Middle East update: February 5 2018

SYRIA

Russian and Syrian airstrikes pummeled Idlib province on Moday, with dozens of strikes reported but no casualty figures as yet. Even if the Russians didn’t intend, in their various peace initiatives, to sucker Syrian rebel groups and their supporters into Idlib only so as to get them in one place and make it easier to kill them, that still appears to be what’s happening, and at a faster clip since that Russian SU-25 was shot down on Saturday. Much of the fuss in the West seems to be over reports that the government used chlorine in an airstrike in Saraqeb, but comparatively scant attention is being paid to the overall carnage. Said carnage, by the way, is likely to worsen now that the Russians have ordered their pilots to fly higher to stay out of range of portable air defense units–flying higher most likely means less accurate bombing.

In Ghouta, meanwhile, government airstrikes reportedly killed at least 29 people over the weekend, while rebel shelling into Damascus killed at least one person.

Turkey is continuing to push deeper into Syria, setting up a “military outpost” southwest of Aleppo. This appears to be one of the monitoring posts Ankara was supposed to set up in order to monitor the ceasefire in Idlib. Possibly it’s escaped the notice of Turkish leaders–they’re too busy killing Kurds, I guess–that there is no longer a ceasefire in Idlib.

IRAQ

Baghdad says it’s preparing a military campaign to secure routes through the Hamrin mountain range in northeastern Iraq, whereby it would truck crude oil from Kirkuk to refineries in Iran. It’s believed there is an ISIS cell in that area, but also there may be a threat from a group called “White Banners,” which could be comprised of Kurdish fighters who retreated from the Kirkuk area back in October and have now severed their ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The United States has begun to draw down its troop presence in Iraq. I look forward to all the Republicans who had conniptions when the Obama administration drew down the US troop presence in Iraq being just as hard on Donald Trump.

YEMEN

The AP reports on one of the stalemated front lines in Yemen, a bit of government-held territory in eastern Sanaa province:

AP reporters were taken to a peak 48 kilometers (30 miles) from Sanaa International Airport, just inside Sanaa province. The front lines haven’t changed dramatically in recent months, though the Saudi-backed forces have clawed back some hillsides.

Here in the mountains, militiamen and soldiers point to crevices and man-made caves used by rebels fighters before they were driven back two months ago. They say they retook the area, called “Sniper’s Mountain,” after heavy losses from gunfire and land mines. Spent mortar rounds and bullet casings litter the ground. The corpse of a Houthi fighter rotted nearby.

Yemenis are protesting, meanwhile, over a January 28 US drone strike in Shabwa that killed seven civilians. They’re apparently tired of being blown up by the United States for some reason.

While trying to unpack the situation in Yemen, Paul Pillar notes the trouble with the Trump administration’s “the opposite of whatever Iran wants” approach to regional policy:

Defining the U.S. approach toward the Middle East narrowly and overwhelming in terms of countering Iranian influence—as the current administration does—is a prescription not only for failing to curb that influence but also for getting mired in local conflicts in which the United States has no stake. The U.S. posture can even create new conflicts that become major headaches for U.S. foreign policy, as is true of how the U.S. posture in Syria has made a mess of relations with Turkey. In Yemen, the problem is not only an erroneous conception of whom the United States is opposing there but also no clear idea of exactly whom or what it is supporting. With the forces backed respectively by Saudi Arabia and the UAE going separate ways, on whose side is the United States now?

TURKEY

The Turkish government has arrested 573 people so far for criticizing its invasion of Afrin online. Normal stuff in a democracy.

Meanwhile, relations between Turkey and the Netherlands, rocky since a dispute over Turkish officials campaigning among the Turkish expat community in the Netherlands last year, have reached a new low:

The Netherlands has formally withdrawn its ambassador to Turkey and said no new Turkish ambassador will be accepted in The Hague.

The decision marks the deepening of a row that began when the Dutch barred Turkish ministers from campaigning among the Turkish diaspora in 2017.

The Dutch diplomat has not been allowed to enter Turkey since March.

The Netherlands foreign ministry also said that it had “paused” talks on resolving matters with Turkey.

LEBANON

One suspected militant and one Lebanese soldier were killed on Sunday in a raid against an alleged Islamist hideout in the city of Tripoli.

Lebanon and Israel are at odds over…well, a lot of things, let’s be honest. But Lebanese officials are complaining about a proposed wall that Israel wants to build along their shared border. While the wall is built entirely south of the “blue line,” the line the United Nations marked to define Israel’s “withdrawal” from southern Lebanon in 2000, Beirut says some parts of it will still run through Lebanese territory. The Israelis dispute that and say it’s entirely on Israeli soil. The Israel-Lebanon border has never really been fully demarcated, hence the problem. Though the current line is based on the dividing line between the French and British mandates after World War I, the Lebanese government refused to participate in a joint assessment in 2000 and so the UN drew the border more or less unilaterally.

BlueLine
The Blue Line and UNIFIL’s demilitarized zone in southern Lebanon as established in 2000 (Wikimedia | 99of9)

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli government has begun issuing deportation notices to some 20,000 mostly African male asylum who it says are in Israel illegally for economic rather than political reasons. They’re being given a whopping $3500 and tickets to a “safe sub-Saharan African country,” I guess because those are all pretty much interchangeable as far as the Israeli government is concerned. Some of these people have been in Israel for years, having fled very dangerous situations in places like Eritrea, to now be dumped off in Uganda and given the equivalent of a month’s wages for their trouble.

IRAN

A man carrying a machete was shot and arrested on Monday after penetrating the presidential compound in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was not there so he was in no danger, but the man’s intent and motive are unclear. He was reportedly wearing a Shiʿa martyr’s shroud, for whatever that’s worth, which suggests whatever he was there to do he was prepared to die in the doing of it.

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Author: DWD

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