Middle East update: March 2 2018


The Syrian government and its allies are continuing their ground offensive into Eastern Ghouta. They’ve opened up at least two and possibly three fronts from what I can tell, and are slowly taking villages from the rebels. I’d make a joke about the ceasefire here but I think we’re way past even pretending that’s going to happen, or that Russia’s daily humanitarian corridor plan is ever actually going to allow any civilians to flee the area, whether due to continued air and artillery strikes or the rebels preventing them from leaving. Over 100 people have been killed since the UN called for a ceasefire and Russia substituted the daily pause plan, so clearly it’s not working. The Syrian government may allow a relief convoy with enough supplies for about 180,000 people to enter the eastern side of Eastern Ghouta this weekend, but that feels like a “believe it when you see it” kind of thing and, anyway, that’s only maybe half of the people estimated to still be in the besieged enclave.

Airwars.org is reporting that Russian airstrikes may have killed more than 318 people amid 74 airstrikes across Eastern Ghouta between February 19 and February 25, a rate it termed an “unprecedented onslaught” for Russia in Syria. Those figures are still being confirmed, which is difficult because Russia is apparently pretty opaque about these sorts of things.

In Afrin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that Turkish airstrikes against pro-government militias fighting alongside the YPG killed at least 17 people on Friday. Most were militia fighters though there were a couple of YPG fighters killed as well. Turkish media reported that nine YPG fighters were killed in a helicopter strike elsewhere in the region.

Finally, Der Spiegel reporter Christopher Reuters has investigated the February 8 US airstrike in Deir Ezzor province and believes that far fewer Russians were killed in that attack than subsequent reporting has suggested:

It was primarily the second night-time attack from the village of Tabiya that triggered the American paroxysm, said two men belonging to the al-Baqir militia of the Bekara tribe. Because in addition to the deconfliction line, there was also a second agreement which allowed up to 400 pro-Assad fighters, who remained on the east side of the Euphrates following the 2017 battle against Islamic State, to remain. At least as long as their weren’t more than 400 of them and they remained peaceful. But exactly that was no longer the case.


Among those stationed in Tabiya was a small contingent of Russian mercenaries. But the two militia sources said they did not participate in the fighting. Still, they said, 10 to 20 of them did in fact lose their lives. They said a total of more than 200 of the attackers died, including around 80 Syrian soldiers with the 4th Division, around 100 Iraqis and Afghans and around 70 tribal fighters, mostly with the al-Baqir militia.

Reuters says that reports of hundreds of Russians having been killed were concocted by Russian nationalists who oppose Vladimir Putin’s Syria policy and then picked up by an eager Western media.


The Iraqi government is struggling to pass its 2018 budget, mostly because its main provisions call for increasing taxes on a country shattered by war and already mired in an economic malaise. The reason for the proposed tax increases is, and this is a real shocker, the International Monetary Fund, which wants Baghdad to collect an extra $1.8 billion this year as part of a $5.4 billion loan did the IMF made with Iraq back in 2015. Iraqis don’t seem to be responding well to the idea of paying more taxes to a government that nearly abandoned many of them to ISIS just a couple of years ago


Benjamin Netanyahu has now been questioned by police in relation to a third corruption investigation. The charge is that Netanyahu worked for regulatory changes that were favorable to Bezeq Israel Telecom in exchange for Bezeq giving him favorable coverage on a news website it owns. There’s also a fourth case apparently floating around out there involving possible kickbacks in the purchase of some German submarines, but neither of these cases is anywhere near as far along as the two cases where Netanyahu is already potentially facing indictment.

Even as Bibi’s political career looks like it has much less time in front of it than it does behind it, he can take solace in what will perhaps be his most enduring legacy–turning support for Israel into a highly partisan issue in the US:

America’s main pro-Israel lobby is struggling to bring Democrats and Republicans together on major legislation ahead of its annual confab as bipartisan consensus on foreign policy continues to erode.


The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds its three-day policy conference starting Sunday. As in years past, the group’s lobbyists have worked with Congress to tee up legislation for the thousands of eager members coming into town to rally around. But the lobby has no concrete plans to fight the anti-Israel boycott or strengthen the Iran nuclear deal.


“It’s notable that two days before the conference they’ve had difficulty coming up with concrete asks,” a Senate staffer told Al-Monitor.

No, this isn’t going to be good for Israel in the long-term. But it has been pretty sweet for Netanyahu in the short-term, and that’s really all he cares about.

Is it possible that Israel has been keeping Gaza just teetering on the brink of humanitarian collapse for so long because doing so is good for the Israeli economy? +972 Magazine’s Shir Hever suggests that it is entirely possible:

In their book “The One State Condition,” Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir attempt to answer the question, what interest does Israel have in keeping Gaza on the verge of collapse? Their answer remains valid even after fifteen years: keeping the Palestinians perpetually on the brink is proof of Israel’s conclusive victory. The Palestinians cannot take their lives as given, for Israel can take their lives at any time. This is the basis of Israel’s relation of clear relation of dominance over the Palestinians.


But while this answer is true, it is not sufficient. There is also an economic answer.  As long as Gaza remains on the brink of collapse, international donors keep the flow of humanitarian aid money going. If the crisis were ended and the siege lifted, it is safe to assume that that the international donors would change the type of aid they provide and return to focus on the development of the Gazan economy (as they did from 1994—2000, until the outbreak of the Second Intifada). This type of aid would likely compete with certain branches of Israeli companies and therefore threaten the Israeli economy. Keeping Gaza on the verge of collapse keeps international humanitarian aid money flowing exactly to where it benefits Israeli interests.

Israel’s blockade means that Israeli goods are almost always cheaper than goods from Egypt or Jordan, so humanitarian aid organizations are forced to buy Israeli. It also means that those organizations have to use Israeli firms to handle their logistical arrangements in Gaza. And the fact that the Palestinians can’t institute their own currency means the aid organizations have to do their business in Israeli shekels, which is good for Israeli banks. Meanwhile, the aid itself bolsters Gaza just enough to allow Israel to continue its de facto occupation without having to assume responsibility for a full-blown meltdown. It’s a pretty sweet cycle for the Israelis.


I suppose this was obvious in some respect, but The Intercept is reporting that Donald Trump may have come out so forcefully against Qatar at the beginning of the Saudi-led blockade last June in large part because the Qataris refused to bail out Prime Minister Kushner’s shitty family real estate business:

THE REAL ESTATE firm tied to the family of presidential son-in-law and top White House adviser Jared Kushner made a direct pitch to Qatar’s minister of finance in April 2017 in an attempt to secure investment in a critically distressed asset in the company’s portfolio, according to two sources. At the previously unreported meeting, Jared Kushner’s father Charles, who runs Kushner Companies, and Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi discussed financing for the Kushners’ signature 666 Fifth Avenue property in New York City.


The 30-minute meeting, according to two sources in the financial industry who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the potential transaction, included aides to both parties, and was held at a suite at the St. Regis Hotel in New York.


A follow-up meeting was held the next day in a glass-walled conference room at the Kushner property itself, though Al Emadi did not attend the second gathering in person.


The failure to broker the deal would be followed only a month later by a Middle Eastern diplomatic row in which Jared Kushner provided critical support to Qatar’s neighbors. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Kushner’s backing, led a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner, according to reports at the time, subsequently undermined efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.

I’m at the point now where I’d like to take up a collection to just buy this fucking building from the Kushners in exchange for Jared spending the rest of his life floating on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I mean, how much could it possibly be worth? One thousand bucks? Two? Honestly I don’t know anything about real estate so I could be off base here.


Nuclear disarmament activist Joe Cirincione argues that it would be every bit as dangerous to have Saudi Arabia enrich its own uranium as it is to have Iran doing it:

Saudi motives are just as suspicious as Iran’s were when it announced nearly identical plans in the early 2000s. Many nuclear policy experts, including this author, opposed any enrichment or reprocessing facilities in Iran for precisely these reasons.


It would have been considerably wiser to negotiate with Iran in 2003 when it had only a few dozen centrifuges, or in 2005 when it had a few hundred, or in 2009 when it had several thousand. A “zero option” might have been possible at those moments. But by the time the United States got serious about talks in 2013, Iran had 20,000 operating centrifuges and a deal to get rid of them all was beyond reach. The vast majority of global nuclear experts greeted the Iran nuclear accord with relief, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) effectively blocked Iran’s pathways to a bomb for at least 15 years—indeed, forever if it can be supplemented with additional agreements.


This is why it would be foolish to give Saudi Arabia these same pathways now. “Giving Riyadh a pass on tight nuclear nonproliferation rules would be playing with fire,” argue Victor Galinsky and Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Education Center in a recent Foreign Policy article. “Saudi Arabia is neither a stable state nor a benign actor in the Middle East that deserves U.S. coddling…the truth is that the Saudis have been the main purveyors of the fundamentalist religious doctrines that have spread the seeds of terrorism throughout the Arab world.” Given that Saudi Arabia is now engaged with Iran in a struggle for regional dominance, Riyadh’s “resistance to restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction amounts to a public declaration that the kingdom wants to keep a nuclear weapons option open,” they warn.

The Saudis, like Iran, have the right to enrich uranium if they want, but like Iran they can be subject to an international response if they choose to go that route. The big difference here is that the Trump administration wants to punish Iran for having an enrichment program but then turn around and help the Saudis build their own enrichment program. The hypocrisy isn’t lost on anybody, and the threat of a Saudi nuclear weapons program isn’t going to be lost on anybody either.


Here’s The New Yorker’s Robin Wright on the burgeoning relationship, mostly fueled by a shared animus toward the US, between Russia and Iran:

Over the past year, military coördination between Moscow and Tehran has also intensified. Qassem Soleimani, the flamboyant head of Iran’s élite Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guards that is roughly equivalent to American Special Operations Forces, was the front man on military coördination between the two nations, especially in Syria, beginning in 2015. Contacts now go much higher. In November, the chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov, flew to Tehran for talks with his Iranian counterpart, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, a former military intelligence expert in the Revolutionary Guards who now oversees both the Guards and the regular Iranian Army, Navy, and Air Force.


“There is good military coöperation between Iran and Russia, and, of course, there are many areas for expanding coöperation,” Bagheri declared. The two military chiefs are in increasing contact, Russian and Iranian sources told me.

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