Middle East update: July 5 2018

Well, we’re back. As usual when I’ve been gone for a while this update will mostly stick to things that happened today with some pieces I flagged while I was gone in there for good measure. It will probably be long and there’s not much I can do about that.

SYRIA

Owing to a combination of mostly Russian airstrikes and pro-government ground forces (reportedly including Hezbollah, despite Washington’s insistence that Iran and its proxies stay out of southwestern Syria), southwestern Syria is gradually coming back under Bashar al-Assad’s control. Damascus has been negotiating with rebels in Daraa province on a surrender agreement, but those talks have reportedly broken down and Thursday’s bombardment increased accordingly. Outside monitors are reporting 150 civilians killed over the past two weeks in southwestern Syria and at least 320,000 people displaced. The majority of them have headed into Quneitra province toward the Golan in hopes of getting some protection from the Israelis, while about 60,000 have headed to camps near the Jordanian border. There is growing international pressure on Jordan to open its border to the refugees, but so far Amman has limited itself to providing some humanitarian assistance to those camps.

Several people were reportedly wounded in an explosion in Manbij on Thursday. It’s unclear who carried out the bombing but Rudaw says it has a source claiming that it was retaliation for “Turkish attacks on Manbij.”

On Tuesday, ISIS’s Amaq news agency announced the death of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…’s son, Hudhayfah al-Badri. Had you there for a minute, didn’t I? Badri was reportedly killed in fighting against the Syrian government and Russian forces in the Homs area, which means he’s been dead since at least early June because that’s the last time ISIS was active in that area.

Speaking of ISIS, Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria are trying to figure out what to do with the widows and orphans of the group’s fighters:

When her husband uprooted their family from Morocco to live under the Islamic State in Syria, Sarah Ibrahim had little choice but to go along. After he disappeared — she believes he was killed in an airstrike on a prison — she fled with her two sons.

They were captured last year and have been held ever since in this dusty, sweltering detention camp in northeastern Syria. They are among the more than 2,000 foreign women and children being held in such camps, trapped in a legal and political limbo with no foreseeable way out.

Their home countries do not want them back, fearing they could spread radical Islamist ideology. The Kurdish authorities that administer this stateless war zone do not want them either, and say it is not their job to indefinitely detain citizens of other countries.

Many of them proactively fled ISIS after their husbands/fathers were killed, at considerable risk to themselves in doing so, but apparently that’s not enough to erase the stain of their connection to the group.

YEMEN

United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths is still working on a ceasefire between Houthi and coalition forces in time to save Hudaydah’s seaport and the humanitarian access it affords. The coalition has halted–“paused”–its Hudaydah offensive to allow time for diplomacy. It’s still hard to get a read on civilian casualties in Hudaydah but the UN estimates that some 121,000 people have been displaced by the fighting there.

TURKEY

The first day of the rest of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s life will be July 9. That’s when he’ll be inaugurated as president, a job he of course already holds but that will be considerably empowered under the constitutional changes that went into effect as of last month’s election. As for what you can expect in the New Turkey…probably pretty much what you’re already seeing, at least in the near term. Erdoğan’s own inclinations, as well as his new parliamentary reliance on the nationalist MHP party make it exceedingly likely that, on the foreign policy front, Ankara will continue to pursue intervention in Syria and antagonism toward the West. Domestically, Erdoğan has promised to finally end Turkey’s two year-long state of emergency, imposed after the failed coup against him in 2016…but it’s unlikely that he will make any more than cosmetic changes to his authoritarian style of governance in order to tamp down international complaints. And with the power Erdoğan has amassed as a result of the constitutional changes, he doesn’t really have to do any more than that.

IRAQ

Iraqi authorities believe that ISIS is reactivating cells in the Kirkuk area:

The group has been operating for months on Kirkuk’s outskirts but has stepped up its efforts recently, kidnapping and killing civilians and carrying out random attacks. On June 27, an IS-affiliated group of five used light weapons to attack some villages in the Daqouk district in southern Kirkuk, killing one civilian and wounding others. Also on June 27, five people from the provinces of Anbar and Karbala who were kidnapped while working with security forces in Kirkuk were found executed on the Kirkuk-Baghdad road.

A police officer in Kirkuk spoke to Al-Monitor June 29 on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to make an official statement to the media. He said, “The information we have indicates that some IS affiliates are regrouping in villages in south Kirkuk. The authorities in the province decided to go on maximum alert and start operations to thwart IS plans.”

He went on, “Intelligence suggests that IS has already identified the places it wants to target: the vital areas that are crowded with civilians as well as some government institutions whose work is directly linked to the lives of citizens.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli authorities arrested ten people on Wednesday for protesting the planned demolition of the Bedouin town of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank. Khan al-Ahmar sits in the West Bank’s “Area C,” the portion of the territory under complete Israeli control that will likely be annexed to Israel under a hypothetical peace deal–or, hell, whenever Israel feels like annexing it. But the demolition itself now appears to be in limbo. Late Thursday it was reported that Israel’s Supreme Court issued an injunction against the government’s plans to destroy the village. It’s unclear where this case will go next.

A new poll from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research finds that 30 percent of Palestinians want Marwan Barghouthi to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, making him the favorite to replace the 82 year old Palestinian leader. The one tiny issue here is that Barghouthi has been in an Israeli prison since 2004 and is serving five life sentences, so he’s not getting out anytime soon. In second place, 23 percent want Hamas boss Ismail Haniyeh to succeed Abbas, a scenario that obviously presents its own complications. No other candidate gets more than single digits. The poll also found that 61 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign from office.

QATAR

In an effort to get on Donald Trump’s good side after Trump initially supported the Saudi-led blockade against it, the Qatari government has pulled out all the lobbying stops:

Rich from large natural gas reserves, Qatar has lavished at least $24 million on lobbying in Washington since the start of 2017. That compares with a total of $8.5 million Qatar paid in 2015 and 2016 for lobbying, Justice Department filings show. (For a graphic, click tmsnrt.rs/2N8ZwFr)

It has hired people close to Trump. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, said he worked for the Qataris on an investigation and visited Doha just weeks before becoming Trump’s personal lawyer in April.

The blockade has, if nothing else, been fantastic for DC lobbyists, with the Saudis and Emiratis also spending tens of millions of dollars on messaging against Qatar.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

According to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, the United Nations has requested access to the UAE’s black site prisons in Yemen but Abu Dhabi has not agreed to grant that access. The UN’s human rights office says it has evidence that prisoners in these facilities have been subject to torture and sexual abuse, among other “ill treatment.”

SAUDI ARABIA

James Dorsey writes that Saudi Arabia is covertly moving to supplant Jordan as the real caretaker power for the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, at a time when both countries are trying to ward off a similar effort by Turkey:

A United Arab Emirates-backed Saudi effort to wrest control from Jordan of Islam’s holy places in Jerusalem signals a sharper, more overt edge to Saudi religious diplomacy and the kingdom’s quest for regional hegemony that risks deepening divides in the Muslim world.

The effort also serves to support Donald J. Trump’s plan for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has split the Muslim world even before it has officially been made public and been clouded by the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

At the very least, Saudi Arabia hopes at the risk of destabilizing Jordan, where Palestinians account for at least half of the country’s almost ten million people, to drop its resistance to the Trump initiative.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s focus on Jerusalem has wider regional implications as they battle Turkey for ownership of the Jerusalem issue. The two countries tried to downplay the significance of two Islamic summits in Istanbul convened by Turkey to counter Trump’s move.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Saudi authorities are still holding “several dozen” prominent figures as a result of last November’s “anti-corruption” purge, including Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a son of the departed King Abdullah. Many of the detainees haven’t been formally charged with a crime and have been denied contact with the outside world. Some have been tortured. Those who remain in custody, and it’s estimated that 56 of last year’s detainees were not released when Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton resumed normal operations after serving as a makeshift detention center, are essentially those who refused to buy their way out of trouble last year. The WSJ reports that they could be charged with terrorism-related offenses, which carry capital penalties and are thus the most effective way to shake someone down for a financial settlement.

IRAN

Iranian state media reports that a cleric was shot and killed on Thursday in the town of Khash in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. It’s unclear who carried out the attack or why, but that region is frequently troubled by Baluch separatists and by drug smugglers from Afghanistan. There is growing evidence that Saudi Arabia, perhaps with US knowledge or even support, is cultivating Baluch separatists as a tool against Iran.

One thing that didn’t change while I was away is that the Iran nuclear deal remains on the ropes. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly told French President Emmanuel Macron by phone on Thursday that European efforts to salvage the deal have thus far not gone far enough to secure Iran’s continued involvement, though he continues to say that Iran will remain party to the deal if it sees an upside to doing so.

Rouhani is on a multi-day visit to Switzerland and Austria, and is warning of possible Iranian retaliation as US sanctions are reimposed, including decreased cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and what appears to have been a veiled threat to block oil transit from the Persian Gulf by clogging up the Hormuz Strait that mirrors similar statements that have been coming out of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in recent days. The latter threat drew a response from the US military on Thursday, with CENTCOM saying that it would “ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce” through the strait if Iran took some action to block it.

Tehran was gripped by several days of protests late last month as shop owners closed down to show their anger over exchange rates. The Iranian rial is trading at slightly below 43,000 to the dollar as of my last check, and that’s the official rate (the black market rate is always higher). In response to the likelihood of new US sanctions, Tehran has begun restricting the supply of foreign currency to private currency traders, forcing business owners to go through either the government or the black market for their exchange needs. The usual suspects in the US naturally seized on this protest as another sign that the Iranian state is about to crumble and, hey, these people have been predicting Iran’s collapse for 40 years so you’d think they’d get it right one of these days. But economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani argues that the political fallout here will probably be limited:

Within days of the decision to outlaw unofficial transactions, a black market emerged registering a high premium over the official rate of 42,000 rials per dollar, an increase of more than 100% this week. Many observers have erroneously used this rate as a barometer of the state of Iran’s economy. The conservative Cato economist Stephen Hanke predicted in Forbes that Iran’s economy is on “a death spiral,” and The New York Times described it as in “free fall.”

The reason why these dire predictions are wrong is simple: the influence of the black market on consumer prices in Iran is limited because only a small proportion of Iran’s foreign exchange passes through it. The government earns the bulk of the available foreign exchange and is saving it to import basic consumer goods. By squeezing the supply of foreign currency for what it considers non-essential uses, the government is limiting the risk of an uprising from the poor and the middle class.

So, rather than a sign of imminent economic collapse, the high price of the dollar is a sign of government prudence that may pay off in the long run.

Given that Tehran’s merchant community is actually a reliably pro-Islamic Republic constituency, the chances that it would spearhead a revolution against the Iranian establishment, as it did in 1979 against the shah, is unlikely. Indeed, these protests seem more intended to attack Rouhani and it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some conservative involvement behind the scenes as Rouhani’s political enemies look for ways to undercut him. Still, despite protesters’ calls for his resignation, Rouhani’s job is probably safe. He still fills an important role for Iranian hardliners as an outlet for reformist and moderate disenchantment, and anyway the notion that protesters could unseat an Iranian president is not one that Iranian leaders want to support. In fact, these economic tensions could provide Rouhani with an opening to attack official corruption, though he’ll have to tread carefully if he doesn’t want to disrupt this detente he appears to have with the conservatives right now.

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Author: DWD

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