Middle East update: July 21-22 2018

SYRIA

Syrian state media is reporting that Israel on Sunday struck a military facility outside of Misyaf, a city in Hama province. Reuters has a source that claims there is “a major military research centre for chemical arms production” outside of Misyaf, so that may have been the target. Russia, meanwhile, claims that its forces shot down two drones that attacked its airbase at Hmeimim over the weekend.

In the southwest, Syrian forces have continued their advance through Quneitra province as rebels continue to evacuate to Idlib under the terms of their surrender agreement. A second convoy of buses containing rebel fighters left Quneitra for Idlib Saturday evening. It’s being reported that the Israelis have gotten involved in Quneitra by facilitating the evacuation of hundreds of members of Syrian Civil Defense, aka the “White Helmets,” and their families into Jordan. Initial plans had been to evacuate around 800 people into Jordan for later transit on to mostly European countries, but apparently only a bit more than 400 wound up being evacuated. Both Russia and Syria intensified their air campaign against ISIS-aligned forces holding a strip of territory along Syria’s southwestern border with Israel and Jordan, but the group was able to fend off a ground attack by pro-government forces so it’s still putting up a fight.

YEMEN

Gunmen shot and killed a Yemeni preacher named Mohammed Ragheb in Aden over the weekend. It’s unclear who they were or why they targeted him, but Ragheb is a prominent figure in the Islah Party, which is aligned with Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. So while al-Qaeda and ISIS are always possibilities, one of the UAE-backed factions in Yemen that are hostile to Hadi and Islah could be the culprit.

Four suspected al-Qaeda fighters were killed over the weekend in what is believed to have been a US drone strike in Marib province.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The deal that Israel and Hamas reached on Saturday (with Egyptian, Qatari, and United Nations assistance) to try to put a lid on recent violence in Gaza seems to be holding. It seems Hamas may have made the first move here–the group has supposedly told the Egyptians that it will end the use of incendiary devices by militants at the Gaza fence line. If the truce holds until Tuesday, Israeli officials have said that they will reopen Gaza’s primary Kerem Shalom border crossing and restore its legal fishing area to 17 kilometers from the coast.

At +972 Magazine, Israeli journalist David Sarna Galdi argues that between his promulgation of the country’s new “Jewish state” basic law and his support for Poland’s “Holocaust Law,” which criminalizes accusations that Polish authorities were involved in the Holocaust, Benjamin Netanyahu has undertaken a “quiet coup: a calculated, radical revision of what it means to be Jewish”:

It’s not coincidental. Netanyahu has thrown the dice and made a calculated decision to abandon not only American Jews at odds with Israel’s ascendant populist agenda, but Judaism itself.

That is, Judaism as we know it: progressive, scholarly Judaism in dialogue with the outside world for thousands of years. The Judaism whose greatest works and innovations developed in Babylon, Spain, and Poland. Intellectual Judaism that absorbed and pollinated the Enlightenment (Mendelssohn); philosophy (Buber, Scholem, Marx, Frankl, Arendt); American equal rights movements (Steinem, Friedan, Milk); and culture (Gershwin, Berlin, Streisand, Mailer, Allen, Marx, Polanski). Tolerant Judaism with an outsider’s sensibility that “loves the stranger,” as commanded 36 times in the Torah.

Netanyahu wants to throw all that in history’s trash bin. He wants to mutate Jewish identity into Jewish hubris and turn Israel into a walled fortress of illiberal ethnocracy.

EGYPT

ISIS’s Amaq news agency says that one of the group’s leaders in the Sinai, Abu Jaafar al-Maqdesi, was killed, though it offered no details as to when or how. Egyptian authorities have identified him as a local boss in the town of Sheikh Zuweid.

PERSIAN GULF

Massive building and cultural projects are rapidly becoming another weapon in the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE:

The museums and towers are at once expressions of progress and weapons in a cultural and architectural arms race. They combine good intentions and political calculation. They are signs of a hunger for identity and status in lands transformed within a lifetime by oil wealth. They are currency in the tricky and obscure negotiations that the leaders of the Gulf nations conduct, between conservative forms of Islam, authoritarian rule and selective versions of western liberalism. These states are surrounded by convulsions and conflicts in which they are themselves implicated, while aiming at home for prosperity, stability and the survival of their ruling regimes.

The physical transformations are manifestations of a fantastically speeded-up version of the processes by which cities were historically made, an evolution at x64 speed from small coastal towns to metropolises furnished with skyscrapers and universities. It is hard to overstate how radical this change is: these regions were at the limits of human habitation, made harsh and lightly populated by extreme heat and aridity. Oil and air conditioning have brought both physical comfort and influxes of migrants and expatriates, but the numbers of native Emiratis, Qataris and Kuwaitis remain small. There are, for example, 300,000 Qatari citizens, which is rather less than the 580,000-odd population of Luxembourg.

As one involved in their development puts it, these are “very small populations with very big ambitions”. They find themselves with power and influence disproportionate to their size, beyond the imagination of recent generations and outside the scope of traditional mechanisms of government. Their cities are therefore works in progress, raw and unprocessed, in which assertions of possible futures jostle for priority. Readymade chunks of imported building types – malls, museums – appear without much thought to the spaces between them. And, always, they need to deal with the environmental factor that governs everything else in the region: sheer, overwhelming, dominating heat.

Louve_Abu_Dhabi
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, one of the projects in question (Wikimedia)

IRAN

At least 10 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Basij paramilitary unit were killed on Saturday by militants at a border crossing in Iran’s Kurdistan province. Given the location some militant Kurdish group is likely responsible, though ISIS can’t be ruled out.

According to Reuters, the United States is now outright trying to engineer a collapse of the Iranian government:

The Trump administration has launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran to end its nuclear program and its support of militant groups, U.S. officials familiar with the matter said.

More than half a dozen current and former officials said the campaign, supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, is meant to work in concert with U.S. President Donald Trump’s push to economically throttle Iran by re-imposing tough sanctions. The drive has intensified since Trump withdrew on May 8 from a 2015 seven-nation deal to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The current and former officials said the campaign paints Iranian leaders in a harsh light, at times using information that is exaggerated or contradicts other official pronouncements, including comments by previous administrations.

Toward that end, in a speech on Sunday in which he compared the Iranian government to the mafia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a fleet of new Persian-language media by the US government, from TV to radio to social media. Pompeo criticized Iranian leaders for their wealth and corruption, which I have to say is a fascinating charge coming from a man who works for Donald Trump. He also asserted that the United States supports the Iranian people, which is also interesting given that the Trump administration is about to reimpose sanctions that will hit the Iranian people far harder than anyone in the Iranian government, and has imposed a travel ban that prevents Iranian nationals from coming to the US. But I digress.

The State Department continues to insist that it’s not after regime change, but it’s apparent that’s a lie. And yes, regime change has been the unspoken US policy toward Iran since 1979, but economic conditions are certainly putting Iranian leaders in a precarious position. The US has no credibility to speak to or on behalf of reformers inside Iran, so this PR campaign is unlikely to have much impact. But sanctions will hurt the Iranian economy, and that could be decisive. The thing is, if the Iranian government does collapse, there is little reason to think that what replaces it will be a friendly pro-Western democracy.

The current leader of Iran spent the weekend threatening to close down the Strait of Hormuz, and thus a big chunk of the global oil trade, in response to US sanctions. It won’t do that–probably can’t do it without resorting to violence that would escalate to war–but the threat is intended to spur European countries in particular to make more concessions to keep Iran in the nuclear deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, warned that the US would be inviting “the mother of all wars” if it went to war with Iran, telling Donald Trump “do not play with the lion’s tail, because you will regret it eternally.” Trump seems to have taken Rouhani’s bluster very much in stride, as the cool, confident leader he is:

Cool, cool, this is all going to work out great.

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