Middle East update: March 17-18 2018

SYRIA

Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel proxies swarmed into Afrin city on Sunday and by the end of the day claimed that they’d taken complete control over the city. The YPG has been denying that the city has fallen but in the end it seems their fighters evacuated without putting up much of a fight, likely figuring this was a battle they couldn’t win against Turkish air power and artillery. Already work seems to be underway in Turkey on setting up an administration for the Afrin region and on relocating Syrian civilians from Turkey back into Syria now that there’s more territory there under Turkey’s control.

There are several questions, obviously, about what happens now. Where, for example, are the Kurdish fighters who fled the city going? They could remain in the Afrin area and go to ground, carrying out a guerrilla campaign against Turkey and its proxies. Or they could try to get back to government-held territory and through there make their way to Kurdish territory, say around Manbij. But the Turks continue to say that Manbij is their next target, even though, as we all know by now, there are US forces stationed there who don’t seem to be making any preparations to move.

Speaking of which, what does Turkey do now? Not just about Manbij, but about the pretty sizable chunk of northern Aleppo province that it currently controls. Do they plan to hang on to this piece of Syria indefinitely? To establish a rebel government there and protect the area from the Syrian government? Or are they likely to pack up and leave if, say, the Russians demand it? The rebels who have opted to fight for Turkey, and thereby risk squandering whatever credibility their rebellion might have had left by killing other Syrians on behalf of a foreign power, are banking on the former. I would bet the latter is more likely.

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The three pockets in Eastern Ghouta (Wikimedia | MrPenguin20)

Bashar al-Assad took a visit to the front lines on Sunday, stopping in to say hi to the troops in Eastern Ghouta with the fighting there also nearing an end. Having cut the main rebel factions in Eastern Ghouta off from one another, the government has begun talks with each of them individually and seems to be having some success. Faylaq al-Rahman, which controls the southern pocket of what’s left of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, says it’s negotiating with the United Nations on a ceasefire arrangement that would get humanitarian aid into that area, along the lines of the convoys that have been getting into the northern pocket around Douma. Both Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam, which controls Douma, are reported to be in talks about relocating out of Eastern Ghouta to, presumably, Idlib province. Smaller rebel groups in Harasta, the third pocket, appear to have reached an agreement to either be relocated or to surrender outright.

I suppose hindsight is 20/20, but all of this probably should have happened three or four weeks ago at a minimum, before 1400 or so civilians had to die in the crossfire of a battle the rebels had no chance of winning.

IRAQ

Earlier this month, Iranian authorities arrested a cleric named Hussein Shirazi over a lecture in which Shirazi compared Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the unaccountable and unchecked pharaoh’s of Ancient Egypt. The Shirazi family was instrumental in the Islamic Revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic, but they are not Khamenei fans to say the least. Al-Monitor’s 

Hussein Shirazi and his father hold dual citizenship in Iran as well as in Iraq, where their influence is especially strong. Their family, whose roots date back 150 years in Iraq, founded the Shirazi political movement, which has followers across the Middle East. The Shirazi movement has traditionally held that a council of Islamic jurists should be in a position of authority in a country, rather than just one supreme leader, such as has been the case with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Khamenei.

 

Iraqi demonstrations against Hussein Shirazi’s arrest broke out in front of the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad and near the border with Iran in Basra. The protesters shouted slogans against the Iranian regime’s ongoing repression of their religious leaders in Iran, and demanded Shirazi’s immediate release. They also called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his government to intervene and pressure Iran to release Shirazi.

YEMEN

The half brother of former Yemeni president (and current deceased person) Ali Abdullah Saleh has been appointed commander of Yemen’s reserves by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi wants to align forces that were loyal to Saleh with his own military, and this move should help with that.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led war on Hadi’s behalf is diversifying. In addition to fueling the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, the intervention has now caused a diphtheria epidemic. So far at least 1300 people have been infected and at least 70 people have died. The World Health Organization is working on a vaccine program, though obviously that would be a lot easier absent the war.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A knife-wielding Palestinian attacker killed an Israeli security guard on Sunday in the Old City section of Jerusalem. The attacker was in turn killed by police.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visits Donald Trump this week he’ll be the first of three Gulf leaders to have a sit down with the US president in the next few weeks. He’ll be followed by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on April 10 and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on…well, it’s not clear, actually. MBZ was supposed to visit the White House on March 27 but he requested a delay so that he could meet with Trump after Sheikh Tamim. So not only does it not seem like the UAE is ready to patch things up with Qatar (Trump’s dream of hosting a Gulf summit later this year seems highly unlikely), but it’s clear that MBZ understands the importance of being the last voice in the exceptionally stupid and therefore easily manipulated Trump’s ear. Unlike Trump, MBZ is no dummy. And he’s coming to DC riding high over the ouster of Rex Tillerson, whom the Emiratis had been lobbying for Trump to fire, and his replacement with Mike Pompeo, who is more in tune with the Emiratis on his approach toward Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

SAUDI ARABIA

If you’re expecting some commentary on Mohammad bin Salman’s 60 Minutes interview from Sunday evening, here it is: I didn’t watch the interview because I figured it would be a nauseating puff piece. I did read the transcript, and it turns out I was right.

After he meets with Trump, MBS plans to spend two weeks in the United States negotiating business deals. But he will have serious political issues on his plate. The Trump administration, if not Trump himself, wants to push MBS on resolving Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Qatar, bringing the war in Yemen toward some kind of ceasefire, and MBS’s buddy Jared Kushner wants Saudi support for his “let them eat cake”-style Israel-Palestinian peace plan. He’ll also be talking with the administration about his plans for a Saudi nuclear power program.

On the business front, MBS has to convince investors that last year’s arbitrary “anti-corruption purge” will not be repeated. He also has to sell them on his method of “reform,” which involves making cosmetic changes like allowing women to drive and creating a new Saudi entertainment industry, while retaining most of the kingdom’s oppressive misogyny and its habit of imprisoning critics.

IRAN

Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN) said that he believes Donald Trump will pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal:

Those European partners (Britain, France, and Germany) are working on a package of new non-nuclear sanctions in the hopes that it might appease Trump and convince him to preserve the nuclear deal, but their efforts may be for nought. For one thing, Trump doesn’t seem likely to be pacified. For another, Iranian officials are now saying that they would regard any new European sanctions as violations of the nuclear deal even if they’re not nuclear-related.

At The Intercept, Robert Wright argues that the New York Times is helping to whip up the case for war with its biased reporting on Iran, and in particular its choice of “experts” to cite:

The first Washington think-tank expert quoted in the piece is Amir Toumaj from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As John Judis noted in a Slate profile of this think tank several years ago, back when the Iran nuclear deal was taking shape, FDD’s “positions have closely tracked those of the Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — not just on the Iran deal, but on the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the desirability of a two-state solution.” In its original application for tax-exempt status, FDD — then called EMET, the Hebrew word for ‘truth’ — said its mission was “to provide education to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.” FDD has gotten funding from various far-right, “pro-Israel” donors, including Sheldon Adelson, who once seriously proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran — just in the desert, he emphasized, to convey that “we mean business.”

 

So, naturally, when the New York Times is assembling a story about a conflict between Israel and Iran, it turns for impartial guidance to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

 

FDD does an impressive job of cultivating experts who can give journalists useful and sometimes hard-to-find information — and who, in return, get quoted a lot in the media. Almost invariably, the quotes strike a balance: They don’t overtly editorialize — and indeed are often defensible observations insofar as they go — yet they carry a subtle slant. The FDD quote in the Times piece is a good example: “The ultimate goal is, in the case of another war, to make Syria a new front between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran. They are making that not just a goal, but a reality.”

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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