Middle East update: July 24 2018

SYRIA

Syrian forces on Tuesday made headway in the Yarmouk Basin, a region in the southwestern part of the country controlled by an affiliate of ISIS. But that’s a relatively minor development compared to the day’s main event:

Israel said Tuesday it shot down a Syrian warplane that entered airspace above the Golan Heights as internal fighting just across the border in Syria intensified during a government offensive to retake rebel areas.

The jet’s downing comes at a time when Israel is pressing to ensure that its security concerns in Syria are addressed as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces mop up remaining territory held by rebels in the south of the country.

The Israeli military said it fired two Patriot missiles at the Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet, which crossed about a mile into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The plane fell inside Syrian territory, and the fate of the pilot is unknown, Israeli officials said.

Later in the day Syrian media reported that the pilot was killed.

Obviously Israel, like any other country, reserves the right to defend its airspace. But there are at least two red flags here. The reddest is that this downing apparently occurred over the Golan, which if true means it wasn’t actually in Israeli airspace. Just because Israel claims the Golan and has occupied the Golan does not make the Golan Israeli territory. The aircraft does seem to have breached the 1974 demilitarization agreement that the United Nations negotiated for the Golan, but that brings us to our second red flag, which is the question of whether Israeli officials tried to communicate with the pilot or just shot the aircraft down with no warning.

If the situation were reversed and the Syrian military shot down an Israeli aircraft over the Golan you can be sure the Israelis would have a fit and escalate their bombing campaign. In this case it’s unlikely you’ll see much more than anger from Damascus.

Elsewhere, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday that it will support a relief effort in Ghouta, the Damascus suburb that until relatively recently was being pounded by Syrian and Russian airstrikes on the regular. The effort is the product of talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, and will deliver medical aid and basic needs like tents and clothing to the area under the direction of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. It’s somewhat unclear what role the UN will play–French authorities said that the UN would supervise the aid distribution, but the UN denied that earlier in the day before later releasing a statement saying that it would provide “support” for the effort.

Also, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition claims that its airstrikes in Syria have killed terrorists plotting attacks in Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and the United States. Talk about smart bombs; now we’re apparently able to predict what the people we bomb were going to do in the future. Reuters says that it “could not independently verify these planned attacks.” No shit.

YEMEN

In an effort to prevent Congress from putting restrictions on US aid to the Saudi-Emirati coalition in Yemen, Yemeni ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba has been trying to convince (i.e., lobby) key legislators that the UAE is committed to giving the United Nations a chance to negotiate a peaceful handover of the port at Hudaydah by the Houthis. Congress may order the Pentagon to periodically certify that the coalition is not violating US law in the conduct of the war or outright make the provision of US assistance contingent on the coalition’s support for peace efforts and humanitarian aid. The UAE would prefer to avoid that kind of scrutiny.

TURKEY

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday that Turkey has no intention of abiding by reimposed US sanctions against Iran:

“We do not have to adhere to the sanctions imposed on a country by another country. We don’t find the sanctions right either,” he told reporters in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“We go along with UN sanctions like every country, but we do not necessarily need to go along with sanctions imposed by the US or UK against Iran,” he added.

The Trump administration has of late seemed more amenable to the possibility of issuing sanctions waivers to some US allies who buy oil from Iran. Turkey could get a reprieve, then, but that would mean that the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy would inherently not involve maximum pressure.

IRAQ

The numbers show that ISIS, having reconfigured itself from a territorial conqueror to a guerrilla outfit, is staging a comeback across north-central Iraq:

Iraq has now seen an increase in kidnappings and killings, mainly in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin, since it held an election in May, indicating the government will come under renewed pressure from a group that once occupied a third of the country during a three-year reign of terror.

Last month saw at least 83 cases of kidnap, murder or both in the three provinces. Most occurred on a highway connecting Baghdad to Kirkuk province. In May, the number of such incidents in that area was 30, while in March it was seven, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on Islamic State who advises the Iraqi government.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Since Gaza has been mostly quiet for the past couple of days, the Israeli government partially reopened its main entry and exit point at Kerem Shalom on Tuesday. That could allow some desperately needed fuel to get into Gaza, where residents are currently making due with about 6 hours of electricity per day, down from their usual 8 hours per day.

Speaking of Palestinian destitution, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on Tuesday criticized Arab nations for not providing more aid to the Palestinians as she was defending the Trump administration’s decision to cut over $300 million from its promised $365 million in aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (which handles Palestinian issues) this year. Haley, while justifying her boss’s decision to ax 5/6 of the aid the US was supposed to provide the Palestinian people this year because he got mad that they didn’t appreciate his decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, cited the desperation of Palestinian children in her remarks.

EGYPT

Egyptian security forces say they killed 13 militants on Tuesday in a shootout in the city of Arish in northern Sinai.

IRAN

Donald Trump says he’s “ready to make a real deal” on Iran’s nuclear program, “not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster.” Mostly I assume he thinks it’s a disaster because Barack Obama negotiated it, but there’s likely no “real deal” that Trump, with MEK acolytes John Bolton and Mike Pompeo advising him, could offer that Iran would be willing to accept. These guys want either regime change or something akin to surrender from Tehran, not simply another agreement about nukes.

Iran, meanwhile, is once again threatening to block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the US curtails its own oil exports. This is a threat the Iranians simply don’t have the means to back up unless they’re prepared to start attacking ships through the strait, which is unlikely. But it is provocative and tough-sounding, and it is a way for them to troll Trump, so they keep talking about it.

Finally, former ambassador John Limbert dissects Pompeo’s anti-Iran speech on Sunday night and finds it lacking coherence:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in California on Sunday night reveals some basic facts about the administration’s approach to Iran.

  • It does not know what it wants beyond the end of the Islamic Republic. It knows what it does not want. It has no idea what it does want.
  • It traces Iranian woes and misdeeds to what Pompeo called “the Iranian Revolution” of 40 years ago, ignoring the reality that that mass movement included those calling for a democratic Iran.
  • The administration has no appreciation for the currents and counter-currents in Iranian history and political life. It writes off the whole Islamic Republic as unalloyed evil.
  • It has no coherent message on Iran. On the one hand, Pompeo says that people in Iran should have the same freedoms that Iranian-Americans enjoy. On the other hand, President Trump, in his midnight tweet, threatens to annihilate millions of them.
  • The president and his administration remain obsessed with un­doing the acts of its predecessor. In the case of Iran, the administration has rejected anything that even hints at reaching goals through diplomacy.

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Author: DWD

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