Middle East update: June 6 2018

SYRIA

The Manbij Military Council, the Syrian Democratic Forces-created institution currently in charge of Manbij, says that it “will not accept” a Turkish presence in that town. This would appear to be a major complication to the roadmap to which the United States and Turkey just agreed on Monday for evacuating the YPG from the town and replacing them with joint US-Turkey control. The YPG agreed to leave on Tuesday, but said it would leave the MMC in place though subject to US and Turkish approval.

The Syrian government has reopened the main highway between the cities of Homs and Hama, which had been shut down since the early stages of the Syrian civil war back in 2011. Government forces cleared rebels out of the last pocket they still occupied along the highway last month.

YEMEN

At LobeLog, the Yemen Peace Project’s Eric Eikenberry argues that a coalition attack on Hudaydah, even if successful, is unlikely to shorten the war even as it exacerbate’s Yemen’s humanitarian crisis:

Given Houthi control of Sana’a and their military advantage in the mountains, Houthi entrenchment in the highlands, which the coalition still has yet to significantly crack, is likely to continue. Furthermore, the execution of this assault at a time when the Houthis have dipped a toe into the peace process by maintaining open lines of communication with new UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths could permanently sour the insular group on any further international negotiations. In that case, a cure-all Hudaydah offensive in 2018 could easily become a cure-all Sana’a offensive in 2019 or 2020, with famine and rising casualty counts filling headlines in the intervening months.

According to Reuters, the United Nations is circulating a Yemen peace plan that would require the Houthis (along with other non-state actors in the conflict) to give up “heavy and medium weapons including ballistic missiles” while assuring them of an end to the Saudi-led air campaign and representation in a new transitional government. The UN is aiming to present a “framework” for peace to all the parties in the war by the middle of this month. The goal is to obtain a quick ceasefire with an agreement to negotiate details of a peace agreement once the fighting stops.

IRAQ

This is very much a developing story, but an explosion in Baghdad’s Sadr City area has killed at least 18 people and perhaps many more, with another 90 known injuries at last count. Initial reports identified the explosion as a terrorist bombing but now it appears it may have been accidental, the result of an attempt to move an arms cache from a mosque into a car. It’s unclear who was storing arms in the mosque and we still may be talking about terrorists here, though Shiʿa paramilitaries would seem to be another reasonable possibility.

Meanwhile, there’s growing chaos within the Iraqi political system:

Iraq’s parliament has voted to carry out a manual recount of votes cast in last month’s legislative elections, amid allegations of widespread fraud.

MPs also replaced the leadership of the election commission and annulled the votes of overseas and displaced Iraqis.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that security agencies had evidence of “unprecedented” violations.

He said the main issue was with the electronic vote-counting machines that were used for the first time on 12 May.

It is unclear whether Wednesday’s vote will affect the outcome of the election.

JORDAN

Reuters is reporting that the Jordanian government will ask the International Monetary Fund for “more time to implement reforms,” i.e. austerity, in the face of growing public resentment over higher prices and taxes (many Jordanian unions went on strike on Wednesday in the latest escalation of that resentment). Presumably this means the government’s planned income tax increase is on hold for the near future. This will give new Prime Minister Omar Razzaz time to find ways to soften the impact of austerity measures on the poor and workers, as well as perhaps to find some savings within Jordan’s large bureaucracy and/or by tackling its substantial corruption problem. He may also look for bailout help from Jordan’s allies in the West and/or Gulf.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli forces shot and killed a 21 year old Palestinian man in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh on Wednesday while purportedly trying to arrest him on charges of rock throwing. It’s unclear what led to the decision to shoot him instead.

QATAR

Qatar wants to join NATO, according to Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah:

“The ambition is full membership if our partnership with NATO develops and our vision is clear,” he told the official magazine of the Qatari defence ministry, Altalaya.

Uh, sure, cool, I guess? The Qatari government has for several days/a couple of weeks now been puffing out its chest to show how unscathed it’s been by the Saudi et al blockade, which not coincidentally hit its one-year anniversary on Tuesday. That sort of thing leads to a lot of boasts and claims and plans that probably won’t go anywhere, so bear that in mind.

SAUDI ARABIA

A new United Nations report rips the Saudi government for using counterterrorism as a fig leaf to mask its human rights abuses:

The UN’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, the British QC Ben Emmerson, met senior Saudi politicians, judges, police and prosecutors during his trip.

“Those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression are systematically persecuted in Saudi Arabia,” the report found. “Many languish in prison for years. Others have been executed after blatant miscarriages of justice.

“A culture of impunity prevails for public officials who are guilty of acts of torture and other ill-treatment. Peaceful avenues for redress of grievances are foreclosed by the use of repressive measures to silence civil society.”

This report was prepared before the kingdom started systematically locking up women’s rights activists, as it’s been doing over the past couple of weeks, so if anything it paints too rosy a picture.

IRAN

Gunmen killed two Iranian guards in an attack along the Iran-Iraq border on Tuesday. It’s unclear who they were, but most likely either ISIS or Kurdish militants.

The European Union on Wednesday updated its blocking statutes, which are supposed to protect European firms from sanctions imposed by outside countries (i.e., the US), as part of its effort to maintain the Iran nuclear deal. These measures have never actually been put to a serious test and it’s unlikely they’ll be enough to convince European companies that it’s safe to keep doing business with Iran despite US sanctions. Which is why the British, French, and German governments have also asked the Trump administration for exemptions from US sanctions for their companies in several areas including banking, energy, healthcare, and infrastructure. Good luck with that.

There are more signs that Iran is preparing itself to withdraw from the nuclear deal because it sees no upside to continuing it when the US is actively committed to sinking the accord. Not only are the Iranians laying the groundwork to very quickly and very dramatically ramp up their uranium enrichment program, they’ve also told the International Atomic Energy Agency that they see no reason to be any more cooperative about inspections than they have been, given the US decision to withdraw. In its last report certifying Iran’s compliance with the deal, the IAEA suggested that timelier responses from the Iranians to inspections requests would help increase international goodwill around the deal.

Finally, Senate Republicans have uncovered a SECRET OBAMA PLOT to let Iran have its own money back in the form of dollars, despite US banking sanctions against Tehran:

After striking an elusive nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration found itself in a quandary in early 2016: Iran had been promised access to its long-frozen overseas reserves, including $5.7 billion stuck in an Omani bank.

To spend it, Iran wanted to convert the money into U.S. dollars and then euros, but top U.S. officials had repeatedly promised Congress that Iran would never gain access to America’s financial system.

Those assurances notwithstanding, the Obama administration secretly issued a license to let Iran sidestep U.S. sanctions for the brief moment required to convert the funds through an American bank, an investigation by Senate Republicans released Wednesday showed. The plan failed when two U.S. banks refused to participate.

This is obviously evidence of a nefarious effort to convert the United States to Shiʿism and bring about the coming of the Mahdi or whatever, and is certainly not a very limited agreement that fulfilled US obligations to return Iran’s own money to Iran. The Obama administration told Congress that it would not give Iran a general license to access the US financial system, which this wasn’t, but the Republican investigation also uncovered evidence that the administration considered giving Iran a general license but then didn’t and AHA NOW WE COME TO THE SORDID TRUTH OF oh, wait, they didn’t actually do the thing they promised not to do. What a scandal.

Secretary_Kerry_Shakes_Hands_With_Iranian_Foreign_Minister_Zarif_Before_Their_Meeting_at_the_United_Nations_in_New_York_(26435344552)
Former Secretary of State John Kerry (R) slipping a $100 bill to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, probably (Wikimedia)

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