame him for feeding into that dysfunction rather than trying to break it.

That the United States is now more deeply enthralled to Riyadh than ever is a function of Donald Trump’s election, period.

The rest of the piece is magic Do Something handwaving about Syria. The Obama administration didn’t Do Something to end the Syrian civil war because it didn’t want to disrupt the nuclear talks. But if it had blown off the nuclear talks, then it could have followed the traditionally foolproof three-step plan to US American success in foreign intervention:

  1. Do Something
  2. ????
  3. Success!

It’s noteworthy that Keating doesn’t even attempt to guess what that “something” might have been. He also doesn’t have very much to say about the possibility–the likelihood, even–that in the absence of the deal the drum beating for war with Iran would probably be reaching a fever pitch right now. I wonder why.

Finally, Adnan Tabatabai tries to puncture the myth that Iran is spreading its nefarious tentacles across the Middle East by noting that its regional interventions have consistently been reactive and have not given Tehran greater influence:

Tehran realizes that all its regional victories come with a downside. After all, Iran’s formidable situation on the ground is the result not so much of its own strategic planning but the failure of others (namely the U.S. and Saudi Arabia). Saudi policies and interventions in Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen have played into Iran’s hands the same way the U.S. invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan did.


With its essentially defensive security doctrine, Iran focuses on reacting and adjusting, not creating and shaping. As a result, its military gains have not translated into political capital. In neither of the above-mentioned contexts has Iran’s hard power been turned into soft power.

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