Middle East update: December 10 2018

SYRIA

The Syrian military announced on Monday that it’s going to demobilize conscripts and reserves who have completed five years of military service in the civil war (in the case of conscripts, that means five years beyond their mandatory 18 months of service). This reflects quite a turnaround for the Syrian government, which was so short of manpower before Russia intervened in 2015 that it began implementing a plan to cede large chunks of the country to rebels and defend only core areas like Damascus and the country’s Mediterranean coast. It may buy Bashar al-Assad some goodwill among Syrians who are beyond tired of war, and presumably means he doesn’t think he’ll need those forces if and when (more likely when) his military finally moves against the rebels in Idlib province.

United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura says he and his team are hard at work trying to form a Syrian constitutional committee by the end of 2018. Damascus is balking at the formation of a 50 person bloc of women, minorities, tribal leaders, civil society experts, and other groups to go along with the 50 person government and rebel teams on the committee. It also rejects the idea of rewriting the Syrian constitution, insisting on only amending the current constitution. De Mistura’s final report as UN envoy is scheduled for December 20, at which time it will assess whether there’s any chance of getting this constitutional effort off the ground.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the Syrian Democratic Forces have seized a hospital on the outskirts of Hajin, the largest town still under ISIS’s control. The facility had already apparently been destroyed by a US airstrike. China’s Xinhua news outlet reported, based on the SOHR, that the SDF has moved another 500 Kurdish fighters into Hajin to reinforce its lines, after an apparent ISIS counterattack over the weekend pushed the SDF off of some of the territory it had taken in Hajin.

YEMEN

Yemeni peace talks in Sweden are apparently in a rough patch, as UN envoy Martin Griffiths told reporters on Monday that rebel and government negotiators “are not there yet” in terms of reaching agreements on deescalation. But they do seem to have made some progress. The Yemeni government seems prepared to allow the UN to place monitors at Hudaydah’s seaport, which would presumably ease the risk of fighting there, though it will not allow monitors or peacekeepers in Hudaydah city. It will also agree to allow port revenues to go to Yemen’s central bank rather than into its own coffers in Aden. And the two sides have reportedly finalized the details of their prisoner swap, which should be completed in January. As many as 3500 prisoners on both sides could be freed under the terms of the deal.

TURKEY

Stymied in its efforts to have senior Saudi officials extradited to Turkey to stand trial for the Jamal Khashoggi murder, the Turkish government says that “it will be in the best interest of the international community to seek justice for the late Saudi journalist under international law.” It is beyond hypocritical for this Turkish government to suddenly start championing international law, but we’ve been through that particular looking glass pretty much since Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2. At any rate Turkey’s call for the international community to Do Something amounts to little more than this:

So I don’t think Saudi al-Qahtani has anything to worry about.

IRAQ

The Iraqi government reopened Baghdad’s “Green Zone” to the public on Monday, over 15 years after it was cordoned off during the US occupation of the city. The date was chosen to mark the one year anniversary of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. The Iraqis are doing a slow reopening for security purposes, and there is a possibility that the zone will be closed off again if there are any problems in that regard.

Al Jazeera reports on displaced Iraqi Yazidis, who are still struggling but aren’t a priority for either Baghdad or the international community anymore:

LEBANON

Lebanon’s economy is basically stagnant and has been since Syria devolved into civil war. But Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is convinced that things will pick up again once the region’s wars are over and foreign investment and international aid can start rolling in to his country. Then again, Hariri can’t even put together a government, so he doesn’t really seem to be the man with the plan here.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers raided the offices of Palestine’s Wafa news agency as well as several other Palestinian-owned businesses in Ramallah on Monday. They’re confiscating security camera footage in an effort to identify the Palestinian who shot and wounded seven Israelis at a bus stop outside the nearby Ofra settlement on Sunday.

Qatar’s envoy for Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, told Gazan media on Monday that he’d broached the idea of building a new airport for the city with Israeli officials, but they’ve “procrastinated” on the issue. The Qataris have offered to ease Israeli security concerns by funneling all air traffic into and out of this hypothetical Gaza airport through Doha airport. Emadi said that the Israelis proposed that the airport be built on Israeli territory outside of Gaza, but that was a non-starter for the Qataris.

QATAR

Sunday’s Gulf Cooperation Council meeting produced nothing in the way of progress toward healing the GCC’s big rift, the one between Saudi Arabia (and Bahrain, and the UAE) and Qatar. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of course didn’t even attend the event, but none of the other Gulf leaders seemed particularly of a mind to patch up their differences. Nobody has any particular incentive to do so–the Qataris have weathered the Saudi-led boycott so there’s no reason for them to relent, and the anti-Qatar quartet hasn’t really suffered any harm either so there’s no reason for them to back off either. The US could impose some cost on one or both sides of the dispute, but antagonizing Qatar serves no purpose and clearly the Trump administration has no interest in going against the Saudis.

SAUDI ARABIA

We have a pretty good sense at this point why the Trump administration refuses to take a hard line on Saudi excesses, but Eli Clifton may have pieced together the main reason why the rest of the Republican Party is soft on them as well:

The House GOP’s decision to go to the mat for the House of Saud might be partially explained by the fact that a longtime lobbyist for Saudi Arabia sits in a position to control a significant portion of the party’s campaign-related spending.

Former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman lobbies for Saudi Arabia via a $125,000-per-month lobbying contract with Hogan Lovells, where Coleman is listed as a “senior counsel.” Coleman also serves as “chairman emeritus” of the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a Super PAC closely tied to retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan. The CLF spent over $158 million on Republican House races during the 2018 midterm campaigns, up from $50 million in 2016, making the CLF the single largest source of independent expenditures  in the election cycle. The CLF bought ads, sent mail, and otherwise advocated for the election or defeat of candidates.

Although Coleman’s role as “chairman emeritus” might sound inconsequential, he played a pivotal in landing the CLF’s biggest contribution of the 2018 cycle, $30 million from billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

The swamp, surely, is being drained.

IRAN

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says that the “special purpose vehicle” being created to insulate Europe-Iran trade from US sanctions should be completed by the end of the year. However, due to fears about possible US sanctions, the project may be significantly scaled back to encompass only humanitarian items rather than, say, oil sales. It’s unlikely that will be enough to satisfy the Iranians, although it’s not as though Iran has a ton of leverage here to force a better arrangement.

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