Middle East update: June 13 2018


The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported on Wednesday that both sarin and chlorine gases were used in attacks around the village of Ltamenah in Hama province last March. The OPCW’s findings only pertain to the use of chemical weapons and do not by rule identify the perpetrator or perpetrators.

Southwestern Syria still appears to be next on Bashar al-Assad’s hit list. The Syrian leader said on Wednesday that his government is pursuing a diplomatic resolution there but is prepared to go in militarily if that fails.

All the rebel groups that have been relocated from other parts of Syria and crammed into Afrin at Turkey’s behest are reportedly starting to grate on one another:

Security in Afrin has been in a tailspin since the Kurdish canton came under control of Turkish forces and their allied Syrian militias.

There have been several reports of infighting among armed groups recently, with Turkish forces having to play peacekeeper.

The UK-based conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented several clashes between rebel groups in Syria over issues like assuming proprietorship of homes left vacant by owners who fled the Turkish-led military offensive.

There have also been clashes between the Ahrar al-Sham force and families displaced from Eastern Ghouta.

This same phenomenon can be seen in Idlib province on an even larger scale. In Idlib it may be by design–the Syrian government has been shoveling rebel groups into that province as it negotiates surrender deals with them for several months now. But Turkey has actively tried to bring displaced groups into Afrin, in order to expand its proxy rebel force and to displace the area’s Kurdish residents.

Whatever other problems Syria is having, at least we know their constitution is in safe hands. Russia, Iran, and Turkey are sending representatives to Geneva next week to meet with United Nations officials about setting up a Syrian constitutional committee. What a group. If they can do for the constitution what they’ve done for the country itself, things will really be in fantastic shape.


Coalition forces are believed to be six to eight kilometers south of Hudaydah’s city center and there have been reports of fighting around the city’s airport, as the coalition presses forward with an attack on Yemen’s largest port city. This extraordinarily dangerous move by the Saudis and Emiratis makes sense from a military perspective–taking the port is a military objective–but it threatens to become a humanitarian catastrophe. There are some 600,000 people believed to be living in Hudaydah, most of whom are now stuck where they are with nothing to do but hole up and try to dodge strikes by the routinely inaccurate Saudi air force. Tens of thousands of people could die just in the attack on the city alone.

Worse, the port is by far the main point of entry for humanitarian aid coming into Yemen, so this attack imperils food aid for millions of people. The coalition says that if it takes the port it can actually speed up the entry of relief vessels and improve the distribution of aid, which is great as long as it doesn’t, you know, destroy the port in the process of taking it. The worst case scenario here is horrifying–hell, even the medium-case scenario is bad.


A new survey from Rice University suggests that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity, both at home and in the rest of the Middle East, has largely to do with how he’s perceived as a religious leader as well as a political one:

A number of factors explain these findings. For many, Erdoğan’s appeal as a leader is rooted in the unique array of attributes he embodies. First and foremost, Erdoğan boasts a successful economic performance at the helm of the Turkish economy, in which national income more than tripled in a little over a decade. Turkey’s GDP stood at $238 billion in 2002 when the AKP assumed the government. As of 2016, Turkish GDP rose to $864 billion in nominal terms (more than $2 trillion in purchasing power parity). Similarly, while per capita income was $3,660 in 2002, it increased to $10,862 at the end of 2016. Erdoğan’s economic policies focused on improving the regulatory environment for business, boosting exports, lowering the inflation rate, and attracting foreign investment. In this regard, Erdoğan has done something not many politicians have been able to do in the Middle East; he delivered tangible policy outcomes that improved the lives of many.

Another reason for Erdoğan’s popularity is religion. The survey results show that politicians who infuse political rhetoric with religious discourse command notable approval rates and trust of the public, more so than traditional religious authorities or state religious officials. Erdoğan has mastered this skill. The fact that he is able to pull in overwhelming levels of support from those who favored greater political role for religious leaders and self-identified as Islamists brings this point home. Erdoğan is not merely viewed as a politician but as a religiopolitical figure. When he speaks for religion, he has credibility to do so.


On top of the $2.5 billion it’s getting from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE over the next five years, Jordan can now expect another $500 million from Qatar. The aid package includes infrastructure financing and the promise of some 10,000 new jobs in Qatar for Jordanian expatriates.

While Jordan has a history of churning through cabinets, Belfer Center fellow Allison Spencer Hartnett argues that its new prime minister, Omar Razzaz, represents something of a break from the typical Jordanian PM:

Historically, these rapid changes in government have been entrusted to veteran ministers. When protests in 1955 and 1956 led to four changes in Cabinet, the appointed prime ministers had held previous Cabinet posts between five and 16 times. But when Abdullah II dissolved the government last week, he signaled that this time is, perhaps, different. Instead of appointing a member of the political establishment, the king tapped Razzaz, a relative newcomer.

Razzaz comes from an old opposition family and previously worked in academia and economic development. His previous position as minister of education saw him usher in serious reform and take part in youth empowerment programs. Perhaps most indicative of his unorthodox approach, the Military Veterans’ Association, a powerful and conservative tribal group, condemned Razzaz’s appointment. Razzaz’s appointment is a break from normal practice, the implications of which are not yet clear.


The United Nations General Assembly voted 120-8, with 45 abstentions, to condemn Israeli violence against the Palestinians on Wednesday. General Assembly resolutions are effectively meaningless, but the vote did give US ambassador Nikki Haley and Israeli ambassador Danny Danon a change to whine about the UN’s terrible bias against Israel, which for Haley seems to be her only job anymore.

Meanwhile, protesters in Ramallah were met with tear gas and riot gear from Palestinian Authority police on Wednesday. They were demanding that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stop financially punishing the people of Gaza just because he doesn’t like Hamas. Abbas has cut public services and pay for public workers in Gaza in a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” effort to motivate them to, I guess, expel Hamas or something. It’s not clear what Abbas wants from Gazan civilians other than to feel his wrath.


The Egyptian government is finding itself in the same boat as its Jordanian counterpart, having to try to sell unpopular International Monetary Fund-driven austerity measures to a public that opposes them. Cairo is lopping back food, electricity, and fuel subsidies in order to appease the IMF around a 2016 loan it received. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi says that all Egyptians will “pay the price together” for stabilizing their economy, but that kind of talk is almost always total bullshit and in a country whose economy has yet to bounce back from the Arab Spring protests it rings hollow anyway. Fortunately for Sisi he’s well adept at tossing malcontents and political opponents in prison, so he should weather the storm without much problem.


You may not know Tom Barrack, but the ultra-wealthy businessman has, according to the New York Times, been instrumental in forging ties between his pal Donald Trump and his clients in the Persian Gulf:

During the Trump campaign, Mr. Barrack was a top fund-raiser and trusted gatekeeper who opened communications with the Emiratis and Saudis, recommended that the candidate bring on Paul Manafort as campaign manager — and then tried to arrange a secret meeting between Mr. Manafort and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Barrack was later named chairman of Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee.

But Mr. Manafort has since been indicted by the special prosecutor investigating Russian meddling in the presidential election. The same inquiry is examining whether the Emiratis and Saudis helped sway the election in Mr. Trump’s favor — potentially in coordination with the Russians, according to people familiar with the matter. Investigators have also asked witnesses about specific contributions and expenses related to the inauguration, according to people familiar with those interviews.

A spokesman for Mr. Barrack said he has been advised he is not a target of the special prosecutor. Investigators interviewed him in December but asked questions almost exclusively about Mr. Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, said a person familiar with the questioning.


The Iranian government has reportedly arrested human rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. It has also reportedly informed her family that she’s about to serve a five year prison sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. Sotoudeh has been an advocate for judicial reform and women’s rights. It’s not clear why the Iranians suddenly decided to arrest her.

In another statement of defiance around the Iran nuclear accord, Iranian officials said on Wednesday that if the deal collapses they will resume uranium enrichment at their Fordow facility just outside of Qoms. Fordow is a particularly controversial facility because the Iranians were caught enriching there in 2009 having not disclosed its existence to the International Atomic Energy Agency and because it seems intentionally designed to be protected against airstrikes. Under the nuclear deal Fordow was transitioned to a nuclear research facility and the Iranians were prohibited from enriching uranium there for 15 years.

The University of Ottawa’s Thomas Juneau looks at the benefits and costs to Iran of Tehran’s Syrian intervention:

It is a commonly held view that Iran has emerged as a winner from the war that has raged in Syria since 2011. Though the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now virtually guaranteed, this is a Pyrrhic victory: Iran has been dragged into a costly quagmire with no end in sight.

Iran is obliged to remain in Syria for years — possibly decades — with Russia, to prop up a hollowed-out and brutally corrupt regime. This is a classic case of mission creep: Iran intervened lightly to support its ally but got dragged into an ever-costlier spiral from which it cannot extricate itself.

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