Middle East update: September 3 2018

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, US airstrikes in the vicinity of the Tanf military base in southern Syria on Monday killed at least eight Iranian-aligned fighters. Rudaw at least is reporting these as “Iranian forces,” but it’s not clear to me whether that means regular Iranian military or militias backed by Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Damascus on Monday and said that “the remaining terrorists in the remaining parts of Idlib must be cleaned out and the region should be placed back under the control of the Syrian people.” This would seem to confirm that some kind of military operation is about to take place, though it also seems to me that Zarif left a little wiggle room here for Turkey if it could somehow root out Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other extremist groups in the province. That may simply not be possible, however.

Donald Trump, in case you were wondering for some reason, says that attacking Idlib would be very bad! Lots of people killed (no good)! So many are recognizing this more and more!

YEMEN

In an effort to appease protesters in Aden, the Yemeni government on Monday announced that it will increase salaries for public sector employees. It didn’t say when the increase would kick in, nor did it explain how a salary increase is supposed to help when the Yemeni government has struggled to pay its employees at all for most of the past three-plus years. Protests, largely spurred by the declining value of the Yemeni rial, continued on Monday and actually spread from Aden to other towns and cities in the south.

At LobeLog, Paul Pillar reiterates that US involvement in this conflict serves no discernible purpose:

Neither does the administration’s policy toward the Yemeni war accord with a realist perspective of where U.S. interests in the area do and do not lie. The United States does not have a stake in the outcome of civil warfare in Yemen. The Houthi rebellion is rooted in very local issues involving what the Houthis contend has been insufficient central government attention to the interests of tribal elements in the north of the country. Nor do the Houthis pose more than a trivial threat to anyone else in the region. Although the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia have made a big deal about missiles that the Houthis have fired at Saudi Arabia, those firings are pinpricks compared to the aerial assault in the other direction for which the missiles have been an attempt at retaliation. Missiles would not be launched if the Saudis and Emiratis had never launched their destructive expedition.

An end to U.S. military aid to the Saudi-Emirati war effort would encourage the Saudis and Emiratis to find ways to extricate themselves from their quagmire and to attempt to sponsor a Yemeni peace settlement rather than an indefinite war.

IRAQ

ISIS (probably) has carried out two attacks in northern-central Iraq since Sunday night that have killed eight people in total. One man was shot and killed late Sunday in the Shirqat district of Saladin province, while seven others were killed by gunmen in a town west of Kirkuk. On Monday, there was a bombing (again presumably ISIS) in the city of Khanaqin in Diyala province, but at least so far there have been no reports of fatalities as a result.

The new Iraqi parliament met for the first time on Monday and…was unable to elect a speaker, the first step in any new parliamentary session. This does not bode well for the prospects of forming a government. The two main parliamentary alliances are still each claiming a majority, so either one of them is fibbing or else we’ve all entered a new plane of existence where numbers don’t work the same as they once did. I suspect, though I have no evidence, that the bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory party controls more seats than its rival, and I say that because the leader of the other bloc–Fatah Alliance boss Hadi al-Ameri–has started complaining that the US is meddling in Iraqi politics on Abadi’s behalf. Which it may be! Frankly I’d be surprised if it wasn’t! But if Ameri were secure in his situation he probably wouldn’t be whining to the press.

The Israelis are now suggesting that they may strike at Iranian military assets in Iraq as they’ve been doing with impunity in Syria. This comes after Reuters reported that Iran has been transferring ballistic missiles to Iraqi militias, a charge Tehran denies.

LEBANON

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri reportedly gave President Michel Aoun a “formula” for forming a new cabinet on Monday. Lebanon has been under a caretaker government since its May legislative election, though Hariri’s status as PM has never been in question. It’s expected that this government will be a sort of national unity arrangement like the previous one, though the parties have been feuding over who will get which ministries.

JORDAN

The Jordanian government has reportedly taken a hard pass on one element of the Kushner Accords, the creation of a Jordan-Palestine “confederation.” This is an idea that comes around periodically in Israel-Palestine talks and nobody seems to agree on what it means. The Jordanians are consistently cool to it on the basis that they believe there should be an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinians at times seem open to the idea provided it comes after Palestine gains its independence, and they may be very open to the idea now according to Israeli media reports (see below). The Israeli right loves the idea as an alternative to Palestinian independence.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli forces on Monday killed a Palestinian man who allegedly approached their West Bank checkpoint near Hebron brandishing a knife.

For what it’s worth, which may not be very much, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly responded favorably to the idea of a confederation when asked about it recently by Jared Kushner and Trump administration envoy Jason Greenblatt. But they asked him about a confederation with Jordan, while Abbas seems to have voiced support for the idea of a three-way confederation that also includes Israel. It’s unclear whether the Israelis would be interested in such an arrangement.

The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Pierre Krähenbühl, is fighting back against (bogus) charges that his agency uniquely defines the descendants of Palestinian refugees as themselves refugees, thereby (according to right wingers in Israel and the US) falsely inflating the number of “true” refugees:

But Krahenbuhl said “the protracted nature of the Palestine refugee crisis” was not unique. He said the children and grandchildren of long-displaced refugees in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Congo and elsewhere are also recognized as refugees and assisted by the United Nations…

“No matter how often attempts are made to minimize or delegitimize the individual and collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have rights under international law and represent a community of 5.4 million men, women and children who cannot simply be wished away,” he said.

In case there was any doubt, the US decision to cut its funding for UNRWA came directly from Benjamin Netanyahu. Such was Netanyahu’s zeal for immiserating the Palestinians that he didn’t even consult his own security advisers as to the possible repercussions of these funding cuts.

QATAR

James Dorsey notes the increasingly prominent role Qatar is playing in the Israel-Palestine situation, particularly with respect to Gaza:

Dug in for the long haul in its increasingly bitter dispute with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Qatar is emerging as a key player in efforts to prevent tension between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, from spinning out of control.

Qatar’s increasing role counters Saudi and UAE efforts to shape Palestinian politics in their mould. It further underlines the two Gulf states’ 15-month old failed effort to force Qatar to bow to their will by imposing a diplomatic and economic boycott.

The Qatari role takes on added significance in the wake of the Trump administration’s cancellation of all funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and a US-Israeli effort to terminate the UN body’s mandate and rejigger the definition of a Palestinian refugee in a bid to restrict Palestinian rights.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Houthis fired a missile at an Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province that was apparently intercepted by Saudi air defenses. There have been no reports of the missile impacting anywhere or causing any damage.

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