Middle East update: August 31 2018

SYRIA

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in Idlib province blew up two bridges over the Orontes River on Friday in an effort to impede an expected Syrian government offensive from Hama province. The rebels are expecting the initial government attack to come in southwestern Idlib province, which would in part drive rebels further away from Russia’s military bases in neighboring Latakia province, and southeastern Idlib, which corresponds with the theory that the Syrians will attempt to retake the province in stages rather than all at once, allowing rebel groups time to surrender in between phases. Also on Friday, thousands of people reportedly protested across the province against the anticipated offensive, which UNICEF is warning could put as many as one million children at risk.

The Turkish government designated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist group on Friday. Better late than never, I guess. Ankara is still trying to avoid a real fight in Idlib but it seems almost inevitable at this point.

TURKEY

The Turkish military says it killed 19 Kurdish fighters in airstrikes on northern Iraq on Friday.

IRAQ

A new survey has produced more evidence that Iraq’s remaining displaced persons plan on staying where they are:

The NGO Reach Initiative found more evidence that Iraq’s displacement crisis may be reaching a tipping point. It did interviews with 1600 displaced (IDPs) households living outside camps in Dohuk, Irbil, Ninewa, Salahaddin and Sulaymaniya. Most the respondents said they had no plans to return to their homes in the next 3 months.

In the three Kurdish provinces over 80% in the survey said they wanted to remain where they were. 86% in Dohuk, 89% in Irbil, and 85% in Sulaymaniya said they wanted to stay in their current locations. In Dohuk and Irbil only 2% and 3% in Sulaymaniya said they would return to their home areas in the next three months. The main reasons why people said they were reluctant to go back were the lack of security, infrastructure, and services. If those improved it would help them change their views.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday canned the head of the Popular Mobilization Units, Falih al-Fayyadh, after Fayyadh apparently threw his support behind Abadi’s rival for PM, Fateh Party leader Hadi al-Ameri. It’s not entirely clear that this decision will stick since Abadi is a lame duck, but it’s another sign of the country’s tumultuous politics. While these guys continue to bicker about forming a new government, meanwhile, people in Basra are getting sick due to massively polluted water in the Shatt al-Arab caused by drought and poorly maintained treatment plants.

LEBANON

The United Nations Security Council on Thursday renewed the mandate of its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another year.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Scores of Palestinian protesters were reportedly wounded on Friday across the West Bank and Gaza (180 in Gaza alone) in clashes with Israeli security forces.

Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has apparently been cast in an upcoming remake of Conan the Barbarian and for some reason has decided to practice his lines on Twitter:

Bo-ring. Get to the “lamentations of their women” part.

Speaking of things that will cause a lot of lamentation, the Trump administration on Friday finally announced its widely anticipated plan to cut permanently all US aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which handles Palestinian refugee issues. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the decision a “flagrant assault” against the Palestinian people, and to be honest I’m not seeing the lie:

R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and a former senior United States diplomat who has worked on the Palestinian issue, called the change “heartless and unwise” and a reflection of “the most one-sided U.S. policy since 1948,” when Harry S. Truman recognized the newly established state of Israel.

“The Trump Administration’s decision to end U.S. assistance to Palestinian refugees is wrong on every level,” Mr. Burns said on Twitter on Friday. “It will harm innocent people, particularly young Palestinians.”

The plan is to beat the Palestinians down until they acquiesce to the Kushner Accords, but what if all the beatings just inspire the Palestinians to continue resisting the occupation? I’m not sure the administration has a plan to deal with that.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

According to the New York Times, UAE leaders have been working with an Israeli spyware maker to dig up interesting information on their friends and neighbors:

The rulers of the United Arab Emirates had been using Israeli spyware for more than a year, secretly turning the smartphones of dissidents at home or rivals abroad into surveillance devices.

So when top Emirati officials were offered a pricey update of the spying technology, they wanted to make sure it worked, according to leaked emails submitted Thursday in two lawsuits against the spyware’s maker, the Israel-based NSO Group.

Could the company secretly record the phones of the emir of Qatar, a regional rival, the Emiratis asked? How about the phone of a powerful Saudi prince who directed the kingdom’s national guard? Or what about recording the phone of the editor of a London-based Arab newspaper?

“Please find two recordings attached,” a company representative wrote back four days later, according to the emails. Appended were two recordings the company had made of calls by the editor, Abdulaziz Alkhamis, who confirmed this week that he had made the calls and said he did not know he was under surveillance.

The emails came to light as part of a couple of lawsuits NSO Group is now facing over its espionage activities. They were written in 2014, well before the latest round of intra-Gulf tensions, reflecting the fact that Qatar and the UAE have been at odds with one another for quite some time now. The request for tapping Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, once seen as a potential rival to current Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, would seem to reflect the Emiratis’ long interest in helping MBS strengthen his position within the Saudi family.

IRAN

Iranian media is reporting that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers killed four militants of some kind in the country’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province. The four, along with three others who were wounded by the IRGC, allegedly crossed into Iran from a “neighboring country,” which was unspecified but could only have been Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that the Iranians have transferred a small number of short-range ballistic missiles to its Iraqi militia proxies as a hedge against a US invasion and possibly to allow the militias to reverse-engineer their own missiles. This information will undoubtedly be taken by DC hawks as evidence of Iran’s violence and perfidy and proof that the US must Do More to punish and contain Tehran. I will note here that Iran only started transferring missiles to Iraqi militias after the Trump administration starting taking very large, unambiguous steps toward a military confrontation. Go figure.

Iran is also rejecting French suggestions that it engage in new talks with Western countries over its missile program and its involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni wars, citing the breakdown of the nuclear deal and Iran’s belief that maybe there’s just no point negotiating with the West about anything since Western powers don’t seem to feel bound to honor their commitments. The Trump administration wants its maximum pressure policy to lead either to the Iranian government’s surrender or its collapse. So far it clearly doesn’t seem to be leading to the former, at least.

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