Middle East update: May 26-27 2018


A group of ISIS fighters attacked a Syrian military position in Deir Ezzor province overnight and, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed 35 pro-government troops including nine Russian soldiers–not contractors, but actually active duty soldiers. Russia’s defense ministry has acknowledged four Russian deaths in the attack, which it says also left 43 of the attackers dead.

With Damascus and its environs under control, and despite US warnings, it would appear that the Syrian army still has its sights set on Daraa as its next major target:

The armed opposition is now relegated to Idlib province in the north near the Turkish border and Daraa in the south near the Jordanian border. On Friday, Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets in the northern districts of Daraa, warning rebels to lay down their weapons or face an offensive there.


“The men of the Syrian army are coming. Take your decision before it is too late,” the leaflets read, according to the Syrian Central Military Media’s website.

The good news (?) is that the Syrian government has begun forming a committee to “review” the Syrian constitution. So that’s…nice? Contrary to multiple international calls for a brand new constitution, though, Damascus says it will only consider amendments to the current document.


The Saudi-Yemeni-Emirati-etc. coalition advance north along Yemen’s Red Sea coast toward Hudaydah cost at least 150 lives this week according to anonymous Yemeni government sources as well as witnesses. If/when they get to Hudaydah, which the coalition says is being used to smuggle weapons for the Houthis into the country, the cost could be even grimmer. Hudaydah is the main and really only point of entry for humanitarian goods coming into the country, so any damage to its port is going to greatly exacerbate Yemen’s already massive struggles.

The Houthis claim that a Saudi airstrike on Sanaa on Saturday killed at least four civilians. The Saudis, meanwhile, say that they prevented a drone attack against the airport in the city of Abha, also on Saturday.


Iraq’s largest Shiʿa political party, Islamic Dawa, is facing an uncertain post-election future. Having split into two lists for the vote because of the rivalry between its two most prominent figures–Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki–the party is now considering whether or not to reunite behind one of them. Maliki insists that the party had always planned to reunite after the election, but Abadi disputes this. Combined, the two lists would hold 67 seats in the next parliament, more than Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party (which won more seats than any other list in the May 12 vote), but it would be a tenuous alliance at best and it will be impossible for Abadi to negotiate with Sadr under those circumstances, as Sadr despises Maliki. Maliki may also be opposed to Abadi leading the reunified party, even though Abadi’s list won 42 seats to Maliki’s 25. Abadi may formally leave Dawa altogether if Maliki refuses to take a hint, though I’m sure that depends on how his talks with Sadr go.


Mahmoud Abbas, currently in the hospital being treated for a lung infection, had his stay extended on Sunday. Abbas went into the hospital on May 20 for ear surgery before the infection developed. Consider this a periodic reminder that Abbas, as unpopular and ineffective as he has been, has consolidated power so thoroughly within Fatah, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority that he has no apparent successor nor is it really clear what the process for choosing a successor would be. If Abbas were to die in office, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament should by law succeed him as president on an interim basis. The problem is that the last time Palestinians voted in a parliamentary election was in 2006 and Hamas won, so the nominal speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council is Hamas member Aziz Duwaik. Fatah will under no circumstances allow somebody from Hamas to become president of the PA, even on an interim basis. As far as Palestinian politics are concerned right now, to borrow a phrase, it’s after Abbas, the deluge.

Israeli soldiers hit an observation post in Gaza on Sunday in response to a bomb having been placed along the Gaza fence line (consider this your periodic reminder to stop calling it a “border”). They reportedly killed three members of Islamic Jihad. Israeli authorities are now working on extending the border fence out to sea in order to prevent seaborne attempts at crossing the line.

Speaking of Gaza, here’s an interview that Local Call’s Rami Younis did with teacher and Great Return March leader Hasan al-Kurd about the march leaders’ commitment to non-violent protest and the lessons they learned from this effort:

What conclusions did you draw? Not everything went as planned.


“You’re right,” he sighs, the pain still audible in his voice. “We made a lot of mistakes. We did not control the protest as we had hoped. The involvement of the other factions in Gaza and the coordination among all of them made things extremely complicated. It began when we discovered how difficult it is to control the individual actions of young, desperate people. As much as we pleaded with them not to get close to the soldiers or use violence, so as to not give the soldiers a pretext for shooting them, some of the young people did not listen and threw stones. After all, we know that the Israeli soldier, who does not think twice before shooting women and children, is waiting for the tiniest excuse to kill. We could not keep people at the distance we wanted from the border.


“Another mistake we made was holding the march on May 14th. The political factions, including Fatah, intervened and insisted that we hold the protest on the day before Nakba Day, to protest the U.S. Embassy move.”

The next time the protesters gather at the fence line they can still expect to be met once again with live, lethal fire from Israeli soldiers. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against a petition by human rights groups that sought to limit or do away with the Israeli Defense Forces’ use of snipers as crowd control. International law is supposed to prohibit the use of lethal force against protesters, but why would the Israeli government start following international law now?


When Saudi Arabia and company imposed their blockade last year against Qatar and Qatari products, the Qataris did not respond in kind. Until this weekend, that is. Qatari officials sent a letter to stores on Saturday ordering that all products from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates be taken off their shelves and announcing inspections to check for compliance. The Qataris have managed to find new markets for their goods and new sources for imports over the past several months, and have in some cases built entire domestic industries to replace what they’ve lost (a dairy industry, for example).

The Qatari economy somewhat hilariously outperformed both the Saudi and Emirati economies in 2017 according to the International Monetary Fund, and is expected to do so again in 2018. Doha wants to expand its banking sector to serve as a regional “hub” for  friendly neighbors like Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan…and Iran. The Qataris certainly value their relationship with the United States, but if I were someone who was, say, heavily invested in inflicting economic pain on Iran, then I might want to keep an eye on this and maybe lean on my Saudi friends to fix their relationship with Qatar ASAP.


After some juicy but I think ultimately baseless speculation about Mohammad bin Salman’s health, Brian Whitaker offers what seems to me to be the best explanation for the kingdom’s recent and sudden crackdown on women’s rights activists:

But perhaps a more likely explanation is that the arrest of activists is entirely consistent with Bin Salman’s policies, and that any surprise about that is misplaced. It’s important to remember that political reform is not part of the prince’s vision for Saudi Arabia and reforms, when they happen, must be seen to come from the top. When women drivers finally take to the roads Bin Salman will claim the credit and the Saudis who campaigned for it over many years will be silent behind bars.


Chinese President Xi Jinping will host Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next month at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Qingdao. Xi is expected to make his pitch to Rouhani for maintaining the Iran nuclear deal, assuming Iran hasn’t quit the accord by then. This will presumably include Xi’s plans to continue doing business in Iran despite the threat of US sanctions.

If there’s going to be a threat to the European Union’s internal cohesion with respect to salvaging the Iran nuclear deal, it will come from the EU’s junior authoritarian bloc, AKA the Visegrád Group, AKA the far right governments in Poland and Hungary along with their pals in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These governments are only too happy to throw a wrench into Brussels’ plans in order to curry favor with their fellow authoritarian-minded pal Donald Trump. And sure enough, here’s Poland being first to chime in:

Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said Warsaw — a staunch ally of Washington — had not decided yet whether to back the ban, potentially complicating a decision that needs unanimous backing from the EU’s 28 members.


“We need to think, there is still time,” Czaputowicz told Reuters. “This doesn’t mean we don’t feel part of the EU community in these discussions … We will see what other EU members think.”


Referring to European companies doing business in Iran since the nuclear deal was put in place, Czaputowicz said Poland felt “economic considerations appeared to take precedence” in EU talks.


“During discussions (within the EU), we will emphasize the need to consider the motives of the United States and a greater empathy towards them.”

If “economic considerations” actually were taking precedence in these EU talks then they’d already be over and the nuclear deal would be completely scrapped. There is no “economic consideration” that would lead Europe or any European firms to choose Iran over the United States. The real economic consideration here is Poland’s, which recognizes the benefits to staying on Trump’s good side.

Iranian authorities say they’re ready to crack down against any new protests like the ones in December or those in Kazeroon earlier this month, citing the (unsubstantiated) claim that protesters are being supported/organized by foreign governments to destabilize Iran. If new protests were to break out and be brutally put down, that would make it significantly more difficult for European governments to justify their actions to preserve the nuclear accord.

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