Middle East update: January 20-21 2018

SYRIA

Welp, Turkey finally did it:

Turkey said it had begun a ground incursion into the Kurdish enclave in Syria known as Afrin a day after intense aerial bombardment that signalled the opening of hostilities in a new phase of Ankara’s involvement in the war across the border.

 

The launch of the ground campaign by the Turkish military on Sunday, alongside Syrian rebel factions under Ankara’s tutelage, came on the second day of a military offensive called “Operation Olive Branch” by the Turkish government, with dozens of airstrikes hitting more than 150 targets in the Kurdish-dominated district from late on Saturday afternoon.

 

Kurdish militias shelled the Turkish province of Kilis across the border in response. One person was killed and 32 wounded after a missile from Syria struck the Turkish bordertown of Reyhanli.

 

A spokesman for the Kurdish militias that control the Afrin enclave said they had blocked the Turkish army-led initial attempt at a ground incursion on Sunday morning.

None of this “a spokesman for X said Y” stuff really matters, since situations like this are so fluid. But the fact that the attack has finally come is obviously quite significant. I have to admit that committing ground troops is farther than I thought Turkey would go, but at the same time it’s also not as far as they said they would go because they’re only attacking Afrin instead of Afrin and Manbij. Now, Manbij could still be on the agenda, or the Turks may have agreed to leave it alone in order to reach an accord with the US, which doesn’t care about Afrin and somehow thinks that its relationship with the YPG won’t be affected by whatever happens there.

Also, “Operation Olive Branch” is some fantastic trolling. Most military operation names are Orwellian bullshit, but few are so obviously a middle finger to critics.

Turkey’s aims seem to be pretty comprehensive:

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the aim of the operation, which is being backed by rebels operating under the Free Syria Army umbrella, was to establish a 30-kilometer (19-mile) cordon deep inside Syria. Turkish troops have advanced some 5 kilometers (3 miles) into Syrian territory, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the target of the Turkish attacks, said at least four Turkish soldiers and 10 Syrian rebel fighters were killed in clashes this morning. Syrian Kurdish officials also said at least 7 civilians had died as a result of the Turkish bombing. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

But the timing of the offensive shows that one of its unspoken goals is to break up that US-YPG relationship. Attacking Afrin didn’t become an urgent Turkish priority until the US announced last week that it was going to create a 30,000 man border security force, in part using YPG fighters. The conclusion Turkey drew was that the US-YPG alliance, which Washington insisted wouldn’t last beyond the elimination of ISIS in eastern Syria, was going to continue indefinitely as part of the Trump administration’s plans to counter Iran. Not an unreasonable conclusion, to be fair.

Now we all get to watch America’s NATO ally fight America’s only ally in Syria, using American-made weapons in the process. God Bless America! People will die, civilians will die, all because the existence of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria trips Ankara’s paranoia about its own Kurdish problem–a problem, by the way, that the Turks could alleviate if they started treating the Kurds as anything more than a constant threat to the state. If we’re lucky, the Syrian government will get involved (it’s promised to shoot down Turkish aircraft that enter Syrian airspace) and things can really spin out of control.

The US and the Kurds can blame Turkey, Russia and Syria can blame the US and Turkey, Turkey can blame the US, and if any of these players spent a quarter of the energy they spend on settling scores on ending the Syrian civil war instead, the war would probably be over by now. Everybody can hilariously talk about how they’re the only ones focusing on ISIS and everybody else is undermining the fight against ISIS, when in reality they all stopped really worrying about ISIS months ago, when it stopped being a threat worth worrying about.

Elsewhere, the Syrian government and its allies captured the Abu al-Duhur airbase in Idlib province on Saturday. Whether this marks the end of their recent offensive in southern Idlib or the start of a new offensive against the rest of Idlib remains to be seen. Turkey has been calling for an end to the fighting, but, uh, they’re not really in a position to complain about somebody else’s military activity right now.

IRAQ

Iraq’s top court ruled on Sunday that the general election likely to happen in May cannot be postponed in a way that contradicts the Iraqi constitution. Some Iraqi leaders want to delay the vote to allow more time for displaced persons to resettle in their homes. They may also be looking to hold off until Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi isn’t quite as popular as he is right now. Abadi, naturally, opposes delaying the vote for precisely that reason.

Abadi seems to be on a bit of a charm offensive with respect to the Kurds, possibly for political reasons. He met with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on Saturday to talk about the conditions the KRG needs to meet in order to get out from under the restrictions Baghdad placed on it after the September independence referendum. Both men then headed to Tehran, where Hasan Rouhani is also suddenly very interested in improving relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, I’m sure for completely unrelated reasons.

YEMEN

The Houthis reportedly fired another missile at a military base in southern Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The Saudis claim that they intercepted it.

The Yemeni government on Sunday unveiled its first budget since 2014. Later, the Southern Transitional Council–the people who want there to be an independent South Yemen again–declared a state of emergency in Aden and called for the removal of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. It cited, in part, the budget, which it accused of “starving” the Yemeni people. It gave President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi a week to sack his cabinet and appoint a group of “technocrats” instead. Hadi’s government has become increasingly reliant on the Islah party, which is Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch and is staunchly opposed by the secessionist and by the UAE, which has been patronizing the secessionists. Anyway all this infighting is sure to help the Yemeni people with that starvation thing, and with their cholera outbreak, and with their new diphtheria outbreak. Good times.

In potentially more upbeat news, the Saudi-led coalition says it will fork over an additional $1.5 billion in aid to alleviate the humanitarian suffering it keeps causing. It plans to open more overland routes into the country, to open an air corridor to Marib in northern Yemen, and to make infrastructure improvements at several Yemeni ports to allow them to handle additional aid shipments.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Mike Pence made his big Middle East trip over the weekend, and it was almost entirely about Israel-Palestine. First he headed to Egypt, where he told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that the US “would support” a two-state solution to Israel-Palestine if the two sides agree to one. Which is a bit of a shift in America’s traditional “two state or bust” approach in that it seems to allow for a one-state approach, but since there’s no one state approach to which the Israelis and Palestinians could agree either, it’s not really that big a difference. What’s really new about the Trump administration is that it’s made America’s long-standing “fuck the Palestinians” subtext into text, and now Arab leaders like Sisi have to pretend to be offended by that.

Next Pence went to Jordan, where his reception was decidedly chillier. He first hit up a US military base so he could use soldiers as the backdrop for a political speech about the government shutdown, which is distasteful but completely predictable. Then he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah. Abdullah has to pretend to care about the Palestinians all the time, not just when America does something dumb, and so when America does something dumb it puts him in a serious bind. So he used Pence as a bit of a public punching bag:

“I had continuously voiced over the past year, in my meetings with Washington, my concerns regarding the U.S. decision on Jerusalem that does not come as a result of a comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he said, addressing Pence and his delegation from across a dining table laid out for lunch. “Today we have a major challenge to overcome, especially with some of the rising frustrations.”

 

He added that it was “very important” to find a way to move forward with a two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state formed on pre-1967 borders, living side-by-side with a “secure and recognized” Israel. “Your visit here, I am sure, is to rebuild the trust and confidence,” he said.

Finally, Pence flew to Israel, where he and Benjamin Netanyahu probably had some laughs watching video of West Bank protesters getting shot by Israeli police or something. Or maybe they chuckled over the Israeli government’s decision not to prosecute the Israeli embassy guard who killed two Jordanians in Amman last summer.

IRAN

Something very interesting might be happening in Iran:

Iran’s supreme leader has ordered the Revolutionary Guard to loosen its hold on the economy, the country’s defense minister says, raising the possibility that the paramilitary organization might privatize some of its vast holdings.

 

The comments this weekend by Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami appear to be a trial balloon to test the reaction of the idea, long pushed by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate. Protests over the country’s poor economy last month escalated into demonstrations directly challenging the government.

 

But whether the Guard would agree remains unclear, as the organization is estimated to hold around a third of the country’s entire economy.

Getting the IRGC to divest of some of its vast economic holdings would be a huge step toward responding to protesters, who are angry about the country’s continued weak economy and the corruption that has helped to weaken it. Reducing the IRGC’s business holdings would help address both of those problems.

It remains to be seen whether Hatami, whose appointment last year was itself a big deal–he’s the first Iranian defense minister not to come out of the IRGC since the early 1990s–has the stroke to make this happen. The IRGC is accountable to the supreme leader, but it may not respond to Hatami speaking on Ayatollah Khamenei’s behalf. It also may not respond to Khamenei himself if it comes to that–as I say, the IRGC is accountable to the supreme leader, but at the end of the day it has lots of guns and he doesn’t–but that would likely lose them a lot of popular support.

Meanwhile, in an effort to encourage Donald Trump not to pull America out of the Iran nuclear deal, Britain, France, and Germany are said to be working on a new package of sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program and its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis, and on coming up with a way to pressure Tehran to support peace talks in Syria. Congress, meanwhile, is working on legislation that would automatically reimpose US sanctions on Iran if the Iranians are ever found to be pursuing nuclear weapons, an effort to ameliorate Trump’s concerns about the deal’s “sunset” clauses. It’s not clear if these measures will be enough to appease Trump–it’s not clear what would make Trump happy here–but it’s also unclear whether they would be enough to get Iran to scrap the deal, which is unlikely but not impossible.

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