Middle East update: March 14-15 2019


The Syrian Democratic Forces once again slowed their assault on Baghouz on Friday, partly out of concern for the civilians still inside the town (many believed to be held there by ISIS) and partly because the SDF is having trouble figuring out where its enemy is. As it’s done in previous battles, ISIS has dug an extensive tunnel network around Baghouz to allow its fighters to hide, move, and conduct quick strike attacks, and it’s also heavily mined and otherwise booby trapped the approaches to the town. Three ISIS fighters carried out a suicide bombing against a crowd of people fleeing the town on Friday, killing at least six of them. It was the first time in Baghouz that ISIS has used suicide bombers to target people attempting to escape. The suicide bombers were reportedly in women’s clothing but may have been men in disguise.

At a donor’s conference on Thursday the United Nations raised $7 billion toward taking care of displaced Syrians both inside the country and in the countries surrounding it–Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The governments of all three countries are growing increasingly desperate for their Syrian refugee populations to return to Syria, but conditions are clearly still not safe for a large-scale resettlement and so international support is essential for their continued care. The UN estimates it will need $8.8 billion for Syrian refugees in 2019 so it still has some work to do, but making such a sizable chunk of that in one conference is a very positive development. If, and it’s a big “if,” the Syrian government doesn’t launch a full-scale offensive against rebel-held Idlib province this year, 2019 will likely be the first year since the Syrian civil war began when the number of returning refugees is higher than the number of newly displaced refugees.


Saudi aircraft on Friday whoops accidentally bombed a bunch of pro-Yemeni government forces near the Yemen-Saudi border. The strikes killed at least eight Yemeni border guards in the country’s Jawf province. On the plus side, at least they didn’t hit an orphanage or something.

While it’s not going to mean an end to US involvement in Yemen, and so I have it fairly short shrift, Win Without War’s Ben Armbruster believes that the Senate’s passage of that War Powers resolution on Wednesday is still “a big deal“:

The U.S. role in this needlessly destructive war is unlikely to end any time soon. Donald Trump, who appears to have a special fealty to the Saudi leadership and its criminal activity, has said that he will veto the resolution. But U.S. withdrawal is only a matter of time—that is, a matter of Trump’s time in office.

Indeed, one important feature of this vote is that Congress—with the help and prodding of grassroots activists—has officially normalized a policy of withdrawal from the Yemen war on a bipartisan basis.

At the same time, the vote also has wider implications for U.S. foreign policy outside of ending the war in Yemen. It has put a serious crack in the structure of U.S. foreign policy making. Since at least 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has been dominated by an executive branch run by leaders of both parties seemingly bent on expanding where and when the United States is involved in war, a status quo that allowed the Yemen war to continue without congressional authorization.


Unsurprisingly, news that the European parliament has voted to suspend Turkey’s membership application hasn’t gone down well in Ankara:

On Wednesday, the Strasbourg-based assembly approved a report that said Ankara’s failure to protect rights and the rule of law and its transition to an executive presidential system last year that concentrates power in one man’s hands meant that the membership process should be frozen.

The vote is only advisory, and it is up to European governments to decide whether to shelve the talks. But it was still a sharp rebuke of Turkey, whose long-running bid to join the affluent bloc has been bogged down for years over its slow pace of reforms, a lack of a settlement on Cyprus and Europe’s reluctance to admit a populous Muslim nation. Turkey began formally negotiating its entry into the EU in 2005.

“We are concerned for the EU’s future and our common values now that extreme right and left-wing currents have begun to hold sway over the EP, turning the report into an exclusionary, discriminatory and populist text that does not reflect reality,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This advisory decision is meaningless for us.”

The truth is that the Turkish government, which is itself on the extreme right so its warning about the rise of the European right is at best worth a chuckle, probably welcomed the move because it gives President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan something to rail about as Turkey approaches important local elections later this month.


Hamas fired two rockets from Gaza at Tel Aviv late Thursday, the first time Tel Aviv has been targeted by fire from Gaza since 2014. Israeli missile defenses seem to have intercepted both projectiles. In response, Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza overnight, striking a reported 100 targets tied to Hamas (four people were reportedly wounded), and then…stopped. In fact, later Friday morning the Israeli Defense Forces suggested that the rockets had been fired accidentally while militants–possibly Islamic Jihad rather than Hamas, but Israel holds Hamas responsible for any rocket fire from Gaza regardless–conducted maintenance work on their launcher. With Egyptian mediation, a ceasefire was in place by 8 AM and is holding. The organizers of the weekly protest at the Gaza fence called off this week’s demonstration in an effort to avoid inflaming the situation.

A new report from Kerem Navot, an NGO that monitors West Bank settlement activity, finds that the Israeli military has seized control of almost 25,000 acres of West Bank land over the past 50 years ostensibly for “security reasons,” but has then turned almost half of that land over to Israeli settlers. The group’s research says that around 60 percent of the seized land is being indefinitely occupied and the former owners have never been compensated, which violates international law on both counts.

Benny Gantz, the main contender to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister in next month’s Knesset election, is suddenly contending with reports that his phone was hacked by Iranian intelligence. Gantz is downplaying the story, which mostly revolves around the idea that Iran could have compromising information on a potential Israeli PM, and accuses Netanyahu of leaking security information as part of a campaign stunt. Gantz’s Blue and White party has pulled slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party in some polling, but Netanyahu is likely to have the easier task putting together a governing coalition.


US Navy veteran Michael White, arrested in Iran eight months ago while visiting his girlfriend, has reportedly been sentenced to ten years in prison for posting a “private photo” to social media and “insulting” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There’s been no explanation of either charge from Iranian authorities. White is the first US citizen arrested in Iran since Donald Trump became president.

The Trump administration says it’s planning additional sanctions against Iran. There’s no big surprise here, but at a State Department session on Tuesday administration officials warned that companies still doing business with Iran that “the rules may change and may change quickly.” The point of course is to get all foreign firms to stop doing business with Iran by making them so afraid of the mere possibility of sanctions that they simply refuse to take the risk.

Al-Monitor’s Iran correspondent argues that Hassan Rouhani’s meeting with Iraqi religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf this week leveraged Sistani’s popularity in both Iran and Iraq to the benefit of Iranian moderates:

Against this backdrop, the supreme religious authority’s decision to grant Rouhani and Zarif an audience informs Iraqi leaders that they must engage with the Rouhani administration, even if they rely on support from rival centers of power in Tehran, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Moreover, Rouhani’s achievements this week ought to have made it clear to the Trump administration and its Arab allies that Iran will neither abandon nor be kicked out of Iraq, although this should not be interpreted as Baghdad siding with Tehran over Washington.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the meeting between Rouhani and Sistani has provided the Iranian president with a much-needed injection of political capital at a time of crisis at home. Indeed, Rouhani has faced relentless sniping from his hard-line foes, who have been revitalized by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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