A year of tyranny and murder

The Middle East in 2018 was a rocky place.

IRAQI SHI’ITE cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Najaf, Iraq, on May 12. (photo credit: REUTERS)
IRAQI SHI’ITE cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Najaf, Iraq, on May 12.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘The people of Iran are hungry,” a visitor to Tehran said in January 2018. They want freedom. He had just returned from a visit to Iran as it was rocked by protests a year ago. The people wanted change. Poverty was striking in the country, even though sanctions relief was supposed to have brought progress. Instead people were driven to homelessness, prostitution and even selling their organs. Signs in Tehran pasted on billboards offered organs for sale.
But the regime in Tehran was smart. It allowed some of the people to protest and let off their anger. Then it quietly cracked down. It began increasing its infiltration of social media, including recruiting a “cyber army” of supporters of the Basij, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps militia. Journalists were detained, dissidents found. There would be no revolution in Iran.
The year 2018 began the way it ended, with Kurdish fears of a Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
In January 2018 the concerns were in Afrin, a bucolic area of hills in northwest Syria. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had held the area since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. It was peaceful and people lived under the leftist administration of the YPG. Next door other Syrians were experiencing a different set of circumstances. In Idlib they were subjected to the rule of different Syrian rebel groups and extremists, including Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. In Syrian regime areas the government of Bashar Assad was consolidating control. Supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, the Syrian regime was on the path to winning the civil war that had begun in 2011. Turkey wanted to intervene in northern Syria against the YPG. In the northeast the YPG was partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group that was the main fighting group against Islamic State. The SDF was the main partner of the US-led Coalition that had been formed in 2014 and 2015 to defeat ISIS. But for Turkey the more powerful the SDF became, the more powerful the YPG became. For Ankara the YPG was the Syrian version of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the US views as a terrorist organization.
This created a strange set of circumstances and contradictions. On the one hand the Kurdish fighters in Syria were the great heroes of the war on ISIS, having saved tens of thousands of Yazidis from genocide in 2014. But they were also being threatened with attack by a US-NATO ally, Turkey. America was “managing” that problem, by continuing the battle against ISIS while assuring Turkey that the US relationship with the SDF was temporary and tactical. Turkey didn’t accept this view. In 2015 a ceasefire with the PKK had broken down in eastern Turkey and a vicious conflict began. Turkey had mostly defeated the PKK insurgency on the ground in eastern Turkey by 2016, when there was a coup attempt. The coup gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government the excuse to consolidate power, blaming a US-based cleric named Fethullah Gulen for the conspiracy, arresting thousands and stoking a new nationalism. Turkey launched an operation in northern Syria in 2016, its first, to stop the YPG from uniting areas in the northeast with Afrin in the west. Turkish forces, backed by Syrian rebels, poured into an area around the Euphrates River, called Jarabulus. This set up the strategic equation for 2018. Turkey saw the YPG as the main threat in Syria. For Russia and Iran the US was quickly becoming the main problem in Syria. As the US and its SDF partners came to control a third of Syria, having liberated it from ISIS, they now appeared to have leverage over the future of the country. Turkey held meetings with Russia and got Moscow to agree that Turkey’s air force could operate in northwest Syria against the YPG. Between January and March Turkey took over Afrin and tens of thousands of Kurds fled. Soon mostly Arab Syrian rebels, including refugees from other parts of Syria, were coming to Afrin to live. Kurds said it was demographic change and ethnic cleansing. Turkey said it was stability. For the rebels it was a consolation prize. Defeated by Assad, they could at least get Afrin, a Kurdish canton, to run.
US President Donald Trump was thinking of wrapping up the US role in Syria and drawing down US troops fighting ISIS. He had been told that ISIS was 98% defeated and felt that the other 73 countries in the Coalition could finish the job. He spoke to Saudi Arabia about picking up the bill for rebuilding eastern Syria. Riyadh was keen. He told an audience in Ohio it was time to come home from Syria.
But between March 13 and 22 Trump made two major changes in his administration. Mike Pompeo would come from leading the CIA to take over from secretary of state Rex Tillerson. John Bolton was coming in to replace H.R. McMaster. McMaster and Tillerson had been cautious. Tillerson especially was nonplussed with Trump’s policies in the Gulf where Saudi Arabia had broken relations with Qatar. Saudi felt empowered by a Trump trip in 2017 and was buying billions in US weapons. The split between Doha and Riyadh had set up a rush to buy up influence in Washington, with both Gulf powers scrambling. Saudi had won initially.
Doha had spent millions, even trying to get pro-Israel Jewish influencers to fly to Qatar to change their views on the state which hosted Hamas, and change Trump’s mind. Tillerson thought he could pave over the problem. Trump didn’t seem to care. Tillerson was sent packing. The new Pompeo-Bolton team wanted to be tough on Iran. They didn’t seem to think the US should give up this huge leverage they had in eastern Syria.
It could be used to block an Iranian corridor of influence to the sea that stretched through Iraq. In Iraq the country was preparing for elections and the US didn’t want the pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties to win. In April Trump would launch new air strikes on Syria. In early May Trump decided to leave the “Iran Deal.” He had called it a terrible deal, now it had to be torn up. Pompeo fronted the new policy with 12 demands on Iran and new sanctions.
Iran was furious, but what could it do? In Iraq it watched as Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric and former militia leader, came in first. Sadr, a Shi’ite, was a fervent Iraqi nationalist and had cooled on relations with Iran. It was a major upset for Tehran. But Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah alliance had come in second. Amiri had served alongside the Iranians in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. His Badr organization was close with the IRGC. So it wasn’t all bad news for Tehran. In the rest of Iraq the Kurdish region was still suffering the consequences of the 2017 independence reference. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had closed the airports in the Kurdish region and helped unite Turkey and Iran against the Kurdish autonomous area. By May things were returning to normal for the Kurds, and Iraq’s elections gave them a chance for new influence in Baghdad. Barham Salih, a Kurdish leader with roots in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was appointed president in October. Masoud Barzani, who had championed the independence referendum as president of the Kurdish region in 2017, went to Baghdad in November 2018 to meet with local leaders and show that his influence had returned. He also met with the UAE and other officials.
Iran, angered by US sanctions, sought to test Israel’s defenses in May. It fired a salvo of rockets at the Golan. Israel struck back at Iranian infrastructure. It was one of a series of air strikes in Syria by Israel. Israel also retaliated after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace in February. Israel says it has carried out around 200 air strikes in the last two years. These appeared to accelerate in 2018 as Israel feared that Assad’s victory in Syria would cement Iranian influence. This came to a head in September when Syrian air defense shot down a Russian Il-20 in the midst of an Israeli air raid in Latakia. Outraged, Moscow blamed Israel and sent the S-300 air defense system to Damascus. This was a warning to Israeli “hotheads,” as Moscow termed them, to be careful about striking Syria and thinking of Jerusalem as a free hand.
At the same time that Israel was losing some of its window to strike in Syria, the Syrian regime was consolidating control. The Syrian regime rolled into Quneitra in July, defeating the rebels on the Golan.
Israel had been quietly supplying these rebels with food and even small arms according to foreign reports.
In addition thousands of wounded Syrians had come to Israel. In July that ended. The regime also destroyed the ISIS-held pocket near the Golan. Air strikes hammered villages near the ceasefire line. ISIS attacked a Druze area in southern Syria’s Suwayda to distract from the battle. Killing around 200, it also took dozens of women captive, eventually executing several. ISIS was being defeated, but it was still evil and dangerous.
Another window was also closing. Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had turned dissident, was lured by Riyadh to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi had run media operations in Saudi and was a key adviser to the kingdom. But he fell out with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2016 and 2017. He opposed the Yemen war and thought that Saudi was too harsh on the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam. He was wary of Riyadh’s growing warmth toward Israel. He began writing for the Washington Post and appearing on Al-Jazeera. Some in Riyadh saw this as a major threat, a former insider telling the Americans to oppose the crown prince. So they sought him out. Khashoggi came in to get a marriage document in Turkey. His fiancée waited outside, holding the phone number of key Turkish officials to call if Khashoggi didn’t emerge quickly. When hours went by, she called. Turkey searched in vain, but Khashoggi was gone.
It would take more than a month to piece together what happened and begin getting the Saudis to admit that Khashoggi had been killed. A team from Riyadh, which Saudi asserted was a rogue operation, had grabbed Khashoggi as he walked in. During a struggle the dissident was killed. His body disappeared. The Saudis flew out in two private jets. The killing rocked the Middle East. Khashoggi, a supporter of the Arab Spring, was seen as a victim of the new totalitarianism. The US Congress was outraged and sought to end support for Saudi’s war in Yemen. The US-Saudi relationship was fraying. But Trump would stand with Riyadh. Riyadh was buying weapons and opposing Iran. And this was good for Israel, he reasoned.
But Trump was making another decision that was more radical in December. Pressed by Erdogan, Trump decided to leave eastern Syria. He announced it by tweet on December 19. No one in his administration was consulted. Trump insisted that ISIS was defeated.
It was time to come home. With the US withdrawing, its Kurdish partners in eastern Syria now had no major supporters. They immediately reached out to France and Russia, hoping someone would fill the vacuum and prevent a Turkish invasion. Trump insisted that the US would coordinate its withdrawal with Turkey, an extraordinary reversal of policy. The US would go from warning Turkey not to launch an operation, to rubber-stamping the operation and helping Turkey against the US partners who helped defeat ISIS.
This shocked Jerusalem as well. The US was supposed to use eastern Syria as leverage against Iran’s presence. Now Israel would stand alone against Iran’s role in Syria. The American footprint in the Middle East was shrinking. At the end of 2018 it would be much smaller, and key components of the US role, US secretary of defense James Mattis and anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk would resign.
Thus, the year ends on a note of chaos. Chaos in Washington and a region still in chaos, after seven years of war in Syria.