Middle East update: September 22-23 2018

SYRIA

So the good news is that the National Liberation Front says it will comply with the deescalation agreement Turkey and Russia reached on Monday in Idlib province. Though since the NLF is basically a paramilitary arm of the Turkish military at this point, it’s unclear what choice it really had. NLF leaders say they won’t give up the territory they control, nor will they give up their weapons, but at this point nobody’s asking them to give up either so that’s OK.

The bad news is that a jihadi faction affiliated with al-Qaeda, called Hurras al-Din (“Guardians of the Religion”), says Turkey and Russia can both cram it. Hurras al-Din split from Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/whatever in 2016 when that group decided to drop, whether for show or for real, its affiliation with al-Qaeda. So the groups aren’t technically allied, but they do still basically share the same ideology. Hurras al-Din’s announcement puts pressure on HTS to also declared that it won’t abide by the Turkey-Russia deal, lest it lose support among Idlib’s hardcore jihadi crowd. Nobody is really expecting HTS to go along with the agreement and in fact one could argue that the agreement amounts to a one-month window for Turkey to eliminate HTS before a Syrian offensive begins. But things could go sideways much sooner than that if HTS and Turkey come to blows.

A new report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 3331 Syrian civilians have been killed in US-led coalition airstrikes since the coalition began bombing in Syria in 2014. The US is clinging to an absurdly low/fictional death count and insists its strikes in both Syria and Iraq have killed just a bit over 1000 civilians total.

YEMEN

Al Jazeera reports on Yemeni refugees suffering in camps in Djibouti:

IRAQ

The Kurdistan Democratic Party has decided to nominate Fuad Hussein as its candidate for the Iraqi presidency. Hussein is now competing with several other Kurdish leaders, including Patriotic Union of Kurdistan nominee Barham Salih, for the post. Previously the KDP has allowed the PUK to have the Iraqi presidency in return for control over the Kurdistan regional presidency, but there’s no formal agreement between the two parties on this issue and as there is no Kurdistan regional president right now the KDP has decided to throw its collective hat in the ring.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former PM Nouri al-Maliki met on Saturday in an effort to reach some kind of accord that could affect the makeup of Iraq’s next government. Abadi and Maliki are technically still members of the same Dawa party, but they each led their own lists into May’s election. They had promised to reunite the party after the election but each has independently been negotiating with potential coalition partners. If they manage to put Dawa back together it would put Iraq on track for another large, unwieldy Shia unity coalition government of the sort that have been managing Iraqi affairs so well over the past 12 years or so.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian officials say that Israeli soldiers shot and killed one Palestinian among a group of demonstrators burning tires and setting off fireworks at the Gaza fence line on Sunday. In related news, Hamas leaders say they’ve called off their indirect talks with Israel over a Gaza ceasefire, largely due to the opposition of the Palestinian Authority.

The Russian defense ministry on Sunday accused Israeli pilots of “a lack of professionalism, or, at a minimum, criminal negligence” for their role in the shooting down of a Russian reconnaissance aircraft over Syria on Monday. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to quickly put the incident behind them, but Sunday’s statement from the Russian ministry says that the Israelis failed to give Russia enough advance warning of the strike and alleges that an Israeli pilot actually used the Russian plane for cover, putting it at additional risk. Israel responded to the statement, denying that it had done anything wrong and saying that it stuck to previous Israel-Russia deconfliction agreements.

The Kosovar government says it would be happy to place its embassy in Jerusalem if only Israel would recognize Kosovo and allow it to open an embassy. Wow, what a generous offer.

SAUDI ARABIA

Bruce Reidel says that Mohammad bin Salman’s follies have left his succession in doubt and the stability of the Saudi kingdom very much up in the air:

Fearing for his security, the crown prince is said to spend many nights on his half-billion-dollar yacht moored in Jeddah. It’s a floating palace longer than a football field and with many perks. It is also a potential escape hatch.

As long as his father is on the throne, the crown prince is probably the most likely heir. If the king dies suddenly and soon, the succession may be disputed and even violent. In time, and with greater success in policymaking, the king’s legitimacy may flow to his son. But not now.

IRAN

The weekend’s biggest Middle East story was of course Saturday’s terrorist attack in Iran:

At least 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded in an attack on a military parade in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz on Saturday, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported, citing the deputy governor-general of Khouzestan province, Hossein Hosseinzadeh.

The dead and wounded were both military personnel and civilians including a journalist who were watching the parade, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) added.

“Terrorists began shooting from a long distance while inside the park, at the armed forces as well as civilians watching the parade,” Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarch, a spokesman for the Iranian armed forces told Mehr, a semi-official Iranian news agency.

Three of the attackers were gunned down during clashes with the security forces and one other was arrested, news agencies reported.

Speculation is rampant about who carried out the attack. An Arab militant group called the Ahvaz National Resistance claimed responsibility, and Iran has had problems with separatism among the Arab population of Khuzestan province since the 1920s at least. However, ISIS also claimed responsibility, and produced a video purporting to show three of the men who were involved in the attack. One of these does not preclude the other, necessarily, nor does either preclude the possibility that a third party might have supported the attack. But where, oh where might someone find such a third party?

Goldberg: I’m curious about Donald Trump and Barack Obama on this issue. It seems you think Donald Trump has a better understanding of this issue than Barack Obama.

MbS: Both of them understand it. I believe that President Obama had different tactics. President Obama believed that if he gave Iran opportunities to open up, it would change. But with a regime based on this ideology, it will not open up soon. Sixty percent of the Iranian economy is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. The economic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal are not going to the people. They took $150 billion after the deal—can you please name one housing project they built with this money? One park? One industrial zone? Can you name for me the highway that they built? I advise them—please show us something that you’re building a highway with $150 billion. For Saudi Arabia, there is a 0.1 percent chance that this deal would work to change the country. For President Obama it was 50 percent. But even if there’s a 50 percent chance that it would work, we can’t risk it. The other 50 percent is war. We have to go to a scenario where there is no war.

We are pushing back on these Iranian moves. We’ve done this in Africa, Asia, in Malaysia, in Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon. We believe that after we push back, the problems will move inside Iran. We don’t know if the regime will collapse or not—it’s not the target, but if it collapses, great, it’s their problem. We have a war scenario in the Middle East right now. This is very dangerous for the world. We cannot take the risk here. We have to take serious painful decisions now to avoid painful decisions later.

Ah, right. Good point.

Iranian leaders have lashed out, promising retribution and blaming everybody–ISIS, internal enemies, the Arab Gulf states, European countries, the US. Iran’s foreign ministry summoned ambassadors from the UK, the Netherlands, and Denmark to complain that the Ahvazi resistance movement has been active in all three countries. But it’s clear that Iran is convinced this was an Ahvazi attack, rather than ISIS, and Tehran is focusing its ire on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Iranian officials, it should be noted, have accused both the Saudis and the Emiratis of supporting militant movements in Khuzestan in the past, not without reason. And the Saudis would certainly stand to gain from arranging an attack in Iran that in turn caused Iran to act impetuously and escalate its tensions with the US.

UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash has denied that the Emiratis were involved in Saturday’s violence, while Nikki Haley suggested the the Iranian government’s repression of Khuzestan Arabs was to blame–a deep thought that she would never in a million years make to explain why, say, Palestinians in Gaza sometimes try to attack Israel. Cranks (the Extremely Online will know what I mean) have suggested this was a false flag attack intended to drum up sympathy for Iran, but so far I haven’t seen anybody of real prominence pushing that theory.

Author: DWD

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