Middle East update: February 14 2018

SYRIA

One addendum to yesterday’s update. When I cited the New York Times on estimates of Russian casualties in last week’s US airstrikes in Deir Ezzor, I somehow let this gem of a sentence slide past me:

The attack occurred in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour, a strategic, oil-rich territory that is coveted by the Syrians. Most of the fatalities were attributed to an American airstrike on enemy columns that was called in by American-backed Kurdish soldiers who believed they were under attack.

I understand what they’re trying to say–Deir Ezzor is coveted by Bashar al-Assad because he doesn’t currently have control over it. But it’s not “coveted by the Syrians.” It’s in Syria. This is like saying I covet my own kitchen. Even if my kitchen is temporarily occupied by some guys from a few towns over whom I never invited into my house to begin with, it’s still my kitchen. The only reason anybody would define it otherwise is if they were planning on trying to take it away from me. You’d have to ask the NYT if that’s what they’re trying to do.

Now, let’s start today with a little good news:

The rebel-held Syrian region of the Eastern Ghouta has received its first aid delivery in almost three months.

 

It comes after weeks of appeals from the United Nations to allow aid deliveries and the evacuation of hundreds of critically ill people.

When I say “a little good news” that’s exactly what I mean–there are 400,000 people currently besieged in Eastern Ghouta and this aid is enough for about 7000 of them. Without substantially more aid and a genuine ceasefire hundreds of thousands of people will remain at acute risk.

The AP tries to summarize all the new conflicts that have broken out in Syria over the past few weeks, as the civil war continues to morph into a more region-wide conflict:

As Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies push toward final victory and the fight against the Islamic State group draws to an end, new fronts have opened up, threatening an even broader confrontation among regional and world powers.

 

While large areas of the country have stabilized, giving the impression of a war that is winding down, violence has exploded in other areas with renewed ferocity, killing and injuring hundreds of people in a new and unpredictable spiral of bloodshed. The United States, Israel and Turkey all have deepened their involvement, seeking to protect their interests in the new Syria order.

One very interesting new development involves a delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government that arrived in Afrin earlier this week to bring some humanitarian assistance to those trying to survive Turkey’s offensive there. The KRG is run, or co-run, by the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is in the midst of a decades-long, region-wide, and sometimes pretty violent competition with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The KDP has historically had good relations with Turkey, but they had a major falling out over last year’s independence referendum, which Turkey strongly opposed. The Syrian PYD, meanwhile, which controls Afrin, is closely affiliated with the PKK.

So this delegation, apparently sent at the KDP’s urging, represents to some degree a thawing of relations between the two largest regional Kurdish political parties, because of Turkey’s Afrin offensive and because of the fallout from the independence referendum. That’s a potentially very significant regional realignment. The KDP may be using the situation in Afrin as a political cause to distract from its mismanagement of the referendum and Iraqi Kurdish economy, but even cynical, heavily orchestrated political moves sometimes have a way of taking on lives of their own. It has implications, among other things, for any potential joint Turkish-Iraqi operation against the PKK’s bases in northern Iraq.

The Trump administration may be about to appoint John Hannah, a senior fellow at–guess where–the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, as its new Syria envoy. Hannah spent the eight years of George W. Bush’s administration serving as either Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser or his national security adviser, so this is definitely not yet more evidence that Donald Trump’s Middle East policy has been totally hijacked by Bush 43 remnants.

Finally, Emmanuel Macron wants you all to know that France, World Superpower, is going to bomb the crap out of Syria if Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons. Er, that is, if it’s proven that he uses chemical weapons, and maybe only certain kinds of chemical weapons. And also too only if the attacks are “lethal,” however we’re defining that. And I’m sure there are several other caveats we don’t know about yet.

I don’t mind Macron trying to pull up France’s big boy pants and pretend that he’s somehow relevant here, but he should learn from Barack Obama’s example not to start throwing around “red lines” that can only serve to paint you into a corner later on. You just wind up undermining yourself.

IRAQ

The US Air Force is reducing its air support mission in Iraq and shifting more resources into training Iraqi pilots. I suppose that could be considered progress. In truth there’s not much left for anybody to strike with ISIS having been driven almost completely out of the country and/or underground.

Speaking of air support, though, the United Nations says that it will be at least ten years before the city of Mosul is completely cleared of unexploded ordinance. You have to assume that’s optimistic given that people are still finding unexploded World War II bombs all over Europe and in parts of Asia. But one thing is for sure: the cleanup won’t be sped up by any vast outpouring of international assistance. This week’s Iraqi reconstruction donor conference in Kuwait made up a lot of ground on Wednesday, its final day, but it still clocked in at a cool $30 billion or so in contributions and/or loan guarantees. That’s a nice number except in the context of what Iraq actually needs, which is upwards of $100 billion (at least $88 billion) when all is said and done.

TURKEY

In a great bit of “why hasn’t anybody else thought of this” analysis, Brookings’ Amanda Sloat has a simple solution to rebuild the US-Turkey relationship:

Although the emphasis on defeating the Islamic State is necessary, it should not be the sole objective of U.S. policymakers. With U.S. interests in Turkey and the broader region in mind, Washington should develop a more holistic strategy that addresses the crosscutting complexity of these issues. In particular, the United States should help Turkey resolve its Kurdish problem. U.S. officials should urge the Turkish government to resume peace talks with the PKK, which broke down in July 2015 after a 30-month ceasefire, due in part to Syria-related violence. This fight is destructive to Turkey’s domestic politics, costly to the civilian population, and hindering efforts to stabilize the wider region. The pre-election environment, which incentivizes Erdogan to exploit rather than solve the conflict to gain favor with his nationalist base, makes this a difficult but not impossible policy goal. The United States should also push the PKK — via its engagement with the YPG — to return to a ceasefire inside Turkey, which would remove one of the justifications for a continued state of emergency to fight terrorist organizations. Relatedly, the YPG should sever ties with the PKK.

Of course! The Trump administration, which is about as deft with diplomacy as Donald Trump is at hiding his baldness, should just negotiate an end to the Turkey-PKK conflict! The one that’s been going on for almost 40 years! It’s so simple! And then after that they can do the Israel-Palestine deal and then talk North Korea out of keeping nukes, and, oh hell, they can throw in a Kashmir settlement just for the hell of it! This is a phenomenal idea!

JORDAN

Despite Donald Trump’s threats to punish any US aid recipients who don’t get on board with its Israel-(screws)Palestine peace deal, Jordan–which is very much not on board–is getting its aid increased to $1.3 billion per year over the next five years. That’s up from the $1 billion per year it gets now. Coming from an administration that claims to want to gut the already pitiful US foreign aid budget, that’s quite an achievement for Amman. But the Jordanians desperately need the money, if only to help care for Syrian refugees.

IRAN

Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that he wants to put Iran’s ballistic missile program under international surveillance. Boy, somebody is really feeling his oats this week. Anyway, in this case Macron has kind of a point–a stronger international position with respect to Iranian missiles, while questionable from a “countries have the right to defend themselves” position, could be the thing that convinces Donald Trump not to pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Hassan Rouhani and a group of 15 Iranian intellectuals are touting the idea of holding a referendum to see how the Iranian people feel about their government:

A group of prominent Iranian intellectuals have said they have lost hope that the Islamic Republic can reform, and have called for a referendum to establish whether the ruling establishment is still backed by a majority.

 

A day after Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, touted the idea of holding a referendum as a means to heal Iran’s deepening political divisions, 15 figures – including some based in Iran – said leaders had failed to deliver on republican ideals.

 

Signatories to the letter include the Nobel peace prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi; Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist currently imprisoned in Tehran; Nasrin Sotoudeh, a rights lawyer; and the film-makers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi.

It’s not clear exactly what kind of “referendum” these folks are talking about or what kind of legal weight it might have behind it. Those questions would need to be answered before you could even begin to wonder if the Iranian establishment might actually allow such a thing to take place.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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