Middle East update: January 16 2018

SYRIA

Welp, start your engines:

Turkey’s president has warned of imminent military offensives on two Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria, as tanks and troops mass on the border.

 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Syrian rebels would support Turkish efforts to clear the “terror nests” of Afrin and Manbij.

 

The areas are controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a terrorist group.

It would be conceivable for a Turkish offensive in Afrin (northwestern Aleppo province, which is apparently already being bombarded by Turkish artillery in Idlib province) to have no impact on US activity in Syria. Indeed, the US military has already as much as disavowed the YPG in Afrin, signaling that it won’t come to their aid. It is almost inconceivable, on the other hand, that a Turkish offensive in Manbij would not impact US activity in Syria. Which means…well, I honestly don’t know. Is the US prepared to deploy its aircraft to defend the YPG from Turkish attack, to go to war with a fellow NATO member over Syrian Kurds? We’re in somewhat uncharted territory here.

As Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman notes, Turkey has threatened to attack the YPG so many times that it’s going to start looking weak if it doesn’t follow through. Ankara is also growing increasingly frustrated at the US-YPG relationship, which they believed would end once ISIS was defeated in eastern Syria–clearly that hasn’t been the case. However, the Turks may be constrained in what they can do against the Kurds not by the United States, but by Russia, which has relatively good relations with the YPG and which controls the airspace over Afrin. They would likely have to agree to allow Turkey to carry out operations there.

Joshua Landis believes that Washington is preparing to write Ankara off in pursuit of its “short-sighted” policy of Iranian containment in Syria. Landis argues that it would be smarter for the US to take a long view and help facilitate trade and economic development in Syria instead:

The US should be helping the PYD to negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Neither can rebuild alone. Syria’s Kurdish regions need to sell their produce to Syria and to establish transit rights; Damascus needs water, electricity and oil. Of course, policing any deal between the PYD and Damascus will not be easy. Northern Syrians will look to Washington to help guarantee their liberties. But helping both sides to strike a deal sooner than later is important. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be.

 

The US should allow the building of oil and gas pipelines that connect the rich fuel deposits of Iraq and Iran to the Mediterranean. Rather than thwart Syria’s efforts to rebuild, the West should support them. The only benefit to come out of the terrible wars that have waged in the northern Middle East is that today the governments of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran are on friendly terms. This is the first time in a century that cooperation between the four countries is possible. Why not use this happy coincidence to promote trade and economic growth? Why not allow governments to criss-cross the region with roads, communication highways, trade, and tourism? Jordan is eager to re-establish its main trade route through Damascus to Beirut, which remains closed.Several rebel groups are holding onto the border region, over which Russia and the United States negotiated a cease-fire or “deconfliction” zone. The same is true for the main highway that connects Baghdad and Damascus. It is closed due to the US military zone established at the Tanf border crossing. This US position serves no purpose today other than to stop trade and prohibit a possible land route from Iran to Lebanon. Iran has supplied Hizballah by air for decades and will continue to do so. The Tanf blockade serves only to inhibit trade and keep the region poor.

Landis theorizes that improving the regional economy would promote the growth of a moderate Syrian middle class that over time would be less inclined toward Iran and more inclined toward the West. He may not be right, but when you consider that the alternative is to maintain an US policy that has been calamitous on almost every level and certainly will not achieve any of its stated aims, trying something else seems like a pretty good idea.

Nasr Hariri, the chief negotiator for the main Syrian opposition, told reporters on Tuesday that he wants US and European leaders to pressure Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war. How he imagines those leaders doing that is unclear. Hariri insists that they have leverage over Assad, but I’m struggling to figure out how they possibly could.

YEMEN

Saudi state media reported on Tuesday that the Saudi military shot down a missile fired toward Saudi territory by the Houthis.

Yemeni Prime Minster (yes, it still has one) Ahmed Obeid bin Daghir called on the Saudi-led coalition to give Yemen’s central bank $1 billion as soon as possible to stabilize the Yemeni rial. The rial is currently worth half of what it was worth when the Saudis went to war in Yemen in 2015, and its collapse has contributed to the prohibitive cost of food in Yemen and therefore to the fact that millions of Yemenis are dying and at risk of starvation. The UAE in particular has no interest in stabilizing Yemen’s currency because it has no interest in propping up the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi despite the fact that the UAE is ostensibly fighting to put Hadi back in power. And with that, I think I need to lie down until my headache passes.

JORDAN

The leaders of Jordan, Cyprus, and Greece met in Nicosia on Tuesday to, among other things, call on the rest of the world to do more to help countries that are bearing the largest share of the world’s refugee burden. Jordan and Greece in particular have been hit hard by the influx of migrants, due to the Syrian civil war and the press of migrants looking to move through Turkey and on into Europe.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration has decided to hold on to $65 million of the $125 million it was supposed to give to the United Nations Relief Works Agency–the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees–to punish Palestinian leaders (none of whom will feel the impact of this cut directly, in case you were wondering) for standing in the way of the adoption of the Kushner Accords.

Akiva Eldar’s comprehensive criticism of the Netanyahu-Trump approach to Israel-Palestine is so thorough that I urge you to read the whole thing. Here’s a sample:

For 50 years, with brief interruptions, Israeli governments have been handling the conflict with the Palestinians according to a familiar, simplistic formula: If the use of force doesn’t work, try using brute force. However, the use of force often results in collateral damage — or as a Russian proverb explains it, when you chop wood, chips fly. Sometimes, as in the deadly Jan. 9 terror attack near the West Bank outpost Havat Gilad, those struck by the chips are Israelis. Usually, as in clashes last month between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters in several West Bank towns, Palestinians are the victims.

 

This goes on while Israel is allegedly still part of the imaginary Oslo peace process that began almost 25 years ago and parallels the ongoing growth in the number of Israeli settlers on Palestinian lands in the West Bank. Barring a dramatic shift in the plot in the coming days, all that will be left of the landmark Israeli-Palestinian agreement is a popular Broadway play. Israel will be the biggest loser if the curtain comes down.

At the same time, though, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is highly unlikely to follow through on some of his strongest threats of the past several days, such as ending Palestinian security cooperation with Israel and appealing for international recognition for an independent Palestine. He won’t get the latter, which would be embarrassing, and pursuing the former would likely bring down the Palestinian Authority and could cripple the West Bank economy (crappy as it is already). Nothing in Abbas’s history suggests he’d be willing to take on those risks.

In Gaza, meanwhile, residents who thought the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks would lead to the Palestinian Authority restoring salary cuts to civil servants have been disappointed, to say the least, now that the unity deal appears to be in limbo. The PA cut those salaries by almost a third last year in an effort to put pressure on Hamas, and the impact on Gaza’s economy has been severe. Israel could help boost the economy by relaxing its blockade, but that too doesn’t seem likely to happen.

IRAN

At LobeLog, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann argues that the Trump administration is overhyping (intentionally or not) the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program:

Iran’s current ballistic missile development program is neither illegitimate nor disproportionate given that country’s size and security situation. It is high time for opponents and supporters of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) to address this subject in a more balanced way.

 

President Donald Trump characterized his January 12 waiver of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran as a “last chance” for the JCPOA parties to negotiate an agreement “to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal,” including the lack of constraints on ballistic missile development. He called for Congress to state explicitly that “long-range missiles and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.” Trump’s statement also called for a supplemental agreement with key allies that would, inter alia, “impose new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles.”

 

At a time when Trump has chosen to vilify Iran’s government and people, and seeks to sabotage multilateral arms control agreements, it is not surprising that the president has labeled Iran’s entire ballistic missile program an unacceptable security threat to the United States. However, the frequency and ease with which Trump makes this charge should not obscure a reality that is far more nuanced than the prevailing narrative.

Iran’s missiles are less powerful than either Israel’s or Saudi Arabia’s, and its missiles aren’t topped with nuclear warheads, unlike Israel which is just like every other country in the region because there’s definitely no Middle Eastern country that has had nuclear weapons for decades but refuses to admit it. Tehran shows no sign of moving to develop missiles longer than medium range, which tops out at around 3000 km and don’t have the distance to reach Europe, let alone the US. And a real approach to curbing Iranian missile development would have to offer benefits to Iran in return for its compliance, which the Trump administration is definitely not interested in offering. The end result is a policy that’s designed to justify continued hostility toward Iran rather than one that’s designed to actually accomplish something positive on the missile front.

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Author: DWD

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