Middle East update: February 10-11 2018


Olympics or not, it was quite a weekend in Syria. To cut to the chase: an Israeli F-16 was shot down by Syrian air defenses on Saturday morning. This was after an Israeli helicopter shot down what the Israelis say was an Iranian drone that had crossed into Israeli airspace. The Israeli military later released video of, uh, something:

Congratulations, you definitely shot some flying thing down somewhere.

The Israelis then sent planes into Syria to strike what they said was the Iranian base whence the drone was launched, which they claim to have done successfully. Both pilots ejected and survived, but one was seriously injured.

Coincidentally, this marks the first time Israel has had a military aircraft shot down since 1982, also by Syria. Not coincidentally, the downing kicked off the largest Israeli bombing campaign in Syria since 1982. The targets were mostly Syrian air defenses as well as other military bases and “Iranian positions,” whatever that means. Benjamin Netanyahu says the strikes were meant to show that Israeli is going to keep bombing Syria whenever the hell it wants, which nobody doubted to begin with.

This all sounds scary but it’s unlikely to lead to any systematic escalation in the conflict in Syria. What it is, rather, is more evidence that the conflict in Syria is already escalating and has been for a while. With everybody’s attention on the Israeli F-16, it mostly escaped notice that the YPG shot down a Turkish helicopter in Afrin on Saturday, with two Turkish soldiers killed in the process (two of nine Turkish soldiers killed overall in Afrin on Saturday, by the way).

Also under-reported is news that the YPG may have reached a deal with Damascus to help it fight the Turks. The Syrian government doesn’t have to do very much–at least not at the moment–just allow YPG reinforcements to get from northeastern Syria to northwestern Syria via territory it controls. In return Damascus gets a good deal on food and oil from Kurdish-held northeastern Syria, and it makes things harder on Turkey. And the US gets its main Syrian ally in bed with Bashar al-Assad, because that’s how well we’ve thought-out this particular war.

Finally, the Syrian Democratic Forces are reportedly holding hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters, and the United States would very much like their home countries to take them back and prosecute them. Those countries, on the other hand, would mostly like the SDF to try them, or just keep detaining them, or take them out and “lose” them in the desert, or really anything other than sending them home. In some cases that’s simply out of fear, but in many it’s because their home countries have little for which they can actually prosecute them, and they’re unwilling to throw basic human rights to the wind the way the United States did after 9/11.


Al Jazeera explains why Turkey is likely going to be willing to absorb a fair number of casualties in its attempt to subdue Afrin–because their invasion is really popular:

The invasion isn’t popular among Turkish Kurds, but that’s OK because Ankara is systematically disenfranchising them anyway. The predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) elected a new chairman on Sunday, on account of the fact that its former chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, has been in jail since November 2016 on charges that amount to “being a Kurd in Turkish politics.” The party also elected a new chairwoman to replace Serpil Kemalbay, who was arrested a couple of days ago for speaking out against the Afrin operation.


OK, who got to Donald Trump?

The US leader’s latest comments came in an interview published on Sunday with the conservative newspaper Yisrael Hayom.


Asked by editor-in-chief Boaz Bismouth when the US would present its peace plan, Mr Trump said: “We will see what happens. Right now the Palestinians are not into making peace, they are just not into it. Regarding Israel, I am not certain it, too, is interested in making peace so we will just need to wait and see what happens.”


Asked whether Israeli settlements would form part of the peace plan, he said: “We will be talking about settlements. The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.”

I would assume that after 12 months of taking the Israel-Palestine issue farther away from a settlement than it’s been in decades–which is really saying something–Trump is bored now and looking for an excuse to punt. Blaming the Israelis a little bit gives him that excuse. Making it all about the Palestinians would simply invite more sanctions against them, but there’s only so much aid the US can cut without creating a real humanitarian catastrophe and dumping it right in Israel’s lap.


The Egyptian military says it killed 16 ISIS-Sinai militants over the weekend, after launching a new push against extremist groups all over the country late last week.

Rex Tillerson kicked off an extended Middle East tour in Cairo on Sunday. He’ll be hitting Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey before returning to Washington. Between Egypt’s phony presidential campaign, its new military crackdown, the escalations in Syria, Turkey’s anger over the US-YPG relationship, the looming issue of Iraqi reconstruction, and the ongoing Saudi-Qatar cold war, it should be a fun trip. It’s definitely nice to have an administration in Washington that really knows how to manage the region and help stabilize it.


Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, said on his radio program on Friday that Saudi women should not have to wear abayas, the long, flowing, usually black robes that are (unfortunately) often associated, at least in Western media, with Muslim women. Mutlaq’s comments aren’t legally binding–Saudi law currently requires women to wear the abaya but many women have started pushing the envelope in terms of color and style in recent years–but as a member of the kingdom’s most important religious body they’re not far off. Clerics on the Council of Senior Scholars are empowered to issue fatwas, which are legally binding. If the abaya requirement is relaxed it would be another mostly-symbolic-but-still-meaningful step toward gender equality in Saudi Arabia, akin to the decision to allow women to drive cars though perhaps less substantive than that.


On the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the end of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is getting pilloried from both ends of the political spectrum:

The 39th anniversary of the revolution in Iran promises to be a sombre occasion for the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who was forced to acknowledge the mass discontent in the country as result of the recent protests and received letters from two dissident insiders accusing him of negligence and empire building.


The letters came from two prominent establishment figures from either end of the political spectrum. On the left, Mehdi Karroubi, one of the leaders of the reformist uprising of 2009, in a letter published on January 30, blamed Khamenei for the country’s chaotic political, economic, cultural and social situations. And on the right, the former hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published a similar letter marking the anniversary of the revolution and held Khamenei responsible for not doing anything about the judiciary which has turned into a “major pillar of oppression” against the Iranian people.

Criticism of Khamenei is on the rise, which is interesting because direct criticism of the Supreme Leader has been rare in his almost 29 years in power. That Khamenei has allowed it is a sign that he doesn’t believe he can get away with outright suppressing it. This phenomenon has been building since at least 2009, and while Khamenei, as a 78 year old cancer patient, is unlikely to live to see its consequences, it will affect the selection of Khamenei’s successor.

There’s a good deal of justifiable concern among Iran nuclear deal supporters over the restoration of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez had stepped down from that post while under investigation on corruption charges, but that investigation has concluded with a mistrial and isn’t going to be pursued further by prosecutors. Menendez has been consistently opposed to the nuclear deal or any other diplomatic engagement with Iran–basically he’s been the best Democratic senator that pro-Israel and MEK money could buy. So his influence could help Donald Trump pull the US out of the deal. But thanks to the Trump Effect, opposing the Iran deal has become politically toxic for Democrats, so I would expect Menendez to stick to the “this is a flawed deal but we have to stick by our commitments” line that most other anti-deal Democrats have taken.

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