Middle East update: February 21 2018


DEVELOPING: An AP story hit after I posted that’s worth a mention. Sweden and Kuwait are calling for a Thursday vote in the UN Security Council on a resolution that would impose a 30 day humanitarian ceasefire throughout Syria. Russia has reportedly been arguing against it, saying (and this isn’t wrong) that the UN has no ability to impose a ceasefire in Syria and make it stick, and also that the 30 day timeframe is unrealistic. Nevertheless, it would be pretty ballsy for Russia to veto a ceasefire in Syria.

The possibility of a veto probably doesn’t matter, because as with every previous Syrian ceasefire this one would make exceptions for fighting against extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda (or their current and/or past affiliates). That exception has been the loophole through which all those previous ceasefires have been rendered meaningless, and this one would be no different. If you squint hard enough–and sometimes you don’t really have to squint at all–you can connect some rebel group in virtually every Syrian hotspot to al-Qaeda. And since those groups are often thoroughly enmeshed within the rebel forces in those regions, any ceasefire that exempts action against al-Qaeda is no ceasefire at all.

OK, now for the stuff I wrote earlier.

The beat goes on in Eastern Ghouta, where “dozens” more people were reportedly killed by government-aligned forces on Wednesday. The blame for these deaths–again, assuming the reports are accurate–understandably falls largely on the Syrian government since it’s the one doing the killing. But the bottom line here is that the people in Eastern Ghouta need the fighting to stop, and that includes the rebels firing on Damascus from that neighborhood. They may not be killing as many people but they’re inviting reprisal, and they’re doing it with impunity since most of the people being killed in these government strikes are civilians, not rebel fighters. As has become commonplace in this war, neither the Syrian government nor the Syrian rebels seem to give much of a shit about the Syrian people for whom they claim to be fighting.

Government-aligned militia fighters continued to move into Afrin on Wednesday, contrary to Turkish claims that they’d already driven those forces out of the enclave. Russia is reportedly working to keep the Syrian army itself from entering Afrin and creating a real no-win situation for Moscow. Russia’s hope is that the militias will be able to fend the Turks and the Free Syrian Army off without the regular army–in which case the Russians won’t have to pick a side between two allies.


Western efforts to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran for allowing its weapons into Yemen look like they’re going to run headlong into a Russian veto. The draft resolution is weaselly in the extreme–it cannibalizes a UNSC report that blames all parties to the Yemen conflict for committing war crimes and for violating UN resolutions (it singles out the Saudis for deliberately targeting civilians and denying humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people, for example) and uses it to justify a resolution that singles out Iran for violating a weapons embargo. Why not a blanket resolution, or series of resolutions, condemning everybody responsible for the mess Yemen is in? Don’t answer that–we all know why not.


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has reached an agreement with the nominally opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to form an electoral alliance heading into presidential and parliamentary elections next year, and to ram through changes in the law that will likely reduce protections against electoral fraud. Erdoğan’s main goal next year is to win the presidential election with over 50 percent of the vote so as to eliminate the need for a runoff. He’s so polarizing and well-established that if he can’t get past 50% in the first round and the opposition is able to unite behind the second-place finisher, he might not get past 50% in the runoff either. The effect of this deal will likely be the further splintering of the MHP, which has already fractured over the issue of supporting Erdoğan. But I’m not sure it will make much difference in the vote, since Erdoğan was likely to get a good chunk of MHP’s supporters anyway.

Erdoğan needs to win reelection in order to finish the work he started 15 or so years ago to fulfill Turkey’s democratic promise and then flush it all completely down the drain. For example, his efforts to strip away freedom of the press are still only in their early stages and cannot be interrupted:

Life sentences for six defendants, including three prominent journalists, for their alleged roles in a coup plot set off shock waves in Turkey, raising the alarm that more journalists charged in cases that human rights campaigners say are politically motivated may also face severe penalties.


The verdict last week against Ahmet Altan, 67, a best-selling novelist and newspaper editor, his brother Mehmet Altan, 65, an economics professor and editor, Nazli Ilicak, 74, a political commentator and former lawmaker and three employees at a banned newspaper was the first landmark decision in a slew of court cases against journalists and intellectuals accused of involvement in a 2016 failed coup in Turkey or in other press-freedom cases.


“These verdicts, the first against journalists accused of being connected to the July 2016 failed coup, set a devastating precedent for the many other journalists and writers in Turkey who are being tried on similarly spurious charges,” Jennifer Clement, president of writers’ group PEN International, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government this month created a public online genealogical database where people can trace their family history. This seems like a really neat idea for Turkish citizens, and I can’t imagine anybody having any problems wi-

For a long time, the official policy was that Turks formed a cohesive ethnic identity in Turkey. But less than two weeks ago, on Feb. 8, population registers were officially opened to the public via an online genealogy database. The system crashed quickly under the demand. Some people who had always boasted of their “pure” Turkish ancestry were shocked to learn they actually had other ethnic and religious roots.


On the darker side, comments such as “Crypto-Armenians, Greek and Jews in the country will now be exposed” and “Traitors will finally learn their lineage” became commonplace on social media.

Oh yeah, racism. Some defenders of the new system seem to think that so many Turks are going to find out that they have non-Turkish heritage that it could actually reduce racism. Others are most likely getting ready for the pogroms.


An Egyptian company, Dolphinus Holdings, just signed a $15 billion deal to receive billions of cubic meters of offshore Israeli natural gas over the next decade. The gas will mostly be used to meet Egyptian domestic needs, but the deal is large enough that it potentially sets Egypt up as a global middle man in the sale of Israeli gas. In lieu of building a pipeline to Europe, Israel could ship its gas to Egypt, which has the capacity to liquefy it for shipping by sea.


A Bahraini court on Wednesday sentenced prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to five years in prison for tweeting. Sounds about right. Rajab’s conviction was based on this whopper of a contradiction in Bahraini law:

Bahrain’s constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of speech. However, Rajab was prosecuted under laws making it illegal to offend a foreign country, spread rumors at wartime or “insult” a government agency.

Freedom of speech shouldn’t be absolute (the “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater” standard happens to be one with which I agree), but “free speech except you’re not allowed to criticize this or any other government”–and let’s not kid ourselves about what “offend” and “insult” mean in this context–is not actually free speech. This is one of those cases where if the same thing happened in Iran half of Washington would be running around with its hair on fire, but because it happened in the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet all you get is a quiet expression of disappointment from the State Department.


The Mueller investigation is reportedly looking at whether Prime Minister Jared Kushner used his father in-law’s election to try to get Qatar to finance his family’s albatross property in Manhattan:

SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT Mueller is probing senior White House aide Jared Kushner’s attempts to secure financing for a distressed Manhattan property after the 2016 election, including pitches made to investment firms from China and Qatar, several news outlets reported this week.


The attempt by Jared Kushner’s father Charles to secure funding from Qatar before and after Donald Trump’s election — up until the spring of 2017 — was first reported in July by The Intercept and later confirmed publicly by a Kushner Companies spokesperson.


The property that is now tied up in Mueller’s probe, as well as linked to a diplomatic crisis in the Middle East, sits at 666 Fifth Ave., and was bought by Kushner at the height of the housing bubble for what was even then considered an inflated price of $1.8 billion.


The building is now severely underwater and if Kushner can’t find refinancing sometime in 2018, the property risks blowing a hole in the family balance sheet. Kushner has worked doggedly to fend off that reckoning, talking with prospective investors around the globe.


Donald Trump may be interested in bending US nuclear proliferation regulations in order to put US nuclear firms in business with Saudi Arabia, but Congress doesn’t seem so thrilled with the idea:

Under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954, Congress must review any agreement to supply a foreign state with US nuclear technology. While the Trump administration has yet to publicly rule out any concessions, Saudi insistence on retaining the right to enrich uranium and to reprocess plutonium faces significant roadblocks on Capitol Hill.


“I think we have made clear — not that it was necessary — that a 123 agreement that in any way contemplated an enrichment program is going to face a lot of opposition in Congress,” a congressional source familiar with the debate told Al-Monitor. “So I just don’t think that the executive branch is going to go there.”


In an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is calling for “free elections for the presidency and parliament, of course without the engineering of the Guardian Council and interference of military and security institutions, so the people have the right to choose.” While the message is fair I’m not sure he’s the right messenger for it. Oddly enough, you see, Ahmadinejad didn’t seem to have much concern about the Guardian Council’s engineering back when he won the 2005 presidential election. Likewise, he didn’t seem to care about the Council or the interference of security institutions when he fudged the numbers in the 2009 election to ensure that he’d win a second term. But since the Guardian Council disqualified him from the 2017 election, now I guess it’s bad.

Since he remains on the outs with Khamenei and will likely be on the outs with Khamenei’s successor, Ahmadinejad has pegged his chances for a political comeback on marshaling the populist forces behind December’s protests around the country. It’s not a bad strategy but obviously it remains to be seen if he can pull it off.

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