Middle East update: April 3 2018

Hey, how’s it going? Long time no see. As usual when I take an extended break, there’s a lot to get through here and I’m not even going to try to cover every single thing that happened while I was gone. This update is mostly going to consist of stuff that’s happened in the past day or two, a couple of big stories that happened last week, and links to a few pieces I’ve flagged (though, to be honest, I tried to avoid the news as much as possible last week because I needed a break). That said, I foresee a giant-sized update and so to save space I’m going to forego our usual practice of link + excerpt for some pieces and just give you the link and suggest you go check it out. OK, now on with the show.


Rebels have begun leaving the third and final enclave in Eastern Ghouta, the pocket around the city of Douma, though there are conflicting stories about whether this is an organized withdrawal or just individual fighters or small groups giving up in exchange for safe passage. These are primarily fighters from Jaysh al-Islam, which had controlled that area prior to the Syrian-Russian push to retake it over the past several weeks. They and their families are reportedly being transported to Jarabulus, in northern Aleppo province, which is under Turkish-Free Syrian Army control, so I would imagine you can expect to see JaI’s hardcore Islamists suddenly recast as moderate FSA fighters in the near future. Before that happens, let’s remember that JaI leader Zahran Alloush said back in 2013 that he wanted to “cleanse” Syria of Shiʿa (using the slur rafida) and Alawites. Nice guy. He’s moderated his tune somewhat since then in a transparent attempt to make his group palatable to Western governments, but nobody should have any illusions about what would happen in Syria if these guys somehow took over. This AP story about what ISIS did/tried to do to Syria’s Assyrian community is probably instructive on this point.

After Eastern Ghouta has finally surrendered, the Syrians appear to be planning a move against rebels in the Qalamoun region, a short distance north of Damascus. Bashar al-Assad seems intent on excising any remaining rebel presence near the capital before he moves on to bigger targets.

Russia, Iran, and Turkey are meeting in Ankara on Wednesday to, well, I honestly don’t know. Ostensibly they’re going to talk about ways to reduce the fighting in Syria, but since all three of them have actively contributed to escalating that fighting recently, step one might be for everybody involved in this summit to take a long look in the mirror. It was always a long shot that these three countries were going to be able to end the Syrian war, but at this point I think we’ll be lucky if they don’t start any new wars in Ankara. The Turks plan on complaining about the Eastern Ghouta offensive, the Iranians no doubt plan on complaining about Turkey’s Afrin offensive and its ongoing plans for northern Syria, and the Russians are probably just going to ride the session out because they’re trying to manage alliances with both Ankara and Tehran.

Speaking of meddling foreign powers, is the United States about to leave Syria? Probably not, but Donald Trump sure has seized on the issue and doesn’t seem to be moving on from it:

The State Department had only recently allocated $200 million to begin rebuilding parts of Syria that are controlled by the US and the YPG, but that’s on hold while the administration tries to figure out what its boss wants to do–a process that, with Trump, can take weeks. Turkey is thrilled, since this would green light a broader operation against the YPG, but that’s tempered somewhat by declarations from the French government that it’s going to increase its support for the Syrian Kurds. The usual DC crowd is of course worried that The Job Isn’t Done in Syria and that ISIS might stage a comeback if the US leaves, but for most of these people the real goal is to contain Iran, not ISIS, so they’re not exactly reliable commentators. There is a danger of an ISIS resurgence if the US pulls out of eastern Syria, but that danger will always exist in the absence of a functioning Syrian government with a genuine popular mandate. That’s the only long-term solution to the ISIS problem. You can leave US forces in Syria indefinitely, which admittedly is what these people want, and the most they’ll ever be able to do is drive ISIS back underground when it inevitably pops up again.


Speaking of ISIS’s potential comeback, BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi reports on a group holed up in the Hamrin Mountains of northern Iraq, calling itself “the White Flags,” that is comprised of ISIS veterans. They, along with other pockets of underground ISIS elements, have been engaging in hit-and-run attacks against Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Their efforts have been aided by the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, by endemic poverty in the local area, and by lingering anti-Shiʿa fears/resentments in parts of Sunni Iraq. As in Syria, the only permanent fix here is an Iraqi government that actually functions–that works on behalf of the many rather than the corrupt few, that monopolizes force to a considerably greater degree than Baghdad has managed to do thus far. No US troop presence can solve Iraq’s deeper problems, and it may actually interfere with solving them.


A United Nations donors conference for Yemen on Tuesday secured pledges of more than $2 billion to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there. The UN was looking for $3 billion, but $2 billion is nothing to sneeze at. About half of the haul is coming from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who will toss in a combined $1 billion to help solve the problems they’ve created. Of course, a billion here or there isn’t going to bring back the 14 (at least) civilians a Saudi airstrike killed in Hudaydah on Monday, or the thousands of other civilians killed in similar strikes since the Saudis entered the war in 2015.


On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Ankara (ahead of Wednesday’s meeting on Syria) to mark the start of construction on Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. The plant is being built by the Russians.


During the annual Land Day protest (held every year since 1976 to protest the appropriation of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements) in Gaza on Friday, Israeli forces fired on a mass of protesters, killing at least 18 and wounding hundreds more via live ammunition and other crowd control weapons. The Israelis insist that the protesters were attacking their soldiers and threatened to burst out of their prison camp Gaza and into Israel proper, and oh by the way most of the people who were killed miraculously turn out to have been known and wanted terrorists. Amazing how that worked out. This would be horrific enough even if the Israelis hadn’t spent the past decade plus blockading Gaza and gutting its medical facilities in the process.

Despite the international outcry over such a large casualty count, the Israelis haven’t blinked–they even killed another protester on Tuesday as if to emphasize that point–and, you know, why should they? It’s not like they’re in any danger of paying a price for this behavior. Indeed, they’ve never been, which is why Israeli soldiers have long had a standing order to shoot Land Day protesters who approached the Gaza fence. The Israeli military, the most moral army in the world don’t you know, won’t even investigate what happened on Friday even though, due to its surpassing morality, such an investigation surely could only make it look good.

Meanwhile, on Monday Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he’d reached a deal with the United Nations to resettle thousands of undocumented African migrants from Israel to Western countries while giving temporary Israeli residence to thousands more. This would have superseded a previous Israeli plan to deport or imprison those migrants. On Tuesday, he scrapped the deal. Why? Mostly, because his hard right base didn’t like the idea of 16,000 or so Africans staying in Israel. So it’s deportations or prison again, except that plan is being heavily challenged in Israeli courts.

Maybe Netanyahu’s base is feeling particularly nervous because newly-released government population figures have found that the number of Jews and Arabs living in Israel and the Occupied Territories is now equal. Israel’s whole “Jewish and democratic state” construction, if it ever could have been made compatible with the occupation, is increasingly untenable. Paul Pillar argues that the demographic issue is part of the reason Israel has been trying to maintain Gaza in a sort of legal limbo, where it’s not occupied per se but it’s also not an independent state. Removing Gaza’s 1.8 million residents from the equation puts Jews back in the majority, at least for a while.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won a nail-biter of a reelection, barely squeaking past his opponent, what’s his name, with 97 percent of the vote. Isn’t democracy great? Donald Trump called  Sisi to congratulate him, which is being widely criticized for some reason even though US presidents routinely congratulate other world leaders for winning sham elections–Sisi included. Turnout was a meager 41 percent, so it’s not as though Sisi can really point to this outcome as evidence of his popularity, though at this point it’s not as though such things really matter to Sisi at a practical level. But the figure does reflect that his hold on power isn’t as secure as you might think from outward appearances.


Bahrain’s Future Bank is under investigation over serious allegations that it helped Iran evade international sanctions:

Records from a Bahraini government audit reveal that the now-closed Future Bank — a joint venture partly owned by two of Iran’s largest lenders — routinely altered financial documents to mask illicit trade between Iran and dozens of foreign partners, the documents show.


The bank allegedly concealed least $7 billion worth of transactions between 2004 and 2015, a time when many Iranian banks were barred by sanctions from accessing international financial markets, the records show.


Auditors also discovered hundreds of bank accounts tied to individuals convicted of crimes including money laundering and terrorism financing, as well as phantom loans provided to companies that operate as fronts for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to confidential court filings obtained by The Washington Post.


James Dorsey explains why natural gas may be fueling (sorry, I’m trying to remove it) the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia’s problem is that Iran and Qatar have the gas reserves it does not. That is one reason why renewables figure prominently in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform program, not only to prepare Saudi Arabia economically for a post-oil future but also to secure its continued geopolitical significance.


Prince Mohammed, like his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, hopes that the kingdom will have an advantage in the generation of solar energy given that the sun hovers higher over his country than over Europe and other parts of the world and that it has less interference from clouds.


As a result, natural gas is a factor in mounting tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and say some analysts, a driver of the Saudi-UAE-led, ten-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.


If you’ve been trying to follow David Kirkpatrick’s reporting at the New York Times on Robert Mueller’s investigation into UAE lobbyist George Nader’s ties to the Republican Party and the Trump campaign, this interview he did with NPR’s Terry Gross might help summarize the story to this point.


Honestly, the less I say about Jeffrey Goldberg’s embarrassing fanboy interview with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman the better for both of us. I annotated some of it if you’re really interested. Goldberg happily let MbS run through all of his talking points with virtually no pushback on any front–you know, journalism. He even sat quietly while MbS declared that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “makes Hitler look good,” and then justified that by arguing that Hitler only “tried to conquer Europe” while Khamenei “is trying to conquer the world.” Leaving aside the fact that there’s no evidence that Iran is trying to conquer the world, MbS left out the fucking Holocaust, and Goldberg just let him continue on. Which, to be fair, is in keeping with Saudi family tradition:

Goldberg earned big plaudits for getting MbS to apparently acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist (SWOON), which he described as unprecedented for an Arab leader, even though that’s a flat-out lie because both Egypt and the PLO had previously recognized Israel. He earned those plaudits even though the way he writes about the Palestinians, both in the intro to this interview and in general, is frankly gross. He also allowed MbS to conflate al-Qaeda/ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran, three things that have little to do with one another beyond “the Saudis don’t like them,” as part of one “triangle of evil” (apparently he’s a David Frum fan), which is a lazy oversimplification meant to help sell his case for a conflict with Iran.

It’s long, but if you’re going to read a piece about MbS today skip the Goldberg hagiography–which you will actually be dumber for having read–and read Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker instead.


At LobeLog, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that Iran should stop wasting its time on the JCPOA, which Trump is going to kill eventually anyway, and focus instead on improving its ties with Europe:

It may be time for Iran to pull the plug on the JCPOA. It should consider reallocating efforts and resources toward new initiatives, programs, and agreements to shore up diplomatic and economic ties between Europe and Iran, as well as the wider international community, where Trump can’t directly interfere. This would create an opportunity to declare the deal dead at Trump’s hands because of what he has already done, rather than what he may do. It would give Iran and its European, Russian, and Chinese partners a chance to craft a new plan for engagement outside the moribund JCPOA that will no longer be beholden to sentiments in Washington and less exposed to craven lobbying from the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The question here is whether the Europeans would be willing to risk their ties with the US in order to do business with Iran. I grant you that willingness is probably at an all-time high thanks to Trump, but I still don’t think the cost-benefit analysis here works to Iran’s advantage. The Iranians can undoubtedly improve their ties with Russia and China, but the EU is going to be a much tougher sell even if the EU-US relationship is fraying at the moment.

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