Middle East update: August 4-5 2018

SYRIA

Aziz Asber, director of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, was killed in a car bombing outside of Hama on Saturday. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center does most of its studying and research, according to Western governments, in the area of chemical weapons. The United States insists that it’s been producing sarin gas in violation of an agreement that Bashar al-Assad made back in 2013 to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that Iranian personnel have been working at the Center’s facility in Masyaf on missile development. An outfit associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly (?) al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and an organization that is at least formally denounced by all those same Western governments, claimed responsibility for the car bombing. What I’m saying here is that I’m sure this car bombing was definitely just HTS acting on its own, involving no interaction with nor assistance from any Western intelligence agencies or personnel who might happen to be in Syria at the moment nor with any intelligence agencies that might happen to be based in any of the countries that border Syria. It’s all very simple and believable.

ISIS has reportedly executed one of the estimated 30 people it took hostage during its July 25 rampage in and around the city of Suwayda in southwestern Syria. It’s been unclear why ISIS is holding them or what it might be looking to receive in return for releasing them. Safe passage out of the Yarmouk Basin might have been on the table, but hundreds of ISIS fighters did receive safe passage out of the Yarmouk Basin last week, courtesy of the Syrian government, and yet here we are anyway. The SDF is now offering, according to Rudaw, to trade ISIS prisoners for the remaining Suwayda captives. The SDF holds hundreds of suspected ISIS members.

YEMEN

The death toll from Thursday’s coalition airstrike on Hudaydah is now up to at least 55, according to the Red Cross. Some 170 people were wounded in the attack. Saudi officials continue to deny that the coalition was responsible, claiming that Houthi rebels blew up a fish market and part of the city’s largest hospital for…well, shits and giggles I guess. Goodness knows no Saudi pilot has ever mistakenly hit a civilian target in Yemen.

TURKEY

The Turkish government is levying sanctions against the US counterparts of the two Turkish ministers who were sanctioned by Washington a few days ago over the ongoing imprisonment of US pastor Andrew Brunson. In remarks announcing the sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan didn’t specify who was getting hit with the levies, but since Washington hit the Turkish justice and interior ministers their direct counterparts would be Attorney General Roscoe P. Coltrane Jeff Sessions, who I’m sure will be real upset he can’t go get some döner kebab in Istanbul now, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. But US interior secretaries don’t have the same job as interior secretaries in other countries–instead of running internal security they manage national parks and drilling for oil in those parks. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen would probably be the more appropriate choice, but until Ankara announces the specific sanctions we don’t really know who’s getting this particular slap on the wrist.

IRAQ

Reuters is reporting that Iraq’s elections commission ignored warnings from the country’s Board of Supreme Audit that the voting machines it contracted to buy from South Korea were unreliable. The board apparently had concerns over, among other things, the electoral commission’s failure to inspect the machines for potential security flaws. There have been widespread accusations of fraud since May’s vote, many of them focused on these machines and the possibility that they were hacked or that someone may have otherwise tampered with the results. Limited manual recounts since the election have found a significant number of disparities.

Apart from uncertainty regarding the vote count, inter-party disagreements are also hampering the formation of a new Iraqi government. Although they had previously indicated in June that they were working together, the two largest parties to emerge from May’s vote–Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon list and the Iran-backed Fatah alliance–are still struggling negotiate a coalition between them. Which means they’re also negotiating with smaller parties about forming separate coalitions. Fatah’s ties with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition are part of the problem–he and Sadr hate one another–as is Sadr’s insistence that the Popular Mobilization Units be disbanded–the Fatah alliance is comprised of the PMU militias’ political wings. With the Shiʿa parties at odds with one another–unusual in postwar Iraqi politics–Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties have a chance to play a bigger than usual role in forming the next government. But that assumes those groups can get over their own internal divisions.

The Iraqi and Iranian governments have reportedly reached an agreement to construct a dam along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, the river formed by the joining of the Tigris and Euphrates that then empties out onto the Persian Gulf. The facility would be intended to block heavily polluted and salty water from Iran’s Karun River from reaching the Shatt al-Arab and affecting its salinity. Salty water in the Shatt al-Arab has become a major issue in terms of both irrigation and drinking water in southern Iraq.

JORDAN

The Iraqi and Jordanian governments on Sunday signed a mutual defense pact focusing primarily on border security. The agreement will also see the Jordanians helping to expand Iraq’s intelligence capabilities and calls for the two countries to share military training and technology.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

In the wake of sizable weekend protests against it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defending the new Israeli basic law that makes Jewish citizens of Israel considerably more equal than non-Jewish citizens of Israel. Speaking at his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said that the law was essential to “ensure the future of Israel as the state of the Jewish people for generations to come,” which is definitely unlike anything that any other right-wing world leader has ever said or written before.

EGYPT

The Egyptian military says its forces have killed at least 52 militants in Sinai over the past several days.

SAUDI ARABIA

Iranian state media is reporting that the Saudis will allow an Iranian diplomat into the country to set up an Iranian interests section within the Swiss embassy. The Saudis haven’t said anything about this report either way but if it’s true it would represent a genuine positive development in relations between the two countries.

The Saudis resumed oil shipments through the Red Sea on Saturday. The Saudis stopped those shipments last month after Yemen’s Houthis attacked a couple of Saudi oil tankers in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Houthis have since promised to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea and the Saudis say they’ve take steps to secure their tankers in the region.

IRAN

Israel’s Maariv news outlet reported over the weekend that Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may conduct a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in September. This would be the culmination of backchannel talks between the two countries that have allegedly been happening via Oman in recent weeks, though Iran has denied that such talks are taking place even though anecdotal evidence suggests that something is in fact going on. Meanwhile, Kuwait’s al-Jarida newspaper–which is kind of infamous as a dumping ground for Israeli intelligence–is reporting that Trump responded favorably to a list of seven demands the Iranians made (again via Oman) ahead of any direct talks. NIAC’s Sina Toossi has put together a helpful Twitter thread covering this story and arguing that the al-Jarida story represents an Israeli effort to embarrass and/or enrage Trump and get him to back off any potential diplomacy with Iran:

Regardless of what may or may not happen at the UN next month, US sanctions on Iran will begin coming back into effect on Tuesday:

The United States is set on Aug. 6 to reimpose a first batch of Iran sanctions lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the accord.

The upcoming sanctions target Iran’s automotive, precious metal, steel and aluminum sectors as well as rial transactions and civilian aircraft sales. While relatively minor compared to the sweeping oil sanctions due to resume in November, they could still put another dent in Iran’s strained economy and create new urgency on Tehran to solidify business ties with other countries.

“It really boils down to: Is Iran able to sustain enough commerce to stay out of a recession?” said Jarrett Blanc, who coordinated oversight of the nuclear deal for President Barack Obama’s State Department.

The remaining parties to the nuclear deal (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) are still trying to find ways to salvage the accord in the face of renewed sanctions, but most large firms based in those countries have already said they can’t afford to continue operating in Iran and risk being cut off from the US financial system and marketplace. However, it seems that Iran’s demands have shrunk in recent weeks–initially Tehran was insisting that its commercial activity be protected in total, but lately it seems to be focused on simply maintaining its oil exports, which is a more manageable problem for the other parties to the accord to solve. Even so, the United States is going after Iran’s oil and wants its exports reduced to zero by November 4. Washington won’t get them to zero but it might be able to lower them enough to further cripple the Iranian economy.

Of course, Iran’s economy is already pretty crippled. Scattered protests over the weak economy broke out last week in several cities, and the looming sanctions reinstatement has people making a run on Iranian banks in order to purchase as much gold or foreign currency as possible before the value of the rial drops even lower than it already has. Iranians are also preparing for shortages by stocking up on basic goods. The Iranian government has also apparently arrested Ahmad Araghchi, the former deputy governor of the country’s central bank. It’s unclear if there are any legitimate charges against Araghchi or if he’s simply being scapegoated for the rial’s collapse.

Finally, amid all these tensions the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed on Sunday that it had been conducting naval exercises in the Gulf over the past few days. The US had said that it believed those exercises were ongoing but the Iranians had so far not said anything one way or the other.

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Author: DWD

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