Middle East update: March 21 2018


Monitors reported on Wednesday that 20 civilians were killed in an airstrike on the village of Kafr Batikh, in Idlib province. No word as to who carried out the strike.

Meanwhile, the death toll from yesterday’s rebel shelling of Damascus has reached 44, and comes amid confirmation that Ahrar al-Sham fighters will begin evacuating the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta on Thursday, under the terms of a deal reached with the Syrian government on Tuesday. There’s been no indication as to which Eastern Ghouta rebel faction was responsible for the strike on Damascus, but presumably the intent was to extract some measure of revenge for the government’s offensive in Eastern Ghouta by killing a bunch of people who had nothing to do with it. Juan Cole makes a pretty good point here in arguing that the attack shows, in a microcosm, why the rebels were fated to lose this civil war:

Syria’s demography is a matter of educated guesses. But perhaps 14% are Alawi, an esoteric Shiite group, and 5% Christian and 3% Druze and 2% Twelver Shiite, which gets you near to 25% of the population. Then 10% are Kurds, mostly Sunni leftists but including some minorities like Yazidis. So that is 35% of the population outside the Sunni Arab mainstream. Of the 65% remaining, mostly Sunni and Arab, more than half are urban and secular-minded, many of them socialists with a Marxian ideology mixed with Arab nationalism. Sunni Muslim fundamentalists are likely no more than 20% of the population.


As the Syrian revolution of 2011 turned into a civil war and as strongman president Bashar al-Assad maneuvered the democratic opposition into being a guerrilla movement increasingly dependent on Gulf money, the civil war was turned into a fight between the regime and fundamentalist Sunni Arabs in the medium cities and small towns and rural areas.


The 35% non-Arab or non-Sunni part of the population and the 33% of Sunni Arab secularists or regime loyalists, mainly in the big cities, equal together 68% of the population, over two-thirds.

You can argue that this war between extremists and everybody else is exactly what Assad wanted when the war began and that he took concrete steps to push the rebellion toward extremism, but the fact nonetheless remains that when the rebels slid in that direction they gave up any hope of a broad-based rebellion against Assad and, with that, any real chance of victory.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters on Wednesday that Turkey and the US have reached an “understanding” over the rest of Kurdish-held northern Syria. It’s unclear what possible understanding they might have, since Turkey wants the YPG gone from all of those areas and the United States, you know, doesn’t.


Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Service and Insurance Abdulaziz el-Jabari and its Minister of State Salah el-Sayadi have both announced their resignations over the past two days, citing Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the nominal Yemeni government. Both men say that the Saudis are preventing nominal Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi from returning to the country, though they say he is not being confined in Riyadh.


The Turkish military says that it “neutralized” 12 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq via airstrike on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has engineered the sale of the Doğan Media Group, one of the few media outlets in Turkey still occasionally critical of the government, to a conglomerate headed by a guy who calls Erdoğan “boss.” Because a free press is the cornerstone of any vibrant democracy.


Israeli officials believe that Mahmoud Abbas has already decided to take harsh punitive action against Hamas over the attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza earlier this month. What’s more, they believe he has motives that go beyond punishment for the Hamdallah incident–they believe he wants to create a new humanitarian crisis in Gaza that would embroil Israel and Hamas in conflict and leave Abbas and his Fatah party in a stronger position for it.


The Intercept on Wednesday published a bombshell piece suggesting that Jared Kushner, a failed real estate tycoon who inexplicably married his way into the White House and was then for some reason given access to classified information, may have been passing some of that information on to his new good friend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

In June, Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman ousted his cousin, then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and took his place as next in line to the throne, upending the established line of succession. In the months that followed, the President’s Daily Brief contained information on Saudi Arabia’s evolving political situation, including a handful of names of royal family members opposed to the crown prince’s power grab, according to the former White House official and two U.S. government officials with knowledge of the report. Like many others interviewed for this story, they declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about sensitive matters to the press.


In late October, Jared Kushner made an unannounced trip to Riyadh, catching some intelligence officials off guard. “The two princes are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported at the time.


What exactly Kushner and the Saudi royal talked about in Riyadh may be known only to them, but after the meeting, Crown Prince Mohammed told confidants that Kushner had discussed the names of Saudis disloyal to the crown prince, according to three sources who have been in contact with members of the Saudi and Emirati royal families since the crackdown. Kushner, through his attorney’s spokesperson, denies having done so.


Even in the midst of New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris’s favorable reporting, the absurdity of the Trump administration’s position on the Iran nuclear deal can’t help but come out:

As they gathered last week, perhaps for the last time, diplomats from countries that brokered the Iran nuclear accord publicly and uniformly declared it was working — despite a death watch over the deal in Washington.


But behind the closed doors of the chandeliered room, complaints spilled forth about President Trump’s threats to tear up the agreement.


Iranian envoys said the warnings from Washington had scared away investors who had been expected to bolster the country’s economy after the deal was negotiated in 2015, according to participants. The American delegation countered that though the deal had effectively limited Tehran’s nuclear program, it had failed to curb Iran’s support for regional terrorism.


And when he emerged from the meeting, Brian H. Hook, the chief American representative to the talks, called the nuclear issue “important — but it is just one aspect of the threats from the Iranian regime.”

The Trump people keep saying things like this as though it’s revelatory, but of course the nuclear deal only covers one aspect of US policy toward Iran. Otherwise it would be called something else. The rationale behind negotiating a deal that only covered one challenge in US-Iran relations was, and bear with me here, that it would be easier to hash out our other differences if we could remove one of them–specifically the one related to nuclear weapons–from the table. A wacky idea, I grant you, but I think the logic holds up. The Trump administration apparently prefers to put that problem back on the table, because it is either stupid (possible, but likely not) or it simply wants to put the United States back on the road to a war with Iran (bingo).

Gardiner Harris, as the Times stenographer charged with transcribing the hopes and needs of the anti-Iran bloc in Washington this week, dutifully gets the job done in this piece. Per the usual arrangement, when he needs a quote about the deal itself he goes to Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO and all-around fan of war with Iran Mark Dubowitz, who for what seems like the 250th NYT piece in a row is left to comment on the merits of the nuclear agreement on his own, with nary a single pro-deal expert asked to weigh in.

What I’m saying here is that you should pretty much stop reading the NYT’s coverage of the Iran deal. Just go to FDD’s website and you can get the same message but cut out the superfluous middle man. On the other hand, if you want solid reporting on the deal, check out Laura Rozen at Al-Monitor:

The lead US negotiator said today that transatlantic consultations on toughening policy toward Iran were making progress, but he offered no guarantees that US President Donald Trump would accept any agreement that might be reached.


“First we have to reach an agreement with the Europeans,” Brian Hook, the State Department policy planning chief, said on a call with journalists today. “If we can reach an agreement, then that will be presented to the president by the secretary of state and the national security adviser, and then he will make a decision on whether he wants to remain in the [Iran nuclear] deal or stop waiving sanctions.”

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Author: DWD

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