Middle East update: August 25-26 2018

SYRIA

The Russian Ministry of Defense warned on Saturday that a “private British contractor” is helping Hayat Tahrir al-Sham prepare a chemical (chlorine) false flag attack in Idlib that would be blamed on the Syrian government. Russia makes these kinds of warnings periodically, and whether you think they’re genuine warnings about rebel activity or pre-cover for a possible chemical attack by the Syrian government is up to you.

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami visited Damascus on Sunday to talk up the Iran-Syria relationship and pledge Iranian assistance in rebuilding the Syrian military. According to Hatami, Iran wants to have “a productive role in the reconstruction of Syria,” which is interesting inasmuch as Iran can’t even support its own economy, let alone pay to help rebuild somebody else’s. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps owns plenty of construction interests that would presumably love to get in on some Syrian reconstruction contracts, but before the Syrian government can start hiring contractors it’s going to need to somehow find the money to pay them, and Iran can’t really be much help in that regard.

YEMEN

The Houthis say they fired two rockets at Saudi Arabia on Sunday, one at Jizan province and the other at Najran province. No word on what befell them.

Yemen tribal leaders are claiming that a senior al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula commander named Ghalib al-Zaidi was killed about a week ago in fighting against the Houthis in Marib province. Zaidi was on a UN sanctions list and is believed to have been AQAP’s Marib leader since 2015. Yet oddly enough, witnesses say that he and his forces received air support from the Saudi-led coalition while they were fighting the Houthis. Of course that can’t be, because the Saudi-led coalition is deeply committed to fighting terrorism in Yemen. And surely the United States wouldn’t help maintain and fuel Saudi and Emirati aircraft just so they could turn around and act as AQAP’s air force, right? Must be some kind of mix up.

TURKEY

Worried about the ongoing fighting in Syria and Iraq? Well don’t be. Sultan Recep is here to fix everything:

Speaking in the southeastern province of Mus to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert of 1071, Erdogan vowed to bring peace and safety to Syria and Iraq.

“It is not for nothing that the only places in Syria where security and peace have been established are under Turkey’s control. God willing, we will establish the same peace in other parts of Syria too. God willing, we will bring the same peace to Iraq, where terrorist organizations are active,” he said.

Erdogan also linked regional conflicts and an ongoing currency crisis in Turkey, which he has cast as an “economic war”, to previous attempts to invade Anatolia, warning that the this would lead to the collapse of surrounding regions.

It’s unclear how the folks in Syria and Iraq feel about the Sultan’s generous offer–well, promise–to bring peace to those countries, but then I suppose you don’t get to be Sultan by asking permission.

IRAQ

The Washington Post’s Liz Sly says that life in Baghdad is finally beginning to loosen up a little:

Fifteen years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq plunged the country into a cycle of insurgency, dysfunction and war, Baghdad is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

The insurgency still simmers and the dysfunction is as pronounced as ever. Iraqis angry at their leaders’ corruption and failure to deliver basic necessities such as electricity and water have spent the summer protesting in many parts of the country. There is little in the way of optimism among the wearied residents of a war-weary city that has been crushed too many times in the past to dare hope for a brighter future.

But for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, at least Baghdad isn’t at war. Although there are still explosions, and kidnappings are a problem, the relentless suicide bombings that deterred all but the hardiest revelers have abated since the territorial defeat of the Islamic State last year.

And the city is starting to breathe a little easier.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Having already opened Gaza’s main commercial crossing at Kerem Shalom, Israeli authorities are planning to open its main human crossing at Erez on Monday after several mostly quiet days in the Palestinian enclave.

Al Jazeera reports on one of the most pernicious effects of Israel’s 11 year blockade on Gaza–a brain drain:

EGYPT

ISIS claimed responsibility for a Saturday attack in the northern Sinai city of Arish that left four of its fighters and four Egyptian police officers dead.

IRAN

The Iranian parliament on Sunday ousted Finance Minister Masoud Karbasian in a no-confidence vote. He’s the second member of Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet to be so removed this month–Labor Minister Ali Rabei was tossed on August 8. Rouhani and his government are taking heavy criticism for the weaknesses in the Iranian economy, weaknesses that long predate the reimposition of US sanctions earlier this month.

British-Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was returned to prison in Tehran on Sunday after a three day temporary release. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been in Iranian custody since April 2016 and was convicted on espionage charges. The charges are bullshit–she was working to train Iranian journalists, which is apparently a crime in Iran but not in most other places–but Iran’s judiciary is so hopelessly compromised that it doesn’t even really make sense to consider her case in those terms.

Iranian state media reported on Saturday that Tehran has resumed talks with the Russian government about building a new 3000 megawatt nuclear power plant. Under a 2014 agreement signed between the two countries, Russia is committed to building up to eight power plants in Iran, though the terms of each project have to be worked out separately. Presumably this means the Russians aren’t planning on abiding by US sanctions.

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