Middle East update: April 16 2018


BREAKING: Somebody fired some missiles at a Syrian air base near Homs late Monday night. State media says they were all shot down by Syrian air defenses, but who knows. Most likely this was Israel though I suppose at this point you can’t rule anything out.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigative team that was supposed to begin examining the alleged site of the alleged April 7 chemical weapons attack on Saturday, and then on Sunday, still hasn’t begun examining the site, and here we are on Monday. The OPCW says that Russian and Syrian authorities are denying its team access to the site pending some security issues that have to be resolved, while offering it more than 20 “witnesses” who I’m sure haven’t been carefully screened or coached or anything like that. Naturally, this has led to accusations from the United States that Russia and Syria are busy destroying evidence at the Douma site and won’t let the OPCW have access to it until they’re finished, a charge that Russia naturally denies.

I’m not going to tell you what happened or didn’t happen in Douma on April 7. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But I will say that Russia and Syria are extraordinarily good at undermining their own counterclaims. Blocking the OPCW from the site for two days is not a great way to convince people that you’re on the level. The US et al were responsible for the investigation’s failure to begin on Saturday, but two days after that it’s in Russia’s lap. Well, make that four days–Russian authorities finally said late Monday that the OPCW could have access to the site…on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, if anybody still cares what’s actually happening in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s air force reportedly conducted 28 strikes on rebel-held areas of Homs and Hama provinces on Sunday, just a day after the US-UK-French operation. On the other hand, civilians in Eastern Ghouta are getting food again, via government aid trucks and the discovery, per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, of stockpiles of food that rebel groups must have been hoarding. For those people, at least, things are probably better today than they were two weeks ago.

Speaking of government airstrikes, new research suggests that political, moreso than military, interests have driven Damascus’ choice of targets:

Our findings suggest that regime concerns with rebel governance, rather than military calculations or sectarian motivation, best explain the Assad regime’s targeted bombardment of opposition-held areas. It also helps us understand the regime’s ongoing success in the war.

From 2013 to 2016, we conducted more than 100 interviews with civilians, activists, journalists and aid workers to explore how the regime’s aerial bombardment campaigns affected various rebel groups’ attempts to govern. We found that during the conflict, carrying out basic statelike functions, from mediation to education — what we term “performing the state” — has been one of the most important governing strategies undertaken by rebel groups. At the same time, the Assad regime actively targets these institutions and services to undermine and defeat rebels that seek its downfall.

As far as the Russian reaction to the Western strike over the weekend, there’s no question that it’s been extremely muted. The US seems to have gone to some lengths to ensure that there wasn’t even a minimal risk of injury to any Russians in Syria, and Russia seems intent on not ratcheting up tensions at this point with any angry rhetoric. Part of the reason may be that Moscow wasn’t entirely displeased to see their Syrian ally smacked around just a little bit:

Why would Moscow do this? One possibility is that it well understands that these Western attacks would not have occurred if the Assad regime had not attacked its opponents with chemical weapons in the first place. Considering how much effort Putin put into working with the Obama Administration on a process that supposedly removed all chemical weapons from Syria, the fact that Assad has subsequently launched such attacks has undoubtedly embarrassed Putin because they show how little influence Moscow has over him. Further, with Assad now winning the war with his internal opponents (thanks to Russian and Iranian support), his use of chemical weapons against them is not just unnecessary, but counterproductive since it invites Western military retaliation, which the use of conventional force against Assad’s opponents does not.

For Assad, meanwhile, the threat of a limited Western military response to any (alleged) use of chemical weapons is probably worth it if it forces the Russians to double down on their support for him, which it has twice now. Moscow is constantly trying to recast itself as the lead peacemaker in Syria, which means distancing itself a bit from Assad. But in the face of US threats, the Russians have little choice but to revert back to supporting him 100 percent.

Elsewhere, Syrian Kurds are pursuing remedies with the United Nations over reports of looting and ethnic cleansing in Turkish-controlled Afrin. The YPG is pledging to wage a guerrilla war against Turkish forces there. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is still talking about expanding Turkey’s campaign east toward Manbij in order to…stop the US from getting Syria’s oil? I guess? I’ll be honest I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here. I am sure, however, that this is going to work out really well:


According to Borzou Daragahi at Foreign Policy, because of the joint Western attack “Iranian-backed armed groups in Syria are turning the focus of their militancy to U.S. troops on the ground.” This is a very long-winded way to say that one Iranian-supported militia, the Baqir Brigade, announced it was beginning military operations against the United States on its Facebook page. It, uh, has not begun military operations against the United States. Maybe it will! But so far no dice. On the other hand, Daragahi cites a Lebanese report that “hundreds of Iranian-backed militia fighters” surrounded a US airbase west of Baghdad. Here too nothing actually seems to have happened, but if there’s going to be some kind of hostile action by a militia against US forces then my guess is it’s more likely to happen in Iraq, given that the militias and US forces are in closer proximity there than they are in Syria.


PKK fighters attacked Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey on Monday, killing at least three. Turkey’s opposition Republican Peoples Party, meanwhile, is staging sit-ins across the country in opposition to the state of emergency that’s been in place since the attempted coup in 2016. That state of emergency is likely to be extended yet again this week as the Turkish government works feverishly to save the nation from a half-baked coup attempt that fell apart about 12 hours after it started. So brave.

Turkish authorities are worried that young Turks, apparently inspired by, uh, the founders of the United States, I guess, are adopting deism:

On April 10, at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did something unusual during his usual weekly address to the deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He suddenly paused during his address and called the national education minister, Ismet Yilmaz, to the podium. The two men then murmured for about half a minute in front of the huge audience. Muted microphones did not catch the whole conversation, but the minister was heard speaking about “the report on deism” and “the thoughts of our youth about this.” “No,” Erdogan was heard saying in a definitive tone. “That is wrong.”

The report in question, which was discussed at a workshop by the Ministry of Education branch in Konya, a conservative Anatolian town, had made the news in early April. Titled “The Youth is Sliding to Deism,” the document shared surprising observations about the very young people that Turkish society often expects to be the most religious: the students of the state-sponsored religious “imam hatip” schools. The report says that because archaic interpretations of Islam cannot persuade the new generation on issues such as the “problem of evil” (why God allows evil to take place), some imam hatip students have begun questioning the faith. Instead of adopting atheism, the report added, these post-Islamic youths embrace the milder alternative: “deism,” or the belief in God but without religion.

I wish I could say that I’d predicting deism becoming A Thing again, here in the year 2018, but I must have missed the signs or something. Anyway, depending on your perspective, this trend is either the result of a nefarious Western plot or of growing frustration with religious conservatives. In other words, whatever your political views may be, this deism controversy definitely confirms them.


Israel’s new ambassador to Jordan is starting his job this week. Israel has been without an ambassador in Amman since last summer, when a guard at the Israeli embassy there shot and killed two Jordanians, ostensibly in self-defense as one of them was allegedly attacking him. Israel had to pull its ambassador from the country.


Israel’s blockade of Gaza is, among other things, blocking Gazans from access to clean water:

Aaron Magid writes that Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s “special representative for international negotiations,” is showing his anti-Palestinian colors despite his reputation for even-handedness:

Following the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year, a prominent Jewish publication profiled Greenblatt late last year noting that Trump’s Middle East envoy is “beating expectations,” while media reports have praised Greenblatt for striking a water deal with Palestinians and tweeting about meeting with Gaza youth. An Israeli news article published in May 2017 even quoted a Middle East expert, saying that Greenblatt is doing a “terrific job” and seems more interested in “finding the contours of what is politically and practically possible than he is to hewing to ideological positions.”

But 14 months into his senior post, Greenblatt has shown a different face, routinely decrying Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum, while offering blanket support for the hawkish Israeli government. Thus, he has disqualified himself from playing any meaningful role as a fair arbitrator.


Harvard’s Elizabeth Nugent says that many Egyptian voters, denied a genuine election and in many cases forced to vote by authorities or even their employers, deliberately spoiled their ballots in protest by voting for both presidential candidates. Almost 1.8 million ballots were spoiled in this way, compared with only around 650,000 votes cast for phony opposition candidate Moussa Mostafa Moussa.


One takeaway from the recent Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia is that Saudi leaders are trying to create the perception of daylight between themselves and the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to Jerusalem:

Salman opened the summit by renaming it the “Jerusalem Summit.” In his remarks, he said the top priority of the Arab leaders is and should be Palestine. He strongly condemned the Trump administration’s Jerusalem policy. He said the Saudis saw Palestine and Jerusalem as their “first issue.” This rhetoric is not new, of course, and it is standard Saudi policy. The king also reaffirmed the Saudi commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative developed by his predecessors.

The stridency of the king’s remarks, however, reflects growing unease in the royal palace that events in Gaza and Jerusalem are moving toward even more explosive unrest next month when the US Embassy opens in Jerusalem. The Saudis are uncomfortable that they have been widely perceived in the Arab World as colluding with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, to undermine the Palestinians’ claim to the holy city, a perception that damages the Saudi mantle as the defender of the holy mosques, which is crucial to the royal family’s legitimacy. Pictures on TV of protesting Gazans burning Saudi flags and pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been blocked in the kingdom. Iran is actively labeling the Saudis as conspiring with Israel.

To counter charges that he is soft on Jerusalem, Salman pledged at the summit $200 million in aid. He is donating $150 million to preserve Islamic sites in Jerusalem and another $50 million to Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. He pledged to support Jordan’s King Abdullah after months of snubbing him.

The Saudis have also been a little put out by Trump’s comments about withdrawing from Syria, or getting Riyadh to pay for the US to stay in Syria.


With French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both due to visit the US later this month, it’s no exaggeration to say that this is Europe’s last chance to close a deal with Trump that would preserve the Iran nuclear accord. With that in mind, some of the rationale for Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May deciding to participate in the Syrian airstrike becomes a little clearer. Trump is of course an absurdly transactional person, so scratching his back on these strikes could lead to a more amenable approach to the nuclear deal. To that end, it is probably a good thing that Macron has quickly dialed back his weird boast that he’s the guy who convinced Trump to keep US forces in Syria indefinitely. Trump clearly didn’t appreciate it.

It is possible, though still unlikely, that Trump could kick the can down the road on May 12, when he’s next supposed to waive nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, if he thinks talks with the Europeans are moving in a positive (at least from his perspective) direction.

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