Middle East update: February 7 2018

SYRIA

BREAKING: All the stuff below is still good, it’s still good! But this should probably take precedence:

U.S. aircraft carried out rare, retaliatory strikes in Syria’s Deir al-Zor province on Wednesday against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after they attacked U.S.-backed fighters’ headquarters there, U.S. officials said.

 

No U.S. troops embedded with the local fighters at their headquarters were believed to have been wounded or killed in the attack, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Not good.

Really not good.

It gets worse, allegedly:

“May have been involved” is a weaselly phrase, especially coming from a reporter whose job sometimes seems like it’s basically to just relay whatever the Pentagon tells her. But if there were Russian contractors involved then that likely means the Russians knew about the attack, since the line between Russian soldier and Russian contractor in Syria is about as thin as the line between US soldier and US contractor was in Iraq after the war there. This is definitely not a welcome development, though it’s not a foregone conclusion that things will escalate from here.

Anyway, on to the rest of the day’s news.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another 31 civilians were killed by government air and artillery strikes in eastern Ghouta on Wednesday. That makes upwards of 140 civilians killed there since Monday. Ghouta, it should be noted, was one of the four deescalation zones established under the joint Russia-Turkey-Iran plan to start winding the civil war down late last year. Since Idlib, another of those zones, is also currently enflamed, I think it’s fair to say that whole arrangement is kaput at this point.

In Afrin, meanwhile, the YPG says that Turkish forces destroyed an elementary school on Tuesday and the main water pump for the city of Afrin on Wednesday. The Turkish military says it’s not aiming at those kinds of targets, so I guess they get an A for good intentions and an F for execution. And Paul Funk, the commander of the US-led anti-ISIS forces operating in northeastern Syria, reiterated that American troops positioned near Manbij will not be redeployed to enable a Turkish attack on that city.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Wednesday accused both Turkey and Iran, via its proxy militias, of violating international law in Syria. This is honestly so important, because now the international police can come and take them all off to international jail.

Finally in Syria, the Israelis reportedly fired multiple missiles at the Jamraya military facility outside of Damascus early Wednesday morning. Syrian authorities claim they were able to intercept most of the missiles but some clearly did hit something. That area contains an arms depot and a facility believed to be involved in Syria’s chemical weapons program.

IRAQ

NATO members are considering establishing a larger training mission in Iraq in response to demands by the Trump administration that they help pick up the slack for fixing a crisis that, uh, we mostly caused, I guess? NATO is wary of taking on another open-ended commitment like Afghanistan, but its members probably wouldn’t have to do that much more than they’re already doing to keep Trump from soiling himself over this issue.

Saudi Arabia could be a major player in helping to rebuild Iraq. Aside from any potential money to be made in the rebuilding process, Riyadh sees this as an opportunity to counter Iranian influence there.

TURKEY

Leaders from the European Union will host Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for a summit next month–but in Bulgaria, not Brussels, so the damage from any potential ragegasms should be confined to the Black Sea area. Try as they might, the EU just can’t quit Sultan Recep, lest he open the doors and let all those Syrian refugees come pouring into Europe. For most Europeans this would be a catastrophe, due to…oh, let’s say “cultural reasons.” They’re not going to let Turkey into the EU or even (Ankara’s insistence that they should aside) implement visa-free travel between Turkey and the EU (also for, you know, “cultural reasons”), but they will send Erdoğan back home with a big pot of money for his trouble, and frankly that’s probably all Erdoğan really wants. He’s much happier using the EU as a political piñata at home than he would be actually gaining membership to it.

Steven Cook assesses what is (at least arguably) the first truly civilian-managed war in Turkish history:

Ismail Hakki Karadayi never sat behind the defense minister. Neither did Huseyin Kivrikoglu. Nor did any Turkish military chief of staff who came before them. It was always a seeming oddity that military officers from other member countries sat behind their civilian leadership at NATO ministerial meetings — except for the Turkish ones; they sat next to their ministers. But anything else would have been a breach in protocol. Turkey’s organizational chart was clear: The minister of national defense had no authority over the military command, and while both were formally subordinate to the civilian prime minister, the men in uniform didn’t always act that way.

 

This pattern of civil-military relations in Turkey is now changing. The enervation and defenestration of the armed forces under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the past 15 years mean that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the first Turkish head of state to be truly vested with the powers outlined in Articles 104 and 117 of the Turkish Constitution. Those provisions make Erdogan the commander in chief (on behalf of the Grand National Assembly) and allow him to “decide on the use of the Turkish Armed Forces,” NATO’s second-largest military. And he has availed himself of those powers liberally, having ordered Turkish planes, tanks, and troops into battle in Syria twice over the last 18 months.

 

What sort of commander in chief has Erdogan revealed himself to be? Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, which began on Jan. 20, demonstrates that Erdogan the military commander is largely similar to Erdogan the politician — there are strains of both the risk taker and the pragmatist in his Syrian foray. But one thing has remained consistent about the president’s military leadership: the self-reinforcing and unrestrained nationalist zeal of his rhetoric, in his descriptions of both the military’s goals and its progress. There is also an unmistakable emphasis on Islamist themes when Erdogan has addressed his supporters about the most recent incursion into Syria.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Welp, you may not have Bibi to kick around much longer:

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh met with his organization’s senior brass Wednesday evening to discuss providing recommendations on indictment in cases pending against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with seeming consensus forming on recommending charging Netanyahu on the illicit gifts affair, as sufficient evidence exists to indict him for receiving bribes.

 

The police did, however, appoint a team to examine “holes” still existing in the case, before a recommendation is made to the State Attorney’s Office. Police sources said a recommendation may be made as early as next week.

There is a second corruption investigation against Netanyahu, over the charge that he offered to go after one Israeli media outlet in exchange for favorable coverage from another, but police seem to be split as to whether there’s enough evidence in that case to indict. By precedent, Netanyahu should resign if he’s indicted, but because this is Netanyahu he may attempt to ride out the storm. However, the knives are probably going to come out if there’s an indictment, both within Likud and across the Israeli right.

Elsewhere, the United Nations says that Gaza has about ten days of generator fuel left and is in urgent need of new supplies. In good news, maybe, the Egyptian government on Wednesday announced a three-day opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai, the first time that crossing has been opened this year. That could allow some of the people who would be most affected by more blackouts (hospital patients, for example) to potentially be evacuated.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is considering dumping the shekel as currency in the West Bank. With an independent Palestinian state off the table for the foreseeable future (thanks, Jared!), Palestinian leaders are increasingly thinking about divesting Palestine from the Israeli economy, something they’ve had in their plans but were always holding back until they’d concluded a peace deal. This isn’t just a political statement–analysts say that tying the Palestinian economy to the Israeli economy has raised the cost of living in Palestine while wages, as you might expect in an occupied territory, have not risen commensurate with those costs.

BAHRAIN

Four people have been arrested in connection with a terrorist attack against a Bahraini oil pipeline last November. Bahraini officials claim that two of the suspects received training in Iran, a charge that Tehran naturally denies.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Remember that weird map we talked about last month, the one of the Persian Gulf sans Qatar that also erased part of Oman, that was seen on display in the Abu Dhabi Louvre? Well apparently the main Louvre, the one in Paris, would like to know a little more about what exactly was going on there. I’m sure it was all just a misunderstanding. Perhaps the map itself was meant to be a sort of postmodern experimental art piece. Yeah, let’s go with that.

IRAN

Finally, here’s Robin Wright on Iran’s ongoing hijab protest, a story I confess I’m not following closely enough:

It was the quietest protest Iran has ever witnessed. Vida Movahed, a thirty-one-year-old mother of a toddler, stood atop a large utility box on Tehran’s busy Enghelab Street and removed the hijab head covering that all women are required to wear by law. Her jet-black hair cascaded far down her back. She then tied her white scarf to a stick and, as shoppers scurried beneath her on a busy thoroughfare, silently waved it like a flag. She stood there waving, alone, for an hour.

 

Thus began the so-called Girls of Revolution Street protest, on December 27th, and with it Iran’s most robust debate about both women’s rights and religious restrictions in the four decades since the fall of the Shah. Photos and videos of Movahed’s defiance soon went viral. Other young women, individually and in small groups, began to follow suit, posting their pictures on social media and generating new hashtags in Farsi (#دختران_خیابان_انقلاب, which translates to #girls-enghelab-street) and in English. Movahed apparently chose the venue deliberately. “Enghelab” means “revolution” in Farsi. The street was renamed after the 1979 uprising against the monarchy; after the women’s protests, it took on a new meaning. The new demonstrations of dissent spread to the historic city of Isfahan, the Caspian resort town of Rasht, and beyond.

 

”The message is very clear and very specific—that women want to be able to choose if they wear hijab or not,” Nasrin Sotoudeh, a female human-rights lawyer in Tehran, told me, by phone on Wednesday. “This is a civil-disobedience movement. Women know what the laws of the land say about hijab, and, based on that, they chose to protest.”

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Author: DWD

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