Middle East update: March 22 2018


While it’s being overshadowed by events in the rest of the country, fighting in Idlib province hasn’t stopped even if it has declined from where it was a few weeks ago:

Now, about those overshadowing events. In Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, Ahrar al-Sham fighters and their families began evacuating Harasta. Their agreement with the Syrian government allows them to keep their weapons and to be relocated to some rebel held part of the country, which likely means the aforementioned Idlib province. Thousands of people are eventually expected to evacuate the area. Later in the day, Faylaq al-Rahman, the rebel faction that controls the southern part of Eastern Ghouta, announced that it had agreed to a United Nations-brokered ceasefire agreement and would begin negotiating with Russia to allow civilians safe passage out of their enclave.

In Afrin, the rebels who fought on Turkey’s behalf seem very pleased with their victory over the YPG and say they’re ready for bigger challenges. Specifically, they’re ready to fight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib and, eventually, to help the Syrian army (on the condition that Bashar al-Assad is no longer in the picture, which, good luck with that) to secure the country. They face a teeny challenge at this point, which is that there seem to be a whole bunch of Syrians who regard these guys as essentially Turkish mercenaries now and so they don’t really have much of a political base anymore. Turkey seems pleased with its victory as well and is still planning a move against the YPG at Manbij. They question remains how deep into Syria they’re going to be able to push before the Syrian government and Russia decide enough is enough.

Meanwhile, the US-Russia negotiated ceasefire zone in southwestern Syria seems like it’s going to be the next hot zone, with the Syrian military already having undertaken at least one probing strike around Daraa in recent weeks. The United States is unlikely to intervene and Jordan, which had been trying to manage the rebels in this zone, seems to have given up on them and will likely just sit back and watch Damascus and its Russian allies roll over the place. This southwestern region is a little more perilous than the deescalation zones in Ghouta and Idlib where, though, because it comes close enough to the Golan that Israel may feel compelled to involve itself in the fighting.


After months of tension, the New York Times reports that relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government appear to be on the mend. The Iraqi government reopened Kurdish airports to international flights earlier this month, and recently it distributed its half of the money needed to pay civil servants in Iraqi Kurdistan (the KRG pays the other half, though it seems to be scrambling to find the money to do so). Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi even delivered a Nowruz greeting to the Kurds earlier this week in Kurdish, which is a small gesture but meaningful nonetheless. Cynically, this is clearly Abadi in campaign mode, but even if this outreach is purely political it’s still important to attempt to stitch the country together after last year’s independence fight.


What was probably a US drone strike killed seven suspected al-Qaeda members in central Yemen on Thursday.


The Turkish military says its airstrikes “neutralized” nine Kurdish militants in northern Iraq on Thursday.


Saadet, which garnered less than 1% of the vote in the last general election and receives no state funding, is positioning itself as Turkey’s party of consensus, pointing to its principles of social justice and welfare to appeal to left-leaning voters and its deep roots in political Islam as its conservative badge.


“We are the only political movement that can stop the polarization in Turkey because we can sit down and speak with everyone, accepting our differences,” [party leader Temel] Karamollaoglu, 76, told Al-Monitor in an interview. “Ours can be a platform of social democrats, nationalists, Kurdish voters and those who previously supported the AKP but are now disillusioned. We are seen as an antidote to the country’s polarization.”


Opinion surveys show Karamollaoglu, elected chairman in late 2016, has helped boost Saadet’s share of support to about 6%, still short of the 10% threshold to send lawmakers to parliament. But its share may yet prove decisive in a close presidential election. Erdogan’s candidacy is polling between 45% and 55%.

If Saadet can tap into AKP voters who don’t like the authoritarian turn Turkey has taken, and if it can find common ground with other opposition parties to unite behind one consensus presidential candidate, things could get uncomfortable for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


The Israeli Defense Ministry earlier this week admitted something pretty much everybody already knew: they were responsible for the 2007 bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor in eastern Syria. But if you squint right and imagine you’re in the Likud Party it sort of serves as a warning to Iran, and also, apparently, the details were going to come out later this year when former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert both publish their memoirs. The two of them don’t see eye to eye on what happened:

Barak, who was defense minister at the time of the Syria operation, hit out at Olmert on Wednesday. Interviewed by Israeli media throughout the day, he called his former boss “delusional,” and said Olmert was “apocalyptic” and the government in hysteria at the time. Barak denied Olmert’s claims that he had wanted to postpone the strike, saying instead that he made sure the “decision was well-thought-out,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

Hamas’s Gaza security forces on Thursday killed the man they say is the prime suspect in the attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah earlier this month, along with one of his pals. Two security officers were killed in the shootout. It remains to be seen whether this will have any effect on the relationship between Hamas and Fatah, which blames Hamas itself for the Hamdallah incident.


At LobeLog, Paul Pillar questions the wisdom of the Trump administration’s love affair with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

The heavy dependence of MbS on U.S. backing—unmatched, especially in the era of shale oil, by any comparable degree of U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia—implies significant U.S. leverage that could be used to protect and advance U.S. interests. Unfortunately, that leverage is not being used. Part of the problem may be the bromance between the inexperienced 30-somethings, MbS and Jared Kushner, with Kushner appearing to exert major influence on the Trump administration’s dealings with Saudi Arabia without even having a full security clearance. The biggest immediate problem is the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, where the administration does not seem to want to protect U.S. equities in the face of Riyadh’s persistence in folly. It was inexcusable for the Trump administration to oppose a resolution on Yemen, defeated this week in a vote in the Senate, that would have affirmed the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to determine when and where the United States goes to war.


That’s one of the biggest immediate problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Over the longer term is the hazard of becoming hitched so closely to a leader whose political future, along with the future of his vaunted reform program, is problematic. Besides the immense political, social, and religious hurdles to that program’s success are serious questions about whether the program is even well designed and whether its economic goals are realistic.

MBS sat down with the Washington Post on Thursday for an interview in which he denied reports that he has been getting classified information from his buddy Jared Kushner. There seems to have been little revelatory about his interview except for a bit where he suggests that he wants to rein in the kingdom’s spending on extremist religious institutions overseas:

Asked about the Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism, the austere faith that is dominant in the kingdom and that some have accused of being a source of global terrorism, Mohammed said that investments in mosques and madrassas overseas were rooted in the Cold War, when allies asked Saudi Arabia to use its resources to prevent inroads in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union.


Successive Saudi governments lost track of the effort, he said, and now “we have to get it all back.” Funding now comes largely from Saudi-based “foundations,” he said, rather than from the government.


Iranian reformists are reportedly growing increasingly agitated over President Hassan Rouhani’s moves to marginalize his reformist vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, in favor of an alliance with the conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani:

As such, in the eyes of many Reformists, the Rouhani administration is now facing a critical crossroads: that of choosing between its Reformist vice president or its moderate conservative ally in parliament. This juncture will become even more challenging for Rouhani as his term advances. At present, the Reformists believe the balance is tipped more in favor of Larijani than Jahangiri. Indeed, ever since the president introduced his second Cabinet, Jahangiri has been pushed to the sidelines. Even the task of creating a lineup for the government’s economic team, which was to be assigned to Jahangiri, was taken away, and instead Rouhani created the team himself by appointing individuals from his inner circle to key economic positions.


Parliament’s move to impeach three Reformist ministers is the most recent incident illustrating the dynamics between Rouhani and Larijani. On March 13, parliament began impeachment proceedings against the ministers of labor, of agriculture and rof oads and urban development — all of whom are from the Reform movement. Despite major criticisms regarding Labor Minister Ali Rabiei’s performance on unemployment and the social welfare of workers, many Reformists blame his impeachment on the Principlists — and especially Larijani’s entourage.

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