Middle East update: October 4 2018

attwiw is taking the long weekend off, so these will be our last updates until Tuesday. Thanks for reading!

SYRIA

The US is very miffed at Russia for selling its S-300 air defense system to the Syrian government. General Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, referred to the sale as a “needless escalation” that “appears to be an effort to cover for Iranian and Syrian regime nefarious activities in Syria.” Why the US feels entitled to comment on one country’s arms sales to another country is of course a question best left unasked. The S-300 will make it harder for Israeli to conduct its at-will airstrikes on Syria, which is part of the reason for the sale and for the US angst about that sale, but ultimately the S-300 is Soviet-era technology that the Israelis can probably defeat if they really feel compelled to do so. They might have to be a little more discerning about their Syrian strikes now but they won’t be completely deterred from them.

Speaking of foreign countries treating Syria like a big military playground, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday that his military won’t pull out of northern Syria until “the people of Syria hold their election.” So they’re planning on sticking around for a while I guess. And if they want to extend their stay they can always argue that whatever election Bashar al-Assad eventually does hold isn’t legitimate for some reason. Chances are they’ll even be right–the Assads aren’t big on free and fair elections.

TURKEY

A PKK roadside bomb killed at least seven Turkish soldiers in Batman province on Thursday. And Turkish officials said that they’ve killed some 13 PKK fighters over two days of airstrikes in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, the case of the vanishing Jamal Khashoggi is becoming a geopolitical incident. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and frequent regime critic who’s been living in self-imposed exile, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday and appears not to have exited it, at least not as far as any of his friends or family can tell. Saudi authorities insist he left the building but video evidence does not support that claim. On Thursday, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned the Saudi ambassador for questioning about Khashoggi’s apparent disappearance. Turkey and the Saudis are already on rocky ground, and this incident seems likely to cause a further deterioration in their relationship.

Also on Thursday, Erdoğan suggested in a speech that Turkey may hold a referendum to see if its citizens still want to join the European Union. This seems like bluster to me. The EU has really never had any intention of admitting Turkey and its very large, very Muslim population to the bloc, and it certainly couldn’t do so now that the far right has seized the momentum in European politics. But stringing Turkey along has allowed the EU to tightly manage its relationship with Ankara. Erdoğan may at one time have actually wanted to bring Turkey into the EU–he based a lot of his initial appeal to Turkish voters on the idea that he could end the cycle of military coups that used to be the big obstacle to Turkey’s accession–but at this point he’s clearly more interested in being able to complain that Europe is jerking him around, which plays well with his nationalist base. Erdoğan periodically threatens a referendum as a shot across the EU’s bow, but if he were to hold a vote and the Turkish people voted to end their accession bid, he’d lose the issue as a political weapon. He probably doesn’t want to risk that.

IRAQ

Presumably tired of the split custody arrangement that’s helping to destabilize its politics, the Iraqi government is offering to mediate between the United States and Iran:

“Iraq is capable and willing to facilitate and create communication between not only … the US and Iran, but with all the countries in the region,” Ahmed Mahjoub, spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a small group of journalists and analysts at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington.

“During the recent two years, Iraq was able to solve a couple of problems between states,” Mahjoub said, adding that he could not discuss the details because the parties agreed not to disclose the Iraqi role in those mediations. “But I assure you that Iraq managed to solve problems between states during the last few years, and I believe that Iraq is willing to continue to this role.”

He stressed that Iraq can’t afford to be the battleground for any US-Iran escalation.

Al Jazeera reports on Iraqi efforts to eradicate the last bit of ISIS presence in Anbar province:

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military is moving extra military units (including tanks) to the Gaza fence line ahead of Friday’s regularly scheduled anti-blockade protest. It’s unclear to me whether they’re expecting this week’s protest specifically to be a major one or they’re just calculating that tensions in Gaza can only keep escalating for so long before they really burst, but either way this is not a welcome development to say the least.

Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yehiya Sinwar, gave an interview to Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot that will appear on Friday. Among his comments, Sinwar called for a ceasefire with Israel and said another Gaza war “is in no one’s interest.” But he also said that “an explosion is inevitable” unless the Israeli blockade is alleviated. Sinwar later accused the reporter who conducted the interview, freelancer Francesca Borri, of misleading him about where the interview would be published, saying he would never have agreed to do an interview for an Israeli news outlet. But Borri insists that she did not misrepresent herself and the accusation is likely a way for Sinwar save a little face.

KUWAIT

The Arab Gulf States Institute’s Kristin Smith Diwan analyzes last month’s visit to Kuwait by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and what it meant for the Saudi-Kuwait relationship:

On September 30, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led a Saudi delegation to Kuwait. As the first formal visit of the crown prince to a Gulf Cooperation Council country since becoming the heir apparent, and the first state visit to the emirate by a senior Saudi royal since Kuwait’s liberation in 1991, the occasion drew much anticipation. The extremely short visit of only a few hours and perfunctory statements issued by both states at the meetings’ conclusion thus struck observers as odd. Kuwaitis on social media and some regional commentators speculated that the visit had gone badly, and that key issues – the proposed reopening of production in the Neutral Zone oil fields or the Qatar crisis – had generated disputes. This earned the formal rebuke of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which rejected this speculation and reaffirmed the close ties between the two countries.

Early reports do suggest a lack of immediate progress on key issues, though these may change with more information or further negotiations. Meanwhile, the composition of the Saudi delegation, which included an advance visit by the Saudi foreign minister followed by the ministers of energy, information, commerce, and culture, as well as the interior minister and head of general intelligence, indicate a broad engagement across the varied spheres of the economy, culture, and security. Local news reports about their meetings provide the opportunity to assess the priorities and potential of the new Saudi-Kuwaiti coordination council established in July and tasked with enhancing cooperation between the two neighboring states.

Diwan suggests that the Neutral Zone oil issue has taken on new urgency with prices rising and Donald Trump’s temper doing likewise. If the Saudis are going to pump out additional oil to try to reduce global prices, it may have to come from the untapped supply in those fields.

SAUDI ARABIA

Reuters is reporting that the Saudi government wants to expand its relationships with South African weapons manufacturers, and may purchase an equity stake in the struggling South African government-owned arms company Denel. With MBS at the helm the Saudis look like they’re going to need a lot of military hardware in the years to come, and they’re trying to expand their own domestic arms industry to meet at least part of that demand. The deal with Denel would bring that company to Saudi Arabia to set up operations there.

At TomDispatch, the Center for International Policy’s Ben Freeman writes about the Saudi lobbying network in Washington and its efforts to, among other things, maintain US support for the war in Yemen:

It was May 2017. The Saudis were growing increasingly nervous. For more than two years they had been relying heavily on U.S. military support and bombs to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen. Now, the Senate was considering a bipartisan resolution to cut off military aid and halt a big sale of American-made bombs to Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for them, despite mounting evidence that the U.S.-backed, supplied, and fueled air campaign in Yemen was targeting civilians, the Saudi government turned out to have just the weapon needed to keep those bombs and other kinds of aid coming their way: an army of lobbyists.

That year, their forces in Washington included members of more than two dozen lobbying and public relations firms. Key among them was Marc Lampkin, managing partner of the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS), a company that would be paid nearly half a million dollars by the Saudi government in 2017. Records from the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) show that Lampkin contacted Senate offices more than 20 times about that resolution, speaking, for instance, with the legislative director for Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) on May 16, 2017. Perhaps coincidentally, Lampkin reported making a $2,000 contribution to the senator’s political action committee that very day. On June 13th, along with a majority of his fellow senators, Scott voted to allow the Saudis to get their bombs. A year later, the type of bomb authorized in that sale has reportedly been used in air strikes that have killed civilians in Yemen.

Little wonder that, for this and his other lobbying work, Lampkin earned a spot on the “Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns” list compiled by the Washington publication the Hill.

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were all smiles on Wednesday as they praised European efforts to keep the nuclear deal alive by developing alternative payment mechanisms that skirt US sanctions. I suspect much of this is for effect. Europe can’t do much, at least in the short term, to circumvent the US-controlled global financial system, but they are making what seems to be a genuine effort and Rouhani and Zarif are smart to acknowledge that. Praising European efforts also helps the two of them answer conservative critics at home who want to pull Iran out of the nuclear deal now. The longer Iran appears to make a good faith effort at staying in the deal the more isolated the US becomes diplomatically, and while again that’s not going to do much to alleviate the pain of US sanctions now it could pay off down the road in terms of weakening the diplomatic underpinnings of those sanctions.

At Foreign Policy, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that, in restoring oil sanctions and thereby driving more oil sales into the black market, which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls, it is deliberately enriching the IRGC at the Iranian people’s expense. Why? To undermine Iranian moderates, destabilize the country, and increase the potential for a military confrontation:

To this end, the Trump administration’s characterization of its sanctions policy is dishonest, at least in its presentation of the intended and unintended consequences of the policy. If limiting the financial means of the IRGC and its proxies were the intended consequence of the sanctions policy, the current strategy would be falling short while very demonstrably having the unintended consequence of unduly harming the Iranian people through economic hardship.

In this formulation, the administration is failing to achieve its stated goals despite the ample evidence that its chosen strategy will not work. But if you flip the intended and unintended consequences, a more likely explanation becomes clear. The boon for the IRGC is the unintended consequence of a strategy that is designed foremost to put pressure on the Iranian economy at large.

In this formulation, which is consistent with the destabilization strategy many have attributed to the Trump administration, the enriching of the IRGC is acceptable for two reasons. First, it serves to justify the administration’s approach after the fact, by accelerating the securitization of the Iranian economy after recent progress by the Rouhani administration to beat back IRGC encroachment. Second, any so-called failure of sanctions to curb the IRGC simply opens the door to a more direct U.S. pushback using military force.

Author: DWD

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