Middle East update: May 22 2018

Hi. Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been gone for a while. I’m not going to recap everything that happened while I was gone, but be forewarned that this is going to be a long post. And by “long,” I mean I’m at 1800 words as I write this and I haven’t even gotten to Iran yet.

ISIS

An ISIS official named Abu Zaid al-Iraqi, captured as part of a joint Iraq-Turkey operation earlier this year, has apparently been telling Iraqi interrogators that not only is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi still alive (or, at least, was as of the middle of last year) but that he’s actively involved in a new mission to preserve what’s left of his organization. Baghdadi, according to this account, has left the military side of the organization to its own devices (a decision that has led to criticism from others in the organization) while he focuses on efforts to craft a “curriculum” of sorts around ISIS’s ideology, while simultaneously working to tamp down any potential internal disputes. The goal, presumably, is to turn ISIS from his vanity caliphate project into a durable organization that can survive his death and remain viable even without controlling any territory.

SYRIA

Speaking of ISIS, they’ve now officially quit the Yarmouk refugee camp and its environs, having reached agreement over the weekend on a deal that got them evacuated to eastern Syria. I have to admit this comes as a surprise to me–they’d held out in Yarmouk for so long that I figured either they weren’t being offered a surrender deal or they had decided to stay there to the bitter end. Their evacuation means that all of Damascus city and its surrounding region is under government control for the first time since the civil war began in 2011. It’s also a reminder that there are tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who used to live in that camp and are now displaced, having been driven out first by the Free Syrian Army, then by ISIS, and subsequently by the Syrian military. Well, I guess technically you’d have to say they were first displaced by Israel, then by everybody else, but I digress. Their camp is reportedly not much more than rubble at this point, so even if they were able to return there’s no way to accommodate them.

In other ISIS news, on Tuesday a group of the organization’s fighters attacked a Syrian military outpost at a dam near Palmyra, killing at least 30 Syrian soldiers and allied paramilitary fighters. ISIS has captured Palmyra twice in the war, but this incident seems to have been a hit-and-run attack in line with the group’s new tactics.

YEMEN

Yemeni state media is reporting that a Houthi missile strike killed at least five people in the city of Marib on Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against five Iranian individuals accused of aiding the Houthis.

TURKEY

While we were away, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador over the recent violence in Gaza and then put him through a humiliating and very public thorough security check at the airport on his way out of the country. The Israeli government then roughly handled Turkey’s charge d’affairs in response.

A new study shows that Turkey’s state-funded TRT television network has been–and you should probably sit down for this stunning news–giving the ruling Justice and Development Party vastly more coverage than opposition parties in the run up to June’s election:

Turkey’s Media Communication and Postal Employees Union (HABER-SEN) recently published figures of how much time state-funded media TRT has given to each party.

Between April 1 and May 13, TRT TV gave 89 hours and 23 minutes to the ruling AKP, 7 hours and 6 minutes for the largest opposition party CHP, 28 minutes for the AKP-allied nationalists MHP, and no time at all to the pro-Kurdish HDP.

Under the Turkish constitution, state-funded media must be independent and impartial.

I’m sure this is an honest oversight that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an icon of liberal democratic values, will rectify ASAP. I mean he’s a little busy campaigning right now, but once the election is over I’m sure this will be at the top of his to-do list.

IRAQ

Patrick Wing’s valuable Musings on Iraq blog has been compiling election results, and he’s produced an analysis of the final results that compares parties’ performance over time and offers some thoughts as to why things shook out the way they did this time around. He’s also offered an early guess as to what the next Iraqi governing coalition will look like:

The early stages of creating a majority to form the new government are already underway. The most likely alignment is Sadr’s Sairoon (54 seats), PM Abadi’s Nasr (42 seats), Hakim’s Hikma (19 seats), and perhaps VP Allawi’s Wataniya (21 seats) and the KDP (25 seats). 165 seats are necessary. Sadr has already met Hakim and Abadi, and called Allawi. While the later visited former Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. If they all agree the next big question would be whether they go on to make Iraq’s first majority government or bring in the other parties for another national unity government. If Sadr is serious about ending ethnosectarian quotas in the government only including those closest to Sairoon would be an important step. Another major issue is if Abadi will hold onto his job or whether a new premier will be named. Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani has been in Baghdad since the election, and there are various reports that he is trying to stop Sadr from putting together the next administration. Things are just beginning so there could still be twists and turns before there is a new prime minister.

Reuters is reporting that the US government–grudgingly, I’m sure–has been in contact with members of Sadr’s Sairoon organization to open up lines of communication with the man best positioned to shape Iraq’s next government. In what must be a new world record for irony, Washington may have to rely on Sadr to prevent the formation of a completely pro-Iranian government and protect its interests in Iraq. The tug of war between the US and Iran is part of the reason why Abadi, despite completely flubbing the election, still makes for an attractive PM candidate. He’s successfully navigated the US-Iran rivalry so far and there’s reason to think he could continue to do so.

LEBANON

Nabih_Berri
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (Wikimedia)

In Lebanon, meanwhile, this month’s election has so far shaken things up a bit, though only a bit. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will be elected to the same office–one he’s held since 1992–again on Wednesday. But his deputy will now probably be Elie Ferzli, who has previously served in that role and is a Hezbollah ally. He’ll be replacing Farid Makari, a member of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, which had probably the most disappointing election of any of Lebanon’s major parties. Hariri opposes Ferzli but he probably doesn’t have the political strength to do anything about it. Berri’s return to the speakership, which was entirely expected, probably increases the chances that Hariri will return as PM, though of the three members of Lebanon’s “troika” (president, speaker, and PM), Hariri’s post-election position is the least secure.

Under Lebanon’s 1943 “National Pact,” in case you were wondering, the deputy speaker and deputy prime minister offices are designated for Orthodox Christians, the country’s fourth largest religious group after Sunnis, Shiʿa, and Maronites.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli air force bombed a boat off the coast of Gaza city on Wednesday morning. Israeli authorities say the vessel belonged to Hamas. There have been no reports of casualties. The strike comes a day after a group of men from Gaza crossed through the fence line and set fire to an Israeli army post.

The F-35 saw its first combat operations recently, but not for the United States. Israel has apparently used the F-35 in at least two of its recent attacks on Syria. It’s immensely gratifying to know that our $1.5 trillion or so isn’t going to waste and that the aircraft is capable of lobbing missiles at distant targets. Goodness knows we don’t have any other weapons that can do that.

The Palestinian government has requested an International Criminal Court investigation into “all crimes” it says were committed by the Israeli government in the Occupied Territories since 2014. This would of course include the IDF’s recent weeks-long slaughter of protesters in Gaza. If international law actually meant anything (it doesn’t) this could be a big development (it’s not).

Israel is not an ICC member and has argued that the court has no authority to investigate this issue because Palestine, which became an ICC member in 2015, is not actually a state. Which is a fair point, but please keep it in mind the next time you hear Israeli officials talk about the Gaza fence line as though it were an international border and not the outer limits of what amounts to a giant prison camp:

Palestinian activists have long criticized the use of the word “border” to describe the 1949 armistice line that divides Gaza and Israel, and which protestors in the Great March of Return have been trying to cross at great risk to life and limb. By invoking the term, Israel insists that its open-fire policy toward the march is part of its legitimate right to defend its sovereignty and security. It further claims that, because the government dismantled its settlements in 2005, it no longer occupies the Strip and therefore bears no responsibility for its conditions.

These are disingenuous arguments. Israel’s blockade and control of Gaza stretches from its eastern and northern land crossings to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, with Egypt controlling the south. What it calls a “border” is actually a militarized network of naval ships, barbed wire, electronic barriers, lethal no-man zones, and surveillance systems that operate as the fence of an open-air prison. In legal terms, Israel retains “effective control” of the Strip (including people’s movement, its airspace, flow of goods, and other needs of daily life), and therefore remains its occupying power.

This is all laughably hypocritical, but the international community’s willingness to go along with it is part of the reason why Israel gets to act as an apartheid state without being treated as an apartheid state.

EGYPT

Human Rights Watch says that the Egyptian government’s policy of destroying homes and farms affiliated with ISIS-aligned militants in Sinai could be illegal under international law. If Egyptian authorities are destroying property connected with relatives of the militants, that would amount to collective punishment which is in fact outlawed under the Geneva Conventions. It’s also probably self-defeating as a tactic, in that it doesn’t do much to encourage the local population to feel warmly toward its government.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Many more details about the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties with shady Gulf plutocrats emerged over the weekend. I’ll have a bit more on that later, but Juan Cole unpacks the UAE piece:

The UAE’s Bin Zayed also had a reason to want sanctions lifted on Russian banks and firms, since he held shares in some of them.

So the plot had several angles:

1. Get Trump elected since he is corrupt and can be easily bribed and possibly blackmailed.

2. Use him to lift sanctions on Russian firms in which the UAE had invested.

3. Use him to scotch the Iran nuclear deal and put downward pressure on Iran’s oil sales, which would help the UAE make more money from its own oil.

4. Offer lobbying money as bribes to Trump principals so as to reward them for past cooperation and to encourage future cooperation.

5. Enlist the US in a UAE/ Saudi raid on Qatar’s $300 billion sovereign wealth fund, while at the same time drying up funding for the Muslim Brotherhood.

I suspect getting the US out of Syria was also part of the plot, but I haven’t worked that out yet. Trump cancelled a CIA program that more or less supported Muslim Brotherhood rebels in Syria.

The June 5, 2017, attack on and blockade of Qatar, orchestrated by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Russian hackers, was also part of the plot.

So too was maneuvering Mohammed Bin Salman into being the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, which Bin Zayed succeed in last summer.

The Syria conjecture makes no sense to me and I don’t think Cole is on solid ground there, but the rest of it is quite plausible, though to be fair the UAE is denying any involvement.

SAUDI ARABIA

Let’s check in on Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to modernize and liberalize Saudi Arabia:

At least six prominent defenders of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia were detained this week, six weeks before the kingdom’s ban on women from driving is due to be lifted June 24.

Activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested at her home on Tuesday evening, accordingto Amnesty International. She campaigned against the decades-old driving ban and ranked No. 3 in a list of the most powerful Arab women for her work.

Amnesty International named three other women who were detained as Eman al-Nafjan, who became widely known for her activism; Aziza al-Yousef, a fellow leader in the campaign to drive; and Aisha al-Manea, who campaigned for women’s right to drive since the early ’90s. She is a 70-year-old who survived a heart attack last year, according to Australian-based Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif.

It is unclear why the activists were arrested.

I’m going to say the fact that they were activists had something to do with it. On the plus side, at least these women (two male activists were also arrested) will probably be able to drive themselves to their sentencing. Hooray for progress!

Notwithstanding the above, or the ongoing destruction of Yemen, the Trump administration has begun the process of selling more than 120,000 pieces of “precision” weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by asking Congress to review the sale. Congress now has 40 days to object to the sale, something it has never done and almost certainly will not do in this case.

IRAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a real barn-burner of a speech to the Heritage Foundation about Iran on Monday:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in remarks laying out the Donald Trump administration’s “Plan B” after its exit from the Iran nuclear deal, said today the United States would rally the world to impose crippling economic pressure on Iran to force it to end all enrichment forever, halt its support for military proxy groups, curb its missile program and withdraw its military advisers from Syria, among other demands.

But America’s new top diplomat did not explain how the United States would persuade deeply skeptical and wary international allies and partners to endorse the kind of “maximum pressure” campaign that would threaten the Iranian regime’s survival and possibly foment regime change.

“Iran will be forced to make a choice: either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad,” Pompeo said in remarks to the conservative Heritage Foundation, in his first major foreign policy address since he became secretary of state last month. “It will not have the resources to do both.”

Hot damn. I would quibble with this description in one respect: Pompeo doesn’t have a “plan B” for Iran, and his speech made that quite clear. What he has is a list of demands, such as one might submit to a country that has just lost a war, only Iran hasn’t lost a war.

But maybe that’s where Pompeo sees this heading, because his speech read less like the outline for a new diplomatic plan to isolate Iran and much more like a call for regime change. And as with all such calls, Pompeo’s was made with only selective attention to the facts:

In presenting the campaign to deter Iran as a simplistic moral struggle—in contrast to the Obama administration’s naïvete and double-dealing—Pompeo glossed over some points that complicate the overall picture. He noted the presence of destabilizing Shiite militias in Iraq, without mentioning that they had been fighting on the same side as U.S. forces against ISIS. He attributed full blame for the suffering of Yemeni civilians in the current civil war to Iran’s support for the Houthis, without noting the massive civilian toll of the ongoing Saudi-led, U.S.-supported air campaign. He didn’t explain how it would be possible to implement the “strongest sanctions in history” without the support of Russia, China, or even the EU. He pointed to Trump’s planned meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as evidence of Trump’s genuine commitment to diplomacy, without explaining why the administration appears to be heading toward a North Korea deal far less restrictive than the one Iran had agreed to. He also demanded that Iran release the U.S. citizens it is holding in custody, something that has probably gotten less likely since the deal was canceled.

Pompeo left open the possibility of a new deal, but one based on 12 conditions—including a full halt to all uranium enrichment, withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, and an end to support for groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq—that the current regime would never support.

The only thing in Pompeo’s speech that amounts to a “plan” is the declaration that the US will impose the “strongest sanctions” against Iran, even as Tehran tries to hang on to the nuclear deal and abide by its terms, in an effort to force it to comply. But research shows that sanctions are pretty good for achieving modest, well-defined goals–like getting a country to accept limits on its nuclear activities–but lousy for achieving massive, sweeping, open-ended goals–like the unconditional surrender Pompeo seems to want. The likely results of all of this are a resurgent hardline movement in Iranian politics, AKA the opposite of regime change, and substantially increased friction between the United States and the countries it sanctions for doing business with Iran–including and most especially European countries.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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