Middle East update: December 12 2018

SYRIA

Syrians who participated in the Arab Spring protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government back in 2011 say that the Syrian government is using an obscure anti-terrorism law to seize their property even though they played no role in the rebellion that cropped up after Assad tried to violently suppress the demonstrations. Damascus insists that it is only going after violent rebels with these seizure efforts, not peaceful political opponents. But several human rights organizations say they’ve been able to track and even verify many reported cases where displaced former protesters have lost their homes and other properties.

Despite the opening of multiple US observation posts along the Turkey-Syria border intended to serve as an impediment to Turkish military action against the Kurdish YPG militia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech on Wednesday that his military will begin another such action “in a few days.” Turkey’s aim is to at least clear the border east of the Euphrates River of YPG presence, but it will potentially have to fire on areas where US soldiers are deployed in order to do so. A new Turkish offensive could also interrupt the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to defeat ISIS in Hajin, though Erdoğan dismissed ISIS entirely on Wednesday as a “stalling tactic” being used to stymie Turkish plans to assume control over Manbij. The US could probably at least delay whatever Erdoğan is planning by giving the Turks a greater hand over Manbij, but the residents there may not agree to that.

YEMEN

Yemeni peace talks in Sweden seem to have made a fair amount of progress on Wednesday, with the Houthis and the Yemeni government agreeing to reopen Sanaa’s airport and to resume oil and gas exports. Energy revenues would be used to pay civil servants, who desperately need the money, and to stabilize Yemen’s central bank. Flights into and out of Sanaa will have to first go through government-held airports at either Aden or Sayun, where they will be inspected by United Nations workers. The main goal of the peace talks, an agreement to halt fighting in and around Hudaydah, may prove elusive. The UN has presented the parties with several plans for Hudaydah, but with the talks ending on Thursday there may not be enough time to reach an agreement. Nevertheless, the progress made in this round of talks will hopefully build some momentum and goodwill toward additional agreements. The sides are scheduled to hold another round of talks in January.

A group of southern Yemeni independence activists protested outside the venue for the talks on Wednesday. They want a referendum on southern secession. Obviously they’re not going to get it, and yet at some point in the peace process the concerns of southern Yemen are going to have to be addressed lest the current civil war be followed swiftly by another one.

The New York Times has published a powerful story about the systematic destruction of Yemen and the responsibility the US bears for it, from our devotion to the Saudi to our addiction to arms sales and our obsession with Iran. I don’t think an excerpt would do it justice. But it makes for a compelling lead into the fiasco that unfolded in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, when five Democrats voted with all but 18 Republicans in favor of a rule that bars the chamber from considering any Yemen-related resolutions for the rest of the year.

That rule had been cynically attached to a farm bill and would have failed–and undoubtedly been removed by Republican leadership–had those five Democrats not thrown it a lifeline. This means the House will not vote on anything that might reduce or end US support for the Saudi war effort until at least January. It’s relevant because the Senate is currently debating a measure to invoke the War Powers Act and end US involvement in Yemen (it voted Wednesday evening to advance the resolution to a floor debate), and–if that measure were to pass–the House could have taken it up. Donald Trump probably wouldn’t have signed it, but now he won’t have to worry about it.

IRAQ

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies finds that ISIS is indeed trying to sustain and even rebuild itself inside Iraq. CSIS researchers found an average of 75 attacks per month in Iraq in 2018, which is down from 90 per month last year but still considerably higher than the 60 attacks per month Iraq suffered in 2016. Nearly 70 percent of those attacks are concentrated in the central Iraqi provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk and Saladin, places where security has been reduced either because the Iraqis “cleared” those provinces and moved on toward the Syrian border or because of tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (or both).

Closer to the Syrian border, in Anbar province, US forces and Popular Mobilization paramilitaries are coexisting uneasily as they work to prevent ISIS from fleeing Syria’s Deir Ezzor province and coming across the border. Many of the PMU forces are Iranian-aligned and so there’s obviously some mutual bad blood with the Americans. As long as ISIS remains a threat things seem to be relatively stable, but if and when that’s no longer the case this is a potential hot spot. There are also questions about whether the predominantly Sunni population of Anbar is going to accept long-term deployments of militantly Shiʿa PMU factions in their province.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor discusses the Israeli government’s new appreciation for fascists:

There was a time when politicians like Italy’s Matteo Salvini would have been shunned in Israel. But that time is not now. Salvini, the Italian interior minister and leader of the League — a far-right, ultranationalist party that’s in a coalition government in Rome — arrived in the Jewish state Tuesday for a two-day visit. His trip, which includes a Wednesday sit-down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, reflects a broader shift in global politics.

Under Netanyahu’s watch, Israel has amassed a conspicuous crop of illiberal allies. Some, like Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, represent political movements with histories of neofascism and anti-Semitism. Others, like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, espouse the agenda and rhetoric of would-be strongmen, promising the destruction of their enemies while scoffing at pearl-clutching human rights activists. (Both, for what it’s worth, seem intent on moving their nations’ embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.)

They all seem united in their apparent support for Netanyahu’s government, one that is constantly battling against international isolation in the face of its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

EGYPT

The Egyptian government says its security forces have killed 27 militants in Sinai and along the country’s border with Libya, while destroying 342 hideouts and arresting more than 400 additional suspected militants. As usual when the Egyptians make these sorts of announcements, details–like when this all allegedly happened–were scarce.

SAUDI ARABIA

The United Nations Committee against Torture published a letter on Tuesday calling on the Saudi government to address allegations that it has been torturing the human rights activists it has in custody. While it’s gotten lost amid the Jamal Khashoggi affair, the Saudis have arrested several rights activists over the past few months, and it has been reported that they’ve been subjected to brutal treatment in custody.

The Trump administration, by the way, is still pretending that Mohammad bin Salman wasn’t involved with Khashoggi’s murder. Just in case you were wondering.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are looking to buy some new friends build a new Red Sea regional bloc to counter Iran and Turkey. It hosted representatives from Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen on Wednesday to discuss the idea. Notably absent was Eritrea, which has a lengthy Red Sea coastline.

IRAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the UN Security Council on Wednesday to bar Iran from testing ballistic missiles. Which would seem to contradict his previous assertions that the UNSC already has barred Iran from testing ballistic missiles, but whatever. Both Russia and China can be expected to shield Iran from any additional UNSC resolutions. Even US allies, who agree in principle that Iran shouldn’t test ballistic missiles, have become uncomfortable with the Trump administration’s anti-Iran “maximum pressure” campaign:

“On so-called ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran … at some stage you need to act carefully with Iran,” a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said in a meeting with a small group of journalists. “If you put too much pressure on Iran, at some stage it will resume its nuclear program. It increases the risk of them misbehaving,” he added.

“Keeping some flexibility in this policy is essential,” he said, adding, “Some pressure is necessary. Excessive pressure will be a mistake.”

“The big question mark, beyond maximum pressure — what is the strategy? What does the US expect?” he added.

It expects, eventually, war. That’s the only thing that really makes sense at this point.

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