Middle East update: August 21 2018

SYRIA

Although it hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage in Western media, conditions inside Idlib are pretty dangerous even if you leave aside the regular Syrian and Russian airstrikes. Which makes sense–you can only cram but so many hostile rebel factions into one space before they start taking it out on one another:

Targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom have for months rattled Syria’s Idlib province, with angry residents blaming dominant rebel and jihadist forces for the chaos.

Even as the regime says it aims to retake the northwestern province on Turkey’s border, its inhabitants are falling victim to infighting between the rival groups controlling most of it.

Car bombings, roadside explosives and gunfire have targeted and killed more than 200 fighters, but have also cost the lives of dozens of civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

The combatants inside Idlib have changed over time, but at this point the main players are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the coalition including the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, and the National Liberation Front, a collection of relatively more moderate rebel factions backed by Turkey.

Laura Rozen reports on the new team Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has assembled to handle Syria:

On Aug. 17, Pompeo swore in former US Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey James Jeffrey as his special representative for Syria engagement. The State Department also named retired US military officer Joel Rayburn, who until recently served as the National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and Syria special envoy.

In their new roles, Jeffrey will coordinate all aspects of US Syria policy and support for a political solution, outside of the counter-IS mission led by Brett McGurk. Rayburn will serve as Jeffrey’s deputy, focusing on countering Hezbollah and [on managing the US relationship with] Jordan, State Department officials said.

Part of Jeffrey’s role will likely be getting the US and Turkey back on the same page with respect to Syria

YEMEN

The US is now pretty sure that a drone strike in Yemen last year killed Ibrahim al-Asiri, alleged to have been al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s main bomb-maker. Asiri was known for designing chemical-based bombs that can’t be detected by metal detectors and, uh, generally don’t work–witness the failed attempt at assassinating Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef in 2009, the failed “underwear bombing” also in 2009, and a failed cargo plane bombing in 2010, all of which were attributed to Asiri. But the devices’ consistent failure hasn’t stopped US authorities from scare-mongering about them. Maybe now that Asiri is presumed dead we can finally relax a little bit and ease up on the–oh HAHAHA who am I kidding? Anyway as in all cases like this Asiri may very well still be alive, so please don’t go scratching his name off in your office pool or whatever until something more conclusive than “we think he’s dead” emerges.

Al Jazeera reports on the use of child soldiers in Yemen, which is increasing on both sides but especially on the Houthi side:

IRAQ

Reuters reported on Tuesday that the Iraqi government plans to ask the Trump administration for waivers to US sanctions against Iran, citing Iraq’s close economic ties to its neighbor. This would represent the third position that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has taken on the sanctions, after declaring that Iraq would honor them reluctantly and later that Iraq would only honor sanctions related to Iran’s access to the US dollar. Assuming it doesn’t get any waivers, which it probably won’t, the Iraqis have other ways to try to get around the sanctions. They could, for example, conduct trade with Iran via the euro and only through Iraqi companies that don’t have any US ties–meaning that they won’t be harmed when the US imposes sanctions.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, told a crowd of Palestinians in Gaza on Tuesday that an end to Israel’s Gaza blockade is “right around the corner.” He’s almost certainly overselling things. Hamas and Israel have been negotiating, via Egypt and the UN, but only on ways to ease the blockade, not end it altogether. And at any rate those talks haven’t actually achieved anything yet and if history has taught us anything it’s that you should probably assume the worst about any Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.

You can count Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas among those opposing Israel’s second-hand negotiations with Hamas. Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar argues that Benjamin Netanyahu is looking to strengthen Hamas in its rivalry with Abbas’s PLO, because if Hamas somehow gains control of both Gaza and the West Bank it would free Netanyahu from having to honor any remaining pretense toward a two-state solution:

It does not take the head of the Shin Bet security service to understand that negotiations with Hamas, and more so an agreement with the organization, strengthen the ruler of Gaza and hurt its rivals from the pragmatic camp led by Abbas. There is no better proof of this than Israel’s 2005 unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, which marks its 13th anniversary this week. Israel’s evacuation of its Gaza settlements effectively scuttled the roadmap drawn by the Middle East Quartet — the United States, Russia, the UN and the EU — that set out a timetable and agenda for the evacuation of Israeli settlements and negotiations on ending its 51-year occupation of Palestinian territory. The Israeli pullout played into Hamas’ hands and contributed to its election victory a year later and its de facto ousting of the Palestinian Authority from the Strip.

Netanyahu stopped pretending to be interested in a two-state solution decades ago, so I’m not sure Eldar is really on to anything here. That said, this wouldn’t be the first time Israel has tried to use Hamas to crowd out more moderate Palestinian voices.

BAHRAIN

The Bahraini government has stopped issuing visas to Qatari nationals, just in case you were under the impression that Gulf tensions are subsiding.

SAUDI ARABIA

According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities are seeking the death penalty for five human rights activists, including one woman, from the eastern, predominantly Shiʿa, part of the kingdom. But uhhhhhh, women are driving, and there are cinemas now, so I think we can say that overall things are really getting pretty liberalized or whatever.

At LobeLog, Andrew Miller and Richard Sokolsky assess the Trump administration’s interest in forming an anti-Iran “Arab NATO,” called the Middle East Strategic Alliance or MESA. They’re not fans of the idea:

Under these conditions and with this mandate, MESA is a recipe for disaster. By ceding the initiative to, and emboldening, regional leaders with a track record of reckless actions and often brutal repression, the United States is asking for trouble. For a taste of what to expect from MESA, one need only look at Yemen. Three years after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ill-conceived intervention, Saudi Arabia has not only failed to subdue Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, but arguably increased Iran’s influence in the country. Meanwhile, the United Nations has labeled Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with the Saudi-led coalition responsible for most of the 16,000 civilian casualties caused by the conflict. With U.S. support, it is not hard to imagine Saudi Arabia and its regional partners bumbling into additional quagmires in Lebanon, Bahrain, or even Syria.

The U.S.-backed war in Yemen has been a strategic and humanitarian calamity, but it has yet to draw the U.S. military into a direct combat role. There is no guarantee, however, that the United States would be able to avoid escalating involvement in new conflicts initiated by its regional proxies. Indeed, this may be part of the appeal of MESA for regional countries, who see the security alliance as a means to commit the United States to coming to their rescue should their military adventures go awry, as is likely. This scenario could also appeal to Trump’s more hawkish advisors like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who do not share the president’s reluctance to deploy additional U.S. troops to the Middle East.

On the plus side, since the plan for MESA calls for Qatar’s inclusion and several of the hypothetical alliance’s other members are currently shunning Qatar, the whole project may be doomed.

IRAN

The Iranian military struck terror into the hearts of its enemies on Tuesday by unveiling a swanky new fighter aircraft that sure looks an awful lot like a souped up F-5 from the 1960s. Which is swell, I’m sure its internal gizmos are much improved from the F-5, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a 50 year old airframe that is now obsolete. On the plus side it probably doesn’t suffocate its pilots, so it’s definitely got that going for it.

In another sign that the rest of the world is thinking about a financial system that doesn’t depend on the United States, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested on Tuesday that the European Union needs to set up its own payments system independent of the United States that could, in part, be used in dealings with Iran as part of an effort to salvage the nuclear accord. Russia is reportedly working on a similar “regional” framework that would handle payments between Russian and Iran as well as some as-yet unspecified group of other countries, possibly the former Soviet republics or at least some of them. The Iranians have also approached other countries, including China, Japan, Oman, and Turkey, about integrating their bank card systems. At this point all of these ideas are pretty far-fetched, but it’s not that hard to imagine them gaining steam as Donald Trump continues to alienate leaders around the world.

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