Middle East update: November 27 2017

Obviously I’ve been away for a bit. I’m not going to even begin to cover everything that’s happened in the past week, but I will try to get caught up on a few major things.

SYRIA

Another round of UN-led peace talks is about to begin in Geneva, and you know I think there’s a real chance for serious progress this session will probably be about as productive as every previous session, which is to say not at all. I mean, the two sides (pretend, as the UN does, that there are only two sides in this war) are sticking to their day one positions–for the rebels, that Assad should go, and for Assad, that he should resume largely unchecked control over the entire country. Nothing about the course of the war itself has budged these positions in any serious way and the parties seem no closer to figuring out a compromise than they were six years ago. The Syrian government has even delayed the arrival of its delegation, which you would think couldn’t possibly be a positive sign.

There’s certainly no reason to believe peace is in the offing if you look at what’s happening in Syria, where roughly 80 civilians have reportedly been killed over the past couple of days. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 23 people were killed in fighting in Eastern Ghouta, while at least 53 were killed in Russian airstrikes on the village of Shafah, in Deir Ezzor province. Russia denies responsibility for the latter atrocity and is pushing for a two-day ceasefire in Ghouta. Another four people were reportedly killed in the village of Darnaj, also in Deir Ezzor province.

On the other hand, even if Geneva fails there’s always the Russia-Turkey-Iran peace process to consider. So far that process includes support from nobody apart from Russia, Turkey, and Iran, but it’s a start! I guess!

Meanwhile, President Trump reportedly told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a phone call on Friday that the US is going to stop arming the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria. This is being treated as a Big Deal, but I would argue that it’s really not, for several reasons. One, we really have no idea what Trump said in this phone call–the only readout is from Ankara. Two, Trump is extremely stupid, so he often says things in the moment that aren’t actually so (already the Pentagon has started “clarifying” its YPG policy in ways that appear to directly contradict what Trump supposedly said). Three, this is actually somewhat consistent with the policy outlined when the US started providing the YPG with heavy arms before the Raqqa operation–though if Trump meant that the US will stop providing the YPG with small arms as well, then that’s a policy shift. Four, the US can continue arming the YPG indirectly, simply by arming Arab militias that have been fighting alongside the YPG, whether under the Syrian Democratic Forces umbrella or otherwise. Also, it’s not clear if this means the US will be collecting the heavy arms it’s already provided the YPG or if they’ll be allowed to keep what they have now. And, of course, the US plans to keep providing air support for the SDF.

Finally, there’s been a report in Russian state media that the US dissolved a small Free Syrian Army unit that has been based at Tanf. I’m not even going to link to the report because it’s so sketchy, but I will say that the situation in and around Tanf is fast becoming untenable. The FSA units there can’t move and have no mission now that the Syrian army has cut off their movement to the east, but they’re collecting money from the US and remaining in place to, I guess, prevent the Syrian government from retaking that border crossing. But if the Syrian army decides to retake Tanf, is Washington prepared to defend it from, say, Russian airstrikes? Meanwhile, there’s a displaced persons camp next door (and connected) to Tanf, at Rukban, where a serious humanitarian crisis is unfolding because Jordan won’t authorize aid shipments to cross the border (they closed it after ISIS used Rukban to stage a terror attack in Jordan last year), and the Syrian government won’t help because of the nearby rebel base. Some 50,000 people could die at Rukban in the service of some American military aim that is no longer viable.

IRAQ

ISIS carried out a terrorist attack in Nahrawan, just southeast of Baghdad, on Monday. At least 17 people were killed, though ISIS’s claim of responsibility said that the attack killed 35 members of the Popular Mobilization Units.

The Iraqi government announced on Monday that it’s opening nine new blocks up for foreign energy companies to bid on oil rights. The new areas are near the Iranian and Kuwaiti borders, with one out in the Persian Gulf, and all had been neglected due to Iraq’s previous conflicts with those two neighbors.

YEMEN

Saudi Arabia bowed to international pressure last week and reopened Yemen’s largest seaport at Hudaydah and the Sanaa airport for humanitarian shipments. Food aid began arriving at Hudaydah over the weekend and medical flights carrying vaccines have begun arriving in Sanaa again as well. The two week shutdown left millions of people in acute danger of starvation and many at risk of disease, and while it’s good news that the aid has started flowing again, the damage done during the blockade can’t be undone now.

TURKEY

Turkish state media announced on Monday that Sudanese authorities (working in collaboration with Turkish intelligence) have arrested and extradited Memduh Çıkmaz, who is accused of being one of Fethullah Gülen’s main financiers. He’s been arrested on suspicion of involvement in–say it with me–last year’s coup attempt.

At Lawfare, Amanda Sloat does a pretty good job summarizing the Reza Zarrab case and why it’s getting so much attention from Ankara:

In recent weeks, there has been increasing American interest in a previously little-watched judicial saga unfolding in New York district court. Like a Turkish soap opera, it involves a dashing businessman with a pop-star wife, corruption allegations, leaked tapes of private conversations and intrigue at the highest levels of government. The trial of Reza Zarrab on charges of evading Iran sanctions, including any revelations he makes about corruption in the Turkish government, could have significant political and economic implications for Turkey. It could also damage already fraught relations between Turkey and the United States.

LEBANON

Fresh off of his arrest in Saudi Arabia whirlwind tour of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut last week and made good on his promise to formally resign decided to do a take back. No, seriously, after almost three weeks of unrelenting drama, Hariri is still PM after all. He seems to be taking a slightly harder line against Hezbollah, but it’s impossible to conclude anything other than that, as they did in Yemen, the Saudis blinked here in the face of international pressure and let Hariri stay on. Which means all the drama they caused earlier this month in forcing Hariri to resign literally amounted to nothing in the end. Less than nothing, really, because all the drama resulted in the Lebanese political spectrum uniting against Saudi manipulation, probably leaving Riyadh with less influence in Beirut than it had before.

If, and it’s a big if, but if Hariri manages to shift the conversation in Beirut away from the Saudis and on to “dissociating” Lebanon from regional conflicts (which means somehow forcing Hezbollah to stand down in Syria and wherever else it’s been active), then the Saudis might still be able to come out of this fiasco with some positive result. But their ability to frame that conversation was almost certainly stronger before they forced Hariri to quit–and then detained him–than it is now.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

In electing the right-wing Avi Gabbay as its leader, +972 Magazine’s Joshua Leifer says that the Israeli Labor Party may have done itself a tremendous political disservice:

Last July, Avi Gabbay was elected chairman of the Labor party on the promise to return the party to power. Since then, Gabbay has staked out positions considerably to the right of Labor’s traditional base, leaving many on the Left frustrated, even devastated. Labor gained ground in the 2015 elections because it cast itself as the anti-Netanyahu; now, Labor voters worry, Gabbay is turning into Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly preparing a take-it-or-leave-it offer (this might help contextualize its recent threats to close Palestinian offices in Washington) to the Palestinian Authority that they really should leave:

According to Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, leaks from well-informed Palestinian sources revealed that during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Abbas received from Saudi mediator Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a US offer to establish a Palestinian state “on paper” only, without such a state being sovereign or having the ability to make decisions of any kind. In return, the Israeli settlements would be frozen, economic incentives in Area C set out by the Oslo agreement would be provided and circulation at the Karameh crossing with Jordan and the Rafah crossing with Egypt would be facilitated.

 

The newspaper showed that the US proposal is the only viable option for the United States and that if Abbas and the Palestinian leadership reject it, they won’t be provided with another solution — meaning that the US administration may renege on its commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This “deal” would leave Palestinian refugees stranded, “freezes” Israeli settlements that already cut through the West Bank and prevent the formation of a viable Palestinian state, and then gets around the latter problem by creating a Palestinian “state” that isn’t really a state and therefore doesn’t actually need to be viable. If Mahmoud Abbas, whose approval rating is already approaching single digits, were to accept this deal there’s a strong chance he would find himself out of a job shortly thereafter.

EGYPT

Probably the biggest single story while I was gone was Friday’s horrific terrorist attack on the al-Rawdah mosque in northern Sinai. At last count, 305 people were killed in the attack, which involved 25-30 attackers and was almost certainly carried out by ISIS, even though they’ve so far not claimed credit for it. Assuming you don’t count atrocities perpetrated by the Egyptian government, it’s the bloodiest terror attack in Egyptian history. The mosque appears to have been popular with Sufis, who are an all-too-common ISIS target.

The Egyptian air force conducted airstrikes in the area around the mosque on Saturday in response to the attack, but so far there don’t seem to have been many high-level calls for Cairo to reevaluate its counter-terrorism policies. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has become every American Republican’s favorite Muslim over the past couple of years because of his uncompromising rhetoric about dealing with extremist groups. But at this point I think it’s safe to say that the authoritarian Sisi’s approach to fighting extremism has failed, utterly. Sisi has been more focused on conflating the Muslim Brotherhood with more violent groups like ISIS, in order to justify political repression, than on actually countering the real threat. He’s ignored the security of at-risk groups like Coptic Christians and, now, Sufis. But as long as Sisi says the right things, what he actually does is irrelevant to how he’s received in Washington.

BAHRAIN

Bahrain’s senior Shiʿa cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, is said to be in grave health due to a hernia and other age-related complicating factors. Qassim has been under house arrest since last year on the charge of being a prominent Shiʿa leader in a country where that sort of thing is frowned upon, and his detention has certainly contributed to his medical condition.

QATAR

Qatar, Turkey, and Iran signed a trade and transit deal on Sunday that, in its most immediate effect, is going to help bolster Qatar’s ability to get around the Saudi-led blockade. Yet another major victory for Mohammad bin Salman’s foreign policy vision.

SAUDI ARABIA

Laura Rozen describes how and why the White House has diverged from the rest of the Trump administration in its approach to the Saudis:

The perception that the White House is giving the Saudis and Emiratis carte blanche is magnified by the Trump administration’s desire to get Saudi Arabia and the UAE to buy into and achieve deliverables in a relaunched Israeli-Palestinian-Arab peace process.

 

“It just is stunning how sublimated our policy has become to one or two things,” a former senior US administration official speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor. “Fundamentally, we want to go after Iran, [and] we want to go after that ‘outside-in’ Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. And the Trump administration appears to believe that this requires giving the Saudis a huge amount of space in order to get what we want vis-a-vis Israel. … My guess is they are prepared to trade virtually anything in order to get that ‘outside-in’ deal.”

While I was gone, New York Times Chief Useful Idiot Thomas Friedman penned an insipid mash note to Mohammad bin Salman, highlighted, I suppose, by MBS referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Middle Eastern Hitler. I don’t want to spend much time on it because Friedman’s lazy conventional wisdom pablum frankly doesn’t deserve it, but here’s Daniel Larison taking the piece apart:

Sometimes newspapers publish credulous fluff pieces about their subjects, but Tom Friedman leaves them all in the dust with his encomium to Mohammed bin Salman (MBS):

Unlike the other Arab Springs — all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia — this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.

It would be more accurate to say that only a fool would be so quick to take all of this at face value. I don’t see the news value in having a prominent columnist working as a foreign leader’s publicist, but it is extremely useful for the crown prince to be given a major platform to deliver his spin to someone who will uncritically endorse it. There is practically nothing in the long profile that might displease its subject, whose assurances are taken as proof that he is the zealous “reformer” that his cheerleaders say that he is. Friedman tells us that he couldn’t find anyone with a bad word to say about MBS’ purges, as if anyone there would feel free to do so after the dramatic mass arrests that the crown prince has orchestrated.

MBS must have his American PR people working overtime lately. Buzzfeed’s profile is slightly more critical than Friedman’s, but still way too fawning.

Human Rights Watch is complaining about Riyadh’s new counter-terrorism law, simply because it’s “overly broad” and treats “criticizing the king and crown prince” as an “act of terror” punishable by up to “ten years in prison.” Whiners.

IRAN

Nobody Pretty much anybody could have predicted this:

The two most popular stars in Iran today — a country with thriving film, theater and music industries — are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.

 

In short, it appears that Mr. Trump and the Saudis have helped the government achieve what years of repression could never accomplish: widespread public support for the hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is now a strong and capable state capable of staring down its enemies.

I know what you’re thinking, that this means the Trump administration’s Iran policy has been inherently self-defeating. But since that policy is being crafted by a bunch of people who ultimately won’t be happy with anything other than a war with Iran, this actually can be considered a successful outcome. One could almost argue that Washington has deliberately set out to quash any moderate politics inside Iran.

Finally, this post is way too long as it is but I recommend you read Giorgio Cafiero’s piece on Iran’s Khuzestan province and the role it’s starting to play in the Iran-Saudi rivalry:

Inhabitants of this Iranian province are tribally, culturally, and ethnically linked to segments of Iraq’s Arab population. Saddam Hussein, who long championed various Arab causes, sought to turn Iran’s Arab minority against the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). But he yet failed to do so as Khuzestan’s locals sided with their government, and many of them fought courageously against invading Iraqi forces.

 

Despite this history of Ahwazi Arab loyalty, as Saudi-Iranian proxy wars intensify—most recently in Lebanon and Yemen—Iranian officials are blaming violence in Khuzestan on GCC states, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2013, ASMLA claimed responsibility for an attack on a gas pipeline linking Shadegan to Sarbandar, marking the group’s sixth attack that year, days after Iran’s state-owned media reported that ASMLA members, who had allegedly carried out attacks in Shush and Haft Tepe in 2012, were recipients of financial support and training from Dubai.

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