Middle East update: December 17 2018

SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says that his country’s planned offensive in northern Syria could begin “at any moment,” and while Erdoğan tends to, let’s say, exaggerate from time to time, if this offensive is coming it’s going to come soon. Turkey’s going to lose a lot of leverage with the US if it waits to attack the YPG until after it’s cleared ISIS out of Deir Ezzor province, so it’s presumably not going to wait for that.

US Syria envoy James Jeffrey told an audience at the Atlantic Council on Monday that “any offensive into northeast Syria by anyone is a bad idea, and that was a position that I conveyed when I was in Ankara, that everybody from the president on down has conveyed.” Is it, though? Erdoğan claims that Trump “gave a positive response” when Erdoğan informed him of his plan to attack the Kurds. Again, Erdoğan is not exactly a reliable source on anything, but I’m inclined to believe he really did.

This, in a nutshell, is the biggest risk that comes with having an imbecile as president. We don’t know how Erdoğan described this planned offensive to Trump, but if he has any brains he said something like “we’re going to attack The Terrorists (as Turkey always describes the PKK/PYD Kurds) east of the Euphrates River.” Trump has no clue what the “Euphrates River” is, but he knows that Terrorists are Bad, and the guy talking to him (Erdoğan) probably seemed like a cool guy who would make some Deals with Trump if Trump went along, so he gave the whole thing an enthusiastic thumbs up.

That operation against ISIS, by the way, is reportedly being hampered by a ragged relationship between the Arabs of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, who don’t trust the US and aren’t terribly fond of the Kurds, and the Kurds:

The city’s problems, in addition to IS’ antics, are adding to tensions between Arabs and Kurds. According to local sources, Kurds say they do not entirely trust the Arabs who collaborated with IS, while Arabs believe the Kurds are monopolizing power in majority-Arab regions, including Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

“Arabs have very little influence on decisions taken in Raqqa,” an activist from the city told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Even in Deir ez-Zor, the military council does not have real power.”

Elsewhere, Iran, Russia, and Turkey say they’re close to an agreement on the makeup of the “independent” portion of the 150-member committee that’s supposed to work on either drafting a new Syrian constitution or amending the existing one. Both the government and rebels have submitted their 50 member chunks of the committee, but the makeup of the third, which is supposed to consist of activists, technocrats, women, and Syrian minority groups, has been a source of considerable tension. The United Nations will have final say on this group, but it’s going to be hard pressed to reject whatever these three stooges governments propose.

YEMEN

At LobeLog this morning, I argued that recent Yemen-related events are cause for some tempered optimism, but that there’s still a long way to go:

The results in Rimbo were undoubtedly positive, but there is a wide gulf between agreeing in principle on peace efforts and actually implementing those agreements. Until those prisoners have been exchanged there remains the possibility that their release will be called off by either side. Sanaa’s airport may reopen, but it can always be shut down again. The humanitarian corridor being opened into Taiz can be shut. And until the combatants have physically withdrawn their fighters from Hudaydah, the potential for violence remains.

Sure enough, the once “immediate” ceasefire in Hudaydah that was supposed to start last Friday and was then postponed until midnight Tuesday was reportedly broken “within minutes” after it went into effect. The Houthis appear to have attacked pro-government forces in eastern Hudaydah. The fighting may be sporadic enough not to threaten the ceasefire in principle, but we’ll have to see how things unfold. Because there’s no trust between the two sides there’s potential for any small exchange of fire to turn into a major clash.

The UN Security Council is reportedly considering a draft resolution that would ask UN Secretary-General António Guterres to “submit proposals” by the end of December on how the UN can support the Hudaydah ceasefire. Substantial UN monitoring and oversight of Hudaydah’s seaport will be essential if the ceasefire has any chance of holding. As long as the US doesn’t veto the resolution to carry yet more water for the Saudis, it should pass.

TURKEY

Related to the above story about Syria, an anonymous “White House official” told reporters on Monday that Trump did not promise Erdoğan at the G20 that he would extradite Fethullah Gülen to Turkey, as Turkish officials have been claiming. Which, come on, of course he did. He had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but when has that ever stopped him?

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ex-business partners Bijan Rafiekian and Kamil Ekim Alptekin were indicted on Monday for taking Turkey’s money without telling the federal government:

The six-count indictment was filed by prosecutors with the Eastern District of Virginia under seal on Dec. 12, and unsealed today.

It alleges that Kian and Alptekin — together with “Person A,” believed to be Flynn, who briefly served as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser — conspired to have the government of Turkey secretly pay for Kian and Flynn’s company, the Flynn Intel Group, to lobby for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government blamed a failed July 2016 coup attempt on Gulen and his followers, and had long sought his extradition from the United States to Turkey.

However, rather than register with the Justice Department as lobbyists for Turkey, Kian and Alptekin, according to the indictment, conspired to have Alptekin’s company, Inovo BV, serve as the cutout. They tried to conceal from US authorities that some $530,000 in payments to the Flynn Intel Group were for work on behalf of the Turkish government, prosecutors allege. This deception occurred even as Flynn served as a top security adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequently became his first national security adviser. Kian, too, served as a member of the Trump transition, as part of the team preparing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

LEBANON

United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon reported on Monday that two of the four alleged Hezbollah tunnels they’ve seen in southern Lebanon crossed a demarcation line along the Israeli border in violation of a 2006 UN resolution. Which doesn’t really change much–it’s still up to the Lebanese government whether or not it wants to close the tunnels.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The United Nations and the Palestinian Authority are trying to raise $350 million to cover the UN’s humanitarian shortfall in its Palestinian operations for 2019. That shortfall is of course because the United States has stopped funding UN humanitarian aid to the Palestinians under the Trump administration’s “see no evil, hear no evil” policy.

Juan Cole believes that the Australian government’s decision to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without relocating its embassy is a bad sign for Israel. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems to have bailed on plans to move the embassy and settled on this fairly anodyne alternative because he was cowed by opposition from Muslim governments, Indonesia in particular. For Israel, which has historically carried more weight internationally than any or even every Muslim nation, that could be a harbinger of some unwelcome geopolitical challenges.

EGYPT

A police convoy in northern Sinai was hit by two roadside bombs on Monday, killing two police conscripts. Presumably ISIS in Sinai was responsible.

Chinese plans to invest a cool $20 million into Egypt’s plan to build a new administrative capital east of Cairo have reportedly hit a rough patch as the two governments can’t seem to agree on how to divvy up the revenues. The projects was intended both to relieve congestion in Cairo and inject some badly needed foreign investment into the Egyptian economy, so if it’s kaput that’s a real blow.

IRAN

The Iranian government has reportedly arrested a number of steel workers in Ahvaz who had been engaged in a weeks-long protest over the fact that their salaries aren’t being paid. Iran has been quietly rounding up workers who are increasingly incensed at the country’s (partially US-caused) economic crisis.

In related news, IranAir demanded on Monday that the European Union prevail upon Washington to allow the delivery of 100 Airbus passenger aircraft that the Iranians purchased before the Trump administration reimposed sanctions. Though Airbus is a French company, its aircraft are at least 10 percent US-made and therefore it needs US permission to sell them to sell them to Iran.

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