Middle East update: September 12 2018

ISIS

The pace of ISIS attacks in the West seems to be on the decline, but according to the New York Times‘ Rukmini Callimachi that’s not for lack of trying. ISIS is still attempting attacks in the West at relatively the same pace, it’s just not succeeding at as many of them:

Since the lightning rise of the Islamic State in 2014, law enforcement has scrambled to stop an endless array of plots. It is only now, more than four years after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate, that the cadence has finally slowed.

Islamic State attacks in the West fell steeply in 2018 compared with the previous four years, the first time the number has fallen since 2014. But the number of attempted attacks remained steady, suggesting that the group remains committed to carrying out catastrophic harm.

The difference, analysts say, is that law enforcement is increasingly foiling the plots.

This success comes with a tradeoff–more online eavesdropping. And it comes at a time when ISIS’s attacks in Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia have increased in frequency and intensity. The analysis also conflates ISIS-inspired attacks, which are generally more amateurish and low-level, with ISIS-directed attacks, which tend to be more sophisticated and deadlier. Although ISIS-inspired plots have always outnumbered ISIS-directed ones, it would be interesting to see if the proportions have changed as ISIS’s central command has lost its “caliphate”/base of operations in Syria and Iraq.

In related news, Tony Blair says we’re going about counterterrorism all wrong, and I don’t know but maybe we should listen to this guy.

Digital: GWB: NATO work session

He seems pretty smart.

SYRIA

Syrian rebels in Idlib province and northern Aleppo province have told Reuters that they’re getting an influx of weapons from Turkey in preparation for an expected Syrian government offensive. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this isn’t something Russia and Iran asked the Turks to do when the presidents of all three countries met in Tehran last week and failed to arrange a peaceful solution to the Idlib situation. On top of arming the rebels, Turkey is also reportedly reinforcing its 12 military outposts in Idlib, which it established months ago in order to supposedly monitor a deescalation zone in that province, with special forces soldiers and heavy weapons.

This is all very exciting for the rebels in Idlib but it’s also potentially more bad news for civilians, who will suffer under a government offensive under any circumstance but may suffer more from a protracted fight between the Syrian army and rebels getting support from Ankara. It’s also not great news for anybody hoping that whatever is about to happen in Idlib stays contained in Idlib and doesn’t escalate into a much bigger conflict. On the other hand, if a show of force from Turkey causes the Syrians to rethink attacking Idlib altogether then that could be alright. According to The New Arab, there have been hints from “pro-regime media accounts” that Damascus has decided to delay its offensive, which could be a sign that the Syrians and their Russian/Iranian supporters are having second thoughts.

The United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Syria says it’s found evidence of two chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian military this year, in Douma in January and February (not the April incident that drew a US-UK-French response) and in Idlib in February. The commission has documented 39 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2013, most of those at least allegedly perpetrated by the government.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has put a hold on the nomination of David Schenker as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs until he gets some response from the Trump administration about the legality of their April 2017 airstrikes in Syria. Kaine has argued that those strikes, against a Syrian airbase, amounted to an act of war and thus required a congressional vote. He wants the administration to release an internal memo it apparently put together justifying the strike’s legality and is holding Schenker’s nomination up as leverage. Schenker worked in Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and has spent most of his career at the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, so the longer he can be kept out of that job, probably the better off we all are.

YEMEN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified on Wednesday that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is “undertaking demonstrable actions” to protect civilians as it wages war against the Houthis. Likewise, I can assure you, my wife, and my doctor that I am taking steps to lose weight as I bite into this double cheeseburger I have in my free hand. Congress instituted this certification requirement as part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, but of course as with all of these incredibly lame “certification” standards Pompeo is free to say whatever the fuck he wants regardless of its relationship to the facts on the ground. Republicans in Congress certainly aren’t going to challenge him, and while Democrats seem to be suggesting that they will, if they win a House majority in November, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Said facts include a renewed coalition effort to take Hudaydah, an effort that risks damaging Yemen’s largest seaport and throwing the country much further into a humanitarian catastrophe. Coalition ground forces say they were able to cut two of the main roads into and out of Hudaydah to the east, potentially severing the connection between the port and the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Which would be a major military blow to the Houthis, but also probably risks starving the civilian population of Sanaa to death. Well, as long as they’re trying not to kill civilians I guess it’s all OK.

IRAQ

A suicide bomber struck a restaurant outside of Tikrit on Wednesday, killing at least six people and wounding 42 more. ISIS is thought to be responsible but hasn’t claimed the attack as yet.

The United States is holding Iran responsible for recent attacks against its consulate in Basra and its embassy in Baghdad. The Trump administration claims the attacks were carried out by Iranian-backed militias. For context, these attacks took place amid widespread protests against the US-backed Iraqi government’s corruption and incompetence, protests in which Iran’s consulate in Basra was burned down. Some Iranian allies in Iraq have alleged that the US manipulated the Basra protests to target Iran’s consulate, which you could chalk up to a nutty conspiracy theory if the Trump administration weren’t effectively doing the same thing.

The alleged attacks against these US facilities amount to rockets being fired into Basra’s airport, where the US consulate is located, and into Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US embassy is located. Either or both may have intended to strike those US targets specifically but at least from outside Trumpland there doesn’t seem to be any way to prove that.  Regardless, the expectation now appears to be not only that Iran should knuckle under to US demands that it stop involving itself in Iraqi affairs, but also that it should provide armed guards for US diplomatic facilities just in case something goes down.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Washington office, which acted as a de facto consulate for Palestinians, means that Palestinian-Americans and Palestinians who want to come to the US (or are already in the US) basically have no recourse at this point. And, true to form, nobody in the Trump administration seems to really give much of a shit. The Palestinians are mulling retaliatory measures for the PLO office closure, possibly to include canceling security cooperation with Washington. That would be a big step for the Palestinians to take and would likely invite a response from the Trump administration, so I wouldn’t expect them to go that far.

Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo on Tuesday for a meeting that was largely given over to their statements of support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which the Trump administration is also trying to shutter. These were primarily statements of moral support, as so far only the Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis have pledged to up their financial support to UNRWA to help make up for cuts in US funding.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has started making noises about accepting a demilitarized Palestinian state as part of a two-state peace deal with Israel. This is either a sign that he’s losing his marbles or that he’s shifted positions and is now willing to accept a key Israeli demand. Which could put Israel on the spot a little bit. A demilitarized Palestine has always been one of those demands that’s meant to be too extreme for the Palestinians to meet and therefore a good excuse for the failure to reach a deal. If Abbas has really come around on it, then the Israelis will have lost this excuse.

SAUDI ARABIA

After briefly showing signs of a backbone when it decided to cancel the sale of 400 laser guided bombs to Saudi Arabia a few days ago, the Spanish government has reverted to full jelly form and will now apparently go ahead with the sale. The Saudis had apparently threatened to back out of a much larger contract to buy Spanish warships unless Madrid made with the bombs. So in other words, the system works!

IRAN

Israeli officials have begun talking about a military response if Iran abandons the nuclear deal that Donald Trump already abandoned. That seems reasonable.

Conservatives in Iran are leaning heavily on Hassan Rouhani not to attend this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly:

Hard-line daily Kayhan initially sparked the debate. In a Sept. 10 editorial, the paper advised Rouhani to cancel his trip to New York in order to use it as a chance to humiliate his US counterpart, Donald Trump. “Since the United States has spared no opportunity for hostility against Iran, President Rouhani needs to refrain from attending the General Assembly as an official protest over Trump’s chairmanship [of an agenda item] at the Security Council,” said the editorial.

According to Kayhan, such a decision could be a “tooth-breaking response to Trump’s incessant insults against the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation.” Kayhan further downplayed Rouhani’s previous trips to New York as bearing no fruit, implying that Iran will lose nothing by refusing to participate.

Author: DWD

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