Middle East update: January 8 2018

SYRIA

The Syrian army and friends captured 14 villages from rebels in Idlib province on Monday, bringing them closer to the Abu al-Duhur airbase. No word on casualties. Meanwhile, the Russian military now says that both its air and naval bases in Latakia province came under drone attack over the weekend–13 drones, to be precise. All of the drones were either shot down or failed on their own. A rebel faction based in Latakia is believed to be responsible though it’s hard to pin down any details about that faction. The “Free Alawite Army” has allegedly claimed responsibility for attacking Hmeimim air base over the holidays, but nobody is quite sure that such a group actually exists.

TURKEY

The Turkish government is planning to extend the state of emergency that has been in place since the July 2016 coup attempt and is, in this latest iteration, supposed to expire on January 19.

I know, I was stunned too.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Mike Pence is going to make his delayed pilgrimage to Israel after all, starting on January 20. He’ll visit Egypt and Jordan as well. Pence was supposed to make this trip last month but postponed due to a bunch of Arab leaders telling him to fuck off over Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision because he had to remain in DC and potentially cast a tie-breaking Senate vote on the Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Billionaires Tax Reform Act of 2017.

The Israeli government blacklisted several pro-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) groups on Saturday. Mitchell Plitnick argues that the movement is having an impact, though the decision to blacklist those groups is more about Israel’s constant need for some existential threat than about BDS itself:

Israel is certainly using BDS for those purposes. Also, Israel’s massive overreaction to BDS is not because it’s afraid of the movement, but because it wants to raise a frightening specter. Israel makes the case for itself as victim by cultivating the image of the “only democracy” in a totalitarian region, constantly besieged by reactionary and Judeophobic forces.

 

But that doesn’t mean that, in the long term, BDS is not making a difference. Although some, myself included, disagree with the precise strategies most BDS groups have employed, the movement is still affecting the discourse around Palestinian disenfranchisement and lack of rights in a more effective way than past efforts.

 

The BDS movement is employing the language of rights, rather than the language of diplomacy. Given the apparent failure of diplomacy to bring an end to the occupation, the emphasis on Palestinian rights, rather than territorial or political claims, is becoming much more powerful.

EGYPT

Egyptian officials announced Monday that the first round of this year’s presidential election will be held March 26-28 with a runoff, if necessary, about a month later. Of course, the notion that there’s going to be a runoff is fairly ridiculous. There’s no reason to expect this vote to be any more legitimate than the one Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won in 2014 with a totally reasonable 97 percent of the vote. Nor, by the way, is there any reason to expect turnout to be higher than the ~47 percent who came out that year, a figure so low that Sisi extended the number of voting days to try to give it a boost.  Sisi’s margin of victory might be lower this time around but there’s still no legitimate opposition that he hasn’t outlawed and no challenger who will be allowed to establish any kind of public profile with the voters before the election.

The death last week of a man who was in police custody on drug charges led to a confrontation between cops and protesters in Cairo on Saturday. On Monday, two Egyptian police officers were detained in connection with the man’s death.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi punishment of religious scholar Salman al-Awda has apparently been extended to his family, 17 members of which are now being barred from leaving the kingdom. This is raising additional human rights concerns about collective punishment on top of the free speech concerns raised by Awda’s arrest itself.

IRAN

Concern is growing in Iran over the treatment of the more than 1700 individuals detained by the government over the recent round of anti-government protests. One person, a 22 year old man named Sina Qanbari, has reportedly died while in custody at Evin Prison in Tehran. Iranian officials say he killed himself, but given the kind of stuff that goes on at Evin there’s some justified skepticism about that story.

Donald Trump is reportedly planning to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting–i.e. Iranian state television–over Tehran’s crackdown on the protests. Well, technically he won’t be imposing them so much as allowing them to be imposed–the sanctions were put in place in 2013 but have been waived every 180 days since then. The 180 day window is up later this month and Trump looks like he’ll allow them to go forward this time.

Hassan Rouhani has been critical of IRIB in recent days, which means his opponents will use these sanctions to try to paint Rouhani and Trump as blood brothers or whatever. It’s all part of the post-protest political gamesmanship unfolding in Tehran. On Monday, Rouhani tried to deflect blame for the protests away from his economic management–or mismanagement if you like–by arguing that the protesters weren’t just angry about their economic struggles but about their overall quality of life:

“One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations,” Mr. Rouhani said, in remarks reported by the ISNA news agency. “The problem is that we want two generations after us to live the way we like them to.”

 

In his most extensive comments yet on the protests, Mr. Rouhani said that those people who took to the streets across the country did so because they were seeking a better life. “Some imagine that the people only want money and a good economy, but will someone accept a considerable amount of money per month when for instance the cyber network would be completely blocked?” he asked. “Is freedom and the life of the people purchasable with money? Why do some give the wrong reasons? This is an insult to the people.”

Meanwhile, conservative media in Iran has been blaming Rouhani for things that he’s done–like cutting fuel subsidies and cash transfers at a time when unemployment is high–and some things that are out of his control–like the huge proportion of the Iranian budget going to religious endowments and foreign military ventures while those welfare programs are being cut in the name of austerity, and Rouhani’s failure to root out corruption that is largely endemic to the conservative establishment. They’re also still trying to blame foreign subversion for the protests, though even Iran’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, seems to be throwing cold water on that idea. The wrong kind of response from Washington–the kind that galvanizes people against a perceived attack from the United States–can help ensure that the hardliners win this debate. That would be bad for America, but good for those Americans for whom the thought of a massive war with Iran is the only thing that gets them out of bed in the morning.

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Author: DWD

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