Middle East update: September 28-30 2018

SYRIA

The Islamist rebel group Faylaq al-Sham (“The Levant Corps”) on Sunday reportedly began withdrawing from the demilitarized zone established in Idlib province under the Russia-Turkey deescalation agreement. It’s the first rebel group to make that move. On the other hand, a formerly US-backed Free Syrian Army faction called Jaysh al-Izza (“The Army of Glory”) rejected the deescalation arrangement on Saturday. The group says it objects to the fact that the demilitarized zone is being taken entirely from rebel-held territory rather than split evenly between rebel- and government-held territory. Jaysh al-Izza has worked with Turkey in the past but notably did not join the National Liberation Front that Turkey established in northern Syria to try to consolidate its control over several rebel factions there.

Raqqa’s makeshift police force reported on Sunday that it had killed two members and captured five other members of an ISIS cell inside the city. The apparently raided a safehouse used by the cell on Saturday and found, among other things, firearms and explosives that were presumably going to be used to carry out some kind of attack.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now accusing the US of breaking its commitment with respect to the US-Turkey “roadmap” for Manbij. Turkey wants to begin joint patrols with the US inside the town, per its readout of the roadmap. But the US readout doesn’t say anything about joint patrols in the town, and the Manbij Leadership Council is refusing to allow Turkish forces to enter.

YEMEN

The Houthis claimed on Sunday that they carried out attacks on the Jizan port in Saudi Arabia and the Dubai International Airport in, well, Dubai. Neither seems to have succeeded. Emirati authorities say Dubai International has been operating normally, and the Saudi military says it “intercepted and destroyed” two explosives-filled remote control boats that were heading for the port.

Meanwhile, United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths announced another attempt at holding Yemeni peace talks on Friday. Griffiths spent the UN General Assembly session shuttling around to various stakeholders trying to get some consensus on a process that would start with a few confidence-building/humanitarian measures (prisoner exchanges, reopening Sanaa airport, that sort of thing) and hopefully escalate to face-to-face negotiations eventually. Also on Friday, the UN Human Rights Council voted 21-8 with 18 abstentions to extend the mandate of a UN panel investigating war crimes allegations in Yemen. The Yemeni government said it would refuse to cooperate with the investigation on account of its keeps harping on irrelevant incidents like every time the Saudis bomb an orphanage or whatever.

IRAQ

The United States announced on Friday that it’s closing its consulate in Basra, citing security concerns and blaming Iran, naturally. We’re just a couple of months away from the Trump administration blaming Iran for the Black Death, really. Here’s the thing though–according to the New York Times, they may have closed the consulate to save money and are just using the closure as another excuse to bash the Iranians:

Separately, senior State Department officials have been debating for more than a year whether to close down the Basra consulate, mainly to save money, according to three former State Department officials. The consulate costs at least $200 million to operate each year; some estimates put that number at $350 million.

Before he left office in March, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson demanded deep budget cuts from bureaus across the department. As a result, senior officials at its Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs began to consider closing the Basra consulate, the former officials said.

The consulate was put under a security review process, which meant that each year officials would assess the security situation to determine whether it was safe to keep it open.

The State Department said Friday night that it does not comment on internal deliberations.

The votes haven’t even been counted in Sunday’s Kurdistan regional parliamentary election and already the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said it will reject the results and then promptly walked back that rejection. Sounds like things are going really well then! Even before the PUK decided to start preemptively sulking, the chances that the vote was going to do anything other than consolidate the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s hold on power in the region–thanks in part to the PUK’s internal discord–were pretty slim. Reports have suggested low turnout, which was expected, and several irregularities, also expected.

JORDAN

Syrian state media reported on Saturday that Damascus was about to reopen its Nassib border crossing with Jordan, a huge commercial step that would reconnect Syria overland not just with Jordan but with the entire Gulf. The crossing had been closed for about three years while the Syrian side was under rebel control, until the government recaptured it in July. However, the news that the crossing was about to open again was…greeted as a complete surprise by Jordanian authorities, who said they’ve reached no agreement with Damascus about taking that step and whose cooperation is probably essential to actually making it happen.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers killed another seven Palestinians, including two boys, 12 and 14 years old respectively, during Friday’s weekly Gaza protest. The Israeli Defense Forces say that some demonstrators threw explosives in the general direction of Israeli forces. Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem are planning a general strike for Monday to coincide with a general strike by Israeli Arabs against Israel’s Nation State Law. Monday is a Jewish holiday anyway so the impact is likely to be small but the potential for violence could be fairly high.

The European Union pledged some $46 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on Friday, which should close a big chunk of UNRWA’s remaining budget deficit. In other UN news, the Palestinian government has filed suit at the International Court of Justice to reverse the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Several UN resolutions have treated Jerusalem as neutral ground whose status needs to be determined via negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. This is a hollow gesture, really, since the US will simply ignore the ICJ ruling if it goes in the Palestinians’ favor, but a ruling against the US might help dissuade other countries from following Washington’s lead.

Israeli journalist Haggai Matar talks about the kind of Palestinian “state” Benjamin Netanyahu might actually be willing to accept:

One cannot regard Netanyahu’s statements, ostensibly made in good faith, without considering the context in which they were said — that is, in reaction to the president’s statement, which Netanyahu did not wish to contradict. We must, however, remember that only a month ago that same Netanyahu said he sees “no urgency” in promoting any sort of peace deal, and that “peace is made with the strong” – something that clearly does not reflect the Palestinians’ political situation at present.

Yet if we are to take Netanyahu seriously, ignoring the ways in which he has made a career out of dismantling the two-state solution, and even if we remember that Trump’s understanding of the peace process includes taking issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinians refugees off the table, we still need to understand what he means when he says that Israel would maintain “security control” of the entire territory west of the Jordan River.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

At LobeLog, Gulf analysts Giorgio Cafiero and Bridgett Neff look at the ways in which China is supplanting the US as the most important foreign power in the region:

As Saudi Arabia and the UAE hedge their bets, Beijing is the world capital that can most credibly provide Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with a counter-balance to Washington’s role in the Arab world. For years, China has been pouring money into investment, development, and humanitarian assistance across the MENA region, culminating in a loan and aid package of $23 billion to Arab League members announced in July. China is already the region’s number one trading partner and imports more than half of its crude oil from Arab countries. This linkage between China and MENA states is likely to increase with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), which envisions the Arab world as an international hub that links Asian, European, and African markets with, of course, China at the center of international trade.

The Saudi relationship with Beijing, in particular, is extremely important. In this century’s first decade, Saudi Arabia became China’s chief supplier of crude oil, and China replaced the United States as the kingdom’s top exporter partner. Sino-Emirati economic relations have also deepened significantly, with the UAE currently accounting for roughly one-third of all Chinese exports to Arab states and over one-fifth of total Sino-Arab trade.

SAUDI ARABIA

There were signs this weekend that the vaunted Trump-Saudi relationship might be fraying a little bit, and in a fairly predictable way given that oil prices have rocketed up to the $80/barrel range. Trump reportedly called King Salman on Saturday to complain that OPEC is “ripping off” the US with high oil prices, though of course it’s Trump’s own Iran policy that’s caused much of this most recent increase. This complaint then naturally meandered into Trump’s other complaint about the Gulf countries, that the US provides much of their national defense and they don’t pay for the privilege. Trump then reiterated his gripes at a campaign rally in West Virginia.

The Saudis have already heard these complaints and still decided that higher oil prices are worth pissing Trump off a little, so I’d be surprised if they suddenly change course now. I’m actually a little amazed that Trump hasn’t tried to claim credit for the price increase as a method of creating new fracking jobs, but I guess higher gasoline prices outweigh job creation, politically speaking. He may still try to go that route though.

IRAN

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on Friday that its forces killed four “terrorists” near the Pakistani border. Iranian media later reported that the four were members of Jaysh al-Adl, a Sunni militant group that operates in Sistan and Baluchistan province and is alleged to have links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

So, that “secret nuclear facility” Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel discovered in downtown Tehran? Al-Monitor’s Arash Karami has found evidence suggesting it’s actually the site of a defunct rug cleaning company:

https://twitter.com/thekarami/status/1046408545346834433

In news that is completely unsurprising, Iranian officials say their plan for getting around restrictions on their use of the US dollar in international commerce will be to…simply not use the US dollar:

Iran plans to get around U.S. sanctions on its oil sales by selling its petroleum and conducting international trade in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, the Iranian diplomat who negotiated the nuclear deal said Saturday.

“The actual mechanism would be to avoid dollars,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters at a roundtable at the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York on Saturday evening, saying countries are starting to make agreements to use their own currencies in bilateral trade.

“You can use your own currency,” he explained. “Sell stuff in your own currency, buy stuff in the other country’s currency, and at the end of a specific period, balance it out in a non-dollar currency. It’s quite possible and may even be profitable.”

Again, Iran is too small and too irrelevant on its own for this to matter in itself, but if it starts a trend whereby other countries, larger countries, decide maybe they don’t need to use the dollar either? That road leads to a massive rejiggering of the global commercial system in ways that aren’t going to benefit US hegemony.

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