Middle East update: July 6 2018

SYRIA

While there may be some mopping up to be done, Daraa province is now back in Bashar al-Assad’s hands. Rebels there agreed on Friday to surrender their medium and heavy weapons and to either give up fighting or be relocated to Idlib province. As a result, the Syrian government regained control over its important Nassib border crossing with Jordan, which is now presumably on track to be reopened to the great relief of both Damascus and Amman. Russia seems to have taken the lead negotiating role here and is, according to the surrendering rebels, agreeing to guarantee the return of the estimated 320,000 people displaced from the province over the past few weeks and to oversee forces that will be stationed in Daraa to keep the peace.

Assad and the Russians will now continue their advance into Quneitra province, which abuts the Golan and therefore Israel. And lest you think the Israelis are unaware of that, on Friday their aircraft bombed a Syrian army outpost in Quneitra that they say fired artillery into a “buffer zone” the Israelis are apparently asserting on Syrian territory. The Israelis have also been moving military assets into the Golan in anticipation of this offensive.

An “interim report” from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says that the agency found evidence of “chlorinated organic chemicals” at the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma in April. That would, obviously, correlate with the use of chlorine gas. The OPCW says it found no evidence that any nerve gas, like sarin, was used at that site. Chlorine occupies a kind of gray area in terms of international law on chemical agents. Its use as a weapon is prohibited, but its possession is not, since chlorine has so many non-military uses. In an interesting development that took place while I was gone, the OPCW’s member states voted overwhelmingly to give it the authority to assign blame in cases of chemical weapons use. So it’s now possible that the agency could carry this investigation all the way through to an accusation, though since international law can only be enforced voluntarily such an accusation probably won’t amount to much.

YEMEN

A probable US drone strike has reportedly killed seven militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The strike took out their vehicle in Yemen’s Shabwa province.

A stepped up US air campaign and increasing conflict with Yemeni militias are hurting AQAP,  but as is so often the case when terrorist/insurgent groups begin to lose territory AQAP seems to be adjusting to more guerrilla-style tactics:

In the first year of President Trump’s term, the United States conducted far more airstrikes against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen than it had in previous years. While the pace so far this year has slowed significantly, it remains well above the rate of President Barack Obama’s administration. U.S. Special Forces are on the ground here advising the anti-al-Qaeda fighters and calling in American airstrikes, a role that has grown as the air campaign has escalated.

Pentagon officials have said this effort is successfully rolling back al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen, considered to be the militant group’s most lethal affiliate.

But while the militants have been expelled from some of their strongholds, Yemeni forces acknowledge that their recent gains against al-Qaeda are precarious. Yemeni fighters combating the group in the hinterlands of Shabwa and Abyan provinces say al-Qaeda has weathered this pounding and remains a fierce opponent. In recent months, militants have pressed their campaign of hit-and-run attacks and strategic retreats, and have carried out a wave of bombings and assassinations, targeting government officials, security forces and others.

It probably goes without saying that the Yemeni civil war is still an impediment to any full-scale effort to wipe AQAP out.

TURKEY

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledges that his newly empowered government will be “more efficient.” And to the extent that one-man rule is more efficient than, you know, having other people involved in the process, he’s probably right.

JORDAN

The Jordanian government says that its main priority in Syria is seeing displaced Syrians along the border returned to their homes. A large portion of those 320,000 or so newly displaced persons in southwestern Syria have amassed on the Syrian side of the border, which is a major security risk for the kingdom and has put Amman under international pressure to open its border and let them in. Amman has instead been sending more soldiers to the border and would very much like those displaced Syrians to remain in Syria. The Jordanians may be working out an arrangement to have Russian forces stationed along the Syrian side of the border to help secure it.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

At least one Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces amid new protests near the Gaza fence line on Friday. Palestinian officials claim that Israel shelled the protesters, while the Israelis maintain that they merely shot at them instead. Gaza’s health ministry says that around 400 people were wounded during Friday’s protest, 57 of them from gunfire.

Israeli officials are considering a plan to create a new seaport for Gaza in, uh, Cyprus. The port would, in theory, alleviate some of Gaza’s current blockade by rerouting goods away from Israeli ports, where they’re subject to a very tight and lengthy inspections process, though it’s not yet clear who would run the Cyprus port and what kind of screening process would be put in place there, plus the plan still calls for Israeli security inspections of incoming items so frankly it’s not clear to me how much this would actually benefit the Palestinians trapped in Gaza. In a rare bit of convergence, both Hamas and Fatah are opposed to the idea, which in slightly easing the blockade could also help normalize it.

In cheerier news, Israeli officials are simulating missile attacks against the country’s nuclear reactors because those reactors are likely to be targeted by Hezbollah in the event of an Israeli war with that group and/or Iran. One thing that might protect Israeli nuclear reactors would be for Israel to stop “preemptively” attacking Hezbollah and Iranian units in Syria, but that seems like a long shot.

QATAR

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani says that he’s made no decision about whether or not to purchase any advanced S-400 air defense systems from Russia. Qatar has been flirting with such a purchase, and Saudi King Salman issued a veiled threat a few weeks back to attack Qatar if it did decide to buy the system. Which is weird, because Saudi Arabia has also been talking to Russia about buying the S-400. I mean, it’s not like the Saudis spend a lot of time worrying that they’ll look like hypocrites, but even for them this is a bit much. There’s a theory floating around that Salman is trying to antagonize the Qataris into buying the S-400 as an act of defiance, in the hopes that the purchase will damage Qatari-US relations. It’s not a terrible theory, to be honest.

SAUDI ARABIA

It’s a bit of a surprise that King Salman hasn’t abdicated already in favor of his son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, but Bruce Reidel argues that there’s a simple explanation, which is that MBS’s rapid ascent to power has caused discord in the Saudi royal family, and the crown prince doesn’t want history repeating itself:

The only precedent for such a family struggle in the modern history of the kingdom was in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, King Saud — the successor to the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdul Aziz Al Saud — alienated his brothers with his corruption and malfeasance. In 1958, Saud had been on the throne for five years when Egypt’s charismatic President Gamal Abdel Nasser exposed Saud’s role in a botched attempt to assassinate Nasser. Using the humiliation as a tipping point, Saud was stripped of all his powers by his brother Crown Prince Faisal but not forced to abdicate. Five years of family struggle then ensued before Saud was finally sent into exile and Faisal became king.

Today the family is divided deeply. As long as King Salman is on the throne, the chance of an inside-the-family coup is unlikely. Salman has legitimacy. He is also not brain dead or incapacitated. He is more involved and important than the Western media suggests. He gives his son “air cover,” as one senior official told me. If he lives another decade, a lot may change. If he died tonight, all bets are off.

IRAN

Foreign ministers from all the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal met in Vienna on Friday to see if they could craft a framework for preserving the deal despite Donald Trump’s decision to violate it back in May. They don’t appear to have made much progress. Or, rather, in six hours of talks they managed to get from vague promises to ensure Iran continues to benefit from the nuclear accord to…vague promises to ensure Iran continues to benefit from the nuclear accord. Like I said, not much progress.

Interestingly, it looks as though Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s stock is rising among hardliners back home even as the nuclear deal–his pet project–collapses abroad. Rouhani has used the US withdrawal from the deal to pivot to the right, at least rhetorically, and call for national unity in the face of US aggression. It seems to be working–though, to be fair, with hard times ahead conservatives may be happy to have the moderate Rouhani around to take responsibility for the Iranian economy.

Finally, Al-Monitor’s Saeid Jafari looks at recent advances made by women’s rights activists in Iran:

The ban on entering sports events at stadiums, and especially for soccer games, is one of the strangest restrictions imposed on Iranian women in recent years. While women are allowed in cinemas or concert halls, they have been prevented from entering soccer stadiums. But this restriction was briefly lifted for this year’s World Cup. On June 20, Iranian women were permitted to enter Tehran’s famous Azadi Stadium along with their male counterparts to watch the match between Iran and Spain being broadcast live on screens at the stadium. While no official statement was made as to who ultimately issued this order, unofficial reports point to a direct order by President Hassan Rouhani to this effect. Now, there are hopes that this will pave the way for subsequent orders that allow women to watch live games at stadiums, too.

However, this is not the only achievement made by Iranian women. Perhaps what is more significant are the efforts of civil rights activists to improve the situation of women as a whole in Iranian society.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you’ve enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can follow this site (and like, share, etc. its content) on lots of social media outlets. I’m now accepting guest submissions, just email me. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.