Middle East update: August 23 2018

SYRIA

Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin reports on Turkey’s plan to avoid heavy combat in Idlib province:

Based on leaks to the media and information learned on the ground, a comprehensive strategy is emerging: Turkey wants to give the appearance of having deterrent power with its own military assets and to set up a joint front with organizations that control parts of Idlib. Meanwhile, Turkey is reinforcing its observation posts with concrete walls and air defense weapons. Though concrete barriers are designed to deter threats from groups that frequently clash with each other, the air defenses can only be for use against Russia and Syria.

Turkey obviously has no plans to leave the areas it controls and is busy trying to consolidate the clashing groups under one roof. Ankara’s goal is to free these groups from the terrorist label and prove that they have become reasonable interlocutors.

Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported in July that Turkey had submitted a proposed Syria road map to Russia. According to that plan, Turkey would organize a conference to bring together all opposition groups. These groups would join the National Liberation Front (NLF) — a coalition in Syria formed in May under Turkey’s auspices — and hand over their heavy weapons to the Turkish army. As Russia would like to keep Turkey involved in the Astana peace process for Syria, Moscow might support this option.

Moscow might support it but there’s no indication Damascus will. After all, this doesn’t really sound like a plan for bringing the province back under Bashar al-Assad’s control. Is Moscow going to be willing to pull rank on Assad if it comes to that? Also, it’s not clear Turkey has any plan for how to deal with extremist groups, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that won’t join its NLF. Their continued presence in Idlib gives the Syrian government a justification to attack regardless of any other considerations.

YEMEN

Houthi-controlled media reported on Thursday that a coalition airstrike on Durayhimi, a town south of Hudaydah, killed 26 civilians, 22 of them children. UAE state media, meanwhile, blamed a Houthi missile for the attack and reported only one death with “dozens” of injuries. The coalition is also claiming that it has thwarted several Houthi attempts to attack commercial vessels in the Red Sea using explosives-packed boats.

TURKEY

New polling shows that while the recent decline in the lira’s value has angered some Turkish voters, most are buying the Turkish government’s contention that they should blame malign foreign actors rather than Ankara:

Most important, the Turkish public does not believe that its government is responsible for this crisis. When asked who is most responsible for the depreciation of the lira, only 36 percent said it was the AKP government.

That is despite the fact that there are very good reasons to place most of the responsibility on Erdogan’s shoulders. Remarkably, more Turks said that foreign governments were mostly responsible for depreciation — 42 percent held that view.

IRAQ

The United Nations team established last year to collect evidence of ISIS’s war crimes in Iraq began work on Thursday. Among the allegations the team will be investigating is a charge of genocide for the group’s treatment of the Yazidis.

JORDAN

Journalist Aaron Magid argues that the Jordanian government’s practice of telling its own citizens to bootstrap themselves out of economic peril while begging for international aid at every turn is starting to catch up with it:

Jordan’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah, took to the stage last month to deliver a somewhat surprising economic message. Speaking to students just slightly younger than himself, the 24-year-old graduate of Georgetown University hammered home the need for independence. In an era of innovation and dynamic global change, Hussein declared, Jordanians can no longer depend on outsiders to provide for their livelihoods: “We live,” he said, “in an era of self-reliance.”

His words echoed those of the country’s former prime minister Hani al-Mulki, who gave the following warning last October as the country headed toward a financial crisis: “We have to rely on ourselves,” he explained, “as donor countries have made it clear that they cannot help us if we do not take measures to help ourselves.” Mulki’s solution included a new tax law, endorsed by the Jordanian Cabinet on May 21 and sent on to the Parliament for approval, that would have lowered the level of earnings at which income tax kicks in from $34,000 to $22,500 a family. At that rate, 90 percent of Jordanians would still have been exempt from paying. Regardless, Jordanians were outraged. Soon, protests erupted against the unpopular law, ending with the prime minister’s resignation.

Hussein’s remarks, then, might have seemed a bit touchy. In fact, he’s playing a double game that has become quite familiar among the country’s officials. Sticking to the grand rhetoric of self-sufficiency when addressing fellow Jordanians, top officials try to play the victim for international audiences. Even as Hashemite leaders preach about economic independence at home, Amman has accelerated its reliance on external aid, turning to Riyadh and Washington during moments of crisis. In turn, activists are able to exploit the apparent hypocrisy to deepen public mistrust of the government and whip up a frenzy about alleged foreign influence over government policies. And that makes it all the harder for the government to enact the real reforms that could make Jordan self-reliant. This model is not sustainable and could spell trouble for an important U.S. ally in the region.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

James Dorsey argues that ongoing indirect talks between Israel and Hamas are part of a behind the scenes effort by Israel and several Arab states to bring former Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan back into Palestinian politics as an Israel-friendly alternative to Mahmoud Abbas. Dahlan is a favorite of United Arab Emirates de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed but fell out with Abbas because, as Fatah’s boss in Gaza, he failed to stop Hamas from taking the place over back in 2007. Some in Abbas’s circle have accused him of having links to Mossad. Interestingly this UAE-backed effort is relying on Qatar’s ties with Hamas, even though Qatar’s ties with Hamas were one of the UAE et al’s justifications for blockading Qatar last summer.

EGYPT

Free and democratic Egypt arrested three prominent critics of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Thursday without, apparently, having any specific charges against them. Presumably they’ll come up with something now that the three are in custody. One of the three, former diplomat Masoum Marzouk, had called for a popular referendum on Sisi’s government, which seems harmless enough since Sisi rigs Egyptian elections anyway but was apparently enough to get him on the naughty list.

GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen laments the likely death of the GCC:

The sudden rupture in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Canada has thrown a spotlight on the regional political dynamics that have placed unprecedented and potentially irreversible strains on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Over the past three years the inclusionary vision that had originally created and sustained the GCC as a grouping of six relatively like-minded states has given way to an exclusionary security-centered approach to regional affairs. The GCC always functioned best as a loose collective of monarchies whose ruling families guarded their autonomy and resisted attempts to draw closer on “big ticket” issues that encroached on national sovereignty. This combination of flexibility and consensus saw the GCC states through three major interstate wars in the Gulf––the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988; the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, 1990-1991; and the invasion of Iraq, 2003––and helped them maintain relative stability in an otherwise conflict-wracked region. However, the emergence of a hyper-hawkish geopolitical axis running from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi has widened existing fractures, created new fault lines, and inflicted potentially long-term damage on what had been the most durable regional organization in the Arab world.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

In Ulrichsen’s piece, he also mentions recent signs that Mohammed bin Zayed’s rather…activist manner of running the UAE may not be sitting well with its constituent emirs:

Other signs of possible tension have bubbled up in the UAE over the past few months. The apparent defection in May of a son of the ruler of Fujairah brought to the surface the suggestion of pushback among the northern Emirates to purported attempts by Abu Dhabi to influence the direction of decision-making. Over the past year, both Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah have wooed investors to bid for energy concessions in the historically oil-and-gas poor emirates; if successful, this would diversify their local economies and make them less dependent on federal transfers from the Abu Dhabi-based central government. The reemergence of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan four years after a stroke has been interpreted by some as sending a reminder that Mohammed bin Zayed does not yet formally hold ultimate power. The Mueller investigation in the United States, which is potentially looking into a role the UAE played in the 2016 elections, is an additional wild card that could generate a negative fallout for the Abu Dhabi leadership. A similar concern is that related to the aftermath of the Malaysian election and the renewed focus on the financial flows in the 1MDB affair that has a UAE angle to it.

SAUDI ARABIA

Despite media reports that they have decided to bag the idea of taking Aramco public, Saudi officials said on Thursday that the kingdom “remains committed” to holding an IPO for the oil behemoth that they continue to insist is definitely worth $2 trillion even though oil prices aren’t that high, renewables and environmentally friendly cars are becoming a bigger deal, and nobody is quite sure just how much oil the Saudis have left. There are rumors that Aramco is planning to purchase the Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corporation, a large petrochemical firm, and the Saudis may want to hold off on an IPO until that purchase goes through and brings Aramco’s value up to a level that matches the hype.

IRAN

One of the first casualties of reimposed US sanctions appears to be Iranians’ ability to travel abroad:

Airfares to foreign destinations favored by Iranian travelers have tripled in cost, putting a getaway from their crushing economic and political woes out of reach for most.

The sharp rise in the cost of air travel, resulting from restrictions on doing business in dollars, is further adding to the deep disenchantment of many Iranians, who had enjoyed a brief period of optimism following the 2015 nuclear deal. For a time, tourism to regional and European capitals had spiked as Iran began to shed its pariah status.

Now, Iranians are increasingly marooned in a country where the currency is collapsing, food prices have soared, some imported medicines are out of stock and even newsprint has become so hard to come by that some newspapers are scaling back or folding. For many Iranians, it’s a familiar, unwelcome feeling: trapped with little hope for a respite abroad.

To wit, both British Airways and Air France announced on Thursday that they’ll be stopping flights to Iran next month. KLM made a similar announcement last month.

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