Middle East update: July 14-15 2018

SYRIA

Late Sunday, Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a Syrian military base outside of Aleppo. No word on any casualties.

Having secured most of Daraa province, the Syria military began the second phase of its offensive in southwestern Syria over the weekend in neighboring Quneitra province. Russian planes bombed rebel targets in the province and the Syrian military reportedly seized the village of Mashara, though rebels say the village is still in their hands. Quneitra is where the real fireworks could happen because the province abuts the Golan, most of which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The Israelis are demanding that Syrian forces observe the 80 kilometer long UN mandated buffer zone in the Golan, but even if the Syrians do observe it the buffer zone is less than one kilometer wide in some spots, so spillover is still a strong possibility.

Meanwhile, most of the rebels in Daraa appear to be taking up Russia’s offer to ensure their protection if they remain in place rather than taking up the alternative offer of free passage north to Idlib province. With Idlib looking increasingly like the site of the last major battle of the Syrian civil war (a battle that might involve Turkey) it’s hard to blame them, but it will be interesting to see if Russia actually lives up to the commitments it made to those rebel groups. On the plus side, humanitarian aid has begun flowing into Daraa now that the province has come mostly under government control.

The Manbij Military Council said on Sunday that the last group of YPG military advisers has left Manbij in response to Turkey’s demands.

Syria analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi argues that people in the US and Iran who talk about limiting Iran’s presence in Syria don’t really seem to understand how that presence works to begin with. They believe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ has been exclusively using proxy forces that are set apart from the Syrian security establishment, when what the IRGC has really been doing is embedding itself within the Syrian security establishment:

In reality, the nature of the IRGC’s project in Syria is not one of dominating and taking control of the system, but rather integrating so as to become an indivisible part of the system. This is best understood in the Local Defence Forces (LDF) project, which should not be confused with the more familiar National Defence Forces (NDF) and rarely receives mention in all these policy discussions. Unlike the NDF, the LDF is on the registers of the Syrian army and armed forces, while being affiliated at the same time with the IRGC. Thus, the LDF can be described as a joint project of the Syrian military and the IRGC, with officers from both sides featured in the command structure. The LDF, it should be noted, incorporates many of the groups familiarly known under the brand of ‘Syrian Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance in Syria’, such as Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (Damascus), Liwa al-Baqir (Aleppo and other areas) and Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (Nubl and Zahara’). The LDF also interacts with the political system, which is recognised as something led by Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party rather than something to be subverted and overthrown.

Short of regime change, it’s unclear how anybody, even Russia, could unwind some of this stuff now. And that’s assuming that unwinding it were a real Russian priority, which it probably isn’t.

IRAQ

Protests across Iraq continued over the weekend as Iraqis continue to demand action to tackle corruption, to bolster a weak economy, and to improve the provision of basic services. The demonstrations, which began outside of Basra, have now spread to Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad, which saw its first protests on Saturday. Police appear to have killed at least two protesters on Sunday in the town of Samawah, which sits between Baghdad and Basra. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has alternated between trying to suppress the protests–by shutting off internet service and, more ominously, redeploying counterterrorism forces to Basra–to trying to appease the protesters by offering nearly $3 billion (3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars, if you want to check my exchange rate math) for new utility-related projects in Basra. But as Patrick Wing notes, these are long-term projects that won’t meet protesters’ needs right now, and anyway Abadi may be on his way out when Iraq finally puts together a new government, so anything he promises can’t really be treated as a firm commitment.

Speaking of counterterrorism forces, the Iraqis are now pursuing the remnants of ISIS in the area between Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk. It’s a reminder that, while it’s been driven underground, ISIS remains active in several parts of the country. Popular Mobilization militias say they’ve been working, often on their own volition, to find and take apart the group’s remaining cells:

Abu Jaafar, the head of security for the PMU in Salahuddin province, sat down for an interview with Al-Monitor in his office in the provincial capital of Tikrit on July 6. He said he doesn’t “trust the anti-IS international coalition. They have the technology to hit a specific window if they want. And they can’t hit cars in the desert?”

He said the PMU in the area have no direct contact with the coalition, but that they pass on information to the Iraqi government. He said they have often given information to the government on IS positions in the desert, but that no action had followed.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Well the good news is that, aside from a couple of exchanges of fire, an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas seemed to hold through Sunday. The reason the ceasefire was necessary, however, is because at least two Palestinians, both teenagers, were killed on Saturday by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. The Israelis said the strikes were in response to rocket fire from Gaza and were the harshest Israel has unleashed on Gaza since the 2014 Gaza War. Two more people were killed in Gaza on Sunday evening in an explosion of some kind. No word on what caused the explosion.

Tired of playing coy with apartheid, the Israeli Knesset is considering new legislation that would make it legal for citizens to create Jewish-only communities, would allow for the use of Jewish religious law in certain situations, and would downgrade Arabic from its current status as one of Israel’s official languages. You know the increasingly farcical proposition that Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democratic state? This “Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people” measure would choose “Jewish” and tell “democratic” to go fuck itself.

IRAN

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says its forces killed three “anti-revolutionary terrorists” in an operation in Kermanshah, near the Iraqi border. It’s unclear whether these were ISIS or Kurdish militants, but given the location those are the likely candidates.

In a speech on Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for unity behind President Hassan Rouhani’s government in order to “overcome problems and defeat the U.S. conspiracy” against Iran. He also called for legal action against those accused of economic crimes, including profiteering. Khamenei-supporting hardliners have frequently been critical of Rouhani so this is a sign that the country’s political establishment at least is coming together in response to U.S. aggression.

If you’re in to spy thrillers that definitely really happened, then you’ll want to check out the stories of Mossad’s daring nighttime raid in Tehran to swipe a large cache of records related to Iran’s past nuclear weapons development activity. They suggest that Iran may have been further along in its weapons research than it has let on, but also don’t contradict the widely accepted conclusion that Tehran stopped its research in 2003 and hasn’t advanced it since then. Reading the whole thing left me wishing that we had some sort of, I don’t know, plan of action or something in place that would put hard, verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear activities, perhaps in exchange for sanctions relief. But man, I don’t even know how you’d go about negotiating something like that.

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Author: DWD

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