Middle East update: July 9 2018


Syrian military forces have reportedly surrounded and besieged rebel-held parts of Daraa city. These rebels have presumably rejected the ceasefire deals that rebels in other parts of Daraa province have struck. Syrian forces are also pressuring Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid, a hardline group with links to ISIS that controls some territory in Daraa province.

As the Syrians move south, Israel is warning them not to enter the UN-established demilitarized zone in Quneitra province abutting the Golan. The UN established that buffer zone in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, and has maintained it ever since on continually renewed six month terms.


It would appear that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which has been saying for a couple of weeks now that it controls Hudaydah’s airport, is still exaggerating its gains:

The coalition announced on June 20 that it had seized Hodeidah airport, but local military and aid sources told Reuters that neither side has complete control of the airport and its surrounding area, which spreads over 20 km (12 miles).

“The coalition never took control of the airport,” Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi told Reuters.

A pro-coalition Yemeni military source said the Houthis hold the northern outskirts of the area while coalition-backed forces are trying to maintain their positions along the southern edges.

A senior aid official said coalition forces had initially penetrated the perimeter of the airport. “But that was short lived for less than 24 hours and they were pushed out,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

This stalemate, and not some magnanimous gesture to allow the United Nations time to negotiate a peaceful settlement on Hudaydah with the Houthis, could be behind the recent pause in the coalition’s offensive. Either way the UN is taking advantage of the relative lull in fighting to work on such a settlement. The Houthis have reportedly agreed to hand control of Hudaydah’s seaport to the UN, but the coalition is insisting that they surrender the entire city and withdraw from the Yemeni coast.

The deputy interior minister of Yemen says that the UAE’s black site prisons/torture facilities in Yemen have been transferred to Yemeni control, but at least two other anonymous Yemeni security officials are contradicting him.


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was sworn in for a new term as president–his first with the vast powers he’s been given under Turkey’s new constitution–on Monday in Ankara. Congrats to Sultan Recep, I guess. In his inaugural address, he naturally predicted that everything is going to be better for Turkey now that he’s got all these new unchecked powers–everybody will be freer, Turkey will be more powerful, the air will seem cleaner and fresher, colors will appear brighter to the naked eye, etc. Turkey’s state media has apparently been twisting itself into a pretzel to explain how a country that just vested most of its government in one man could actually be freer and more democratic as a result:

For all his defiant rhetoric, Erdogan is hungry for global legitimacy, and in his inaugural speech he vowed, “In the new era, Turkey will further advance in all areas, including democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms and economy.” Indeed, commentators on Turkey’s state television channel TRT were at pains to explain that the new model, which allows the president to issue executive decrees and to appoint and sack senior judges, Cabinet ministers and other senior officials without the parliament’s assent, would make the country more stable and democratic. “The tyranny of bureaucracy is over,” intoned one.

Erdoğan made his cabinet appointments on Monday evening, with Turkish markets clearly a bit anxious about who’s going to wind up managing the economy. It turns out it will be Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son in-law and therefore Turkey’s Jared Kushner. He’ll be finance minister in the new cabinet and is, presumably, being groomed to eventually succeed Erdoğan as Turkey fully transitions into fake democracy.


ISIS fighters attacked a Popular Mobilization militia stationed near the country’s largest oil refinery in Baiji on Monday, killing three militia members. Four of the ISIS attackers were also killed. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government said on Monday that a recent anti-ISIS coalition airstrike northwest of Mosul killed 20 ISIS fighters, though it didn’t say when the strike took place.

Speaking of Mosul, Al Jazeera reports that there’s still much rebuilding work to be done in the city:

The battle to retake Mosul was more violent than it needed to be because Iraqi and coalition leaders made the conscious decision to deny ISIS a way out of the western side of the city. The original plan was to leave a corridor open to the west that would serve as a “kill box.” ISIS fighters would funnel into the corridor and then be pounded from the air. But there were concerns that many ISIS fighters would be able to melt away into the countryside and/or get to the Syrian border, and so the decision was made to trap them in the city and kill them there. The result was a decisive victory, but a destroyed city.

Musings on Iraq’s Patrick Wing has more details about this past weekend’s deadly protest outside of Basra:

On July 8, there was a protest in Imam Sadiq near the West Qurna 2 oil field in Basra. People were demanding jobs from the international companies operating there, electricity and water. They blockeda road leading to the oil field, and would not allow workers through. The police then set upon them with batons, leading to rocks being thrown, and then gunfire that killed one immediately and wounding 3 more. One of the latter passed away from his injuries. This brought out more people into the streets as around 200 demanded justice be served for these deaths. One of those that lost their lives belonged to the Bani Mansour tribe, which gave the security forces 12 hours to turn over the perpetrator. The Basra governor and provincial councilmen visited the sheikhs to try to calm them down and assure them the matter would be investigated. This was not the first time this has happened. In previous years police have shot and killed demonstrators as well. It shows bad command of the local security forces as there was no need to use guns.


The Israeli government is shutting down Gaza’s main Kerem Shalom border crossing and reducing its coastal fishing zone to 11 kilometers from shore, down from 17 kilometers. The point, of course, is to further immiserate Palestinians in Gaza to punish/pressure Hamas and in retaliation for the use of crude incendiary weapons like flaming kites near the Gaza fence line.


In the New York Times while I was away, researcher Nabil Mouline asked whether it’s possible for the Saudis to shed Wahhabism. History suggests the Wahhabi religious establishment will be able to reshape itself to accommodate Mohammad bin Salman’s new vision of Saudi society without having to give up its status in the Saudi kingdom:

In the mid-18th century, the Saud embraced Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a revivalist preacher who advocated a narrow reading of the Quran and the Hadith and attacked any deviations from or accretions to the original practice. People who deviated from the Wahhabi doctrine were excluded from Islam, and jihad was considered the only way to bring them back to the right path.

The compact with Wahhab and his disciples helped the Saud to legitimize an expansionist policy and create a durable state in the early 20th century. The Saudi monarchy monopolized political and military action; the Wahhabi clerics took charge of the religious, legal and social spheres.

Prince Mohammed is unlikely to pull off a break with the Wahhabi religious establishment because the clerics have proved to be resilient and have displayed a great capacity to adapt to transitions and vagaries of power. Attempts to marginalize the clerics date back to the early 20th century.

Along these lines, the Saudi government is now spending money to protect the kingdom’s pre-Islamic heritage sites rather than dreaming up new ways to destroy them in the name of “progress.” It’s a tenet of Wahhabism that visiting non-Islamic sites, especially religious ones, verges on idolatry and so those sites should be destroyed–witness how ISIS has treated pre-Islamic sites in Syria and Iraq. And it’s long been a tenet of the Saudi family that heritage sites can and should be sacrificed to major development projects. But the crown prince seems to realize the value of heritage and may even revisit the idea of issuing tourist visas to the kingdom, something Saudi officials have long toyed with but never gone ahead and implemented.


Back in May, Iranian authorities arrested a 19 year old girl for posting clips of herself dancing on Instagram. Women aren’t allowed to dance in public in Iran, you see. They then forced the girl to go on state television and confess her “crime.” The fallout has not gone the way those Iranian authorities probably would’ve liked:

Whatever the authorities’ intent, the public shaming of Ms. Hojabri and the arrest of others who have not been identified have created a backlash in a society already seething over a bad economy, corruption and a lack of personal freedoms.

Since Ms. Hojabri’s televised confession, scores of Iranians have posted videos of themselves dancing in protest, while thousands more have posted pictures of her and written supportive posts on their Instagram pages.

Hardliners will likely use this case to argue for shutting down Instagram in the country, which could exacerbate the backlash.

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