Middle East update: May 24 2018

SYRIA

Both Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are saying that the US-led coalition struck two Syrian army positions in Deir Ezzor province overnight, killing at least 12 pro-government militia fighters. The Pentagon says it has “no information” about any such strikes. State media also says that the Syrian military intercepted a missile attack on the Dabaa airport, near Homs city, on Thursday. There have been reports of explosions near the airport but no confirmation that the attack was actually intercepted and no indication as to two was responsible though it was most likely Israel.

Al Jazeera reports on conditions in Deraa, which is quite possibly the Syrian government’s next target now that it’s secured the entire region around Damascus:

French President Perun Emmanuel Macron visited Russia on Thursday, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about coordinating international efforts to bring the Syrian civil war to an end. They apparently agreed that the international community should be focusing on a constitution and electoral process for post-war Syria. They differed, unsurprisingly, on the need for an international investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria.

TURKEY

A roadside bomb in Turkey’s southeastern Hakkâri province killed two Turkish soldiers on Thursday when it exploded as their vehicle was driving past. The PKK is almost certainly responsible.

IRAQ

ISIS unsurprisingly claimed responsibility for Thursday morning’s suicide bombing in Baghdad, which killed at least four people.

The results of the Iraqi election earlier this month continue to take shape. Sunni parties, along with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s predominantly Sunni (though Allawi himself is Shiʿa) Wataniya Party, appear close to an agreement on unifying into one bloc in order to enhance their bargaining power in negotiations over the next government. If they manage to unify this could be a major boost to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s chances of keeping his job, as most of the Sunni parties prefer to align with him.

Of more urgency, however, is the higher-than-usual number of complaints about electoral irregularities that have been registered by various Iraqi parties, and the tepid response these complaints have been getting from electoral officials:

The Election Commission has been caught up in the controversy over the voting. On May 16, the head of the Election Commission rejected a manual recount after various calls for one. That led Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to write to the Integrity Commission to investigate violations by the Election Commission. The United Nations has also asked for an inquiry. The Election Commission head did admit that there were problems with the new electronic voting machines the country was using for the first time. A member of the Commission told the Voice of America that some members rejected a manual recount because it would undermine its authority. Then on May 21, the Commission threw outthe results from 103 stations in Baghdad, Irbil, Anbar, Salahaddin, and Ninewa due to various violations and errors. The combination of cancelling the votes and in general refusing to deal with the various complaints has undermine the Election Commission. Government offices are generally unresponsive to the public, but in this case it’s the political parties and the U.N. it’s not answering to. This lack of transparency is only adding to the suspicions of wrong doing.

The most serious allegations have been leveled around Kirkuk province, where Kurdish opposition parties as well as Arab and Turkmen parties are questioning victories by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Abadi says that all fraud claims will be investigated.

LEBANON

In a surprise to pretty much nobody, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was tapped to keep his job by President Michel Aoun on Thursday despite the fact that his Future Movement performed poorly in the May 6 election. Hariri’s 2016 deal with Aoun protected him, and at any rate he remains the leader of Lebanon’s largest Sunni party and the PM post is reserved for a Sunni in Lebanon’s power-sharing system.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Thursday that he will push to speed up the construction of 2500 more Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Since the Trump administration has gone fully in the bag for Israel, the decision to limit this new round of ethnic cleansing to a mere 2500 settlements shows admirable restraint, to be honest.

As for Gaza, another relief flotilla is apparently on its way:

The flotilla will not be allowed to land in Gaza, but the goal is to raise international awareness of the Gaza blockade.

KUWAIT

At Al-Monitor, Kuwaiti analyst Hamad Albloshi explains the tightrope Kuwait has been trying to walk between Iran on one side and the Saudis and the US on the other:

Reactions to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have varied around the world, including in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have strongly backed the US move, other Gulf states have been cautious and declined to adopt a clear stance on the matter. For instance, Kuwait has not echoed the Saudi position and rather announced its understanding of the US decision to withdraw from the deal. The Kuwaiti position on the JCPOA is significant considering its close relationship with Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and its alliance with the United States on the other.

 

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait has used different tools to secure its existence. First and foremost, it has relied on international powers for its protection, a trend that became critical after its liberation from Iraq in 1991. In addition, Kuwait has sought to protect itself by balancing its relationships with its neighbors — with the notable exception of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when it sided with Iraq. Kuwait has further relied on mediation as a tool of its foreign policy. This tool is not new, but rather boosted in recent years as Kuwait has mediated to end the ongoing war in Yemen. The eruption in 2017 of the crisis between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar on the other has further strengthened Kuwait’s role as a mediator. Kuwait benefits from this position because it shows the importance of the country both regionally and globally. While its efforts do not always succeed, the regional and international recognition of its mediator role is critical for its security. Hence, it is important for Kuwait to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran — the main rivals in the region — to gain the trust necessary to pursue its mediating efforts. As such, its reaction to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA should be seen as part of this balancing strategy.

QATAR

While Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy is being investigated by the Mueller team for his links to the Trump campaign and wealthy Gulf elites, the FBI is also investigating a crime of which Broidy was the victim: the hacking of his email account. According to a recorded conversation involving Qatari lobbyist Nicholas Muzin, it seems that Qatar may have been responsible for the hack. The Qatari government denies the charge, but between Broidy and UAE ambassador Yusef al-Otaiba there have been at least two prominent Qatar critics in DC whose emails have coincidentally been hacked in recent months.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi authorities have released four of the women’s rights activists they arrested last week in their most recent crackdown against dissidents flourish of liberal values and freedom. It’s unclear why they were released, but fellow activists believe it’s likely that those who were not released will remain in custody for some time to come.

IRAN

The International Atomic Energy Agency released another report certifying Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal on Thursday, but the group did ding Tehran for being slow to act when it comes to the surprise facility inspections that are mandated under the agreement:

“The Agency … has conducted complementary accesses under the Additional Protocol to all the sites and locations in Iran which it needed to visit,” the IAEA said in a confidential report that was sent to member states and obtained by Reuters.

 

“Timely and proactive cooperation by Iran in providing such access would facilitate implementation of the Additional Protocol and enhance confidence,” it said.

If the nuclear deal is not long for this world, this report could stand as the IAEA’s final rebuke to Donald Trump for his decision to violate the accord. And while we’re on that subject, in his press conference with Macron on Tuesday, Putin expressed support for European efforts to salvage the deal and criticized part of Trump’s rationale for pulling out of it:

“Certainly we can discuss Iran’s ballistic missiles. We can discuss Iran’s policies in the Middle East and its nuclear activities after 2025,” Putin said.

 

“But we cannot make preserving the Iranian nuclear deal dependent on these three parameters because if we do, it means that we too are withdrawing from the accord because the deal that exists foresees no additional conditions.”

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