Middle East update: February 26 2018

SYRIA

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres may want the UN Security Council’s new Syrian ceasefire to begin “immediately,” but it looks like he’ll have to content himself with a Russian plan for a partial humanitarian ceasefire instead. Guterres is also throwing his weight behind a French idea for the five veto-holding members of the Security Council to give up their veto powers in the case of a “mass atrocity.” Leaving aside the subjectivity of that term, the idea does have the support of the United Kingdom as well but is unlikely to get support from all three of Russia, China, and the United States.

Russia’s plan involves the imposition of a five hour ceasefire window in Eastern Ghouta every day, during which time a “humanitarian corridor” would be opened up to allow civilians to leave the area. If this looks to you as if it’s a lot like the arrangement that was finally drawn up for ending the humanitarian catastrophe in eastern Aleppo in 2016, well, that’s because it is, or at least it seems to be at first glance.

In Afrin, meanwhile, Turkey now reportedly controls a strip of land along the Syrian side of the border and is deploying “police special forces” to the area to hold the territory it’s already taken while its forces attempt to grind out some additional gains against the YPG. Ankara says that all this ceasefire talk doesn’t apply to its Afrin operation, but France, at least, seems to disagree. Turkey doesn’t have a great case to make here–the ceasefire excludes operations against groups that have been designated as terrorist organizations by the Security Council, or affiliates of such groups. But the YPG hasn’t been designated by anybody, and while it is an affiliate to some degree of the PKK, the PKK has not been designed by the UNSC (though it has been by Turkey, the US, NATO, and the EU).

IRAQ

Iranian officials are clearly marshaling their proxies in Iran in the hopes of retaining or growing Tehran’s influence in Baghdad after May’s parliamentary election. But they might want to shut up about it. Ali Akbar Velayati, national security adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, recently visited Iraq and delivered a speech in which he said “we will not allow liberals and communists to govern” the country. That “we” has a lot of Iraqis, including Iraqi Shiʿa, pissed off. Other recent comments by Iranian leaders to the effect that Iraq is now under Khamenei’s control, or that Iraq has become part of Iran’s anti-US regional resistance bloc, are similarly causing resentment. And that could backfire politically on parties that are seen to be close to Tehran.

YEMEN

Yemeni transportation minister Saleh al-Gabwani on Monday accused the United Arab Emirates of setting up “tribal and regional armies” in southern Yemen in an effort to fragment the country. I mean, the country was already pretty fragmented when the Emiratis got there, but Gabwani’s point is well taken given that the Emiratis have been cultivating ties with southern secessionists. He was apparently prevented from attending the opening of a new port in the natural gas-heavy city of Balhaf by a UAE-aligned militia on Sunday. Also on Monday, a Saudi airstrike mistakenly (I guess?) hit a Yemeni government military post in Sanaa province, killing at least seven soldiers.

Also, Russia did in fact veto a Security Council resolution on Monday that expressed disapproval against Iran over its weapons allegedly winding up in the possession of the Houthis.

TURKEY

Al-Monitor’s Ayla Jean Yackley says that there are growing signs that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is going to call for snap elections later this year, rather than waiting until the regularly scheduled 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdoğan’s term as president for life can’t really begin until after he wins this next election, whenever it’s held, and he may want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Right now Turkey’s economy is mostly puttering along decently, the Afrin operation can be spun as a success if you squint hard enough, and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party still controls most major city mayorships, which are important markers for national votes. By next November, when the elections are supposed to take place, it’s quite possible that none of those things will be true.

I sometimes poke fun at Erdoğan around here for his little personality quirks, especially the ones that occasionally result in a bunch of Syrian civilians getting killed mostly for shits and giggles. But I want to take this opportunity to note what a normal person President Erdoğan is and how very normal he always acts in public:

From a stage where he led a raucous rally exhorting Turks to support their soldiers in Syria, the Turkish president spotted a 6-year-old girl cadet in the crowd, dressed in military-style camouflage and wearing a maroon beret. Her lips trembling, she stood ramrod-straight as she gave a salute.

 

Beckoned by the president, the girl was lifted into the air and toward the stage to meet with him. But she looked hesitant, and eventually began crying, as the president went on to say that she would be honored if she were killed in combat.

 

Video clips of the encounter between the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the first-grader, Amine Tiras, ricocheted across the internet over the weekend. While Turkish news agencies focused on the girl’s emotions — portraying her as brave and resolute — some online commentators said she had been used as a political prop and called it inappropriate.

Inappropriate? Why, what could possibly be inappropriate about the President of Turkey mauling a six year old kid in front of a rabid crowd and telling them how sweet it would be if she got merked in his great war to increase his approval ratings save the nation from the Kurdish menace or whatever? Just look how thrilled she was to be there:

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What a decent, normal human being, really. I can’t stress this enough.

LEBANON

The Saudi government has reportedly invited Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to come to Riyadh for a chat, so

Hariri is going to go, despite the fact that the last time he went to Riyadh…well, you know. That’s what happens when you’re the prime minister of one country but are pretty much wholly owned by the rulers of another country. Anyway I hope he has a nice time.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel’s High Court has ruled against West Bank settlers on some recent land dispute cases, so naturally the Knesset is considering a new measure that would strip the court of its jurisdiction over such matters:

But remember, nobody is trying to just annex the entire West Bank. Two state solution everybody!

SAUDI ARABIA

If you’re a Saudi woman who’s ever wondered why only Saudi men are allowed to cause massive cholera outbreaks in impoverished Arab nations, I’ve got good news: you’re now going to be allowed to get in on the action too. The Saudis have decided to open up non-combat positions in their military to women. These mostly look like internal security posts, so you still won’t have a direct hand in killing Yemeni kids, but every one of these gigs you take could free a man up to go do just that. And hey, this is only a first step. In a few years, it could be you ladies who are triple tapping orphanages just like the men are doing today! Congrats!

The Saudis also made several changes at the sub-cabinet level on Monday, no doubt installing people considered loyal to Mohammad bin Salman in important positions. In particular, they appointed a woman, Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah, as deputy labor minister, continuing their string of pro-women’s rights steps that have been mostly symbolic but still meaningful. They also appointed new deputy regional governors from other branches of the Saudi family, perhaps in an effort to ease any intra-familial tensions created/exacerbated by MBS’s recent “anti-corruption” purge. And they also also canned their military chief of staff and the heads of the Saudi army and air force, probably over the ongoing failure of the Yemen intervention.

Here’s some exciting news:

The Saudis want to have a nuclear cooperation deal with the US without the prohibitions on uranium enrichment or waste reprocessing that typically accompany such arrangements. They suggest they’ll be willing to accept those restrictions if the nuclear deal with Iran is “tightened,” presumably in the enrichment area since the Iran nuclear deal does prohibit Iran from reprocessing spent fuel. But the thing is, the nuclear deal with Iran is a non-proliferation accord. What the Saudis want is a deal whereby America helps them develop a nuclear program, which is pretty different. Of course, opportunists like Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are happy to use this situation as another reason why we must Do Something About Iran:

“A fix puts the administration in a much better position with the Saudis,” said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “It’s a critical step in demanding adherence to the ‘gold standard’ as opposed to the Iran standard.”

What Dubowitz wants is no deal at all, followed in relatively short order by a war. The “fix” idea is his way of reneging on the nuclear deal without looking like we’re reneging on it, that’s all.

If the Saudis can’t get leniency from the Trump administration on enrichment they’ll probably go to Russia or China for nuclear help instead, and, you know, we’ll all just have to live with that. Since there’s no international law that prohibits countries from enriching uranium, if the Saudis want to do it they’re free to go nuts. Which doesn’t mean the United States has to help them do it, of course. But I suspect we will. President Deals is keen to close this particular deal. And in a way this could all lead us to a very revelatory place. Imagine how clarifying it would be to learn five or ten years from now that the Saudis are developing a nuclear weapon and to have Washington’s reaction be a collective shrug, as we all know it would be.

IRAN

The New York Times has big, BREAKING news about the Iran nuclear deal:

President Trump’s threat to rip up the Iran nuclear deal has touched off an urgent scramble in European capitals to preserve the agreement — not by rewriting it, but by creating a successor deal that would halt Iran’s ballistic missile program and make permanent the restrictions on its ability to produce nuclear fuel.

I’m going to save you the trouble of reading the rest of this article because it’s hot garbage cooked up by reliable Iran hawk scribe David Sanger. It offers no European sources for this supposedly European deal, and its main source appears to be…Dubowitz, of course, the guy who is every reporter’s favorite source on Iran for, well, reasons that remain inexplicable.

A “successor deal” that doesn’t result from negotiations that include all the parties to the original nuclear deal yet still changes the terms of that original deal is a violation of the original deal. “Making permanent the restrictions” on Iran’s uranium enrichment program is rewriting the original deal. If I hire you to supply me with widgets for five years at a certain price, and then produce an “add on deal” without your input that purports to lock that price in permanently despite inflation, then guess what? I just tried to rewrite our original agreement! Sanger’s reporting on the nuclear deal has been hackish for a long time, but in wholly adopting the neocon interpretation here he’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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