Middle East update: January 5 2018

SYRIA

Utilizing its total airpower advantage, the Syrian army has pushed deep enough into southern Idlib province that it’s approaching the strategic Abu al-Duhur airbase, which could serve as a forward base for an ongoing push through the province. The airbase is on the eastern edge of the province so it’s not like Syrian soldiers are going to be marching through downtown Idlib anytime soon, but already tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the Syrian campaign in Idlib and in northern Hama province. But wait, you might be asking, isn’t Idlib province supposed to be a deescalation zone? Well, sort of. Geographically it is, but the “deescalation zone” project explicitly excluded attacks on known extremist groups–like al-Qaeda’s erstwhile Syrian affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. And it just so happens that HTS controls most of Idlib province nowadays, so you can probably do the math here.

Photos have emerged that sure look like they show damaged Russian aircraft at Khmeimim airbase, south of Latakia. This is a weird story and I’m not sure it’s worth a full walkthrough, but if you haven’t been keeping up with the blog (AHEM) then the short version is that a small Russian media outlet says that the airbase was shelled by rebels on December 31 and at least seven Russian aircraft were seriously damaged. The Russian defense ministry denies this, and the fact that no rebel group has been jumping up and down and waving its arms to claim credit for the attack seems to lend some credence to their denial. And yet, now we have photos. Photos whose origins can’t be completely verified, but photos nonetheless.

YEMEN

The Houthis apparently fired another missile at Saudi Arabia on Friday, this time at a military base, though their claims that it hit its target with “high accuracy” are contradicted by Saudi claims that they intercepted the missile near the border. The Saudis retaliated with airstrikes on Saada, which is a big development because usually they’re so restrained in bombing Yemen.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan headed to France on Friday where both he and French President Emmanuel Macron complained about the state of Turkey’s European Union bid, but for very different reasons:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Ankara is “tired” of its sluggish European Union membership process, noting that it cannot indefinitely be requesting to join the bloc.

 

His comments on Friday came during a visit to Paris, where he held talks his his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.

 

“We cannot continuously ask the EU, ‘please take us, too’ now,” Erdogan said during a joint news conference, accusing the bloc of leaving Turkey “waiting outside the door” of the bloc for decades.

Erdoğan isn’t wrong, in that the EU has been stringing Turkey along for, at a minimum, about two decades now. But his repeated purges, destruction of press freedom in Turkey, and consolidation of power have made it impossible for the EU to admit Turkey as a member even if the rest of its members actually wanted to do so, and Macron made this argument while suggesting that a Turkey-EU relationship short of full membership might be preferable for everybody.

The New York Times has a long profile of Meral Akşener, the right-wing former interior minister turned Erdoğan critic who, barring some other development, might be the opposition’s best chance to defeat Erdoğan in the 2019 presidential election. That’s assuming the “opposition” would be able to coalesce behind her, which–given her politics–might not be a sure thing despite the strong common interest in getting Erdoğan out of office before he can cement his constitutional changes and position himself to be president more or less for life.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Donald Trump has decided to punish the Palestinian government for not eating shit on command graciously accepting his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by…freezing refugee aid. That’ll show them?

Or maybe not–State Department sources are telling Reuters that no decision on the refugee aid has been made yet. But they are apparently considering freezing that aid, which is reprehensible enough as it is.

The NYT reports that both Palestinian and Israeli leaders are coming around to the notion that the two-state solution is dead and they need to figure out a one-state solution instead. Of course, there are serious differences between the Palestinian version of a one-state solution, in which the Palestinians are treated as human beings, and the Israeli version, in which they aren’t. It’s probably going to be hard to bridge that divide.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudis are trying to soften the blow of new taxes and shrinking gas subsidies by instituting a monthly 1000 riyal payout to all government workers. That payout is undoubtedly smaller than the cost of the VAT and higher gas prices, and if it remains distinct from those workers’ salaries it will be a prime target for future austerity cuts, so it looks like an attempt to cushion the blow temporarily.

IRAN

Tens of thousands of Iranians reportedly hit the streets on Friday to demonstrate…in support of their government. At this point, over a week after anti-government protests began in several towns and cities throughout the country, it seems the pro-government demonstrations are outstripping them. Now comes the part where the various political factions inside Iran get to blaming each other for the conditions that caused the protests to break out in the first place. Hardliners are pointing the finger at Rouhani for failing to improve the economy despite getting his nuclear deal, and to be honest he doesn’t have a great response to that attack since the economy is his responsibility and his own policies have directly helped to immiserate the protesters. Ali Vaez argues that Rouhani could seize the moment and put hardliners in a difficult position by embracing radical political reforms of the kind that many Iranians want, even if political reform wasn’t really what motivated these protests to begin with:

Rouhani can leverage public discontent to push the political establishment toward structural changes so fervently desired by the population. The chance that he can successfully take advantage of this dynamic is made greater by the way many Iranians are wary of taking part in the protests, even though sympathetic to the demands raised in them. Specifically, he could submit to parliament a package of major reforms, including constitutional amendments to empower elected institutions and a timetable for implementing them. If his reform package is blocked, it will be clear to the Iranian people where the problem lies, positioning Rouhani as a motor for change rather than a bulwark against it.

Rouhani could argue that these reforms are needed to root out corruption, which is helping to stifle the Iranian economy. But this seems like an unlikely scenario.

The United Nations Security Council met in a special session on Friday to talk about the Iranian government’s response to the protests, but I’m not sure the session went the way the Trump administration was hoping. Even American allies on the council were lukewarm about the idea of harshly criticizing Tehran or punishing it, for fear of exacerbating the situation. The Russian ambassador, meanwhile, sharply criticized the idea of holding a Security Council session to discuss a country’s internal affairs, and when I say “sharply” I mean he may have literally drawn blood:

The Russian ambassador, Vasily A. Nebenzya, was more blunt. He asked rhetorically why the Security Council had not taken up the issue of Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo., which were at times also met with a violent police response.

 

“The real reason for convening today’s meeting is not an attempt to protect human rights or promote the interests of the Iranian people, but rather as a veiled attempt to use the current moment to continue to undermine” the Iranian deal, Mr. Nebenzya said.

Speaking of exacerbating the situation, Rex Tillerson told the AP on Friday that the Trump administration is negotiating with Congressional leaders on making some kind of change related to the Iran nuclear deal that would allow Trump to claim victory without pulling the US out of the accord. That change could be something as completely inconsequential as eliminating the requirement that Trump recertify the deal every three months, or at least extending that three months period so he doesn’t have to recertify it so frequently. To their credit, some Republicans like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker seem to get that wrecking the nuclear deal now would take world attention off of Tehran and the protests and put it on the erratic and unreliable US, so it would be far better to stay in the deal.

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Author: DWD

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