Middle East update: October 13-14 2018

SYRIA

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that late Saturday rebels located inside the supposed demilitarized zone in Idlib province killed two Syrian soldiers when they fired mortars into neighboring Hama province, and also fired some other mortars into neighboring Aleppo province. Government forces then apparently returned fire. Obviously this is a pretty big problem. Rebels were supposed to have withdrawn heavy weapons from inside the DMZ days ago, and while you can argue that mortars don’t meet the definition of “heavy” weapons (though it seems they are for purposes of the Idlib deescalation agreement), it’s still supposed to be a full-on demilitarized zone as of, uh, tomorrow.

However, the bigger news here may be Sunday’s declaration from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the largest rebel group in Idlib, that it’s cool with the Russian-Turkish deescalation accord. Well, sort of. The group says it will continue its war against the Assad government and will not hand over its weapons, and notably did not actually say it would abide by the terms of the agreement, but it also didn’t reject the agreement.

UPDATE: It is tomorrow now and, well, the rebels don’t seem to have evacuated the DMZ. HTS’s Sunday statement looks like it was deliberately ambiguous as a way to stall for time without wrecking the deal outright. This is probably a story that will develop as the day goes on, so we’ll talk more about it tomorrow.

ISIS fighters attacked a camp for displaced persons near Hajin on Saturday and reportedly abducted as many as 130 families. At least 20 ISIS fighters were killed in the attack along with several Syrian Democratic Forces fighters. According to the SOHR many of the families are of ISIS fighters who have been killed during the SDF’s Hajin operation or previously.

In what should be a boost for the Syrian and Lebanese economies, and Jordan’s as well presumably, the Syrian and Jordanian governments announced on Sunday that they will be reopening their main border crossing at Nassib on Monday, though it will still be some time before it’s operating at full capacity. Jordan closed the crossing in 2015 when the Syrian side was under rebel control and there were concerns about extremists using it to cross into Jordan. But the Syrian army retook Nassib in July. Reopening the crossing will reconnect Syria, and thus Lebanon, by road to Jordan, and thus on to the Persian Gulf. In related news, the Syrians have reportedly been talking to Iraqi officials about reopening their border crossings to commercial traffic. The main Syria-Iraq border crossing at Taif is still controlled by US-backed rebels, but the crossing at al-Bukamal, for example, is under Syrian government control.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition killed at least another 17 Yemeni civilians on Saturday in an airstrike on the city of Hudaydah that struck another bus. Saudi pilots must really have it in for public transportation or something because they can’t seem to help themselves any time they see a bus. The death toll is expected to rise but I haven’t seen any updated figure yet.

IRAQ

It’s not strictly speaking a foreign policy story, but you may be interested in Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple’s investigation into the New York Times’ decision to fire its Baghdad bureau chief, Margaret Coker. Coker apparently worked with Iraqi authorities to bar the NYT’s main terrorism writer, Rukmini Callimachi, from entering the country to film her new NYT-FX series The Weekly, after an incident earlier this year in which Callimachi took thousands of pages of documents from Iraq for a story on ISIS:

A [Callimachi] investigation titled “The ISIS Files” appeared in the New York Times in April, drawing from 15,000 pages of documents gathered over five trips to Iraq. The papers showed just how the Islamic State ruled its caliphate. Awkwardly and brutally, as it turned out. Highlighted in the investigation was the story of Ibrahim Muhammad Khalil, a 14-year-old who was arrested in 2015 by Islamic State police after “laughing during prayer.” Scholars questioned the propriety of gathering and removing so many documents from Iraq.

Iraqi officials weren’t pleased with the goings-on, either. Iraq sent a May 24 letter to Coker herself requesting the return of the documents and a formal apology from the newspaper.  The newspaper eventually did return the documents.

According to informed sources, Coker wound up under suspicion for tipping off Iraqi officials to Callimachi’s arrival with the video crew. The Times interrogated Coker at length about the matter and requested her electronic communications in search of evidence that she had acted appropriately as bureau chief. Leadership at the Times concluded that Coker had essentially colluded with the Iraqi government in barring Callimachi from the country, according to a well-placed Times source.

Sounds like a cool work environment.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli settlers stoned a Palestinian woman to death in her car on Saturday, south of the West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday promised to leave no stone unturned in his search for the murderers and pledged to punish them to the fullest extent of Israeli law.

Just kidding! Actually he threatened to bomb the crap out of Gaza again unless people stop protesting their forced immiseration.

EGYPT

It’s been a weekend of border openings. Apart from the activity in Syria, the Egyptian government announced that it has reopened its border crossing with Israel, a sign that the ISIS insurgency in northern Sinai is coming under control.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi government would very much like you people to get over this whole Jamal Khashoggi business and definitely wants you to know that it’s not scared of your threats of sanctions or the like:

Saudi Arabia on Sunday said it rejects “threats” and political pressure over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul, a day after President Trump said there would be “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is found to have killed the Washington Post Global Opinions columnist.

Threatening to impose economic sanctions and repeating “false accusations” will not undermine the country’s standing, said the statement on Saudi Arabia’s official press agency, which quoted an “official source.” The kingdom’s government and people are “as glorious and steadfast as ever,” it said.

This bluster means, of course, that the Saudis are terrified that sanctions might be coming, that they might finally have gone too far even for the United States, through I’ll believe that when I see it. The panic is almost palpable, particularly in this semi-official editorial from the kingdom’s al-Arabiya network, which threatens nothing short of a Saudi alliance with Iran if the US does anything untoward.

Donald Trump promised “severe punishment” for the Saudis in an interview that will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday evening (full disclosure: I’m writing this before the program airs and I don’t plan to watch it because I’m trying to be nicer to myself these days). Provided, of course, that it’s proven they were responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Which will probably never happen, at least not beyond any doubt, and Trump will cling to that as he justifies doing nothing.

Trump, who you may have noticed sometimes says things without really seeming like he knows what he’s talking about, seems to have definitively ruled out ending arms sales to the Saudis, but assured his CBS audience that “there are other things we can do that are very, very powerful, very strong and we’ll do them.” Well, that clears that up. Trump continues to defend the arms sales, citing the supposed $110 billion in sales he made to the Saudis last year–a figure that is mostly bullshit–and the supposedly huge number of jobs created by those arms sales–a contention that is also mostly bullshit.

As far as the investigation itself is concerned, apart from Turkey’s dubious (probably also bullshit) claim a couple of days ago that Khashoggi recorded his own execution and uploaded it to iCloud–look, guys, just say you have the Saudi consulate bugged, it’s fine–there hasn’t been much sensational reporting over the weekend. The Turkish government complained on Saturday that the Saudis, despite sending a “team” to Turkey to participate in a joint investigative effort, haven’t really been very helpful. You don’t say. But on Sunday Saudi King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently spoke by phone to talk about the importance of their joint investigation.

IRAN

Fars news agency reported on Saturday that Iranian intelligence operatives killed two Kurdish militants in Kermanshah.

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