Middle East update: October 7 2019

Stories from Syria, Syria, Syria, and more

I’m unlocking tonight’s update because the White House waited until after last night’s update was out to announce a potentially massive change in its Syria policy. Thanks a lot for that, Mr. President, by the way. I’m also limiting our scope to the Middle East and publishing a bit earlier than usual because of other commitments. Back to normal operations tomorrow.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Donald Trump spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday, and for most of the day as far as anybody knew the main outcome of that call was an invitation for Erdoğan to visit Washington next month. Then, late Sunday night—late enough to miss the Sunday evening news cycle, not that I’m suggesting the administration was trying to bury anything—the White House let everybody know what they really discussed:

The White House has given the green light to a Turkish offensive into northern Syria, moving US forces out of the area in an abrupt foreign policy change that will in effect abandon the Kurds, Washington’s longtime military partner.

Kurdish forces have spearheaded the campaign against Islamic State in the region, but the policy swerve, after a phone conversation between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday, means Turkey would take custody of captured Isis fighters, the White House said.

It has also raised fears of fresh fighting between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria’s complex war now the US no longer acts as a buffer between the two sides.

Unlike Trump’s announcement back in December of a total US withdrawal from Syria, this time he seems to mean it—US forces are already evacuating the border area. Trump made his partially incoherent case on Monday morning via a series of tweets, each more thrilling than the last. Meanwhile, his announcement has been decried from several corners, including from across Europe and from Trump’s fellow Republicans in Washington. Most importantly, the main US ally in eastern Syria, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, called the move a “stab in the back,” though I have to assume that on some level they saw this coming, given the interactions the US has had with Iraqi Kurds over the past half century.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration spent much of the day Monday nibbling at the margins to try to walk back what the White House announced Sunday night. For example, this is apparently not a complete US withdrawal but just a pull back from the border region where Turkey wants to establish a “safe zone.” The US is not endorsing, nor will it aid, any Turkish military offensive against the SDF. In fact anonymous US officials think that Turkey’s plan for northeastern Syria is a “very bad idea.” If Turkey’s actions in northeastern Syria force the SDF to release the tens of thousands of Islamic State prisoners it’s holding Turkey will be held responsible in some undetermined way for ensuring they remain in captivity. Even Trump himself tried to suggest that he’s not giving Turkey free rein:

“I’ve done before!” presumably refers to Trump contributing to the lira’s crash last year by increasing tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. That’s not exactly an “obliteration,” but if you account for Trump’s pathological lying and his narcissism, it all fits neatly into place.

There are at this time conflicting reports as to whether or not the Turks have begun their incursion into northeastern Syria. The Jerusalem Post reported this evening, based on Syrian state media, that Turkey had conducted airstrikes against SDF positions in the area, but both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the US government say that hasn’t happened. The SOHR is reporting that the airstrikes hit targets in Iraq, not Syria. But the Turkish Defense Ministry says it’s ready to go, so things could start happening pretty quickly.

So here’s where things are at as far as I can tell. And let’s assume that Trump isn’t going to turn around and reverse himself later today or within the next few days, although that’s certainly a possibility. It is not entirely accurate to categorize this move, as many outlets have done, as Trump “endorsing” or “green lighting” a Turkish invasion. What he’s green lit is Turkey going it alone to establish the safe zone that it and the US have been discussing, while pulling any material US support for that project. What that means is a Turkish operation in a limited area near the border (though Turkey’s idea of “near the border” is admittedly expansive), an area from which the SDF has already been withdrawing ahead of the creation of what it assumed would be a joint US-Turkish zone. Yes, in effect that is a green light for a full-bore Turkish offensive against the SDF, but Trump has retained, probably through no fault of his own, some deniability if/when the Turks decide to go deeper into eastern Syria in force. He can still claim that he never thought the Turks would go that far and that he never gave Ankara his approval for anything like that.

There’s no question that this is bad news for the SDF, which even went so far as to weaken its own military capabilities to support the idea of a joint safe zone only to have the US step aside without warning. But as I said back in December when Trump tried version 1.0 of this move, there’s an inevitability to how this played out. If Turkey pushed things, the United States was never going to stand against a strategic NATO ally in order to protect a proxy force in a place where—all the rhetoric about IS and about Iran’s alleged takeover of the Middle East aside—there’s no real US national interest at stake. And even if the SDF didn’t see this coming before December (though really they probably should have), surely its leaders have seen it coming since then. I’ve remained flummoxed over the past 11-ish months that the SDF wasn’t negotiating more heavily with the Syrian government, which has been its least bad option for a while now—though to be fair, we don’t know what’s been going on behind the scenes. We may be about to find out, though.

The other group of people who should have seen the writing that Trump spray-painted on the wall in December is every policy-maker and think tank denizen in DC who’s railing against this decision today. Especially those who are working for Trump. What did they think was going to happen? If their concern was preventing a destructive Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, they’ve had months to come up with alternatives that would have satisfied Trump’s desire to withdraw without completely abandoning the SDF. It appears they spent that time blissfully doing nothing, so their complaints today ring extremely hollow.

The big losers in this new arrangement are, unsurprisingly, going to be the people of northeastern Syria. To understand what’s about to happen to them one only needs to look at what Turkey has done in northwestern Syria, which it now occupies and has ethnically cleansed of its Kurdish residents in order to replace them with Syrian refugees whom the Turks have “returned” to their former country, though certainly not to their former homes. That’s what lies in store in the northeast.

If (or when) Turkey moves south to take on the Syrian Democratic Forces, that may come as a relief to the mostly Arab residents of places like Raqqa who have largely already had it with the SDF’s efforts at civilian administration. But any excitement those people have needs to be tempered with the knowledge that a) they’re about to be on the front line of a new war, and b) eastern Syria is probably about to see an IS resurgence. The SDF has tens of thousands of IS fighters, family members, and sympathizers in its custody at its al-Hol displaced persons camp. The SDF is barely able to control them as it is, and it would be the height of folly for it to keep devoting resources to securing that camp when it’s potentially facing a Turkish onslaught. That problem is, as the US has already said, now going to be Turkey’s to manage, but Turkey has never shown but the slightest interest in containing IS and has indirectly used IS against the Syrian Kurds where possible.

I think the last takeaway at this point should be that this once again reinforces the notion that right-wing authoritarian leaders can pretty much talk Trump into anything if they just get some one-on-one time with him. It was a phone call with Erdoğan that moved Trump to beat a hasty retreat from Syria back in December, and while that eventually fizzled, all it took was another phone call with the same guy for Trump to upend his administration’s Syria policy again, presumably on the spur of the moment. Even if you agree with his decision to get US forces out of the way of a coming Turkish invasion, the manner in which he’s led to these kinds of decisions is nevertheless very troubling.

YEMEN

According to “sources familiar with the negotiations,” the Yemeni government and Southern Transitional Council separatists are “close to a deal” that would hand control of the city of Aden off to Saudi forces while addressing STC concerns. Essentially it sounds like the STC will be “incorporated” into the Yemeni government in some fashion. The deal could be reached in a matter of days.

IRAQ

Battles between protesters and Iraqi security forces spread to Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood for the first time since the latest round of protests broke out last week. At least 15 people were killed, raising the overall death toll to at least 110 amid growing concerns that Iraq’s political system is careening toward a complete upheaval. On the bright side, I guess, for the first time since the protests started and Iraqi security forces began murdering protesters, the government on Monday actually acknowledged that its use of force has been excessive and ordered the army out of Sadr City. On the downside, a number of the protesters now appear to be talking up the virtues of dictatorship. So that’s probably not good.

Analyst Ahmed Twaij believes that the Iraqi government’s decision to reassign the popular commander of its elite Counter-Terrorism Service, Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi—probably because of his popularity—was the final straw that led, with some foreign help, to this new round of anti-government protests:

The cult status of the general, however, meant Saadi’s dismissal resonated among Iraqis, and Iraqi youth responded by taking to the streets and social media to air their disapproval. Numerous social media posts endorsing the general can be found across Iraq’s social media, with messages of support trending across Iraq’s internet. At the protests, many held posters of the ousted Army official.

The protests have had a markedly strong Shiite presence, with slogans commemorating Shiite religious figures being chanted throughout the streets of Baghdad, indicating a strong resentment toward Iranian interventionism in Iraq by the Shiite community—similar to the sentiments expressed by protesters who attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra last year.

Now, Saudi Arabia is seeking to stoke these tensions. Seeing an opportunity to topple what it perceives as a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Riyadh has begun to use social media platforms to perpetuate the violent protests in Iraq. Creating bots to target Western media outlets, tweets from pro-Saudi users asking to “save the Iraqi people” and push “Iran out” were posted despite an internet blockade in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, which has a long history of using social media influence to crack down on dissidents, is now attempting to spread anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq. 

EGYPT

The Egyptian government is trying to appease its own protesters through a mix of price controls and a mostly cosmetic relaxation on press restrictions. There are signs that a cabinet reshuffle may also be in the works. The demonstrations, while they haven’t been large, seem to have punctured the bubble of fear and intimidation that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has worked to construct around himself, hence these new carrots.

QATAR

Despite repeated promises to improve its treatment of migrant workers, the Qatari government continues to brutalize them while hoping the rest of the world doesn’t notice:

Hundreds of labourers in the World Cup host nation die each year, with the majority of the fatalities attributed to heart attacks or “natural causes” by the Qatari authorities. Many are young men who die in their sleep – a phenomenon locally dubbed “sudden death syndrome”.

Last week the Guardian reported that hundreds of thousands of workers were being exposed to potentially fatal levels of heat stress, toiling in temperatures of up to 45C for up to 10 hours a day. High temperatures put a huge strain on the cardiovascular system and cardiologists say there is a direct link between heat stress and the high numbers of young workers dying in the summer months.

In most cases no autopsies are performed on the bodies of migrant workers, whose deaths have been attributed to cardiovascular or “natural” causes.

IRAN

Although Iraq’s unrest has continued, the Iranian government on Monday reopened its Khosravi border crossing anyway. It had closed the crossing last week because of the chaos inside Iraq. In ten days Iraq will host the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, Arbaeen, with millions coming to pay their respects at the shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala. Many of those pilgrims will come from Iran.

Elsewhere, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation has pulled out of a project to develop Iran’s large South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf. The CPNC invested in the project last year after French oil giant Total pulled out in the face of US sanctions. It’s withdrawing because of sanctions as well, saying that it couldn’t find a way to finance its investment and transfer money to Iran under the current sanctions regime.