Middle East update: December 11 2018

SYRIA

Iraqi warplanes bombed two alleged ISIS positions near the Syrian town of Susah on Tuesday, potentially (according to the Iraqis) targeting upwards of 45 ISIS fighters across both targets. Susah is located a bit south of Hajin along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, not far from the Iraqi border. It’s unclear whether this operation would have been conducted in conjunction with the US-SDF operation underway around Hajin, but I think we can assume there was some coordination.

The Pentagon now says that all of its observations posts in northern Syria are operational. The posts are ostensibly there to make sure Turkey’s security concerns are met, but that’s creative phrasing–they’re really there to keep Turkey from attacking the YPG any more. That’s why the Turkish government has been objecting to this plan from the start and would still very much like to see the observation posts taken down.

At War on the Rocks, Aaron Stein examines US failures in Syria, first by pushing back against the fiction that the US didn’t try to oust Bashar al-Assad:

But the myth of America’s “failure to act” overlooks the critical fact that the United States did intervene in Syria, as did Russia, Iran, and Turkey. This viewpoint also misrepresents the unintended consequences of American action. Contrary to the dominant narrative of American apathy, the United States did seek to remove Assad from power through the clandestine support of the Syrian insurgency. And it was this intervention that prompted Russia to step in to support the beleaguered Assad regime, undermining the U.S. goal of regime change. American policy in Syria ultimately backfired not because Obama was weak, but because U.S. intervention spurred second-order effects, specifically the Russian decision to intervene on behalf of an ally that seemed on the verge of being overthrown.

The U.S. experience in Syria is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of unconventional warfare and intervention in civil conflicts — specifically, how American actions can inadvertently prompt escalation. The Syrian case should be a reminder about the need to thoroughly understand the interests of American adversaries and ascribe to these countries the agency to make policy in line with those interests.

Flimsy arguments about America’s failure to act are preventing a more serious discussion about the U.S. experience in Syria. In the future, analytical errors about how we got to this point in the conflict will prevent America from crafting a more serious policy towards a revanchist Russia in the Middle East.

YEMEN

United Nations negotiators are pushing both the Houthis and the Yemeni government to leave Hudaydah–the seaport and the city–and place it under international control. The Houthis may actually agree to this but the Yemeni government has resisted any notion of an international takeover of Hudaydah city as an attack on Yemeni sovereignty. It’s been more amenable to the idea of international control of the port, but without similar control of the city and its transportation networks it’s not clear how useful that would be from a humanitarian perspective. Western governments appear to be leaning heavily on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to in turn pressure the Yemenis to accept the UN proposal.

On the plus side, the Houthis and the government agreed on Tuesday to a vastly larger prisoner exchange than they’d previously been discussing. The plan now is for more than 15,000 people to be released in total by January 20, though the large number of prisoners involved could delay that somewhat. The two sides have exchanged their prisoner lists, which will be reviewed over the next several weeks before a final list is drawn up. Assuming it all comes to fruition this could make for a major confidence-building step toward further peace talks.

The UN says that two anti-tank missile launchers allegedly taken from the Houthis by the pro-government coalition appear to have been manufactured in Iran in either 2016 or 2017. This would lend credence to claims that the Iranians have been directly arming the Houthis in violation of a UN resolution, though it may be impossible to prove that the Houthis didn’t obtain the weapons on the international black market.

TURKEY

Turkey’s Alevi religious minority won an important court victory last month, as the Appeals Court ruled that the Turkish government should pay electricity costs at Alevi cemevis as it does for Sunni and Shiʿa mosques, since they are houses of worship. Turkey’s office of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has traditionally paid for electricity at mosques, but disingenuously cites Turkey’s principle of secularism to justify not paying those costs for other houses of worship. It may ignore the court ruling, but many Alevi cemevis have reportedly already stopped paying their electric bills. The ruling is potentially important for a host of other religious groups like Druze, Sufi orders, and so on, who could cite it as precedent in making their own cases that their bills should be covered as well.

IRAQ

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is sending a delegation to the United States to ask for a waiver from US sanctions against Iran. Right now Iraq is on a 45 day waiver, but Abdul Mahdi says the country will need two years to fully disentangle itself from Iran, particular in the gas sector. Two years is also coincidentally about the time that I would imagine Abdul Mahdi is hoping Donald Trump’s presidency will be coming to an end.

LEBANON

Lebanese President Michel Aoun told reporters on Tuesday that he’s personally intervening in efforts to form a new government in order to avoid a “catastrophe.” Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has been unable to sort out a disagreement with Hezbollah, which wants one of his party’s cabinet posts to go to one of its Sunni allies, and meanwhile Lebanon is stuck without a cabinet more than seven months after the election. Aoun may be able to use his presidential powers to find some way to satisfy Hezbollah’s demands.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian man near the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday after he allegedly attempted to ram them with his vehicle. They also arrested another Palestinian man in a similar incident elsewhere in the West Bank.

University of Maryland pollster Shibley Telhami argues that Americans are increasingly taking a more balanced position on Israel-Palestine. The percentage backing a one-state solution with equal citizenship (35 percent) now almost equals the percentage backing a two-state solution (36 percent), and a plurality (42 percent) of those 18-34 backs the one-state solution. Moreover, even positions viewed as “extreme” by most US politicians and media outlets are getting significant support among the US public:

Second, while most Americans have probably never heard of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that Hill backs, our poll shows that a large number of Americans support imposing sanctions or more serious measures if Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to expand: 40 percent of Americans support such measures, including a majority of Democrats (56 percent). This comes as senators, including Democrats, are proposing, despite continued ACLU opposition, to delegitimize and criminalize voluntary boycotts of Israel or settlements through the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, while not differentiating between Israeli settlements in the West Bank from those in Israel proper.

Third, there is a growing sense that the Israeli government has “too much influence” on U.S. politics and policies: 38 percent of all Americans (including 55 percent of Democrats, and 44 percent of those under 35 years old), say the Israeli government has too much influence on the U.S. government, compared with 9 percent who say it has “too little influence” and 48 percent who say it has “about the right level of influence.” While the number of Jewish participants in the sample (115) is too small to generalize with confidence, it is notable that their views fall along the same lines of the national trend: 37 percent say Israel has too much influence, 54 percent say it has the right level, and 7 percent say it has too little influence.

SAUDI ARABIA

Senate Republican leaders are working hard to whip votes for a non-binding resolution that would “formally” condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the Jamal Khashoggi murder. This would be in lieu of actually doing anything to punish the Saudis, and is probably intended to undermine a bipartisan effort to invoke the War Powers Act to end US involvement in Yemen. I mean, Bob Corker says it’s not, and God knows he’s always scrupulously honest, but still I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s a con happening here.

IRAN

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Tuesday confirmed to Iranian media that it did recently carry out the ballistic missile test that the United States has been caterwauling about for at least a week now. The Trump administration has accused Iran of violating the same UN Security Council resolution that the US is already violating in carrying out the test, even though that’s not actually true.

The Iranians, meanwhile, have concluded an interim free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, the largest free trade deal in Iranian history. The agreement runs through 2020 and can either be replaced by a permanent agreement or itself turned into a permanent agreement at that time. It should help Iran survive US sanctions and could be a step toward a bigger free trade pact involving India, which is also in talks with the EAEU and already has a well-established trade relationship with Tehran.

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