Middle East update: October 30 2017

IRAQ

Masoud Barzani’s supporters didn’t take the news of his kind-of-resignation very well:

Barzani’s statements incited his followers in Irbil, Zakho and Dohuk to attack opposition politicians, storm the parliament building, and go after the media and political offices. First, parliamentarian Rabum Maruf of Change was attacked while he was giving a speech to reporters outside parliament. A mob then stormed the legislative building and attacked members of the media outside. MPs from Change and a NRT TV team were assaulted. PUK and Change offices along with Radio Ashti’s building were set on fire in Zakho, while the crowds chanted pro-Barzani slogans. The security forces stopped an assault upon the NRT offices in Dohuk. At the end of the day the KRG called on the security forces to maintain order and rejected violence and vandalism. The KDP supporters took Barzani’s actions as a call to violence. They didn’t seem to care that Barzani’s term as president expired two years ago, and that he didn’t even say when he would step down. They just blamed his opponents, and then went after them. It wasn’t until hours later that the KRG called for calm, allowing the mobs to run wild. Kurdistan has always been run by families and tribes rather than laws and institutions. The crisis that has followed the referendum, has reinforced that tradition.

I was remiss yesterday in not pointing out that Barzani’s decision to leave the KRG presidency, uh, eventually, comes two years after his second and legally final term was supposed to have ended, and that’s after his term was extended for two years in an emergency measure by the Kurdistan parliament. By law he was supposed to be out of office as of 2013. One of the criticisms Barzani took in pursuing the independence referendum was that he was doing so as a way to further extend his presidency. The violence by his supporters likely increases the chances of a full KDP-PUK breakup.

Leaders in the Popular Mobilization Units and Iraq’s interior ministry (which is controlled by the Badr Organization, a PMU group itself) are trying to gin up a new reason to fight the Kurds, alleging that the peshmerga helped evacuate a number of ISIS fighters fleeing from Hawijah and that there may be some kind of deal in place for those fighters to aid the Kurds in a conflict with Baghdad. There’s little reason to take these reports at face value barring additional and more objective evidence, but the fact that the accusations are being made is very serious business.

SYRIA

Negotiators from Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Syrian government, and select Syrian rebel groups are meeting in Astana again this week to try to conclude an agreement on establishing several de-escalation zones in parts of western and central Syria. They also plan to discuss prisoner exchanges and the prospects for allowing more humanitarian aid into hard hit areas. Along those lines, Damascus allowed relief agencies to truck humanitarian aid into two towns in besieged Eastern Ghouta on Monday. The supplies are enough for 40,000 people, only a fraction of the estimated 350,000 whom the government has besieged in Eastern Ghouta at the moment. The United Nations estimates that over 13 million Syrians are still in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile in Idlib–one of the de-escalation zones–Turkish forces that are supposed to be securing a ceasefire are instead, unsurprisingly, preparing for an attack against the Kurdish canton of Afrin. There are reportedly a few Russian forces deployed in Afrin, and the Kurds seem to think that means Russia will oppose any Turkish action there. I find it hard to believe that Moscow and Ankara haven’t already hashed this out and that Ankara would have deployed to Idlib in the first place if it hasn’t been promised an opportunity to clear out Afrin. But we’ll see. As a relatively safe and calm place amid the chaos of the civil war, Afrin has taken in hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. A Turkish assault, in other words, could provoke yet another massive humanitarian disaster.

TURKEY

The Turkish government may prosecute opposition politician Bülent Tezcan for the crime of calling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a “fascist dictator.” Which, fair enough, is the kind of thing a fascist dictator would do, but it is illegal under Turkish law to insult Turkey and/or its governing institutions, so there is probably a legal case against Tezcan. It’s a stupid case, based on a ridiculous law, but still probably legal.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military destroyed a tunnel that reached from Gaza into Israeli territory on Monday, killing seven people including an Islamic Jihad leader and two Hamas fighters who attempted to rescue the Islamic Jihad members after the tunnel had been hit. This appears to have been an Islamic Jihad project and so the incident shouldn’t, and I stress shouldn’t, impact the Palestinian unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.

Thursday will mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Britain’s World War I commitment to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. I’ll re-run my Balfour piece then, but Al Jazeera has compiled a collection of photos relating to Balfour and Mandatory Palestine that might interest you.

KUWAIT

The Kuwaiti government resigned on Monday ahead of potentially losing a vote of no confidence in the Kuwaiti parliament. For a country that is otherwise quite stable, the Kuwaitis go through cabinets fairly quickly, and there’s no particular reason for concern.

QATAR

I think the Qataris might need to workshop a better answer to questions about their support for Jabhat al-Nusra:

The former prime minister of Qatar has admitted there were “maybe” links between his government and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

 

In a wide-ranging interview with Qatari television, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani – known colloquially as “HBJ” – said that his government would have ended support to groups like Al-Nusra Front (later rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) after a period of time when it became unacceptable.

 

“Maybe Nusra there was a relationship? Maybe there was. I swear myself, I don’t know about this issue,” he told the interviewer. “But even if this were the case, when the decision came that Nusra was not acceptable, the support to Nusra came to an end and the focus was on liberating Syria.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 8.12.55 PM
HBJ being interviewed by Charlie Rose in June, when he said something similar about Qatar’s support for Nusra

Here’s the thing, guys: Nusra was never acceptable. Al-Qaeda, in all its forms, is inherently unacceptable. I realize this is a message that the Saudis need to hear just as much as the Qataris, but FFS you all heard about 9/11, right? The Cole bombing? Madrid? The bombings in 2003 that happened in Riyadh? If Nusra wasn’t already unacceptable, what could they have possibly done in Syria to render themselves unacceptable? And if Qatar was willing to support them until the US found out, what does that say about the Qatar-US alliance? Did the Qataris, like, not know that Nusra was an al-Qaeda affiliate? How is that even possible, and why would they have shoveled money at a group they knew nothing about?

SAUDI ARABIA

Next year, Saudi women won’t just be allowed to drive themselves to a sports stadium, they’ll actually be allowed to go inside. Progress! Cosmetic progress, but still progress!

The Saudis say they’re going to begin mining domestic uranium to put toward their nascent nuclear power industry. It’s not clear whether they plan on developing the capacity to enrich their own uranium, which of course would set off alarm bells about potential weaponization and Iran, or if they plan on selling their natural uranium on the world market in return for low enriched uranium reactor fuel. A smart Saudi government might take the opportunity, with its huge influence and considerable resources, to spearhead the creation of a regional uranium enrichment capacity (akin to Europe’s Euratom) that would supply reactor fuel without the risk of weaponization. Such an institution would, by its very existence, put pressure on Iran to join it and drop its purely domestic enrichment program. Needless to say I don’t expect the Saudis to go down that road.

IRAN

Dozens of leading nuclear scientists weighed in on Monday, asking Congress to support the Iran nuclear deal against the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine it:

In a letter to Senate and House leaders of both parties that emphasized the “momentous responsibilities” Congress bears regarding the agreement, the scientists asserted that the accord was effective in blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.

 

“Congress should act to ensure that the United States remains a party to the agreement,” read the letter, signed by what amounted to a who’s who of prominent physicists and other luminaries in American science.

 

The letter said the signers were offering their perspective “as scientists who understand the physics and technology of nuclear power, of nuclear explosives, and of long-range missiles; and who collectively bring their experience with nuclear nonproliferation.”

Iranian media has been pushing a story for the past few days to the effect that Donald Trump sought a meeting with Hassan Rouhani on the sideline of the UN General Assembly and Rouhani told him to get bent. The White House denies the claim, and to be honest–I can’t believe I’m about to type this–I’m inclined to believe them. The story is just too perfect from the Iranian perspective–arrogant, hostile American president seeks audience with Iranian leader and is coolly rebuffed. It makes Rouhani look tough and makes Trump look craven, particularly to Gulf Arabs who are still afraid that the US is going to make a heel turn and thrown in with Tehran. I grant you that the Trump administration deserves no assumption of credibility, but then neither does Iranian state media.

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