Middle East update: March 6 2018

SYRIA

Implementing the last stage of the Aleppo playbook, Russia on Tuesday offered Syrian rebels still in Eastern Ghouta safe passage out of that besieged area to, well, someplace else. And here’s the rub–while that deal has worked in the past, with the Russians offering safe passage to Idlib province, that offer is no longer very appealing and so it’s not clear that there’s anyplace left for these rebels to go.

Meanwhile, that aid convoy that Russia and the Syrian government allowed into Eastern Ghouta on Monday had to suddenly pull back late Monday night due to the violence. Most, but far from all, of its humanitarian aid had been delivered before the convoy was forced to withdraw. A monitoring group called the Violations Documentation Center reported that 101 civilians were killed in Eastern Ghouta on Monday, and there were new reports–unconfirmed–of the government’s use of chlorine gas.

Investigators with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported on Tuesday that Russia, the US, the Syrian government, and ISIS have all been guilty of discrete war crimes in Syria over the past year. In addition to ISIS’s use of human shields and the government’s use of chemical weapons, the investigators faulted Russia for the November bombing of a market in a town west of Aleppo in which 84 people died. The US and its coalition allies, meanwhile, bombed a school in Raqqa in March and killed 150 civilians in an attack the Pentagon has insisted only killed ISIS fighters. The panel has no prosecutorial powers, and any criminal cases would need to be pursued at the International Criminal Court, which doesn’t have any actual jurisdiction. I’ve said this before, but international law is really more a list of recommendations when you’re a major power or have a major power’s protection.

In Afrin, the Syrian Democratic Forces are redeploying some 1700 fighters from eastern Syria to aid the YPG against Turkey and its rebel proxies, an unwelcome development for the United States. Those fighters are coming from the SDF’s Arab wing, not its Kurdish (YPG) wing, which could be another unwelcome development for the United States.

All of this may seem chaotic, but don’t worry: Russia, Turkey, and Iran are going to meet again in April to sort it all out. Those three have been doing such a bang-up job of stabilizing Syria that another summit should really calm things down a lot.

YEMEN

In the face of concerns about the, you know, mass extermination of the Yemeni people, the French government will not stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia on account of…Iran.

Jesus Christ guys, just admit you want the money. It’s not like it’s going to matter.

TURKEY

The US embassy in Ankara will reopen on Wednesday after having been closed the past two days over an unspecified threat.

Meanwhile, the European Union says it’s hoping for “a swift and positive outcome” in the case of two Greek soldiers who were arrested after (apparently accidentally) crossing into Turkish territory last week. Something tells me, though, that Ankara isn’t going to be in a very magnanimous mood, seeing as how Greek courts keep rejecting its extradition requests over refugees wanted by Turkish authorities. Which is not to say Greece should approve those requests necessarily, just that Turkey tends to hold a grudge over these kinds of things.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Dear Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

Kindly fuck off with this bullshit:

Thanks in advance.

Your friend,

Derek

QATAR

The Gulf states are reportedly tossing around a plan to begin to ease tensions between Qatar and the Saudi-led quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) that blockaded Qatar last year. It would work in stages, rather than ending the blockade in one fell swoop, starting with an agreement on all sides to resume the free movement of one another’s nationals. That would mean at the very least an end to the current air blockade against Qatar, in order to allow flights to move freely around the Gulf again. If there’s an agreement on this then it’s probably something that Mohammad bin Salman will announce during either his UK visit this week or his subsequent trip to the US, since both governments have been urging an end to the blockade for some time now. MBS will most likely want something in return.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

James Dorsey writes that the UAE is using its nuclear energy contracts to also bolster its security arrangements, which sets a potentially troubling precedent for similar deals with the very nuclear-curious Saudis:

Controversy in South Korea over a secret military clause in a nine-year old agreement to build the United Arab Emirates’ first nuclear reactor raises a Pandora’s Box of questions about political and military demands that Arab nations may seek to impose as they embark on a nuclear trajectory.

 

The clause that commits South Korean troops to come to the UAE’s defense in the event of a crisis offers insight into the security concerns of Arab and particularly Gulf leaders. It is not clear whether the clause defines a crisis exclusively as a military attack by an external force or would also include domestic unrest.

SAUDI ARABIA

The highlights of MBS’s big Western tour are of course his meetings with political bigwigs–Theresa May, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Donald Trump. (Man, would that be the absolute worst dinner party imaginable, or what?) He’s also scheduled visits with religious leaders to try to demonstrate the kingdom’s newfound and still very much alleged commitment to “moderate Islam.” However, his main goal for the trip may lie in his planned meetings with British and US investors. He’s going to be meeting with European defense contractors and energy firms while in London, and he’s got a fairly lengthy US investment segment planned:

Prince Mohammed will hold talks with Trump before going to New York, Boston, Houston and San Francisco for meetings with industry leaders, as he seeks to shore up investments and political support from Riyadh’s closest Western ally.

 

Several dozen Saudi chief executives will join him in touting investment opportunities in the kingdom, particularly in the areas of technology, entertainment and tourism, a Washington source said.

 

Talks will also include a U.S. bid to build two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia and a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement needed for that to proceed, an industry source said.

Investors are obviously eager to get a piece of the Saudi market, especially with regards to Aramco’s forthcoming IPO, but they’re more than a little nervous about the prince’s recent “anti-corruption crackdown.” They don’t mind the anti-corruption part (at least not as long as it doesn’t affect them), but countries in which the crown prince can just up and toss some extremely rich dude into a luxury-hotel-turned-jail on a whim tend not to be the most stable, business-friendly countries in the world.

IRAN

Benjamin Netanyahu’s big speech to this year’s AIPAC summit was, shockingly, all about Iran. I guess it would’ve been weird if he would’ve talked about his forthcoming corruption trial, right? He especially played up the possibility that Donald Trump will abrogate the nuclear deal unless it gets fixed in some way.

Which is interesting, because Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence (“national intelligence” being a concept that has never been as foreign to the everyday US experience as it is now), Dan Coats, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that scrapping the nuclear deal would be a bad idea from an intelligence-gathering perspective:

In submitted testimony to the Senate panel on Tuesday, however, Director Coats noted how the agreement is beneficial for intelligence purposes.

 

“The JCPOA has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly by fostering improved access to Iranian nuclear facilities for the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and its investigative authorities,” Coats stated.

This is weird, because you would think that if your goal was to monitor Iran’s nuclear program you would support this agreement that has significantly improved your ability to do so. On the other hand, if your goal was, eventually, to get the US-Iran war you’ve wanted for almost 40 years now, not that I’m talking about anybody in particular here, then the less you actually know the more bullshit you can invent and/or overhype in order to help make the case that we should stop talking and start fighting.

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Author: DWD

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