Middle East update: February 24-25 2018


On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council finally managed to get everybody on the same page and unanimously voted to establish a 30 day humanitarian ceasefire in Damascus’s battered Eastern Ghouta suburb.

The fighting there started again on Sunday:

A new United Nations resolution demanding a cease-fire across Syria appeared to have little effect on Sunday, as Syrian government forces began new ground attacks against a rebel-held enclave east of Damascus, the capital, and continued aerial bombings that have killed more than 500 people there in the past week.


There were reports Sunday evening of a suspected chlorine attack, with one child killed in eastern Ghouta and 11 people suffering symptoms like labored breathing, according to medical staff supported by the Syrian American Medical Society.

I set that up like a joke, and in a sense it is, probably, the world’s most morbid joke. But this is the deal the Security Council made, and indeed had to make to get its pointless resolution past a Russian veto. With all due respect to the Washington Post’s Liz Sly, who characterized Sunday’s fighting as the Syrian government’s “defiance” of the ceasefire, it was nothing of the kind. The ceasefire resolution was written with holes big enough to fly a Syrian helicopter through–namely, it didn’t specify when it was supposed to kick in, and it exempted military action against ISIS and anyone affiliated with al-Qaeda, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Syrian government insists that all the rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta are affiliated with al-Qaeda, and while that’s going too far there are groups in Eastern Ghouta with demonstrable al-Qaeda ties:

The neighborhood went into rebellion after the 2011 youth protests, and gradually the Saudi Arabian government gave the radical Salafi Army of Islam weapons and training and pushed it to assert itself in the district. The al-Qaeda-linked Syrian Conquest Front (formerly Nusra) is also ensconced there. So too is a smaller group, the Rahman Brigades.


The UNSC resolution explicitly exempted military operations against ISIL, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from the cease-fire. Russia and Syria see virtually everyone in East Ghouta as a terrorist, however, and to be fair the paramilitaries there are linked to extremists, so that grounds exist for continued military operations against the enclave.

Any ceasefire that exempts action against extremist groups is no ceasefire at all, because the Syrian government will always be able to find a small cadre of extremists in every rebel-held pocket of the country that it can use to justify continued bombing. And yet any ceasefire that does not exempt action against extremist groups will be vetoed by Russia, full stop. While everybody dithers around at the Security Council, Eastern Ghouta’s 300,000-400,000 civilians continue to die by the dozens and there’s really nothing that anybody can do about that apart from the Syrian government–which could stop bombing the place–and the rebels occupying that neighborhood–who could leave. Neither side values those civilians’ lives enough to do what has to be done to protect them, so what difference is a UN resolution going to make?

Mohammad Alloush, the spokesperson for Jaysh al-Islam (the main rebel faction in Eastern Ghouta, says he wants the UN to broker the departure of the small number of HTS fighters in that area in order to take away Damascus’s excuse for bombing the place. But this assumes a) that the UN could actually accomplish something like that, and b) that the Syrian government would then stop bombing rather than just latching on to some other group to justify the campaign. Jaysh al-Islam itself, while it doesn’t have any demonstrable al-Qaeda links, is extremist enough that it’s debatable whether it’s protected by this ceasefire.


The Iraqi parliamentary election scheduled for May looks like it could be a gigantic mess:

Nearly 7,000 candidates will vie for 329 seats in parliament the May 12 elections, the fourth since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam from power, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission.


Candidates have formed 27 political coalitions and last month, the electoral commission extended the deadline for registering the alliances as political parties worked to negotiate deals, but failed.

With an estimated 2.5 million people still displaced in Iraq, most of them Sunni Arabs, it’s hard to see how this vote can be done in a way that doesn’t risk serious grievances as a result. If Sunni Arabs don’t feel that the new parliament reflects their wishes then the chances for renewed uprisings like the protests in 2012-2013 that helped pave the way for ISIS. Those negative feelings could be exacerbated if, as expected, Shia parties affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Units do well in the election. And the political situation in Kurdistan isn’t much more stable, with voters seemingly fed up with and protesting against the region’s major parties. Also, Iraq’s inability to shake its (earned) reputation for corruption is unlikely to play well for incumbents at the polls.


Al-Monitor:  Holding the referendum was signaling a clear intent for a popular mandate for declaring independence. That is what your father, Massoud Barzani, certainly said. Assessing the reaction you had from the main stakeholders, would you say the world is not ready for an independent Kurdistan?


Barzani:  Well, obviously it wasn’t. But expressing a desire for the will of a nation of how they want to live is not a crime. This is what our people did. Whenever there were negotiations about future relations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad, the response was that this [the view articulated by the Kurdish side] did not necessarily reflect the will of all the Kurds so it was necessary to know what the Kurdish people want. Now we do know what they want: 92% voted “yes” in favor of independence.


At least 14 people were killed on Saturday in an attack against a camp in Aden used by a Yemeni counterterrorism unit. ISIS later claimed credit for the attack.

Meanwhile, Hudaydah province has been subjected to heavy bombing from the Saudi-led coalition for the past few days, reportedly displacing thousands of people:

It looks like a UK-drafted Security Council resolution that seeks to blame Iran for all of Yemen’s woes will come to a vote on Monday, and it still looks likely that Russia will veto it. The Western effort would attach a criticism of Iran over violations of a UN arms embargo to a renewal of the UN’s Yemen sanctions, but Russia has already introduced its own measure that would just renew the sanctions without condemning Iran. Britain has toned down the resolution by removing language that would “condemn” Iran over the arms embargo, but it remains to be seen if the Russians will be amenable to the softer language.


Saleh Muslim, the former leader of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), was arrested in Prague on a Turkish warrant on Sunday. Believe it or not, Muslim is wanted in Turkey and has been since 2016, in connection with a bomb attack on a military convoy in Ankara in February of that year.


Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki appointed King Abdullah’s chief of staff, Jafar Hassan, as his new deputy PM for economic affairs on Sunday. Mulki’s government is under considerable pressure due to the combination of a weak economy, tax increases, and subsidy cuts. I know, it’s hard to believe austerity could be unpopular, but here we are. Mulki is hoping to head off protests by at least making it look like he’s Doing Something about the problem.


NGOs in Gaza estimate that the Israeli blockade of Gaza that’s been in place since 2006 has directly caused the deaths of at least 1000 people. Nearly half have died for lack of proper medical care. Apparently not content to rest of their laurels, the Israelis killed a Palestinian fisherman on Sunday when his boat allegedly strayed out of designated fishing waters and into Israeli territorial waters. Gazan authorities say the man’s boat was actually headed back to the shore when the Israelis opened fire on it.


Candidates began campaigning for next month’s Egyptian presidential election on this weekend. Voters are going to face a stark choice this time around between incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who would like them to vote for him, and challenger Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who would also like them to vote for Sisi. It’s going to be a real nail biter. I would imagine that whoever wins the debates–Sisi will argue that he’s been a great president while Moussa will argue that Sisi has been the greatest president–will probably carry the day. Oh, wait, I’m sorry–Moussa has already said he doesn’t even want to bother debating Sisi because of the latter’s “massive achievements.” He’s really in it to win it, folks!


Even though they began seemingly in opposition to his government and his austerity-ish economic policies, Hassan Rouhani has made very savvy political use out of December’s Iranian protests:

The president has publicly sided with the protesters and urged his rivals to heed their calls.


“People have criticism and objections on the economic issue and they have a right. But the objections aren’t only economic,” Rouhani said at a televised news conference earlier this month, according to Reuters news agency. “They also have something to say about political and social issues and foreign relations. Our ears must be completely open to listen and know what the people want.”


That sentiment has registered with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who on Sunday acknowledged the criticism and said officials were “well aware” of the issues plaguing the country.

That’s quite an admission for Khamenei to make. Rouhani’s big push seems to be getting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps out of as much of the Iranian economy as possible, and while so far that effort hasn’t produced any tangible results there is now some public pressure supporting it.

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