Middle East update: March 11 2019


Reuters says that ISIS is getting “pounded” in Baghouz, which is not nearly as hot as it sounds. The Syrian Democratic Forces militia earlier on Monday said it was advancing slowly into the town due to mines and other traps laid by ISIS along with the danger posed by ISIS snipers. I’m not sure if they’re still advancing or if the “pounding” reflects a decision to stand off and let their artillery and coalition airstrikes wear down ISIS’s defenses for a while. That should make for an easier attack but also a higher civilian body count–though at this point I’m not sure anybody has any idea how many civilians are left in Baghouz.

Meanwhile, in a bit of unnecessary trolling the Syrian government has decided to reinstall a statue of the late Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s poppy, in Deraa, a decision that was met with a fair amount of protesting when the statue was unveiled on Monday. This isn’t the first wrecked statue of Hafez that the Syrians have rebuilt–which raises some questions about their whole “we can’t afford to rebuild” thing if this is how they’re spending their money–but the location makes it particularly noteworthy. Deraa is where the Syria’s Arab Spring protests began in 2011 so it’s kind of the ground zero (or Typhoid Mary depending on your perspective) of the civil war.

The Manbij Military Council has reportedly cut a deal with Russian officials to bring Russian forces into the city when (if?) the United States completes its (partial?) withdrawal from northern and eastern Syria. If true, this is most definitely not going to go over well in Ankara, as the Turks have been champing at the bit to get into Manbij for months now. The MMC has refused to allow Turkish forces to enter the city despite an agreement reached last summer between Ankara and Washington to jointly patrol there.


At least 20 people have reportedly been killed in a village in northern Yemen’s Hajjah province. I wish I could be more specific than that, but both the Houthis and the pro-government side are blaming one another for the deaths and neither will say when they occurred. The Houthis say 23 people were killed by a Saudi airstrike, while the Saudis claim the Houthis killed 20 people after their tribe, the Hajour, after some sort of “uprising.”


The Turkish government has summoned Belgium’s ambassador over a recent Belgian court ruling that its government cannot prosecute around 30 people allegedly connected with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey of course considers the PKK a terrorist group but under Belgian law it’s considered a combatant in a conflict and thus cannot be legally categorized as “terrorist.” Hence there are no grounds for prosecution.

Turkey’s economy has reportedly fallen officially into recession, something that’s been on the way for a while now despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s best efforts to avoid it. Loss of foreign investment and access to easy foreign credit is to blame. To the extent that Turkey still has a functioning democracy (if it ever did), this news will hurt Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party heading into local elections later this month. Fortunately for Erdoğan, he’s fixed it so that Turkey doesn’t have a functioning democracy, so he should be fine in case you were worried. AKP may get battered in the elections but Erdoğan’s power will remain mostly unchecked.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq on Monday to remind everybody–including the Iraqis, probably–that Tehran still has at least one ally out there. He and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi signed a number of “memorandums of understanding” over commercial projects, including a proposed rail line that would link Basra with the southern Iranian town of Shalamcheh. It’s unclear how far Iraq is willing to go on deals like this, what with the risk of US sanctions looming over the whole thing, but Iran desperately needs the economic activity. Rouhani also took a few shots at the United States, calling it an “aggressor country,” referencing the Iraq War, and insisting that no US sanctions could divide the Iranian and Iraqi people. He will reportedly spend the next couple of days visiting Shiʿa holy sites at Najaf and Karbala and meeting with other Iraqi leaders, most notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.


Two of the Three Stooges of the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine policy, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, joined Mike Pompeo for a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington on Monday. They no doubt discussed Kushner’s peace plan, which would upgrade the Palestinians from unpersonhood to personhood second class and will most certainly put Abdullah in a bind once it’s unveiled. He simply can’t do anything to risk Jordan’s relationship with the US, but he also can’t support something that will likely be rejected out of hand by most Palestinians and broadly unpopular among Arabs in general.


Benjamin Netanyahu caught a political break on Monday and may be on the verge of catching a bigger one soon. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he’s going to withhold details about the corruption charges pending against Netanyahu until after next month’s Knesset election. The charges will still be hanging over Netanyahu’s head, but this is presumably better for his electoral chances than the alternative.

Meanwhile, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main political rival, reportedly believes that Donald Trump is planning to recognize the occupied Golan as part of Israel in order to give Netanyahu a boost leading into the election. Netanyahu is visiting Washington later this month and Trump could make that announcement then. If he does, it would certainly give Netanyahu some red meat for his base. It would also violate international law, which I grant you doesn’t matter except insofar as the US helped write that particular law. On top of that, taking this provocative step will make it that much harder for the Trump administration to sell Kushner’s Israel-Palestine deal to Arab leaders.

Al-Shabaka’s Zena Agha explains how Israeli water policy, which was already preventing Palestinians in the West Bank from getting enough water, is on top of that making it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to adapt to climate change:

Climate change is among the greatest threats currently facing human life. Its effects are global, wide-ranging, and unequally distributed. Despite Palestinians and Israelis inhabiting the same physical terrain, Palestinians under occupation will suffer the effects of climate change more severely.

The single greatest non-environmental risk facing Palestinians in the West Bank remains the ongoing Israeli occupation, an occupation so pervasive that the United Nations Development Program considers it an environmental “risk” in its own right.Now in its 52nd year, the occupation prevents Palestinians from accessing and managing their land and resources, particularly water. Significantly, it prevents them from pursuing measures to support climate change adaptation, which is the adjustment of human or natural systems in response to the effects of climate change. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) inability to pursue adaptation policies is a direct consequence of the occupation and will have acute human and environmental repercussions for Palestinian inhabitants.

The Qatari government has begun doling out $100 payments to some 55,000 families in Gaza, the newest iteration of its Gaza aid package. Previously the Qataris were disbursing about $15 million/month to pay public sector salaries in Gaza, but since that money was going to people working under Hamas’s government, the program met with resistance from Israel and was halted. Now the Qataris are spending the money on a mix of direct cash payments to Gazans and funding for United Nations relief programs. The hope is that alleviating some of the human suffering in Gaza might also lead to reductions in violence and tension there.


The Egyptian government claimed on Monday that its security forces have recently killed 46 northern Sinai insurgents. As usual it offered no specifics about the timeframe in which these killings took place nor any details on the operations in which they occurred, nor did it say who they were though presumably most of them were affiliated with ISIS.


Iranian authorities have reportedly sentenced a US Navy veteran, Michael White, who was arrested in Iran last summer. The Iranians haven’t even said why they arrested him (presumably some kind of spying charge), so needless to say the details of his apparent sentencing are unknown. Meanwhile, the husband of Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was also arrested last summer and charged with “assembling against national security” and “insulting” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says she’s been sentenced to a whopping 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. That’s grotesque even by the normally horrifying standards of the Iranian judicial system.

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