Middle East update: April 11 2018


I’m definitely not in the business of trying to predict when the US (and whoever else decides to participate) is going to start bombing Syrian government targets, but I think it’s worth noting that the Carrier Strike Group led by the USS Harry S. Truman just left Norfolk on Wednesday for “a regularly scheduled deployment to Europe and the Middle East.” It certainly may have been a regularly scheduled deployment, but the timing is at least interesting. If the Truman is going to take part in whatever is about to come, that probably means a couple of things. One, that it’s probably not going to get started until the strike group is either in the eastern Mediterranean or close to it, which would take a few days (please, I’m not a ship person or whatever, I can only generally estimate). Two, it becomes more likely that whatever the Trump administration is planning, it’s going to be a more extended effort than the one-off missile strike we saw last year. That’s not to say it’s going to be open-ended or make to seriously weaken Bashar al-Assad’s position, just that it’s likely to be bigger than the last strike under similar circumstances.

What that might mean in terms of a Russian response is anybody’s guess. Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, has said the Russians will shoot down any incoming US missiles, though whether they’d start shooting down US planes is another story. He also threatened to target the launch sites of those missiles, which is troubling enough, though it’s not clear he was really speaking for Moscow when he said that. Civilian airlines have begun rerouting flights in the region due to concerns about the potential strikes, which would suggest they’re a little more imminent than the Truman news above would. Though I suppose there’s no reason for the airlines not to exercise maximum caution in a situation like this.

The International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller explains the difficulty involved in trying to calibrate an attack like this to achieve what appears to be the US objective, an end to chemical weapons use in Syria, without causing an escalation in the Syrian war. It’s much easier said than done:

That will be a difficult balance to strike. When the U.S. bombed Shayrat in April 2017, it clearly communicated the proportional, deterrent nature of the strike, making clear that the purpose was not to topple the Syrian government but to punish and deter chemical weapons use. It also warned Moscow of the strike in advance, allowing Russia to ensure the safety of its personnel. The very limited strikes, advance warning and communication of U.S. aims may have helped prevent retaliation by Russia and avoid a broader, unchecked military escalation. Although the Shayrat strike arguably may have deterred the use of sarin, at least for some time, it clearly did not discourage the regime from using chlorine gas.


What kind of military strike could effectively deter the use of all chemical weapons, including chlorine, is uncertain. It almost certainly would have to be more robust than the action taken in 2017, while also being accompanied by clear communications and concrete demands that Damascus and its allies could understand and reasonably implement. This presents a considerable challenge. Not only would it be difficult to organise and message a multilateral intervention in a complex political and military space, but it is uncertain exactly how much damage a strike would have to inflict to achieve the desired goal and effectively deter the Syrian government from further chemical weapons use, while avoiding a dangerous Russian response or other form of escalation. In essence, a narrow, limited attack is unlikely to deter repeated chemical weapons use, while a broader one could have unintended and uncontrollable consequences.

The impossibility of threading this needle is part of the reason why the Trump administration hasn’t done anything yet.

Assuming anybody actually cares about investigating Saturday’s alleged attack, the World Health Organization says it wants access to the site where the incident is said to have occurred. The WHO says its reports suggest 70 people were killed and 500 reported to medical facilities with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure. Some witnesses report finding gas canisters in the area of the alleged attack, which probably rules out sarin since sarin is a liquid, but apparently the reports that have come out so far aren’t entirely consistent with the use of a blister agent like chlorine, despite there being some reports of a strong chlorine smell at the site. Many of the victims appear to have died quickly enough that a nerve agent, perhaps in conjunction with chlorine, can’t be ruled out. Assuming, of course, that this really was a chemical weapons attack.

On the plus side, this whole crisis has oil prices back up over $70/barrel, so that’s…nice? Cheap oil has a lot of bad side effects, but expensive oil does too. Almost like oil is just bad any way you slice it.


The Saudis say they intercepted and shot down three Houthi-fired ballistic missiles on Wednesday. One missile targeted Riyadh which the other two targeted the southern Saudi cities of Jizan and Najran. The Houthis say they were targeting the defense ministry in Riyadh and an Aramco facility in Najran. There haven’t been any reports of casualties, so it’s likely that either the Saudis really did shoot all three missiles down or that they missed their targets for other reasons.


Israeli aircraft struck targets associated with Hamas on Wednesday after some kind of bomb exploded near the Gaza fence line. There’s no indication that Hamas was directly responsible for the bomb, but the Israelis hold Hamas responsible for any violence in Gaza so it doesn’t really matter.

After reaching and then scrapping a deal with the United Nations to accept thousands of African migrants, and after a deal to resettle those migrants in Rwanda collapsed, the Israeli government is in talks to resettle them in Uganda. The forced deportation measure under which this relocation would happen is currently being challenged in Israeli courts, but one of the reasons the government has been negotiating with Rwanda and now Uganda is so that it can argue it’s not sending the migrants (most of whom have fled political repression in either Sudan or Eritrea) aren’t just being sent back home to dangerous circumstances. However, migrants who have already gone to Rwanda and Uganda under a previous voluntary deal Israel had supposedly reached with both countries say that the residency and employment protections they were promised in return for agreeing to leave Israel never materialized–or, in other words, Israeli authorities lied to them.


Reuters is reporting that Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman held a phone call earlier this month in which a “forceful” Trump “insisted” that the Saudi-Qatar rift be patched up within three weeks, by the time he’s supposed to decide whether or not to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. I don’t want to criticize their reporting, but through my own sources I was able to get a transcript of that conversation from the White House, and…well, you be the judge:

DONALD TRUMP: Salmon King, it is so great that I’m talking to you, I mean, what a powerful phone call this is, am I right? Amazing. The work that you’re doing is more and more, and by the way the FBI has been SO UNFAIR in their WITCH HUNT, now they’re even going after my lawyer, Freddie No Nose or whatever, who is TOTALLY innocent and also I had nothing to do with him.


KING SALMAN: [translated from Arabic] this telegraph, it is very shiny. how nice,


TRUMP: As you know Anna Wintour has been LYING AGAIN about me, she KNOWS that I almost had sex with Paulina Porizkova on two separate occasions, in 1986 and again in 1987, but she refuses to admit this, and the mainstream press, especially the disgusting liars at the FAILING RATINGS LOSER CNN, can you believe these guys? They are SO UNFAIR and SO BIASED it is UNBELIEVABLE. No wonder they are constantly LOSING in the ratings!


SALMAN: I don’t…what is this room? Am I still in–where am I? Fahd, are you there? Fahd is my brother. He is a very nice man. Have you met him? You should speak with him if you want to purchase anything.


TRUMP: I could have ALREADY improved relations with Russia, but instead I have had to get VERY TOUGH on them, which is sad! Now we have the arms, and the racing, and so many people are saying this more and more. Assad did the gas, and now we’ll be sending missiles at him! So, so powerful, the missiles. And smart, extremely smart. Fantastic. Well listen, I know you probably have to swim back upstream, which is an amazing thing that the salmon do and I am so, so impressed with that by the way. Can we get something done on the Qatar? That’s incredibly important, the Qatar. We have to have that. Anyway, you’ll definitely want to catch Judge Jeanine on Fox News this Saturday at 9 PM, maybe DVR it or something, because she’s really terrific and treats me so nicely. I did a great job on this call, very diplomatic. Fabulous. [hangs up]


SALMAN: Hello? Hello? Is this President Carter?




Iran’s rial has lost 35 percent of its value this week, and the New York Times reports that black market money changers are asking for 60,000 rials to the dollar, though the government is trying to set an official rate of 42,000 to the dollar and has begun arresting money changers as a result. The drop is due to a combination of regional instability, government mismanagement of the economy, sanctions that are still in place that are affecting Iran’s financial system, and a pervasive fear that Trump is about to reimpose financial sector sanctions as part of his looming decision to walk away from the nuclear deal. It is possible that Trump could announce he’s exiting the deal but still hold off on reimposing sanctions, but at this point the uncertainty he’s creating is nearly as destructive as just pulling the plug altogether would be.

Speaking of those nuclear sanctions, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that if Trump does put them back in place it won’t mean that the US has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal. This makes so fucking sense, given that the US is obliged to continue waiving the sanctions under the terms of the agreement, and Mnuchin naturally didn’t bother trying to explain what he meant.

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