Middle East update: January 10 2019

SYRIA

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham extended its conquest of Idlib province on Thursday, forcing Turkish-backed elements of the Free Syrian Army to surrender and accept an HTS-led “civilian” administration–the so-called “Salvation Government”–over areas that HTS took from the FSA earlier this week. The bigger HTS’s footprint gets, the likelier it will provoke a confrontation with Syria and/or Russia and upend the ceasefire deal that’s so far kept Idlib from turning into a bloodbath.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Thursday that Ankara isn’t going to wait forever for the US to clear out of Syria before it begins its offensive against the YPG. Turkey delayed that offensive last month when Donald Trump announced he was pulling the US out of Syria, but everything that’s happened since then suggests that the withdrawal is going to take a good long time if it happens at all, and that the US wants assurances from Turkey that it will leave the YPG alone.

The mixed withdrawal messaging from the Trump administration continued on Thursday. During his big Middle East speech in Cairo (see below), Mike Pompeo–who’s been saying unambiguously that the withdrawal is going to happen, contrary to what John Bolton has been saying–said that the US will “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. Regardless of whether or not you think that’s good policy (it’s not), it’s hard to see how drawing down US forces in Syria is going to help achieve it. Then AFP reported that the US has begun removing military hardware from Syria, suggesting that the withdrawal is going ahead despite previous comments from Bolton suggesting that the timeframe could be significantly extended.

YEMEN

The Houthis carried a drone attack on a Yemeni military base in Lahaj province on Thursday, killing at least six soldiers and wounding, among others, the deputy chief of staff of the Yemeni army. United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths called for “restraint” lest the attack undermine the progress that was made at last month’s peace talks.

IRAQ

A new survey from the National Democratic Institute finds that Iraq is making progress. Sure, most Iraqis still feel divided from their fellow citizens, but now it’s not because of religion or ethnicity–instead, a majority of Iraqis believe that other Iraqis are getting more and better government services than they are.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Hamas officials said on Thursday that Egypt will fully reopen the Rafah border crossing from Gaza in an effort to relieve tension. There’s been word on this yet from the Egyptians, who closed the crossing to traffic coming from Gaza into Egypt earlier this week, after the Palestinian Authority pulled its personnel out of the facility.

Hey everybody, say hello to “Apartheid Road“:

After a delay of years, Route 4370 in the Jerusalem area has opened. This road connects the settlement of Geva Binyamin to Route 1, the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, between French Hill and the Naomi Shemer Tunnel, which leads to Mount Scopus. The highway, which has been called the “Apartheid Road,” is divided in the middle by an eight-meter high wall. Its western side serves Palestinians, who cannot enter Jerusalem, whereas the road’s eastern side serves settlers, who can now reach French Hill and Mount Scopus more easily from Anatot, Geva Binyamin and Route 60, north of the city.

The West Bank has many segregated roads, but none of them is divided along its entire length by a wall. The road was built over a decade ago but remained closed due to a dispute between the army and the police over the staffing of a new checkpoint, opened because of the road. The road has recently been renovated by Moriah, the city of Jerusalem’s infrastructure company, even though the road lies outside the city’s jurisdiction and will not serve its residents. The budget for the highway came from the Ministry of Transportation.

EGYPT

Pompeo did give his big address in Cairo on Thursday, and it was, as I predicted, horse shit. Like most of the things this administration does, it was simply meant to aggrandize Donald Trump by denigrating Barack Obama:

“Remember: It was here, here in this very city, another American stood before you,” Pompeo told an invited audience of Egyptian officials, foreign diplomats and students. “He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning.’ The results of these misjudgments have been dire.”

Pompeo said that the U.S. was “timid” about “asserting ourselves when the times — and our partners — demanded it.”

You can read that last part as “Obama didn’t bomb Iran” if you want, although given that Pompeo was in Cairo the message was probably more like “Obama didn’t support a brutal crackdown on the Arab Spring.” And that’s the big difference between the speech Obama delivered 10 years ago and the one Pompeo delivered on Thursday–Obama was speaking to the Arab people, while if Pompeo was speaking to anybody aside from Trump himself, it was to Arab tyrants. Pompeo’s theme, not unlike Obama’s, was “America stands with you,” but in this case “you” is Mohammad bin Salman, Mohammed bin Zayed, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Even the title of the address, “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East,” would be laughable to any actual people in the Middle East outside of the autocrats who directly benefit from their cozy ties with Washington.

Pompeo’s speech was not well received back in Washington:

“Embarrassing and shameful speech by the small, hyper-partisan Trump suck-up Pompeo,” Ellen Tauscher, a former undersecretary of state for arms control in the Obama administration and a former member of Congress, wrote on Twitter. “There’s not a ‘non-partisan statesman’ pore in his body.”

“Seriously. A joke. They really are struggling along with the C team only two years in,” a former US diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor of Pompeo’s speech. “Honestly, it’ll be forgotten in about five minutes.”

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

But it was well received in the UAE:

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech … is important in supporting regional stability and identifying the dangers faced by the region,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter . “Washington, through its secretary of state, is asserting the importance of its alliances and supporting its friends,” he added.

Shocking, I know.

SAUDI ARABIA

Oddly enough, in his speech about how America is a force for good in the Middle East, Pompeo barely mentioned Saudi Arabia at all. Go figure.

IRAN

Iran, which got lots of mentions in Pompeo’s speech, is planning to launch two new satellites soon, probably around the commemorations that are sure to attend the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The US opposes Iran’s space program, since space rocket technology and ballistic missile technology are pretty closely related, and has warned Tehran against new space activity.

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