Middle East update: February 19-20 2018


Before we talk about Turkey and Syria potentially going to war in Afrin, I think we should say something about Eastern Ghouta, where over 250 people are believed to have been killed since Sunday thanks primarily to airstrikes and artillery blasts from forces aligned with Bashar al-Assad. Assuming these figures are accurate, always a question in war zones and particularly in this one, the situation here is approaching a genuine massacre. Assad’s forces are allegedly back to using the notorious barrel bomb, which is noteworthy mostly in that it’s only really useful if you’re looking to kill lots of civilians. The government insists that militants in Ghouta are shelling Damascus, which they have done (there are, to be sure, some unsavory rebel groups fighting in Eastern Ghouta), but at the very least there are serious questions of proportionality and targeting being raised here. Casualty figures aside, there are still hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Ghouta who are trapped by the fighting and need immediate relief.

OK, Afrin. Forces allied with Assad entered the Kurdish-held enclave on Tuesday to help the YPG fight off an invasion from Turkey with its Free Syrian Army proxies. Note that it does not appear that the Syrian army itself has entered the area, just pro-Assad militias. So this has not yet escalated as much as it could, and still might. By later in the day the Turkish government was claiming that its forces had driven the militias back out of Afrin, but since the Turkish government was also insisting as recently as yesterday that the Syrian government would not get involved in Afrin at all maybe it’s best to take these pronouncements with a grain of salt.

If the Syrian military itself gets involved then things could escalate in unpredictable ways (an air war over Afrin, for example). If it’s only going to be the militias then that’s less intense. But the fact is that Turkey was already struggling to grind out progress in Afrin when it was just fighting the YPG, before anybody else got involved. So far they’ve only taken about seven percent of the villages in the area, and those were the relatively easy ones near the Turkish border. Turkey is hampered somewhat by a need to use its air support judiciously to avoid angering the Russians, but the longer this drags on the more it works to the advantage of the YPG’s defensive guerrilla campaign.

Speaking of Russia, its foreign ministry has now conceded that “several dozen” Russian nationals were killed in a recent battle–it did not specify–in Syria. Since they were officially mercenaries that’s probably as far as Moscow needs to go in acknowledging their deaths. Also, Jordanian King Abdullah visited with Vladimir Putin last week in Moscow. Russian Middle East analyst Yury Barmin says that the Russians would like Jordan to get more involved in southern Syria, perhaps helping to secure the southern de-escalation zone–which lies on the Jordanian border–in an effort to keep Israel and Iran separated.


At least 27 Popular Mobilization Unit fighters were killed Sunday night near Kirkuk when their convoy was attacked by ISIS.


The governments of Turkey and Egypt are coming to (rhetorical) blows over a 2013 Egypt-Cyprus agreement to jointly develop offshore oil and gas deposits. According to Ankara the agreement “violates Turkey’s continental shelf.” This is a manifestation of deeper hostility between Ankara and Cairo, whose relations have been sour since the 2013 coup that ousted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is closely linked with the Muslim Brotherhood and had supported said government. And of course Turkey has long-standing problems with the Cypriot government over issues related to the country’s partition.



A longtime confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau is expected to sign a deal to turn state’s witness in the coming hours in the corruption investigation known as Case 4000, Hadashot TV news reported Tuesday evening, as the Israeli leader released a new video denying the “simply baseless” allegations against him.


Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber is a suspect in Case 4000, which involves suspicions Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch gave Netanyahu and his family positive coverage at his Walla news site in exchange for the advancement of policies benefiting the telecommunications giant.

Netanyahu released another “the police are out to get me” video on Tuesday, and I think maybe we should consider the possibility that the police are out to get him, on account of how he did a couple of crimes.

The Trump administration would like the Palestinians to know that it’s ready to talk peace:

The United States is “ready to talk” Middle East peace with the Palestinians, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday in remarks directed at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.


U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are working on a new peace plan, sat behind Haley. Speaking after Abbas made a rare address to the 15-member council, Haley gave no details of the U.S. plan.


“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours,” Haley said. Abbas did not stay in the council chamber to listen to her.

Yeah, no shit he didn’t. This is like sharing a pie with somebody who takes 3/4 of it away up front and then says they’re ready to have a frank discussion over why you’re being such a dick about sharing the last quarter. You’d walk out of the room too. Before he left, Abbas delivered a speech, with Middle East Peacemaker Kushner there and everything, calling for international mediation over the peace process to replace discredited American “leadership.”

The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan has produced another of his very good “Blowback” videos, this time on how Israel shepherded the creation of Hamas:


The Egyptian government is going to temporarily open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza again for humanitarian purposes. The crossing is scheduled to be open for four hours on Wednesday to allow Gazans who are on travel lists to get out. Opening Rafah is particularly difficult right now as Egypt is in the middle of a major counter-terrorism operation in the Sinai and elsewhere. Cairo said on Monday that three of its soldiers were killed in fighting in Sinai, the first Egyptian casualties it’s acknowledged since the operation began almost two weeks ago.


The Pakistani military announced last week that it’s deploying around 1000 additional soldiers to Saudi Arabia for a training and advisory mission, bolstering the roughly 1500 Pakistani soldiers currently in the kingdom who are there mostly to perform internal security like protecting Islamic holy sites. This has raised concerns in Pakistan, which (despite a long history of military cooperation with the Saudis) declared neutrality in the Yemeni civil war back in 2015, over fears that these soldiers will be used in Yemen or at least placed on the Yemeni border where they might just happen to have to get into firefights with the Houthis. The Saudis have wanted very much for Pakistan to get involved in Yemen, so this is a legitimate concern. But the Pakistani military insists that these forces won’t be deployed anywhere near the border and certainly won’t engage in any military activity in Yemen.

It’s been a couple of months since Mohammad bin Salman launched his latest initiative, his anti-corruption campaign, and–this is shocking I know, but bear with me–it seems to have blown up in his face:

Foreign and local investors have long complained about corruption, and confronting it is an important part of reforms unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to transform the country and reduce the economy’s reliance on oil exports.


Yet some business leaders were unsettled by the swoop on top princes, businessmen and government officials in November because of the secrecy around the crackdown and their suspicions that it was at least partly politically motivated.


“This is not a recommendation for why you should invest in Saudi Arabia,” said a Western businessman with extensive contacts in the kingdom. “This whole thing has become one big ball of contradictions.”

It’s stunning that foreign investors were not impressed by the crown prince’s arbitrary exercise of power to opaquely address the undefined problem of corruption by mostly detaining his own rivals for power and then shaking them down for part of their personal fortunes. I can’t believe that didn’t reassure them. Saudi officials have now taken to reaching out to potential investors and assuring them that the whole corruption crackdown thing is yesterday’s news and that they’ll go back to looking the other way when it comes to graft.


Six people, five of them Iranian security officers, were reportedly killed on Monday in clashes between police and an order of dervishes in Tehran, and some 300 people were arrested. The Gonabadi Dervishes, followers of the Nimatullahi Sufi order who are based in the city of Gonabad in eastern Iran, were protesting the arrest of one of their number by police when the violence broke out. Sufi orders like the Gonabadis are legal in Iran but frequently subject to official and unofficial persecution.

Finally, 65 people were killed on Sunday in a plane crash in southwestern Iran. Normally I don’t bring up accidental airline crashes on this blog, but in this case I’m making an exception because the United States is partly responsible for this incident:

The aircraft involved in the latest crash an ATR72, was 24 years old. Preliminary reports said that the plane crashed due to reduced visiblity but questions were raised about the planes fitness.  The crash can be attributed to the age of the aircraft, although there is nothing inherently unsafe about flying old aircraft if only they were meticulously maintained to ensure safe flight.


However, the country has been devoid of expertise and equipment in the aviation field for years, which has made flying relatively unsafe in the region. Until a few years ago, Iran was prevented from purchasing new air fleets due to the international sanctions imposed on them.

One of the big inducements to get Iran to agree to the nuclear accord in 2015 was that the US would lift sanctions targeting Iran’s airline industry. And ever since the accord was signed, its opponents in Congress and now in the Trump administration have done everything they could to block the sale of new aircraft (including a $3 billion deal between Aseman Airlines–the carrier whose flight crashed on Sunday–and Boeing for 30 new 737s) and aircraft parts to the Iranians. Their argument is that Iran would use the aircraft to ship military aid to Syria, and yet they already seem to be doing that through other means. Meanwhile, Iranians keep dying in unsafe aircraft. Maybe that’s the point.

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