Middle East update: August 2 2018

SYRIA

Syrian state media reported late on Thursday that the Syrian military “confronted a hostile target and destroyed it west of Damascus.” This is a developing story and so far that’s all the information that’s been reported.

The effects of the Syrian civil war have never stayed well confined within Syria, but they spilled over to both Israel and Jordan in a fairly on-the-nose way on Thursday as both the Israeli and Jordanian governments reported that their militaries had engaged groups of ISIS fighters fleeing the Yarmouk Basin. The Israelis say they conducted airstrikes in the Golan on Wednesday night that killed seven suspected ISIS members who were moving through intending to attack an Israeli target. The Jordanians, meanwhile, say they engaged in an extended battle with a group of ISIS fighters who were approaching the border over a 24 hour period between Tuesday and Wednesday before driving them back into Syria.

Tel Aviv’s comments sounded a positive note, welcoming the return of central control over southwestern Syria even while they didn’t exactly express elation that Bashar al-Assad has retaken the place. Russia seems to be taking the lead in trying to secure the Golan. It’s deploying its own military police near the border alongside United Nations peacekeepers, who are back in the area for the first time since 2014.

Meanwhile, despite all the diplomatic activity around avoiding a conflict in Idlib province, Lebanese reporter Mona Alami says that both Syria and Turkey are preparing for a fight:

The fall of Daraa governorate, including the Golan Heights border region, to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on July 31 paves the way for the next battle, in Idlib. Syrian troops are already amassing around the northern governorate. Experts believe that unlike the fighting in the south, the battle for Idlib will be longer and bloodier, as the province is the last insurgency holdout and home to several jihadist organizations.

Russian officials had warned Free Syrian Army (FSA) negotiators July 10 in Daraa that the northwestern province of Idlib would be next, after the fall of much of southern Syria. Despite being included in the 2017 de-escalation plan signed by Turkey, Iran and Russia in Astana, Idlib has regularly been pummeled by Russian and Syria air force strikes, which have destroyed clinics and hospitals across the province. In May, the Financial Times estimated that the population of Idlib exceeded 2.6 million, having swelled from 1.5 million during the civil war.

The area is under regional and local control. According to a May 21 Al-Monitor article, Turkey has deployed two mechanized infantry brigades in the east, south and southwest, reinforced by commando and military engineering detachments, for a total of about 1,300 soldiers. The same article also reports that Turkey had installed its 12th and final de-escalation military outpost in the region of Jisr al-Shughur.

“The Iranians and Russians are deployed east of the Damascus-Aleppo main highway,” Ibrahim Idilbi, a Syrian activist, told Al-Monitor.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition bombed a fish market, hospital, and security compound in Hudaydah on Thursday, killing at least 30 people. Saudi officials said that the Houthis did it, which would be a neat trick given that the Houthis don’t have an air force. Save the Children said on Thursday that the fighting in and around Hudaydah is displacing over 6000 people–more than half of them children–every day.

On the plus side, UN envoy Martin Griffiths is going to give peace (talks) a chance. He’s invited the parties to the first session of Yemeni since 2016, on September 6 in Geneva. At the very least the UN is hoping that talks can bring about a settlement on Hudaydah that doesn’t risk destroying its seaport.

IRAQ

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that violence in Iraq ticked down in July:

There were 214 incidents reported in Iraq in July 2018. That was down from 239 in June. Baghdad had the most incidents with 49 which was a change. IS has not been as active there as it once was. The capital also led the month because there was less violence in the center. Attacks were down from June to July in Diyala (51 to 46), Kirkuk (56 to 37), and especially Salahaddin (42 to 23). Incidents continued to decline in Anbar and Babil as well.

There were 267 killed and 218 wounded in July. 45 bodies were found during the month leaving 222 violent deaths. 51 were killed in Kurdistan and southern Iraq. That meant there were 171 fatalities due to the insurgency.

Those 267 deaths are also down from 371 in June.

The bad news is that Iraq is still a mess:

Today, a year after Mosul’s liberation from isis, the city’s original, prewar population has shrunk by three-quarters. That’s in part because much of the city—especially the western part, where the worst of the fighting took place—remains unlivable. Mountains of glass, rubbish, metal wires, and broken rock spill out of hollowed buildings. A noose dangles inside the back corridor of a blackened, burnt church. Books, clothes, cassette tapes, and dishes lie crushed on the street. The destruction is at its worst in the Old City, where the air is sweet and thick with the stench of dead bodies.

So far, the international community has contributed some $30 billion to rebuild areas damaged in the fight against isis. But reconstruction has been hampered by corruption, disorganization, and dysfunctional governance. Even if Mosul is rebuilt, however, lingering distrust and ongoing sectarian and ethnic violence may doom Iraq’s post-isis future.

Shiʿa and Kurdish forces who participated in the Mosul operation are reluctant to allow Sunni Arabs to return home due to usually unjustified fears that they have some link to ISIS. But the Iraqi government’s inability to provide security assurances contributes to those fears. And a lot of that inability circles back to corruption–the kind of corruption in which, say, tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue is just being siphoned out of the country by corrupt elites.

JORDAN

The Jordanian government isn’t yet ready to reopen its Nassib border crossing with Syria yet. The Syrian government desperately wants to reopen the crossing, which is a major commercial throughway from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, but understandably the Jordanians still have a lot of security concerns.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli government is trying to reduce public outrage over its new basic law that effectively makes its non-Jewish citizens second-class. It’s talking about offering Druze and Circassian Israelis who serve in the Israeli military extra rights and prerogatives that almost get them back to where they were before the basic law was adopted. So far its outreach to leaders of those communities seems to be going really well:

That former brigadier general is Amal Asad, and he’s made his feelings on the basic law quite clear:

Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal Asad, founder of For Our Druze Sons, a project commemorating Druze soldiers who fell in Israel’s wars, sharply criticized the outline on Facebook. He called it “even more humiliating than the Nationality Law.” Asad wrote, “The Prime Minister’s creative head invented a new spin: Remain quiet, know your place, and then perhaps you’ll receive some benefits. … This is the exact definition of a mercenary army. And the Netanyahu that we all know won’t be in a rush to pay up; in the end, we’ll get nothing.”

Asad continued, “Now there will be a Basic Law stating that the Jews are lords of the earth (even if they are yeshiva students who don’t serve in the army). But there will also be another law (a regular one, not a Basic Law) telling all the non-Jews, If you serve in the army, you will receive ‘benefits’ … so the Druze community will send its sons to the front lines in exchange for ‘benefits.’ Netanyahu believes that we’ll send our children to the army not to protect our country (because according to him, this isn’t our country), but in order to receive permission to collect scraps from under his table. Netanyahu thinks that we’ve gotten used to a slave mentality.”

Israeli Bedouin, who frequently serve in the military but are not being offered the same special bonus as Druze and Circassians, are apparently even more pissed off.

Still, Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar argues that the basic law could wind up being a gift to Palestinian leaders. One of Benjamin Netanyahu’s go-to arguments as to why he can’t negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians is that the Palestinians refuse to explicitly acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state. Now they don’t really have to, because the Israelis have done it for them. Mahmoud Abbas’s response to this argument is that it’s not up to the Palestinians to define what Israel is, and now he can say that without it sounding so much like he’s dodging the issue. Meanwhile, disaffected Druze and Circassians suddenly have more common ground with the Palestinians than ever before.

IRAN

Protests reportedly broke out in several Iranian cities on Thursday over the country’s rampant inflation and weak economy. The protests hit the cities of Ahvaz, Mashhad, Sari, and Shiraz. None seem to have been particularly large but it’s the spread of them that’s interesting, particularly in Mashhad which is a holy city and has long been a base of support for Iran’s clerical establishment.

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