Middle East Ticker
Saudi Strike Kills 40 Children in Yemen
Deadly Airstrike in Yemen Hits Bus Full of Children
An airstrike carried out by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen struck a school bus in a crowded market in Dahyan last Thursday, killing 51 people, including 40 children. The attack is just the latest in a long list of careless, mass-casualty strikes during the Gulf states’ three-and-a-half-year intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Saudi warplanes have frequently targeted weddings and funerals, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians. “I still can’t comprehend what happened,” one woman told the Washington Post about the strike that hit her son’s wedding in April in the town of Raqah, killing 22 people. Locals there now suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress and sleep outside their homes for fear they will be targeted, too, despite the town remaining neutral in the conflict.
Before the attack last week and the bombing in Raqah, there was the bombing of a wedding procession in Sanaa last December. Before that, the bombing of a funeral in Sanaa in October 2016 that killed more than 100 people, including the mayor of the capital city. That strike prompted the Obama administration to review and curtail the logistical support it had been providing the coalition; the reassessment, though, did not halt U.S. refueling operations and U.S. aid has been ramped back up under the Trump administration. The Obama administration’s action was in response to what was already an apparent pattern; before that, there had been an airstrike on another wedding that killed 131 people in September 2015.
Throughout, Saudi officials have defended their actions. After the deaths of more than three dozen children last week, coalition officials called the airstrike a “legitimate military operation” that had taken out a missile launcher. U.S. officials have tried to distance themselves from the coalition’s operations. A spokesman from CENTCOM told Vox that the U.S. military does not know whether U.S. munitions were used or if U.S. planes refueled the coalition planes that carried out the strike; Gen. Joseph Votel also testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last March that the United States does not keep track of the movements or operations of the planes it refuels in support of the Saudi and Emirati air campaign. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has defended U.S. support to the Gulf coalition, arguing that it reduces civilian casualties, and last December complained that the criticism of civilian death toll was unwarranted. “We are being held to a standard–‘we’ being us and anyone associated with us–that has never been achieved before in warfare,” he told reporters when pressed on the issue.
But many experts have warned that, not only are the numbers of civilian deaths exceptionally high, they are also destructive to the coalition’s goals. Michael Knights, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on Twitter after last week’s strike, “I have experienced tremendous openness on the part of coalition leadership and rank/file to discuss their experience of war in Yemen, but there is a notable inability in Riyadh to face up to the counter-productiveness, the wrongness on every level, of the strategic air campaign.” Knights also called the Saudi airstrikes “a war-winner for the Huthis.” Earlier this month, Brookings’ Daniel Byman wrote here on Lawfare that it was past time for the United States to break off its support to the coalition, arguing that continued aid makes the U.S. military complicit in an ongoing catastrophe and enables the coalition’s misconduct of the war.
The exact toll of the war in Yemen is not known-a very outdated figure of 10,000 deaths is often cited, but independent estimates suggest that closer to 50,000 have died in combat, and that does not include the toll of disease and food insecurity. Yemen has also been struck by an outbreak of cholera, and more than three quarters of the population is reliant on food aid.
Erdogan and Trump Spar Over Sanctions and U.S. Citizen on Trial
Tensions between the United States and Turkey escalated further last week as the Trump administration ratcheted up tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey, just days after imposing sanctions on senior Turkish officials. Those sanctions were announced as part of U.S. government’s campaign to pressure the Turkish government to release Andrew Brunson, one of several American citizens who has been caught in Turkey’s expansive dragnet since the country’s attempted coup in July 2016. The Trump administration has been trying to negotiate Brunson’s release for months; one arrangement, in which Turkey supposedly agreed to release Brunson in exchange for Israel’s release of a Turkish citizen accused of working with Hamas, reportedly fell through last month, and at a meeting last week at the State Department, Turkish diplomats are said to have floated plans for another prisoner swap, this time offering to trade Brunson for Hakan Atilla, a Turkish bank official who was convicted in the United States for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
U.S. diplomats balked at the proposal, and on Friday the Trump administration announced it was doubling tariffs on steel and aluminum. Those tariffs were originally imposed to obstruct the import of cheap Chinese materials to the United States, but have also been levied on other countries with lower-priced goods, including Turkey. Trump singled Turkey out in a tweet about the increased tariffs on Friday, writing that he had “just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”
The increased tariffs tipped the Turkish lira, which has been wobbling for months, into a sharp decline. Experts have been warning of the fragility of the Turkish economy since before Erdogan’s re-election earlier this year, and Turkish markets have been rattled by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions on one of Turkey’s close trading partners. Erdogan, though, has not taken strong measures to avert a crisis; his new finance minister is his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who lacks significant experience and has attributed economic instability to a foreign conspiracy. The government has also stubbornly refused to raise interest rates above the level of inflation, reducing incentives for people to keep their money in Turkish banks. The lira has lost approximately a quarter of its value since August 1 and the steep drop on Friday prompted fears of a run on Turkish banks. Albayrak reportedly spent the weekend on an emergency tour through the Gulf to solicit large investments to stabilize the lira. “The people in charge in Ankara don’t know what they’re doing,” Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, bluntly told the Washington Post.
As Turkey’s financial system sputters, abetted by U.S. economic penalties, the relations between Washington and Ankara have soured further. In a speech over the weekend to members of his Justice and Development Party, Erdogan characterized the U.S. sanctions and tariffs as “the missiles, the shots of the economic war opened against our country.” He also took to the opinion page of the New York Times on Friday to complain that “the United States has repeatedly and consistently failed to understand and respect the Turkish people’s concerns.” Sounding a defiant note, he warned that the United States’ coercive policies could compel Ankara “to start looking for new friends and allies.” On Monday, Erdogan also called for a boycott of American electronics, including the Apple iPhone.
Iraq Finalizes Election Results, but New Issues Complicate Coalition Negotiations
Last week, Iraqi officials completed their recount of ballots from the country’s contested May election. The new results released last Friday by the Independent High Election Commission have mostly validated the original numbers and maintained the order of results, with Muqtada al-Sadr’s list still in first, followed by the ticket backed by Hadi al-Amiri, a commander of the Shia militia movement, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s unity list in third. The only significant difference was a pick-up of one seat for Amiri’s bloc, and the outcome of the recount is not expected to affect ongoing negotiations on the formation of governing coalition. Those talks began in May and have been inconclusive so far.
The election recount has been a contentious issue: It was prompted by inconsistencies in results from Kurdish provinces, and soon after the recount was announced, a fire in a warehouse destroyed some of the ballots from Baghdad. The original electoral commission was removed and several people were arrested on charges of arson. And at the end of last month, Iraqi officials announced that the head officials at five local election offices will face charges of fraud and vote buying.
But other issues are now also roiling Iraqi politics. Since the election, large-scale protests in southern Iraq have raised awareness about poor infrastructure and utility provision, including unsanitary water supplies that have been strained by drought conditions. Protesters have also called out corruption and their frustration with foreign oil companies’ development of the area, which locals say has not brought economic returns to their communities. “People have lost trust in this government and the political parties,” Adnan al-Wahaili, one of the protest leaders, told the Financial Times. “They [politicians] sent a clear message, that we came not to serve you but to exploit you.” Western experts are concerned that the protest movement in the south could undermine Abadi’s position in the negotiations to form a new government. Though his list placed third, there was a strong possibility that he might keep his office on account of the way he has managed to balance Iraq’s complex relationships with the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, but that now appears in doubt as the protests have led Sadr to distance himself from Abadi.
Abadi has continued to try to walk an increasingly difficult tightrope in his foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has swept in to capitalize on the political unrest and drive a wedge between Iran and Iraq; Abadi’s government is considering an offer from Riyadh for the construction of a solar plant that would provide discounted energy to the southern regions frustrated by poor supply of electricity. Abadi’s position has also been complicated further by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran. Last week, he suggested that Iraq would abide by the U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran in order to protect its interests. "We don't support the sanctions because they are a strategic error, but we will comply with them," he said last Tuesday. But on Monday, he clarified that Iraq would abide by the ban on transactions in U.S. dollars but that trade with Iran was still being reviewed. The policy has strained ties with Tehran, and over the weekend, Abadi canceled plans to visit Iran for discussions on economic policy after a trip to Turkey later this week.