Middle East update: January 30 2018


Russia’s big Syrian congress in Sochi concluded on Tuesday–having accomplished, as expected, nothing–and it appears things went really, really well:

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, helped open the conference on Tuesday by reading out a statement from Vladimir Putin saying the conditions were ripe for Syria to turn “a tragic page” in its history.


But some delegates stood up and began heckling him, accusing Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with airstrikes.


The incident was broadcast on Russian state TV, where two security guards were shown approaching one man in the audience indicating that he should sit down.


Others shouted out their support for Russia. Lavrov told the delegates to let him finish speaking.

The main rebel negotiating body, based in Saudi Arabia, has already refused to attend the congress. Another opposition delegation, from Turkey, landed in Sochi, saw a bunch of Syrian flags and the like all over the airport, then refused to deplane and later said it was going back to Turkey.

Investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons now say that they can link samples taken from the 2013 Ghouta sarin gas attack to remnants of the gas turned over for destruction by the Syrian government the following year. There are apparently markers from this batch that are similar to samples taken from the 2013 Khan al-Assal attack and the 2017 Khan Shaykhun attack, implicating Damascus in all three incidents. Assuming you believe the OPCW is impartial–a claim Damascus and the Russians will undoubtedly contest–this is a substantial finding that would have war crimes implications if there were ever a real international trial over this war.


As popular as Haider al-Abadi is in the afterglow of the Iraqi victory over ISIS, his short-lived alliance with the political wings of several Popular Mobilization militias earlier this month is looking more and more like a serious mistake:

Even Mr. Abadi’s closest advisers now concede that alliance was a serious tactical error, which they attribute to the overwhelming task of setting up a new political entity on short deadline.


Registration for the election ended Jan. 15.


“We did not have time to finalize who our main partners would be, what we stand for and what we all agree with,” said Ali al-Adiib, a member of Parliament close to Mr. Abadi. “We are discussing all these things now.”


Some analysts say the prime minister’s reputation may be forever tarnished.

In addition to damaging Abadi’s cross-sectarian appeal and quashing a potential alliance with influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the move may have also cost him support in Washington, where he’d previously been seen as a bulwark against PMU/Iranian interests. Still, Abadi should win another term as PM if for no other reason than that he is popular right now and there’s no organized opposition that isn’t damaged goods.


Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr started his Tuesday making plans to hightail it out of Aden due ongoing clashes between pro-Hadi and pro-secession forces that were clearly tipping the separatists’ way. He didn’t make it. The Southern Resistance Force is reportedly now in control of the city and has contained the PM and other members of his cabinet within the city’s presidential compound. The anti-Houthi coalition is calling for stability and the UAE is supposedly calling on the separatists to accept a ceasefire, but on the other hand there are reports that UAE air support has been helping the separatists gain control of the city and its nearby military bases.

Meanwhile, at least 11 people were killed in Shabwa province on Tuesday in a suicide attack on a military checkpoint. The attack targeted separatist forces but bore hallmarks of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has a heavy presence in Shabwa. Now, is it possible that AQAP targeted the separatists in order to help Hadi? Sort of. AQAP has no great love for Hadi, but most of Hadi’s support these days is tied to Islamist groups like Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch. While the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are not intimately connected, no matter what your local Republican congressperson might say, in a place like Yemen and a situation like this, the lines can get a little blurry. AQAP likely prefers Hadi over the secessionists, who are very explicitly secular and closely tied to the UAE.


Turkish state media says that the Turkish military struck eight PKK targets in northern Iraq on Monday.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International’s Kate Allen writes about Ankara’s brutal crackdown on civil society organizations:

Indeed, since the bloody coup attempt of 2016, the Turkish authorities have launched a truly huge crackdown. It has been wide-ranging and frighteningly indiscriminate. Criminal investigations have been opened against a staggering 150,000 people accused of links to the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation”, which the government claims masterminded the attempted coup. More than 50,000 remain in prison on remand. Thousands more have been detained, accused of links to the armed Kurdish PKK or other banned organisations. More than 100,000 public sector workers, including a quarter of the judiciary and hundreds of academics, have been arbitrarily dismissed under state of emergency powers. At least 100 journalists are in jail, the most in any country in the world.


Meanwhile, if they haven’t already been sacked or arrested, numerous academics and other public sector workers have been trying to leave the country, part of a dispiriting Turkish brain drain​. It’s hard to see all this as anything other than a vast opportunistic backlash against political opponents (real and perceived), as well as multifarious critics and anyone deemed inconvenient by the Ankara authorities.


To that end, it’s no exaggeration to say Turkey’s entire civil society has come under attack. Toward the end of 2016, some 375 non-government organisations (NGOs) – some of which were providing care for the massive numbers of Syrian refugees and people internally displaced in the country – were forcibly shut down ​under a draconian executive decree.


Apparently Lebanese President Michel Aoun has his own Jared Kushner, in the person of his foreign minister/dumbass son in-law Gebran Bassil. And in Kushner’s defense, he’s stupid but he’s never been recorded personally insulting, say, Chuck Schumer. Not so Bassil, who has been caught on video calling Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri a “thug.” Berri’s supporters demonstrated, sometimes violently, against Bassil and Aoun on Monday, and Aoun has been forced to apologize for Bassil’s comments. Berri is an institution in Lebanese politics, having been speaker since 1992, and to make matters worse his Amal Movement is in the same March 8 Alliance with Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement. The last thing Lebanon needs is for a major breakdown within one of those two alliances to further complicate its politics.


Reuters reports on a major problem facing Cairo: a spate of high-ranking security officers going over to Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaeda-liked group that is believed to have been active for at least a couple of years now but only publicly revealed itself late last year:

The shadowy network that Ansar is part of presents a more daunting national security challenge than the Sinai militants, intelligence officials say, since it is comprised of army officers and policemen who use their training in counter-terrorism and surveillance to attack the forces they once served.


“They’re more dangerous than those in Sinai even though they’re fewer in number,” one security source said.


The UAE is apparently buying strike-capable Chinese drones. I’m sure that will be good for regional stability.


Mohammad bin Salman’s anti-corruption drive, which seems to have reached an end or at least a pause, turns out to have been a very lucrative enterprise. With fewer than 60 of the more than 360 people originally detained left in custody, Riyadh has netted itself nearly $107 billion for its trouble. The remaining detainees either appear to have more serious charges against them or haven’t agreed to cough up enough dough to get out. Either way they’ve been taken out of the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and moved to more traditionally prison-like surroundings.


Mehdi Karroubi, who is still under house arrest for his role in the 2009 Green Movement protests, issued an open letter on Tuesday in which he heavily criticized Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

“You have been Iran’s top leader for three decades, but still speak like an opposition,” Karroubi said in an open letter to Khamenei published on Saham News, the official website of his reformist political party.


By “opposition”, Karroubi meant that Khamenei, head of a Shi‘ite theocracy, should not be wielding ultimate power while criticizing the government of elected President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who wants to liberalize an economy dominated by the elite Revolutionary Guards and other state conglomerates.


“During the last three decades, you have eliminated the main revolutionary forces to implement your own policies, and now you should face the results of that,” Karroubi added.

Karroubi blamed rising corruption, which he suggested has been overseen by Khamenei, for recent protests against the government. Karroubi does have support within Iran’s reformist community, but his reach beyond that is questionable.

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