Middle East update: August 29 2018

SYRIA

I don’t want to be Derek Downer about this whole Idlib situation, but it seems to me that when you’ve got the Russian foreign minister running around talking about the province as a “festering abscess” that “needs to be liquidated,” things are probably not heading in a positive direction. This particular festering abscess is currently sheltering a few hundred thousand displaced civilians who do not, actually, need to be liquidated unless by “need to be liquidated” you mean that they could use some clean water or a Coke or something. And sure enough, Reuters, citing a “source close to Damascus,” reported Wednesday afternoon that the Syrian military is “preparing a phased offensive” for Idlib that sounds like it could begin pretty much anytime now. It would start slow, focusing on the southern and eastern parts of the province and staying away, initially, from Idlib city.

Syrian rebels operating under Turkey’s “National Liberation Front” proxy umbrella organization are now saying that they’ve seen “regime trucks carrying barrels loaded with what appears to be chemical materials” in Hama province, the suggestion being that they’ve been moved there in order to stage a gas attack in Idlib.

YEMEN

At least five UAE-backed Yemeni soldiers were killed Tuesday night when their checkpoint in Abyan province was attacked by what are believed to have been al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters. AQAP is just one of many players in southern Yemen’s ongoing turmoil, and there may have been other actors at work here like the Yemeni government or even the Saudis.

Houthi media reported on Wednesday that the Yemeni rebels fired a ballistic missile at some kind of military camp in Saudi Arabia’s Najran province. There’s been no report of any casualties.

The Saudi-led coalition is disputing the findings of a new United Nations report that blames all parties in Yemen for committing war crimes, on account of it didn’t blame Iran for being responsible for the entire war in some way. Maybe the Iranians are beaming mind control waves into Yemen that cause Saudi pilots to see school buses as Houthi military targets or something.

IRAQ

At least eight people were killed by a car bomb in Anbar province on Wednesday that was later claimed by ISIS. The terror group’s news agency reported that 28 people were killed in the blast, and while there’s no particular reason to believe that you may see the official count go up.

Joel Wing says that a good chunk of the blame for Basra’s current water shortage–which has begun to cause serious health problems for the people living there–lies with the Iraqi government and its failure to plan ahead:

The Iraqi government knew twelve years ago that the water levels on the Tigris were going to be reduced and made no plans. In 2006, Ankara began construction on its Ilisu Dam. In 2017, as that work was concluding, Iraq and Turkey’s water ministers met four times and discussed the project, and Iraq sent a committee to inspect the site in December. That same year, the volume of the Tigris went down 8 million cubic meters. Despite this, Baghdad claimed it was caught by surprise when Turkey began filling its new dam in June 2018 and water levels suddenly dropped. The Abadi government got Ankara to delay that process until July. Iraq was fully aware of Turkey’s plans, saw the Tigris decline the year before, and yet drafted no strategy of how to deal with the consequences of the Ilisu. Rather than admit that it failed to prepare, it made the excuse that it didn’t know what would happen when the dam began to be filled.

Meanwhile, the US government would reportedly really appreciate it if the Iraqi government stopped using “the Zionist entity” in official references to Israel. Apparently some officers in the Iraqi military have begun using the term in reference to a June airstrike that killed 20 Iraqi paramilitary fighters in Syria and is believed to have been carried out by Israel.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Despite drastic US aid cuts, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency did open its Gaza and West Bank schools on schedule on Wednesday. The agency has received $50 million each in donations from Qatar and the UAE since the US aid cuts became public, and says it has been promised another $50 million by the Saudis.

The Trump administration’s efforts to defund and thereby shut down UNRWA are, again, intended simply to define Palestinian refugees out of existence, taking another negotiating issue “off the table” as it did when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital:

While it may not say so openly, the Trump administration is systematically taking key issues in the conflict off the table with the ultimate goal of negating the Palestinian narrative, says former State Department official and peace activist Lara Friedman.

“They took Jerusalem off table, now they are taking refugees off the table,” Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told Al-Monitor, referring to the Trump administration.

“The ultimate goal at a simple level is to say there are no Palestinian refugees,” Friedman continued. “Erasing the green line as a matter of policy. It is about systematically rolling the clock back, not just pre-Oslo, but pre-Madrid [the 1991 peace conference convened by the George H.W. Bush administration]. Madrid gave legitimacy to a Palestinian cause.”

The Jerusalem District Court ruled on Tuesday that the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Kramim is legal even though it was built on privately-owned Palestinian land, which is supposed to be beyond the pale even by the already illegal standards of West Bank settlements in general. The court ruled that the settlers purchased the land for their settlement in “good faith,” which is apparently all that’s required under Israeli law, at least when the other party is Palestinian. If the verdict stands up then it could set a new precedent in West Bank land thievery.

Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor on Wednesday wherein he warned that Israel’s enemies will be destroyed if they try any funny business. The messaging is subtle, but I suspect he was talking about nuking them.

EGYPT

Cairo says that its security forces have recently killed 20 militants in the Sinai and near the Egypt-Libya border. It offered no other details like who these “militants” were or when they were killed, but it has become standard procedure for the Egyptian government to offer these periodic statements about how many Bad Guys it’s killed without offering any other information. And of course it’s difficult for reporters to verify those statements, given that Egypt isn’t exactly welcoming of the press and that the Sinai in particular is something of a war zone these days.

SAUDI ARABIA

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky aren’t sure what Donald Trump has gotten in return for his fealty to Saudi Arabia despite Riyadh’s destabilizing behavior:

In the face of all this, what has the Trump administration done to push back? Next to nothing. The U.S. dispatched a three-star general to Saudi Arabia to “investigate” one of the country’s most recent attacks on children in Yemen. And this week, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East called for more transparency in Saudi Arabia’s errant missile targeting. But the Pentagon still hasn’t missed a beat in continuing its unconscionable enabling of possible Saudi war crimes in Yemen. It continues to provide Saudis with intelligence but asserts that it is not giving direct or indirect approval on target selection or execution of bombings.

To put it simply, we don’t believe the White House cares enough about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or what the Saudis are doing with Qatar or Canada to summon the resolve to rock the boat with Riyadh. As for the crown prince’s increasingly authoritarian behavior, the Trump administration has already amply demonstrated its penchant for courting and forgiving strongmen.

We’re witnessing a shameful example of getting used, abused and confused by a so-called friend. And for what?

IRAN

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in a speech to President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet that Europe will not be able to salvage the nuclear deal and said that Iran should be ready to abandon the accord. He didn’t, however, order Rouhani to stop talking with the Europeans, so this seems basically like a restatement of Khamenei’s usual skepticism toward the West. Meanwhile, Iran’s parliament began impeachment proceedings against Education Minister Mohammad Bathaei, who if impeached will be the third member of Rouhani’s cabinet removed from office in this way over the past few weeks.

Dartmouth College’s Nicholas Miller isn’t optimistic that the Trump administration’s new “Iran Action Group” will actually work out as planned:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that he had created an Iran Action Group to coordinate and implement policy toward Tehran, saying Iran had unleashed “a torrent of violence and destabilizing behavior against the United States, our allies, our partners and, indeed, the Iranian people themselves.” Coming after the administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, this announcement signaled again that the Trump administration intends to act more aggressively against Iran.

So how likely is it that this pressure campaign will change Iranian behavior? Research about international coercion conducted by social scientists suggests that success is more likely if the U.S. makes its demands clear, imposes costs on Iran that outweigh the benefits of standing firm and clearly and credibly offers a diplomatic off-ramp to end the pressure.

The Trump policy fails each of these tests. It appears to be designed to push for regime change, despite Trump administration officials’ repeated pronouncements that this is not their aim.

And Reuters is reporting on a large-scale Iranian effort to flood the web and social media and influence public opinion:

Facebook and other companies said last week that multiple social media accounts and websites were part of an Iranian project to covertly influence public opinion in other countries. A Reuters analysis has identified 10 more sites and dozens of social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

U.S.-based cyber security firm FireEye Inc and Israeli firm ClearSky reviewed Reuters’ findings and said technical indicators showed the web of newly-identified sites and social media accounts – called the International Union of Virtual Media, or IUVM – was a piece of the same campaign, parts of which were taken down last week by Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc.

IUVM pushes content from Iranian state media and other outlets aligned with the government in Tehran across the internet, often obscuring the original source of the information such as Iran’s PressTV, FARS news agency and al-Manar TV run by the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

This seems a little shady, but I’m not sure how it differs from the legions of social media bots employed by Russia, the Saudis, Iranian exile organizations, and many other geopolitical entities. Everybody from governments to politicians to private companies to prominent individuals uses social media and the internet more broadly to spam out whatever messages they want people to hear. That’s the world we live in now.

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