Middle East update: April 13 2018


BREAKING: Donald Trump will reportedly be making a “statement” about Syria at 9 PM this evening, Washington time. World on the interwebs is that he’ll be announcing strikes, but it’s not clear what they’ll involve. Come back here for updates.

UPDATE: The US is bombing Syria along with France and the UK. Heavy explosions reported in Damascus. Trump’s remarks were contradictory (surprise), emphasizing their limited nature while also saying that the US will keep at it for as long as it takes for Assad to stop using chemical weapons. More to come.

UPDATE 2: I posted a transcript of Trump’s remarks at LobeLog, though I kind of did it without getting permission so if they decide to pull it down I’ll repost it here. Cruise missile strikes have reportedly begun against military targets around Syria, including a chemical weapons research facility in Damascus. This looks like an open-ended operation, since Trump talked about continuing it until Bashar al-Assad stops using chemical weapons, but may be limited in scope to facilities that have direct connection with Syria’s chemical weapons program. That last bit is my conjecture–it’s too soon to say what shape this operation is going to take. But it’s clearly not going to be a one-off. It could be an expanded limited strike or it could be that the United States has just muscled its way into the Syrian civil war in a much bigger and more permanent way. We’ll see.

UPDATE 3: In a Pentagon briefing, James Mattis just described these strikes as a “one-time shot” at Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. So it would seem, contrary to what Trump said, that we’re one (night) and done in terms of the duration of this operation.

EARLIER: I want to preface this by noting that it may all be obsolete as of later this evening:

Stanage is the White House correspondent for The Hill, so he’s got this information first hand. When the White House isn’t planning on there being any news for the rest of the evening, they announce a “lid” until the following morning. They haven’t done that today, and there’s nothing on the White House schedule that would obviously indicate something happening this evening, so, well, as the tweet says, let the speculation commence. It might not be Syria–Donald Trump might fire half the Justice Department or burn Jim Comey’s book on the White House lawn or something.

The Royal Air Force base in Cyprus is apparently on alert for strikes in Syria. Not so much in that its aircraft might participate in such an operation, but that the base, at Akrotiri, could be targeted for retaliation by Russian forces. Meanwhile, an investigative team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will begin investigating last weekend’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma on Saturday.

Other than that, all the action around the alleged Douma attack and a possible Western military response (plus a possible Russian counter-response) has been happening at the United Nations and in capitals outside of Syria. From Ankara, Tel Aviv, and Moscow to Paris, London, and Washington, to the UN Security Council, stakeholders in the Syrian conflict have been working overtime either to try to forestall strikes or prepare for them. Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been working Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to extract concessions from him that would mollify US President Donald Trump–while, just by the by, also fulfilling major Turkish and/or Israeli goals in Syria. Top Iranian foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, meanwhile, has been very vocal about Iran’s determination to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad no matter what. There is a possibility of a Russian break with Iran here, though it’s very small.

At the Security Council on Friday, US ambassador Nikki Haley accused Assad of using chemical weapons “at least 50 times” over the course of the Syrian civil war, without explaining whence she came by that high estimate. Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzya repeated Moscow’s claim that there was no chemical weapons attack in Douma and denounced Trump’s threats to strike Syria. The Russians even accused Britain of staging the incident, which is a cool story bro but would be a touch more believable if there were any evidence to support it and if it didn’t look so much like a catty Russian response to the Sergei Skripal affair. Things have deteriorated so much that UN Secretary General António Guterres told the council that “the Cold War is back with a vengeance.” So that’s exciting.

For all the bluster, we don’t seem to be much closer to an actual decision to retaliate than we at the beginning of this week. Though it now says it has proof that Assad’s forces were responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Douma last weekend–a remarkable assertion given that the investigation hasn’t even started yet–the Trump administration reportedly remains bedeviled by the fact that the United States really has no idea what its Syria strategy is and so has no idea what would come after the strikes or even what form the strikes ought to take. It might also be hung up on the fact that such strikes would be blatantly illegal, but I doubt that’s entered into the discussion very much. Trump himself isn’t helping–by publicly talking about retaliation, likely so he can look tough for his base, he’s put himself and the US in a position where he may feel he has no choice but to pursue a military response lest he look weak. He’s also apparently agitating for strikes that go beyond what his own Secretary of Defense–who is, to say the least, no pacifist–believes is prudent, according to The Wall Street Journal:

While all of this is going on, it should comfort you to know that the United Nations has effectively given up trying to keep track of how many people are being killed in Syria. In fact nobody has attempted a comprehensive count since 2016, and surely the number has gone up since then. This same phenomenon has happened in Yemen, by the way, where the international community has been citing the same 10,000 deaths for months now. Tracking deaths in a place that’s been pulverized by years of war is extremely difficult, but for international organizations whose job is to illustrate the costs of violence, not tracking those deaths seems inconceivable.


The official campaign for Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary election begins tomorrow, and the buried lede is that a growing number of Iraqis appear to be losing faith in their democracy:

Many Iraqis have lamented the country’s corrupt and ineffective political elite, accusing them of being behind the nation’s endemic woes since 2003. Their anger and disappointment have been aired in the form of songs, poems, cartoons, jokes and comic videos.


Some say they have lost confidence in the electoral process, arguing the upcoming vote will not bring change to Iraq since the same politicians keep running for re-election. Many say they will stay home rather than go to the polls.

Iraq’s ministry of justice announced late last month the formation of an arbitration process meant to handle disputes between Iraqi tribes. Supporters argue that arbitration will help tamp down such disputes before they become armed conflicts. However, Iraqi civil society activists are concerned about the measure, which seems to elevate tribes and tribal law above the Iraqi state and its civil legal process.


Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and left millions more at risk of starvation, disease, and the like. It’s caused tremendous human suffering. But you’ll be so pleased to learn that the war hasn’t really put the Saudi people out in any serious way:

But here in Riyadh, the war competes for attention in a city enthralled by other things, including the comings and goings of its restless and charismatic crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. As he travels abroad, Saudi Twitter feeds and broadsheets track his every meeting with world leaders and celebrities, every deal he strikes on behalf of the country.


Its soaring ambition is measured by Riyadh’s endless development projects, by the hotels that fill each week with international businesspeople flocking to suddenly abundant economic opportunities, as if to a gold rush. Once-feared religious police, stripped of the power to enforce moral codes, cruise the city with hangdog expressions in a sign of change.


When it came to the war, there was not much to say. Many people agreed with the government’s argument that Saudi military intervention in Yemen three years ago had been necessary to defend the country’s borders against a rebel group allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival. There was no need to second-guess that decision, or question why the war was taking so long, they reasoned.

Why should they waste their beautiful minds worrying about something that’s only killing Yemenis? It’s inspiring to see these folks persevering through no hardship whatsoever.


At least one Palestinian protester was killed and 900 injured on Friday when Israeli forces once again used live ammunition against thousands of people demonstrating near the Gaza fence line. Almost like they don’t really give a rat’s ass about the international community’s milquetoast denunciations. The protesters reportedly attempted to launch rocks and firebombs over the fence into Israeli territory, but as there were once again no Israeli casualties it’s difficult to imagine that any Israeli soldiers were in mortal danger and firing in self-defense.

At +972 Magazine, Israeli journalist Meron Rappoport interviews Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Shikaki argues that Hamas is using these protests, which are ostensibly about the Palestinians’ right of return to Israel, as a way to create Arab and international sympathy toward lifting the Gaza blockade. That’s why it’s opted for a nonviolent approach:

Ending the blockade is not the stated target of the Great Return March, but, Shikaki says, it is the main goal of the organizers, especially Hamas. “Hamas wants to emphasize the despair in Gaza, to turn the world’s attention to it and tell Israel: we can no longer take care of this ourselves, you are also responsible.”


That is why the organizers chose the tactic of nonviolence. “Nonviolence is what Hamas really wants,” he adds. “They want many people to come, but they don’t want the demonstrations to deteriorate into violence. That is why they checked that no one was bringing weapons to the border, that is why they asked protesters not to throw stones or get too close to the fence. Israelis might think that the goal is to bring thousands of people over the fence and humiliate Israel. I do not think that is the intention.”


The best case scenario, for Hamas and the other organizers, is that on May 15, Nakba Day, a sea of people will stand at the Gaza-Israel border fence and demand freedom, Shikaki says. A mass of people by the fence will be “humiliating for Israel.”


Cairo says it’s not to blame for the collapse of talks last week between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopian state media has been blaming the Egyptians for insisting on adherence to a 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan over Nile water rights, an agreement to which Ethiopia was not party and therefore to which the Ethiopian government does not feel obliged to adhere. The Egyptians insist that they’re working in good faith to reach a deal and want to hold a new round of talks ASAP.


James Dorsey argues that the Saudi plan to dredge its border with Qatar and turn it into a canal is a bad idea. Not only is it shortsighted from a regional diplomacy perspective, but it will cement a divide between the world’s only two Wahhabi kingdoms at a time when the supposedly reformist Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman could be using Qatar as a model:

Qatari conservatism is likely what Prince Mohammed would like to achieve even if that is something he is unlikely to acknowledge. His initial measures – lifting the ban on women’s driving and attending male sporting events; rolling back the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or Mutaween, the religious police; and his introduction of long forbidden forms of modern entertainment – are in line with the conservatism of Qatar or for that matter the UAE, even if the Emirates do not share a Wahhabi heritage.


Qatar’s advantage has been that it projects the ability to change without completely dumping ultra-conservative religious precepts that have shaped culture and belief systems. It projects a vision, like the one Prince Mohammed is pursuing, of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi society that grants individuals opportunities irrespective of gender.


At LobeLog, Thomas Lippman argues that the US should think long and hard about helping Saudi Arabia develop a nuclear program now that the de facto ruler of the country has all but declared he’s interested in weaponizing it:

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, seems to have gotten what he wanted from his long glad-handing tour through the United States and several European capitals. He met President Trump and brand-name business tycoons and potential investors, and took home some actual deals, including a commitment by the giant French oil company Total to invest billions in a new petrochemical complex.


What he should have gotten but did not were stern lectures excoriating his glib, casual attitude about acquiring or developing nuclear weapons. Asked by Norah O’Donnell of CBS what Saudi Arabia would do if Iran obtained such weapons, he replied, “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”


Speaking of nuclear power, Al-Monitor’s correspondent in Iran says that Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal are emboldening conservatives who want to see Iran do likewise, and to go even further than that:

According to [hardline newspaper] Javan, “It seems that the most important [response] of Iran on its agenda is the beginning of a nuclear return: a process in which the centrifuges of the country will restart their activities in full power and the [uranium] enrichment process will begin in accordance with the needs of the country.”


The IRGC-affiliated newspaper then offered another proposal by hard-line academic Fouad Izadi.


Izadi told Mehr News Agency on April 12, “The cost of the US withdrawing from the JCPOA, an international agreement, can be that the president notes that if they want to withdraw from the JCPOA, we will not only leave the JCPOA but will also leave the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons].”

An Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would undoubtedly escalate tensions with the US toward a conflict, and would probably cost Iran support in the European Union, Russia, and China, so that’s probably a long shot.

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