Middle East update: February 3-4 2018

SYRIA

Obviously the weekend’s big news was the downing of a Russian Sukhoi SU-25 aircraft over Idlib province on Saturday. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham claimed credit for the shoot down and for killing the pilot, who bailed out and made it to the ground but was killed in a subsequent firefight. Assuming HTS did shoot the plane down, and at this point there’s no reason to think otherwise, it’s the first Russian plane to be shot down by a Syrian rebel group since Moscow got involved in Syria.

The SU-25 is a ground attack plane so it would have been flying low enough to be targeted by a portable air defense system (MANPADS), but the question then becomes “where the hell did the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria get ahold of a portable air defense unit, and how many more do they have?” The US has, at least officially, been dead set against supplying MANPADS units to any Syrian rebel group precisely out of fear that they would find their way into al-Qaeda’s hands. The likeliest explanation is that they captured something from the Syrian military, but that’s speculation. This incident also could raise tensions between Russia and Turkey, which is supposed to be securing Idlib from HTS but has been fighting the Kurds in Afrin instead. Russia has already been prodding Ankara to do more to bring Idlib under control–now they could conceivably blame Turkey for the loss of their plane and pilot.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Russians took their anger out on–who else?–civilians in Idlib. Dozens of people were killed in retaliatory Russian airstrikes over Saturday and Sunday.

Speaking of Afrin, Turkey suffered its worst day in that campaign so far on Saturday, losing at least seven and likely more soldiers in clashes with the YPG. Nevertheless, Ankara says it’s making progress and that its forces are “almost” in the city of Afrin itself. At the same time, Ankara is having to deny a claim from Human Rights Watch that its border forces have been “indiscriminately shooting” at Syrians attempting to flee across the border. Several Syrian refugees interviewed by HRW have reportedly begged to differ.

Elsewhere, Syrian Civil Defense (AKA the “White Helmets”) says that some of its workers were exposed to chlorine gas in Saraqeb, a town in Idlib province, over the weekend, while the Syrian American Medical Society says it has received reports of several cases of chlorine exposure from that same area. I have no insight here, but these accusations come close on the heels of the Trump administration warning that the Syrian government has been getting chemical weapons-happy again, so take them with a grain of salt. On the good news front, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan say they’re working on a roadmap for Syrian peace. What I like about this story is that both of them apparently seem to think that will matter somehow. They might as well bring Luxembourg and Uruguay into their talks for all the difference it will make.

IRAQ

The Washington Post reports on the environmental destruction that ISIS left behind in northern Iraq:

The Islamic State footprint on Iraq’s environment may be unprecedented and permanent, with a toxic legacy that includes wide-scale cattle deaths, fields that no longer yield edible crops and chronic breathing complications in children and the elderly, doctors and experts said.

Up to 2 million barrels of oil were lost, either burned or spilled, between June 2016 and March 2017, when firefighters put out the final blaze, according to a United Nations report citing Iraq’s Oil Ministry. Environmental experts worry that much of the oil has seeped into the groundwater and the nearby Tigris River — a lifeline for millions of Iraqis stretching more than 1,000 miles to Baghdad and beyond.

The militants also torched a sulfur plant north of Qayyarah, spewing 35,000 tons of the stinging substance into the air, the United Nations said. Reportedly containing one of the largest sulfur stockpiles in the world, the plant was set ablaze in part to help hold off Iraqi security forces, according to human rights and environmental experts.

Assessing the impact of this damage has not been a priority in Baghdad, which is more worried about returning the displaced to their homes and rebuilding. But while cities can be rebuilt and people resettled, much of this damage can’t be fixed and could take decades to really be ameliorated.

YEMEN

The Houthis say that a Saudi airstrike hit a police station in Sanaa on Sunday and killed eight people including a child.

JORDAN

At Al-Monitor, Jordanian journalist Mohammad Ersan reports on Iraq’s Mandaean community, many of whose members have fled to Jordan. They were displaced by ISIS and driven out of Iraq altogether by Shiʿa militias:

The suffering of Mandaeans began in 2014 when IS took over Samarra in southern Iraq, an area where adherents of this religion are concentrated. They were faced with two choices: death or converting to Islam as IS considered them infidels, Nader told Al-Monitor.

Nader added, “Amid terror, murders and the captivity of women, we fled through the dirt road from Maryam neighborhood in Samarra to al-Suwaira in Wasit province, which is controlled by Shiite militias and the Popular Mobilization Units, in search of safety.”

But the situation was not much better. The family of seven was threatened with murder and forced by Shiite militias to pay large sums of money to spare their lives. The militias killed many Mandaeans, most of whom worked in jewelry making, in al-Suwaira.

Many are now having a hard time in Jordan, which doesn’t recognize Mandaeism and whose authorities are therefore not obliged to extend religious rights to the Mandaeans.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee met on Saturday and agreed to advise the Palestinian Authority to “begin devising plans to disengage from the Israeli occupation authorities at the political, security, economic and administrative levels.” This would potentially include taking action against Israel at the International Criminal Court and suspending its recognition of the state of Israel. Jared Kushner is really doing a bang-up job here.

EGYPT

A roadside bomb in northern Sinai killed two Egyptian police officers on Sunday. There’s been no claim of responsibility but there really doesn’t need to be–this kind of attack is pretty much ISIS-Sinai’s MO at this point.

While we’re talking about ISIS-Sinai, the New York Times is reporting that Cairo has been allowing the Israeli air force to target the group, on Egyptian soil, for quite a while now:

For more than two years, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 airstrikes inside Egypt, frequently more than once a week — and all with the approval of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The remarkable cooperation marks a new stage in the evolution of their singularly fraught relationship. Once enemies in three wars, then antagonists in an uneasy peace, Egypt and Israel are now secret allies in a covert war against a common foe.

The Israeli help has apparently been critical in enabling the Egyptians to get something of a handle on Sinai. It’s also good for Tel Aviv because it leaves Cairo as a dependent and thus unable/unwilling to make a stink about the Palestinian issue. Of course, if Egypt had a functioning democracy it would be really embarrassing for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to have this come out so close to the election. But that shouldn’t be a problem.

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Author: DWD

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