Middle East update: January 11 2019

SYRIA

We’ll start with the story that came out late in the day, which is that Syrian air defenses have once again fired on targets over Damascus. The Syrian government later identified them as Israeli missiles, some of which struck a warehouse at Damascus International Airport. Syrian authorities did not announce any casualties. But reports from Hezbollah and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggest that the strike was broader than that, against targets east and south of the city and as far west as the Lebanese border.

As we mentioned yesterday, US forces have begun removing equipment from Syria. Which means that some kind of withdrawal has begun, but how rapidly it will proceed is anybody’s guess. The NYT is going with a 4-6 month timeframe that might see the number of US soldiers in Syria actually increase temporarily to help facilitate the redeployment, and while I’m a little less skeptical about an eventual withdrawal than I was earlier in the week that’s an awfully long time for things to change. John Bolton further muddied the waters in an interview on Friday during which he said that the Trump administration will continue to negotiate with Turkey over the protection of the Kurdish YPG militia from Turkish attack. Turkey will inevitably tell the administration to go pound sand, and then what? We still don’t really know.

Speaking of Turkey, it’s reportedly sent reinforcements to Hatay province, across the border from Idlib, now that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is consolidating its control over that rebel enclave. This could be a defensive measure but it could also be preparation for an offensive in Idlib, so it’s something to watch.

The Italian government is reportedly thinking about reopening its embassy in Damascus. It would join several Arab governments who have recognized or are close to recognizing that Bashar al-Assad isn’t likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.

YEMEN

Something caused a major oil refinery in Aden to explode on Friday setting off a fire that as far as I know is still raging. There are no reports of casualties yet but obviously it’s too soon to conclude anything from that, and also too soon to say what caused the blast. Meanwhile, the Saudis claimed on Friday that they’ve destroyed a Houthi drone “control center,” though shockingly they offered no additional details. The Houthis used a drone to attack a Yemeni military base in Lahaj province on Thursday.

TURKEY

At a public event in Greece on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the European Union’s migrant agreement with Turkey is “not working properly,” and she seemed to blame the Greek legal system for the failure. The agreement calls for the EU to return people deemed ineligible for asylum to Turkey, and for every migrant returned to bring in one new refugee from Turkey. But apparently Greece has been slow to return migrants who don’t qualify, leading to the overcrowded conditions in its migrant camps that have been taking heavy criticism of late from human rights organizations.

IRAQ

At least two people were killed on Friday by a bombing in al-Qaim, a town near the Syrian border. Iraqi officials have been trying to encourage residents who were displaced from Qaim while it was under ISIS control and/or during the operation to liberate it from ISIS to return home, but this is presumably not going to help that effort.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli forces shot and killed one Palestinian woman during Friday’s Gaza protests and wounded 25 other people. The Israeli soldiers claim they were responding to rocks and grenades being thrown over the Gaza fence by protesters.

SAUDI ARABIA

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi woman who fled the country and sought asylum while staying at a hotel in Thailand because she feared execution for apostasy, has been granted asylum in Canada. Initially it was thought Australia might take her in, but the Australians appear to have dragged their feet, and anyway since Canada’s relationship with the Saudis is already on the rocks perhaps this outcome makes more sense.

IRAN

The United States will “host” a global conference about Iran in Poland next month, because that’s a totally normal thing to do and not at all creepily obsessive. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that “dozens” of countries will attend, but I suppose we’ll see. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif commented on the conference on Twitter:

Earlier this week, Ali Shamkhani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s national security adviser, told an audience in Tehran that “The Europeans’ opportunity to execute their commitments to our country under the JCPOA, and particularly [with reference to] the special financial channel, has ended.” This is a little alarming, in that it suggests the Iranians are ready to quit the nuclear deal and that the political winds inside Iran are favoring hardliners:

Third, Shamkhani’s apparent shift comes against the backdrop of a long anticipated — and widely predicted — growing conservative backlash against the Rouhani administration in general and Iran’s continued compliance with the nuclear deal in particular. On Jan. 9, the hard-line Vatan-e Emrooz lashed out at the European Union’s decision to sanction the Islamic Republic over a series of alleged assassination plots on European soil, noting that almost eight months have passed without any sign of the bloc’s long-promised SPV. The day before, the conservative Raja News attacked the SPV as a Trojan horse meant to lure Iran into voluntarily signing up to an effective oil-for-food program, mindful that food and medicine imports are non-sanctionable regardless of Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. This is all taking place against the wider backdrop of shadowy forces, including the powerful Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, expanding detentions to demographers in addition to environmentalists, while also apparently producing documentary films that smear jailed dual nationals, including Iranian-Americans.

For now, it is still unclear whether a genuine shift is emerging in Iran. One senior official in Tehran who was asked about Shamkhani’s remarks told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that “there is no policy shift” on the JCPOA. Taking such assertions — and Shamkhani’s statements — with equal grains of salt, it appears that while the new EU sanctions may not be a game-changer, continued European stalling on the SPV — and perhaps more importantly, the unveiling of an alternative payment mechanism that will not and cannot be used — very well could. Of course, some critics posit that Iran’s departure from the JCPOA is unlikely simply on the basis that its other options are worse than continued compliance with the accord.

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