Middle East update: March 19 2018

SYRIA

Monitoring groups and journalists reported on Monday that Turkey’s Syrian proxy forces have been looting Afrin in the aftermath of the YPG’s retreat from that city:

Pictures showed soldiers flying a Turkish flag from a building, and rebels tearing down a statue of the Kurdish hero Kawa Haddad.

 

AFP news agency journalists in Afrin also saw rebels break into shops, restaurants and houses, and leave with food, electronic equipment, blankets and other goods. They were then transported out of the city.

 

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which monitors the conflict in Syria through a network of sources on the ground, said rebels had been “pillaging private property, political and military sites and shops”.

The United Nations believes around 100,000 civilians are still living in and around the city, which is down around 220,000 (presumably either killed or displaced) from their estimates late last year. Seven civilians and four rebels were killed on Sunday when a bomb, almost certainly left behind by the YPG, went off in a building in Afrin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened yet again on Monday to continue his offensive against the YPG all the way across northern Syria and into Iraq. This would of course significantly increase the possibility of a conflict with the United States, which has troops embedded with the Kurds in Manbij and further east, and views the YPG presence there as essential to preventing the resurgence of ISIS. It might not increase the possibility of a Turkish conflict with Baghdad, which wants the PKK removed from northern Iraq almost as much as Ankara does. The Turks say they have no intention of remaining in Afrin and are merely there to return the area to its “rightful owners.” So far they’ve carefully going into any detail about said rightful owners.

In Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian government is continuing to negotiate with the area’s now-isolated rebel factions and says it foresees many of them either accepting relocation or surrendering outright “soon.” The rebels controlling Harasta, the smallest of the three enclaves into which Syrian forces have been able to split Eastern Ghouta, will likely be the first to reach some sort of deal. Some 50,000 people are believed to have escaped the Eastern Ghouta war zone in recent days.

IRAQ

Tuesday marks the 15th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a war of choice based upon lies whose wounds both on the Middle East and American foreign policy are still wide open. Joel Wing looks back at the cooked and/or mishandled CIA intelligence that allowed the Bush administration to falsely claim that Saddam Hussein had restarted Iraq’s nuclear weapons program as part of his case for the war.

YEMEN

The Yemeni government, such as it is, has been complaining about the expansion of the Security Belt, a militia in southern Yemen that is closely affiliated with the United Arab Emirates:

The security officials said Monday that hundreds of Security Belt forces — fighters trained and financed by the UAE, have deployed in the Dhale province. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Security Belt, also known as the Hizam Brigade, was profiled last year by Human Rights Watch over its habit of disappearing people who later seem to have wound up at one or another of the UAE’s secret torture prisons in southern Yemen. So they seem nice.

TURKEY

Earlier this month Moody’s downgraded Turkey’s sovereign credit rating, which was already at a “junk” level, to a lower “junk” level, and also downgraded the credit ratings of several Turkish banks. Constant war, constant political campaigning, and a lack of foreign investment tend to all take their toll after a while. Moody’s decision set off the expected outrage in Ankara, with lots of predictable fuming about (((international bankers))) and (((their))) conspiracies to destroy the glorious Turkish Republic, and whether Fethullah Gülen was directly involved in the decision or only inspired it, etc. Normal stuff. Turkey has been talking about establishing its own national rating agency, which would replace Moody’s biased, politicized ratings system with a biased, politicized ratings system that is at least controlled by the Turkish government. I’m sure they’ll have a great credit rating with that agency, for whatever it will be worth.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened on Monday to call a halt to Fatah-Hamas unity talks. He’s angry (or at least he’s pretending to be) over the March 13 assassination attempt against Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza, which Fatah has blamed on Hamas. Abbas doesn’t seem inclined to listen to any alternative explanations, telling a meeting of Palestinian leaders that he doesn’t even want Hamas to conduct an investigation.

Abbas also had nice things to say on Monday about US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, calling him a “son of a dog.” This seems unfair to David Friedman’s mother, who should not be held responsible for her son being an asshole, but I digress. Instead of considering whether Abbas’s insult might have something to do with the fact that he’s spent his entire term as ambassador enabling Israel’s annexation and ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, Friedman naturally chalked it all up to antisemitism.

EGYPT

The Egyptian army says it’s killed at least 36 militants over five days of fighting in Sinai, with four Egyptian soldiers also losing their lives.

SAUDI ARABIA

During Norah O’Donnell’s nauseatingly sycophantic interview with Mohammad bin Salman on Sunday’s 60 Minutes, the crown prince said something that should by all rights, but most likely will not, end any talk of American assistance with the Saudi nuclear power program:

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reaffirmed the kingdom’s desire to keep up with Iran’s nuclear program, casting doubt on Saudi claims that it seeks to mine and enrich uranium solely for civilian use and reawakening fears of a Middle East nuclear arms race.

 

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mohammed said that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

MBS’s statement makes it clear that he doesn’t just want a nuclear program for its civilian benefits. Yeah, he couches it in terms of “if Iran gets a bomb first, we’ll respond,” but clearly he’s thinking about a nuclear weapons program. The Saudis want a domestic uranium enrichment program, for which there is absolutely no rational explanation apart from weapons development. There is a glut of enriched uranium on the global market, and the Saudis, unlike the Iranians (who also, let’s be frank, probably do not need a uranium enrichment program) have no reason to fear–even unreasonably–that they could be cut off from that market by the United States. To create an enrichment capability from the ground up, an expensive proposition, in this market is basically setting money on fire. Unless you’ve got ulterior motives.

If the United States were at all interested in consistency, MBS’s remarks would not only eliminate the possibility of a US-Saudi nuclear deal, they would trigger an international crisis, involving high-level meetings with US allies, emergency sessions of the UN Security Council, international sanctions, and ultimately the imposition of severe restrictions on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program along with a robust inspections protocol. Of course, none of that is going to happen here.

IRAN

Citing security concerns, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says that the EU is not inclined to begin renegotiating parts of the Iran nuclear accord. That’s not going to go over very well at the White House.

Meanwhile, the latest target in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Big Stupid Comeback Tour appears to be the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani:

In response to the controversy and Ahmadinejad’s defiance over the conviction, Iran’s judiciary published [Ahmadinejad’s former Vice President Hamid] Baghaei’s conviction. According to the papers published, Baghaei embezzled 3.7 million euros ($4.5 million) in addition to $590,000. The conviction document also noted that Baghaei was given the money by the Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, with the aim to disperse it in certain African countries.

 

In his latest open letter, Ahmadinejad addressed Soleimani directly regarding Baghaei’s case. Ahmadinejad wrote that if indeed Baghaei was given money from the Quds Force, “it needs to be made clear for what reason, for what work, from where, according to which law, [and] which request from Baghaei.” The letter continued, “If Baghaei was not given any money — and he certainly wasn’t — why have you and your colleagues been silent about this claim and injustice?”

 

Ahmadinejad continued, “While it is said in our media that you have sacrificed against injustice in Syria and other regions, the question remains why have you been silent against this great injustice in your own country?” Ahmadinejad ended the letter with a threat to reveal the “working relations” between himself and Soleimani.

Ahmadinejad may a former president, but Soleimani may well be the most popular political figure in Iran, so he’s definitely punching above his weight class here. The somewhat hapless former president has even taken to writing letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and while it’s tempting to suggest that he should just fade out of the picture with some dignity, Ahmadinejad may genuinely be worried that the corruption investigations that have nabbed Baghaei and another of his former aides could eventually come for him.

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