Middle East update: September 7 2018

SYRIA

Folks, I rarely like to toot my own horn when it comes to successful predictions, but if you’ll permit me I’m going to do it here. As I predicted, remember you heard it here first, the peacemaking juggernaut that is the Vladimir Putin-Recep Tayyip Erdoğan-Hassan Rouhani triumvirate has once more brought peace and prosperity to Syri–no, obviously I’m pulling your leg here:

A critical summit between the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey to find common ground on Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib descended into televised drama today, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan aired their differences before the cameras. On paper, the leaders reiterated pledges to seek a negotiated solution to Syria’s seven-year conflict, to preserve the country’s territorial unity, to eliminate al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and to assure the safe return of millions of displaced Syrians. But a regime attack on Idlib will likely move ahead despite Turkey’s appeals for more time to use carrot-and-stick diplomacy with the jihadis.

Even as the leaders assembled in Tehran, Syrian fighter jets pounded militant targets in the province, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.

Once more the Council That Couldn’t, didn’t. Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives. In their defense, the gang did agree that “there could be no military solution” to the civil war, just before two of them resolved to keep looking for one anyway.

I think the most noteworthy part of this summit is how utterly embarrassing it must have been for Erdoğan. He’s spent about two years supplicating himself to Moscow leading up to precisely this moment, when he would be able to ask Putin to trust him, to work with him on cleaning up Idlib without using maximum force, to do him this favor, please spare Turkey another wave of refugees. Erdoğan definitely made his pitch in Tehran, and Putin told him to stick it up his ass, in only slightly less offensive terms. All the time and effort Erdoğan has spent convincing himself, the Turkish public, and the international community that he’s Moscow’s partner in peacemaking, that he and Putin could negotiate as equals to end the Syrian civil war and reshape the Middle East, and it turns out he’s nothing more than a barely-tolerated hanger-on. At one point as Putin was dressing him down, Erdoğan actually said he would call upon Hayat Tahrir al-Sham–the group every major player in Syria still thinks is al-Qaeda–to lay down its arms, as though that was going to satisfy anybody.

The three leaders did, as it happens, discuss slow-rolling the Idlib offensive to allow time for individual rebel groups to surrender. Extremists in Idlib are already preparing for that possibility:

In the northern Syrian town of Harem, militants last week erected a gallows in a public square, saying they were for “frogs,” or traitors.

The town in Idlib province lies within the final enclave still controlled by rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As government forces mass for what could be a climactic assault there in coming weeks, opposition fighters linked to al-Qaeda are seeking to head off the kind of negotiated surrender that has sealed the fall of other opposition areas.

The gallows, which the militants publicized on their official news website, “were set up to intimidate the traitors that worked on reconciliation agreements to the regime, so that they know that in the end their fate is death,” said an activist in the town, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “The purpose of its construction is to strike fear.”

US forces at Tanf conducted a military exercise on Friday as a show of force in response to repeated Russian warnings that they plan to attack “militants” in that region. The US and Russia have a “deconfliction” zone established around the US base at Tanf but the Russians say they’re preparing to strike targets within that zone.

YEMEN

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths is still waiting for the Houthi delegation to arrive at his peace consultation event in Geneva. Griffiths says he’s talked about prisoner releases, humanitarian aid access, and reopening Sanaa’s airport with Yemen’s foreign minister, but without the Houthis present this becomes just two guys shooting the shit rather than a genuine peace effort. And the Yemeni delegation may decide to head home since the Houthis still haven’t shown up.

The Houthis are still demanding the right to airlift their wounded to Oman on the first leg of their flight out of Yemen as well as a guarantee that their flight from Oman to Geneva won’t be stopped in Djibouti for “inspections” as has happened to previous Houthi negotiating teams. In fact the last time the Houthis sent a delegation to peace talks their flight was apparently held in Djibouti for months at the Saudis’ behest.

TURKEY

Turkey’s Jared Kushner finance minister, Berat Albayrak argues at Foreign Policy that the rest of the world should work to strip the United States of its economic hegemony:

This August, Turkey’s economy became the main topic in global news coverage. The reason was a systematic attack on the Turkish economy by the biggest player in the global economic system, the United States. It was one of the most disappointing moments in the history of the alliance between Turkey and America. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump overtly attacked the economy of a fellow NATO member through sanctions and tariffs.

While the scale of the attack resulted in exchange rate fluctuations, the incident ultimately demonstrated the strong fundamentals of the Turkish economy. It also increased Turkey’s determination to strengthen our economy through structural reforms, new trade partnerships, and the attraction of foreign investments and to take steps to rebalance the structure of the international economy so that powerful countries like the United States no longer have the power to unilaterally disrupt the economic life of others.

On a happier note, Turkey and The Netherlands restored normal diplomatic relations with one another on Friday. The two countries withdrew their ambassadors last year amid a worsening of Turkey’s European relations in general.

IRAQ

Iraqi Shiʿa leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Friday for an end to police violence against protesters in and around Basra. He also demanded the formation of a new government that is “different from its predecessors.” Police have killed at least ten protesters in Basra this week, while protesters have torched government and political party offices. On Friday, a group of protesters set a fire in the outer courtyard of the Iranian consulate in Basra while chanting slogans calling for Iran to stay out of Iraqi affairs. Another group of protesters reportedly broke into a water treatment plant at the West Qurna 2 oil field outside of Basra and took two employees hostage. They later released the hostages.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers killed one Palestinian, a 17 year old, and wounded some 200 more in Friday’s weekly protests at the Gaza fence line.

In a phone call with Jewish leaders on Thursday, Donald Trump made it clear that his drastic cuts to funding for Palestinian aid are intended to force Palestinian leaders to accept a lopsided peace agreement offered by his administration. Trump said that he won’t restore aid to the Palestinians unless they come to an agreement with Israel.

The Israeli Labor Party’s decision to name the center-right Avi Gabbay as its leader last year has paid off big time, as he’s led the party straight down the drain. A new poll shows the Zionist Union (a nominally center-left alliance between Labor and HaTenua) would come away with all of 11 seats in a new election, down from its current 24, and so there are murmurings of potential splintering of the Labor Party as many of its members look to get away from Gabbay (who is apparently a jerk on top of being a political catastrophe). But so far no serious anti-Gabbay movement has formed.

EGYPT

One Egyptian soldier was killed on Friday when a car he was inspecting in the central Sinai region exploded. So far there’s been no claim of responsibility.

QATAR

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visited Berlin on Friday and pledged 10 billion euros worth of new investment in Germany. Remember, no matter what they tell you as kids money can buy you friends. You just need to find the right friends.

SAUDI ARABIA

It’s more review than breaking news, but Bruce Reidel does a pretty good job here of summing up all the ways Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan is coming apart at the seams:

Saudi Vision 2030, the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil income, is coming undone. The king has stripped away the central pillar of the project. The country is becoming more autocratic and repressive. The slide toward greater repression is prompting capital flight.

IRAN

The IRGC says its forces killed six militants from the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in a clash near the Iraqi border on Friday.

Shot:

In the phone call Thursday, Trump said he did not anticipate the full scope of his actions on Iran.

“It turned out to have a much bigger impact than I thought. I did it primarily because of nuclear, but I knew it wouldn’t be great for their economy. I had no idea how devastating it would be,” he said.

In 2016, Trump said, “It was a question of when will they [Iran] take over the entire Middle East. And that probably includes Israel, in the mind of a lot of people.” Yet today, “they are now really looking to survive.”

Chaser:

Iran is signaling that it will buck U.S. efforts to roll back its military presence in the Middle East, moving to cement foreign alliances and continuing to project power abroad despite sanctions that have helped put intense pressure on its economy.

Tehran signed a long-term security pact with Syria in August, and has kept up the flow of arms and financial support to proxy forces around the region, according to U.S. officials and a person close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a meeting with air force commanders that Iran needed to boost its personnel and buy more equipment, though he said a war was unlikely. He didn’t elaborate.

Khamenei met with Putin after the Syria summit in Tehran on Friday and said that Russia and Iran should work together to “restrain” the United States. So they’re definitely ready to knuckle under just like Trump says.

Finally, Al-Monitor’s Maysam Bizaer writes about a young Iranian cleric using Instagram of all things to target ostentatious and/or corrupt Iranian plutocrats:

With 233,000 followers, Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati has become the icon of a “no to aristocracy” campaign in Iran. Since the beginning of this year, he has been sharing the pictures and videos of some Iranian officials or their relatives living in luxury. His accompanying critical remarks have been “liked” by thousands of Iranians.

The 31-year-old cleric, who is a father of two, has been outspoken and active in other social causes such as raising money to buy food and other goods for the needy.

His exposure campaign spares neither end of the political spectrum or even the clergy. On Feb. 25, he posted a picture of Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, the Friday Prayer Imam in the western province of Ilam — the highest representative figure of Iran’s Supreme Leader in the province — who rides in a foreign-made luxury car. His comment next to the photo reads, “Before the revolution many of our scholars were exiled in remote villages and towns and they used to ride donkeys, just like farmers. Now after the revolution, the farmers still ride the same donkey. [So, do we], as simple clerics, ride in a Prado for the sake of our safety and prestige? Is this what our martyrs gave their lives for?”

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