Middle East update: March 7 2019


Amnesty International has released its annual report on the state of human rights in the Middle East and, well, it’s not great:

The killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces in Gaza and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate glaringly illustrated the unaccountability of Middle Eastern and North African states that resorted to lethal and other violence to repress dissent.

The crackdown on civil society actors and political opponents increased significantly in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In all, dozens of women human rights defenders there were targeted for advocating women’s rights or protesting against violence against women or sexual harassment. Across the region, authorities used arbitrary detention, excessive force against protesters and administrative measures to restrict civil society. Despite the repression, 2018, like 2017, saw limited positive developments at a legislative and institutional level with respect to women’s rights and violence against women. Developments in Lebanon and Tunisia raised faint hopes of the beginnings of change in the general situation in which same-sex sexual relations are criminalized across the region; however, authorities in these and other countries arrested and prosecuted people for their real or perceived sexual orientation. Armed hostilities in both Iraq and Syria decreased. As a result, fewer civilians were killed, but many continued to suffer the impact of serious violations, including war crimes, committed by all parties to the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen particularly, as well as the devastating humanitarian situations that arose from or were exacerbated by their actions. Significant developments aimed at addressing past violations occurred in Lebanon and Tunisia. Ethnic and religious minorities faced persecution by states and armed groups in countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.


The head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that “there is not pressure on me to meet a specific date” in terms of withdrawing US forces from Syria. If European countries don’t agree to pony up soldiers as part of a multi-national force to occupy/oversee northeastern Syria, and so far they don’t seem too enthusiastic about the idea, there’s at least some possibility that the US simply isn’t going to withdraw at all.

The Syrian government “categorically rejects” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ recent finding that a chemical weapon was used in then-rebel held Douma back in April. The finding doesn’t carry any accusation because the OPCW’s mandate didn’t cover determining responsibility, but the implication of the finding is that the Syrian military was responsible.

There weren’t any major new developments in Baghouz today, but with that operation all but finished the focus is now shifting to ISIS’s remnants in Syria and Iraq and the damage they can still do in a very unsettled environment:

Conditions in Deir al-Zour, where the Islamic State is mounting its final stand, remain unusually fertile for the jihadists. Clandestine cells are active in several areas, where shattered villages and vast tracts of desert are difficult to police, experts say.

Across the porous border in Iraq, the central government has regained control over areas once occupied by the militants. But corruption and sectarian discrimination remain a problem, and the long-standing mistrust between residents and state security forces — which fueled local support for the Islamic State in the past — has not gone away.

“One of the main vulnerabilities here is trust: whether those forces are here to help you or police you, whether they are there to govern your areas properly or exploit them,” said Hassan Hassan, a research director at the Washington-based Center for Global Policy.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which is a predominantly Kurdish organization and therefore not really in its element in Deir Ezzor, isn’t viewed terribly well by civilians. This could create instability that can be exploited by ISIS, or it could also lead (already has led, actually) the SDF to release some local ISIS fighters as a concession to local tribes, which obviously raises other concerns. In Iraq, a similar dynamic is playing out between Popular Mobilization militias and Iraqi security forces on the one hand and Sunni civilians in northern and western Iraq on the other.


Speaking of which, ISIS fighters on Thursday attacked a bus carrying PMU fighters from Mosul to Kirkuk, killing at least six of them.

That’s five more than the number of civilians the Royal Air Force says it’s killed over four years worth of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that have killed more than 4000 ISIS fighters. Obviously killing only one civilian in an air campaign of that size and length is remarkable and, since I’m sure the UK government wouldn’t just make that kind of thing up, I think we all should congratulate them on their success. By the way if you believe that figure, please email me your bank account and Social Security information because I have some fantastic business opportunities I’d like to share with you as soon as possible.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 15 year old Palestinian girl in overnight clashes near the Gaza fence line. The IDF hasn’t yet revealed the atrocity she must have committed to deserve being gunned down. Israeli airstrikes also hit several Hamas targets in Gaza but no casualties were reported.

Elections officials in the Middle East’s Only Democracy™ have banned two Arab parties and one Jewish candidate on an Arab party list from running in April’s Knesset election while allowing the leader of the Kahanist Jewish Power party, Michael Ben Ari, to run. The Arab parties allegedly have either supported terrorism or denied Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Jewish Power, whose views are rooted in the legacy of a terrorist, nevertheless not only supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, it believes Israel should exist as a Jewish-only state, with all that implies. And that’s apparently within the bounds of reasonable discourse. The effect here is likely to depress the Arab vote, and that’s probably the point since high Arab turnout would favor forces opposed to Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuation as prime minister.


Egyptian authorities say their security forces killed seven militants in two operations in Giza. They identified the militants as members of Hasm, an Islamist organization that cropped up in the wake of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 coup and, depending on whose story you believe, is comprised of angry Muslim Brotherhood members who have turned to violence or has nothing whatsoever to do with the Brotherhood.


Thursday was not a great day for Saudi Arabia at the United Nations Human Rights Council:

Saudi Arabia was rebuked at the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday, with 36 countries, including all 28 European Union member states, signing onto the rebuke — the first the kingdom has faced from the panel since its establishment in 2006.

“We are particularly concerned about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms,” said Harald Aspelund, Iceland’s ambassador in Geneva, who read the text of the statement criticizing the kingdom’s human rights record.

The statement explicitly named individuals “detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” including women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, all of whom had pushed for women to have the right to drive. They were arrested in May 2018, one month before the kingdom issued its first driving licenses to women.

On the plus side, for Riyadh anyway, European Union member states have voted unanimously to block the European Commission’s attempt to include Saudi Arabia on a list of countries that are not doing enough to curb money laundering and terrorism financing. The commission now has to draw up a new list, and it may try to keep the Saudis on that list but use a different procedure that gives the Saudis a chance to defend themselves. That was the justification member states used for rejecting this list.


The United States wants the UN Security Council to reimpose sanctions against Iran over its missile program. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, the council softened a previous 2010 ban on Iranian missile tests to a clause asking Iran to “refrain” from missile testing without specifying any penalties for new tests. Meanwhile, the Indian government is looking to extend its waiver from US sanctions in order to keep buying Iranian oil to the tune of around 300,000 barrels per day. Its current exemption from November’s restored oil sanctions runs out in May. Iran’s overall oil exports have dropped from around three million bpd before the sanctions were reinstated to 1.25 million bpd this year.

Ebrahim Raisi, who was pantsed by Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s 2017 presidential election, will now get to be a thorn in Rouhani’s side on a daily basis. He took over as the head of Iran’s judiciary on Thursday, replacing Sadeq Larijani after Larijani’s promotion to head the Expediency Council earlier this year. Raisi has held a number of prosecutorial positions in his career and was notably one of the key figures involved in Iran’s notorious five-month long execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. From his new perch he could make another run for the presidency, or he could be up for consideration as Iran’s next Supreme Leader, though Larijani has to be considered the favorite there and he’s a year younger than Raisi. Or he could just stay in this job, which is one of the more powerful gigs within Iran’s ruling apparatus.

With International Women’s Day tomorrow, activist Roya Hakakian argues that Westerners have gotten turned around when it comes to defending women’s rights in places like Iran:

Yet to democratic-minded Westerners, who rightly wish to define themselves against their homegrown right-wing nationalists, the veil has come to be a symbol of resistance, precisely the opposite of what it means to the women who are forced under it: a symbol of oppression. They forget that tolerance without context is merely another form of dogma. Defending the right of Muslims to don the veil is perfectly appropriate in Western societies where nativists and xenophobes are gathering political momentum. But failing to speak against the veil as a symbol of gender apartheid in countries where it is enforced by law is the betrayal of all the feminist and democratic values they hold dear. Often those who keep silent do so in the name of cultural relativism. Citing the sins of colonialism, they argue that meddling in the matter of the veil is meddling in the indigenous traditions of another people. But if the chief moral flaw of the colonial perspective was its inability to see those whom they ruled over as equals, then the current tolerant liberals can be accused of the same. They fail to see that freedom of choice—in this case, to dress—is not a luxury belonging only to those in the West but a universal right for all. As long as a group of powerful Iranian men impose their will on half of the nation, the right to choose how to dress must remain a global human rights struggle.

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