Middle East update: September 26 2018

SYRIA

Officials involved with Turkish-aligned Syrian rebel groups in Idlib claim they’ve seen signs that jihadi groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, are preparing to abide by the agreement Turkey and Russia reached to establish a demilitarized zone between rebel and government forces in the province. If true that should mean the agreement will hold, for now. There’s still the longer term problem that the Syrian government cannot possibly abide having a group like HTS occupying a part of the country indefinitely, nor for that matter is it likely to abide Turkey occupying a part of the country indefinitely.

Steven Simon looks at the three conflicts still ongoing in Syria and concludes that the best thing the United States can do is, essentially, to watch them play out:

With the Islamic State largely eliminated militarily and the Bashar al-Assad regime in control of Syria’s densely populated western reaches and pausing prior to a major campaign to retake Idlib, a major rebel stronghold, the Syrian civil war is entering a new phase. Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States are still engaged in the conflict, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia seem to be out. Three separate regional battles among the remaining players—in Idlib, in the territory near the Golan Heights, and in Syria’s eastern reaches—will determine the country’s future.

President Donald Trump has been explicit about his desire to wind down U.S. involvement as quickly as possible. In March, he told political supporters that “we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. … We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.” The government he presides over, though, takes a different view. The United States now has a “new policy,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. secretary of state’s new special representative for Syria engagement, told the Washington Post in September. “We’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” Jeffrey said the administration aims for a more “active approach” to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State and to push Iran out of Syria. “That means we are not in a hurry,” he said, adding, perhaps to convince himself, “I am confident the president is on board with this.”

Whether or not the president is on board, the truth is that the United States has almost no real influence in Syria and lacks the resources, capacity, and political resolve to sustain a major military and diplomatic commitment to shape the region’s future. In this latest phase of the war, then, restraint would be the better part of valor.

YEMEN

A new study from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project finds that civilian casualties have climbed by 164 percent since June, when the coalition began its offensive to capture Hudaydah. The conflict is now killing an estimated 166 civilians per month and that number could climb higher as the Hudaydah offensive continues.

TURKEY

Two local guards were killed by an improvised explosive device on Wednesday in Şırnak province. Kurdish militants were likely responsible.

IRAQ

The World Bank says Iraq is entering a severe jobs crisis, as its population continues to rise and the percentage of that population under 25 rises as well. The Iraqi economy is in tatters and has been since at least the US invasion, plus the country’s rampant corruption, weak banks,  and ruined infrastructure (Basra is rapidly becoming a giant open air septic tank) have stifled the emergence of a strong private sector. This means the only reliable source of employment in Iraq is the public sector, and that’s simply not enough. No government can tolerate the long-term unemployment of a large segment of its population, particularly not one as structurally weak as the Iraqi government.

LEBANON

Despite bipartisan agreement that Hezbollah Is The Devil, Congress has been unable to pass a bill that would tighten sanctions on entities found to be doing business with the group in any way. Al-Monitor’s Bryant Harris says that’s because Lebanese banks have been lobbying against the measure, which could impact them, and that’s gotten some senators to waver on the House’s stronger version of the bill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

After speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Donald Trump declared to reporters his “feeling” that a two-state solution would be the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. He did not specify whether Palestinians would be allowed to live in one of the two states. Later he clarified that he’s also cool with a one-state solution if that’s how it shakes out, but again it’s unclear whether he, or the Israelis, would be open to any Palestinians living in that one state.

I kid, but this is an interesting development. Though the “two-state solution” is the diplomatic equivalent of Ötzi the Iceman at this point (dead and frozen), Trump hadn’t actually expressed an opinion on how he’d like to see this situation be resolved. Presumably because he, you know, doesn’t understand the issue and doesn’t really give a shit. Netanyahu said he was “not surprised” by Trump’s statement, and frankly why should he care when Trump still hasn’t shown the slightest inclination toward addressing any Palestinian concerns?

PERSIAN GULF

The Trump administration is pulling four Patriot missile defense batteries out of the Middle East–two from Kuwait, one from Bahrain, and one from Jordan. This will weaken air defenses in those countries even as the US continues to escalate toward a confrontation with Iran, but the move is apparently part of the Pentagon’s overall plan to  reduce its commitments in the Middle East and refocus its efforts on containing China and/or Russia or, failing that, planning for war with China and/or Russia.

It occurs to me that I’m old enough to remember when Republicans blamed Barack Obama personally for the rise of ISIS because he drew down US forces in the Middle East and talked about “pivoting to Asia” or whatever.

QATAR

Qatar Petroleum says it’s increasing its natural gas production, which seems to be as much to stick Qatar’s thumb in Saudi Arabia’s eye as for economic reasons.

Despite making some improvements to its overall labor system, Amnesty International says the Qatari government is still mistreating migrant workers brought in to prepare the country to host the 2022 World Cup:

A new investigation by Amnesty International has exposed how an engineering company involved in building  infrastructure linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup took advantage of Qatar’s notorious sponsorship system to exploit scores of migrant workers. The company, Mercury MENA, failed to pay its workers thousands of dollars in wages and work benefits, leaving them stranded and penniless in Qatar.

The organization is calling for the Qatari government to ensure former employees of Mercury MENA receive the money they earned, and to fundamentally reform the “kafala” sponsorship system that has allowed numerous companies to exploit migrant workers, as documented by Amnesty International and others since 2013.

SAUDI ARABIA

Donald Trump may be satisfied with the Saudi government’s counterterrorism efforts, but, as James Dorsey writes, the Financial Action Task Force definitely is not:

A Financial Action Task Force (FATF) report criticizing Saudi Arabia’s anti-money laundering and terrorism finance measures puts the kingdom on the spot 17 years after the 9/11 attacks and casts a shadow over its diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar on the grounds that the Gulf state supports militants.

In a nod to the kingdom, the international watchdog described as “understandable” the fact the kingdom’s “almost exclusive focus of authorities on domestic (terrorist financing) offences means the authorities are not prioritizing disruption of support for threats outside the kingdom.”

The 246-page report contrasted starkly with US President Donald J. Trump’s assessment expressed in his address to the United Nations general assembly. “Following my trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Gulf countries opened a new centre to target terrorist financing. They are enforcing new sanctions. They are working with us to identify and track terrorist networks and taking more responsibility for fighting terrorism and extremism in their own region, Mr. Trump said.

IRAN

Lots of Iran stuff again today because of the UNGA. First of all, ISIS on Wednesday once again took credit for the weekend terrorist attack in Ahvaz, via its al-Furqan media network. A spokesman for the group said that the Ahvaz attack “will not be the last.”

In light of the Ahvaz attack, Paul Pillar criticizes the US government’s incessant, basically rote references to Iran as the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”:

The administration’s attempt to paint Iran as a major problem in international terrorism is badly misleading. This is readily apparent in looking at any picture of terrorism that includes the groups that have to be in the center of that picture—al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or iS)—and that necessarily are mentioned up front in the up-front part of the State Department report. Iran is on the opposite side from these groups on almost any political, ideological, and sectarian divide that matters. Iran also is on the opposite side from those groups on multiple Middle Eastern battlefields. This is true in Iraq, where Iran has provided more help than any other outsider in freeing western Iraq from the grip of IS. It is true in Syria, where Iran aids a Syrian regime that is now targeting the rebel redoubt in Idlib province in which the most powerful group and de facto local government is the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. It is true in Yemen, where the Houthi movement that has received Iranian aid is one of the fiercest opponents of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that has come closest to accomplishing a post-9/11 mass-casualty attack in the United States.

Iran has paid a price for its opposition to these terrorist groups, most dramatically in June of last year, when an IS attack on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran killed 17 civilians and wounded dozens more. An equivalent in the United States would be an IS attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Against the backdrop of such a revenge attack, think of how inappropriate, not to mention outrageous, it would be to talk of the United States as being on the wrong side of international terrorism.

On Wednesday, Donald Trump chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council that was focused on “nonproliferation” but was in reality supposed to be about Iran. The US had been planning for the session to be explicitly focused on Iran. But the administration decided to change the session’s ostensible focus to nonproliferation because holding the meeting on “Iran” would have obliged them to invite an Iranian delegation to attend. Anyway the whole thing went really, really well:

One day after his boast of unprecedented US greatness drew laughter at the United Nations, President Donald Trump’s isolation on the global stage was on full display today at the Security Council.

The US leader showed no sign of contriteness as one world leader after another ripped into his administration’s decision to exit the 2015 nuclear deal as he chaired a counter-proliferation briefing. Instead, Trump put foreign officials on notice that they would have to follow America’s lead, not the other way around.

Bolivian President Evo Morales was apparently especially animated in his criticism, but I’ll cover that later. The upshot is that while in every tangible sense the US is going to win this showdown with Iran and the rest of the world because it’s the US and that’s how things go, in almost every intangible sense it is the United States that emerges from this confrontation as the pariah, not Iran. And that could change the nature of this conflict moving forward, even if it’s not going to save Iran from the current round of US sanctions. As Barbara Slavin suggests, even if you think the Trump administration’s goal here is commendable the manner in which it’s going about achieving that goal could be self-defeating in the longer term.

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