Middle East update: September 1-2 2018

SYRIA

At least one person was reportedly killed in a car bombing in the northern Syrian town of Azaz on Saturday. Azaz is under Turkish control, so Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is one obvious possibility here, though no group has so far claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, late Saturday explosions rocked Syria’s Mezzeh military airport, explosions powerful enough that they were felt in nearby Damascus. Two people were reportedly killed in what was initially classified as a likely Israeli airstrike but was called an “electrical fault” by Syrian state media. That must have been quite a fault. Obviously you can’t rule out that this really was an Israeli strike, but the Syrian government hasn’t been terribly reticent about blaming Israel for past strikes so it’s unclear why it would be reticent now.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition currently aiming to turn Yemen into a giant nature preserve by killing all the people there is now generously allowing as to the possibility that perhaps its decision to drop bombs on Yemeni school buses last month was inadvisable. It’s a stunning admission from the coalition, whose investigations into its own war crimes usually find that whichever hospital, funeral home, market, or orphanage its pilots had just bombed was actually definitely a Houthi rebel command and control facility.

Aden was gripped by protests on Sunday as hundreds of Yemenis turned out to demonstrate their anger over the rial’s ongoing loss of value. High prices have coupled with a lack of humanitarian aid access to keep basic needs out of reach for millions of people over the course of the Yemeni civil war. The Yemeni government has reportedly halted the importation of luxury goods in an effort to stabilize the rial’s value.

IRAQ

Iraq’s deadlocked political situation seemingly shook itself out in a major way over the weekend. A coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory party announced on Sunday that it had reached an internal agreement and controlled 177 seats in the Iraqi parliament, enough for a majority. Meanwhile, an opposition coalition led by Fatah party leader Hadi al-Ameri and State of Law party boss Nouri al-Maliki announced that it controlled 145 seats and would have a parliamentary majority–just as soon as it plucked some legislators away from the Sadr-Abadi coalition. With parliament scheduled for its first post-election session on Monday, Ameri and Maliki will have to work fast if that’s really their plan. Both of the main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have yet to decide which group to join.

Protesters on Sunday attempted to enter the Nahr Bin Omar oilfield outside of Basra but were hit with tear gas by Iraqi police. The protesters continue to demand better provision of public services, more jobs, and clean water.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A US delegation headed by new State Department Syria envoy James Jeffrey stopped in Israel on Sunday at the beginning of a three-country regional tour that will also take it to Jordan and Turkey. Jeffrey and Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Iran’s evildoings, of course, and the situation in Syria. Jeffrey’s trip coincides with the likely start of a Syrian government offensive to retake Idlib province and amid a lot of tension over the possible use of chemical weapons by, well, somebody.

IRAN

Both the Iraqi and Iranian governments have taken turns rejecting that Reuters report from Friday that the Iranians have started sending short-range ballistic missiles to their militia proxies in Iraq. Well, sort of. A spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry said that the report was “false and ridiculous news” that “is solely aimed at creating fears in the countries of the region.” Iraq’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, says that it was “astonished” by the report and that it “lack[s] tangible evidence backing up [its] claims and allegations.” Which isn’t quite the same as saying it’s not true.

Reuters says that its report relied on “three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources,” but hasn’t named any of them. We can probably assume that the two Western sources were US since this is precisely the kind of story the Trump administration wants to see in that it makes it harder for European governments to defend their plans to continue engaging with Iran to try to salvage the Iran nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, Iran’s defense ministry says it plans to continue modernizing its forces despite US sanctions and the economic impact they’re having:

“Increasing ballistic and cruise missile capacity … and the acquisition of next-generation fighters and heavy and long-range vessels and submarines with various weapons capabilities are among the new plans of this ministry,” said Mohammad Ahadi, deputy defense minister for international affairs, IRNA said.

Speaking to Tehran-based foreign military attaches, Ahadi said international sanctions had not hampered the development of Iran’s arms industry.

“We have the necessary infrastructure and what we need to do is research and development, and at the same time upgrade and update the defense industry while relying on the country’s very high scientific capacities and tens of thousands of graduates in technical fields and engineering,” Ahadi was quoted as saying.

Iran is increasing its defense spending, presumably the opposite of the effect the Trump administration was hoping sanctions would have. But realistically Iran can’t sustain significantly higher defense spending when its economy is cratering and people are out in the streets demanding their government do something about it.

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