Middle East update: September 14 2018

SYRIA

Thousands of people reportedly turned out on Friday in towns and villages across Idlib province to protest against a still-expected-but-now-delayed Syrian offensive against the rebel-held province. An estimated 25,000 protested in the city of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman, perhaps best known as the place where we know the First Crusade turned to cannibalism, though of course that’s neither here nor there. Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman is also noteworthy for being one of the largest population centers in Idlib that has, at least as far as we know, purged itself of the presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Some of the protests in other parts of the province this month have included demonstrations against HTS as well as the Syrian government–in at least one of those, in Idlib city last week, HTS fighters reportedly shot at protesters.

The Turkish government says it’s continuing to negotiate with “all actors in Syria” (i.e., Russia and Iran), as well as France and Germany, to find a way out of a full-scale conflict in Idlib that could potentially kill hundreds and displace tens of thousands. Turkey’s efforts to reinforce its own military position in Idlib and arm rebel groups under its umbrella seems to have forestalled an immediate Syrian attack but that’s probably only temporary. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is reportedly planning to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday where they’ll undoubtedly talk about Syria. The Russians, for their part, insist that their airstrikes in Idlib–which are continuing, albeit at a seemingly reduced intensity and with more talk about giving civilians a relatively orderly way to evacuate–are only in response to rebel attacks and not the beginnings of an offensive. Sure, whatever.

The Trump administration is reportedly also working diplomatic angles to try to fend off an Idlib operation:

Jim Jeffrey, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new envoy for Syria engagement, and special envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn met today in Geneva with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura and the so-called “small group” of allied nations generally opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. Officials from Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom were also due to attend, the UN said.

Jeffrey and Rayburn “traveled to Geneva this week,” a State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “They will engage with like-minded countries regarding the situation in Idlib, reaffirm our position that any military offensive would be a reckless escalation of the conflict and push for progress in the Geneva process under [UN Security Council Resolution] 2254.”

YEMEN

The Houthis are saying that a coalition airstrike on the main highway between Hudaydah and Sanaa on Thursday killed at least 15 people and wounded 20 more. The highway the Saudis are trying to cut is an important one strategically for the Houthis but it’s also absolutely critical to the shipment of humanitarian goods from Hudaydah to much of the rest of Yemen. It seems the coalition has decided that if it’s uncouth to directly bomb Hudaydah’s seaport, they’ll accomplish the goal of starving Yemenis to death by instead just making sure that food shipments from Hudaydah can’t get anywhere. Even before the Saudis targeted that highway, this kind of thing was happening:

In a remote pocket of northern Yemen, many families with starving children have nothing to eat but the leaves of a local vine, boiled into a sour, acidic green paste. International aid agencies have been caught off guard by the extent of the suffering there as parents and children waste away.

The main health centre in Aslam district was flooded with dozens of emaciated children during a recent visit by The Associated Press. Excruciatingly thin toddlers, eyes bulging, sat in a plastic washtub used in a make-shift scale as nurses weighed them one by one. Their papery skin was stretched tight over pencil-like limbs and knobby knees. Nurses measured their forearms, just a few centimetres in diameter, marking the worst stages of malnutrition.

At least 20 children are known to have died of starvation already this year, more than three years into the country’s ruinous civil war, in the province that includes the district. The real number is likely far higher, since few families report their children’s deaths when they die at home, officials say.

As you read that account, please remember that Mike Pompeo says the coalition is “undertaking demonstrable actions” to protect civilian lives.

TURKEY

Hundreds of workers attempted to protest dangerous conditions at the site for Istanbul’s swanky new airport on Friday and were met with tear gas, Erdoğan’s favorite method for dealing with such things. Erdoğan wants the project finished by his inauguration next month, and the rush to complete it may have contributed to a reported 13 work-related deaths on site so far.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan announced a freeze on new government projects (like the airport) on Friday in an effort to reduce spending and stabilize the lira’s value and lower inflation. Only projects more than 70 percent complete (again, like the airport) will be continued, others will be suspended.

IRAQ

The Iraqi government will cut the amount of irrigated land it devotes to wheat and barley cultivation by half next year as it attempts to adjust to water shortages. Those shortages have already forced it to drastically cut back on rice production and will force a major increase in food imports. Drought is turning Nineveh province, one of the country’s most important agricultural regions, into a dust bowl, and the reduction is meant to allow time to recover some of the province’s now wasted farmland.

On a related note, Joel Wing has more on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s speech on Thursday in which he apparently resigned himself to leaving office:

In what appeared to be a concession speech Prime Minister Haidar Abadi said that he would not hold onto power. Since May, all of the premier’s plans have gone awry. He was hoping for an easy victory in the elections and came in third. He believed that aligning with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon would assure him of a second term. Instead, Sadr abandoned him for an alliance with the pro-Iran Hashd Fatah list led by Badr’s Hadi Amiri after the protests and riots in Basra. His remarks just confirmed what was already a fait accompli.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers killed at least three Palestinian protesters, one of them a teenager, and wounded 30 more at the Gaza fence line on Friday.

BuzzFeed’s Miriam Berger looks at life in an East Jerusalem refugee camp that seems like it could be a model for how the Trump administration wants all Palestinians to live:

The Trump administration has laid out a plan: By moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to Palestinians, sidelining Palestinian refugees, and as of Monday shutting down the office of the PLO in Washington, an ostracized Palestinian leadership will be pushed back to the negotiating table, ready and willing to accept Trump’s still-secretive “deal of the century.”

The likely outcome of this plan, however, looks entirely different to Palestinians in places like Shuafat, a walled-off refugee camp in east Jerusalem where drugs, weapons, trash and sewage are all rampant. Shuafat has been dismal for decades, even when aid was flowing. But now it provides a prescient case study of what could await Palestinians after the US cuts aid, coupled with Trump’s seemingly limitless support of Israel’s right-wing government amid the collapse of the Oslo peace process. Shuafat is what happens when Palestinian institutions are weakened without providing Palestinians equal rights — and that’s what Trump’s policies are doing in practice.

I don’t want to be unfair to the administration–they don’t want Palestinians to live like this forever. Just long enough for them to become desperate for whatever lopsided peace plan emerges from Jared Kushner’s vestigial brain.

On its 25th anniversary, Mitchell Plitnick examines the main reason why the Oslo I accord failed:

Twenty-five years later, one of the PLO’s legal advisers at Oslo, Diana Buttu, would articulate perfectly what I felt after reading the Accords. “To demand that Palestinians—living under Israeli military rule—negotiate with their occupier and oppressor is akin to demanding that a hostage negotiate with their hostage taker. It is repugnant that the world demands that Palestinians negotiate their freedom, while Israel continues to steal Palestinian land. Instead, Israel should have faced sanctions for continuing to deny Palestinians their freedom while building illegal settlements.”

There are serious issues that obviously need to be addressed in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But from the first, that point has been used to cynically disadvantage the Palestinians and give Israel such an overwhelming advantage in talks that the only way agreement could be reached is through Palestinian surrender. Sometimes that’s addressed as a power imbalance, but whatever the terminology, it is the inevitable reality when a largely representative government empowered by its citizens sits down with representatives of a powerless, disenfranchised people. One side holds all the chips, and it isn’t the Palestinians. That must be addressed before the sticky details can be discussed.

EGYPT

Meanwhile, Al-Monitor is reporting that the Egyptian government has pulled its support for peace talks between Hamas and Israel due to concerns from the Palestinian Authority. This would be why you haven’t heard much about a long-term Gaza ceasefire in recent days. PA leaders get queasy about the idea of any direct agreements between Hamas and Israel that might undermine the PA’s assumed authority over Palestinian affairs. The Egyptians now say they still want to work toward a Gaza ceasefire but only in a way that recognizes the PA’s authority, which means a whole other set of talks between Hamas and the PA’s Fatah faction that Israel opposes. And around we go.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudis say their air defenses intercepted and destroyed a missile fired by the Houthis at an Aramco facility in Jizan province on Friday.

IRAN

Buried within this piece about how the US has now essentially decided that Iranian forces directly attacked US diplomatic facilities in Baghdad and Basra earlier this month (NARRATOR: they did not) is an acknowledgement that the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Iran internationally are failing:

Mr. Trump had planned to use a session of the Security Council, which he is presiding over, to dramatize Iran’s malign behavior throughout the Middle East. But with aides and European allies warning that Iran could exploit the meeting to spotlight Western division over the nuclear deal, the White House has broadened the agenda to nonproliferation, a less loaded theme.

Oops. The administration is now trying a different tack both for its Iran policy and in terms of deflecting attention away from the president’s legal troubles, going after John Kerry for meeting with Iranian officials and allegedly advising them to just try to wait out the last two years of what will hopefully be a one-term presidency. Donald Trump called these “illegal meetings” (NARRATOR: they are not) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Kerry’s actions were “unseemly and unprecedented” and that “actively undermining U.S. policy as a former secretary of state is literally unheard-of.” “As a former secretary of state” is carrying a lot of water in that sentence, because Pompeo damn well knows that whatever Kerry might have done here is very much not unprecedented even within the context of the Iran nuclear deal:

Anyway, while we’re arguing over John Kerry’s social calendar Iranians are already suffering for lack of medicine. US sanctions technically exempt humanitarian goods like medicine, but all that means is that it’s technically legal for US firms to deliver medicine to Iran. Financial sanctions mean that Iranians can’t pay to import the stuff anyway, so the end result is as though the medicines were banned in their own right. This is the effect of US sanctions policy.

Author: DWD

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