Middle East update: March 12 2018


As the fighting in Eastern Ghouta continues, the situation in the city of Douma in particular seems to be reaching an even more critical level. People displaced by the fighting elsewhere in the enclave have fled to Douma for safety, but now they’re cramped in a city that’s being constantly bombarded and is surrounded by pro-government forces and rebels who may not be allowing them to leave. People in surrounding towns are reportedly beginning to protest to demand the departure of the rebels and an end to the violence and are being fired upon by rebel fighters. On a small plus side, Jaysh al-Islam, the largest rebel group in Douma, says it has cut a deal with Russia to evacuate the wounded from the city.

The United States is pursuing a binding 30-day ceasefire for Eastern Ghouta at the UN Security Council, which is probably an oxymoron (and is a dead letter anyway because Russia would likely veto it) but could also be a prelude to some kind of unilateral action. UN ambassador Nikki Haley said on Monday that the Trump administration is prepared to act if the United Nations can’t. The US has no real ability to influence events in Eastern Ghouta unless it’s prepared to risk a serious escalation.

People are reportedly also fleeing Afrin as Turkish-led forces are starting to besiege that city:

Meanwhile, thousands of people were fleeing the northwestern town of Afrin on Monday as Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters inch closer to completely besieging it. Ebrahim Ebrahim, a Europe-based spokesman for the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said those fleeing were heading toward government-controlled areas.


He said people are fleeing out of fear that Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters might commit atrocities against the Kurds and minorities in the town.


Turkish troops have destroyed water and power stations that supply the town of Afrin, making it difficult for people to stay there, Ebrahim said. He blamed Russia and Turkey for what he called “war crimes that are being committed in Afrin.”

The war is actually expanding again, if you can believe that. Syrian airstrikes reportedly hit several towns in Deraa province on Monday, despite that province being theoretically under the protection of a US-Russia negotiated deescalation agreement. Rebel groups in Deraa have been planning to launch an offensive south of Damascus to try to relieve pressure on Eastern Ghouta, which presumably explains the strikes.

Airwars has conducted an investigation into the US-led coalition’s massive bombardment of Raqqa last year and, to what I’m sure is your immense surprise, finds that the coalition drastically undercounted and/or simply ignored the civilian casualties it caused:

In Raqqa [as compared to Mosul], a greater reliance on air and artillery strikes ahead of more cautious ground advances—as well as the limited firepower of local partner forces (the largest weapons wielded by the SDF were 120mm mortars)—all indicated that civilian harm would be more often tied to Coalition actions.


Yet nine months later, only 11 percent of Coalition civilian harm assessments have resulted in an admission of responsibility. Out of 121 reports so far assessed for the Raqqa assault, the Coalition has confirmed involvement in just 13 strikes, which it says left 21 civilians dead and six injured—far short of the 1,400 likely Coalition-inflicted deaths Airwars tracked between June and October.


The enemy forces arrayed against the Coalition in Raqqa also significantly differed. According to Coalition figures, international and Iraqi forces encountered 700 vehicle borne IEDs during the battle for Mosul. In Raqqa, the Coalition and SDF encountered only “around a dozen VBIEDs” between June and Oct. 20, 2017.


Most damage to the city—described in January 2018 by USAID chief Mark Green as devastation “almost beyond description”—was the result of US air and artillery strikes. Satellite images from before the battle show one neighborhood mostly intact. Soon it was mostly gone.


With Baghdad having cut the Kurdistan Regional Government’s share of the 2018 budget from 17 percent to 12.7 percent in punishment for last year’s independence referendum, Kurdish leaders have begun appealing to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to lean on Haider al-Abadi and his government to be reasonable. It’s not clear if Sistani is intervening, but he tends to keep a low profile on political matters, so whether he is or isn’t it’s unlikely he would be very public about it either way.


It’s hard to get a bead on Benjamin Netanyahu these days. While there is evidence that he’s actually angling for a snap election so that he can have one more chance to bolster his support before the corruption investigation against him comes to a head, he seems to be putting in a fair amount of work to hold his fragile governing coalition together and thereby avoid the need for a new vote. He appears to have secured a compromise, or at least an agreement to kick the can down the road a few months, from Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party not to quit the coalition right away over a bill that extends the exemption on military service for ultra-orthodox Jews.

That exemption is perhaps the main fault line in Netanyahu’s coalition, between the religious right (which supports it) and the secular right (which opposes it, a la Lieberman). The bill passed its first reading in the Knesset but still has a couple of more readings to go before it would become law, so Lieberman has agreed to remain in the government for now while reserving the right to quit if it passes those subsequent readings. That buys Netanyahu time to work out a more durable compromise.


Today in Simple Answers to Simple Questions:

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To be fair, I guess it depends on how you define “work.” University of Houston professor Gail Buttorff thinks there’s a chance it could delegitimize Abdel Fattah el-Sisi by depressing turnout, and she cites, reasonably, the fact that Sisi and his acolytes seem to be deeply angry about the possibility of a boycott. That suggests they know it could hurt them. However, Sisi has stifled any opposition that could possibly take advantage of his delegitimization, and he’s clearly not going to feel any serious pressure from outside of Egypt (i.e., from the United States) to reform, no matter what he does. Sisi seems arrogant enough to want a high turnout election to serve as proof that he’s the greatest Egyptian ruler since Rameses or whomever (sorry, Ancient Egypt isn’t my area), but he’ll keep on keeping on no matter what the turnout is.


The New York Times is reporting that Saudi officials brutalized the hell out of several of the people swept up in Mohammad bin Salman’s “anti-corruption” purge last year:

In November, the Saudi government locked up hundreds of influential businessmen — many of them members of the royal family — in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in what it called an anti-corruption campaign.


Most have since been released but they are hardly free. Instead, this large sector of Saudi Arabia’s movers and shakers are living in fear and uncertainty.


During months of captivity, many were subject to coercion and physical abuse, witnesses said. In the early days of the crackdown, at least 17 detainees were hospitalized for physical abuse and one later died in custody with a neck that appeared twisted, a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse, according to a person who saw the body.


In an email to The New York Times on Sunday, the government denied accusations of physical abuse as “absolutely untrue.”

Hey, those guys probably all fell down or something. You know how it is. The one whose neck got twisted might have been trying to do a gymnastics floor routine in the hallway of the Ritz-Carlton and landed on his head.

Unsurprisingly, the NYT finds that the main target of the sting seems to have been the family of former Saudi King Abdullah, which is (or was) probably the branch of the Saudi family in the strongest position to challenge MBS’s succession. The guy whose neck somehow got broken, Ali al-Qahtani, was a general in the Saudi National Guard, which means he didn’t have much money but did have close ties with Abdullah’s sons. The whole operation netted the Saudi government (or MBS himself, I guess) a cool $106 billion, most of that in assets rather than cash. Many of those who have since purchased their freedom remain under monitoring, either electronic or via actual armed guards. So it sounds like things are going great in Saudi Arabia.

Anyway, MBS will be meeting with Donald Trump in Washington on March 20, when I’m sure Trump will compliment the crown prince on his savvy dealmaking or whatever.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says its forces thwarted an attempted suicide attack against one of its outposts on the Pakistani border on Sunday night. The location suggests that Baluch separatists might have been involved but other possible suspects like ISIS can’t be ruled out.

Credit where credit is due: the NYT’s David Sanger, whose Iran coverage frequently amounts to stenography for Iran hawks, has put together a pretty compelling piece explaining why Donald Trump’s hostility to the Iran nuclear deal has painted him into a serious corner in his dealings on North Korea:

For years, as the Iranians watched the North Koreans build an arsenal and make deals with the West only to break them, they learned what the world was prepared to do — or was unwilling to risk — to stop them. More recently, the North Koreans picked apart what Tehran got in return for agreeing to a 15-year hiatus in its nuclear ambitions, weighing whether the promised economic benefits were worth giving up its nuclear capabilities.


The North will be watching especially closely in May, when Mr. Trump will face another deadline on deciding whether to abandon the Iran deal, which he has called a “disaster.”

If Trump scuttles the Iran deal in May then North Korea will have good reason to tell him to go piss up a rope when it comes to negotiating with them. After all, Trump will have conclusively demonstrated that any deal with the United States is only as good as the next bloated gasbag moron to get elected president. Why make concessions to the United States if the United States can’t be trusted to abide by its agreements?

On the other hand, if Trump doesn’t scuttle the Iran deal then he’s got to pursue an agreement with North Korea that is even harsher and more comprehensive than the Iran deal lest he look like a chump, and his chances of doing that are close to zero. For one thing, the Iran deal is, all things considered, a pretty good deal. For another, North Korea already has nukes and an ICBM, which puts it in a far stronger negotiating position than Iran was. And for a third, Trump hasn’t bothered assembling any kind of coalition along the lines of the P5+1 group that negotiated the Iran deal.

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