Middle East update: January 12-13 2019

SYRIA

Winter weather is battering Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many of whom live in ramshackle camps in the flood-prone Bekaa Valley. More than 1500 refugees had to be resettled on Friday after rain and snow earlier in the week caused their camps to flood, and many more were bracing for another storm over the weekend. These challenges are exacerbated by the rest of the world’s indifference, which left the United Nations refugee agency about a third short of its 2018 fundraising target for programs dealing with displaced Syrians.

The Turkish military began conducting exercises in Hatay province on Saturday, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that it moved a “convoy” into northern Syria. Ankara is on alert because Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has been consolidating its control over Idlib province in Syria, across the border from Hatay, increasing the risk of a military clash between HTS and the Turks and/or the Syrian army.

Further east, the enemy the Turks want to be fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces, say that ISIS fighters are “living their final moments” in and around Hajin. The SDF claims it has cut off any potential escape route into Iraq. It’s unclear whether ISIS’s fate is going to have any bearing on the timetable for the US withdrawal from Syria, mostly because everything about the withdrawal is unclear at this point. Nor is it clear whether the timetable for a US withdrawal matters to the Turks, who say they’re prepared to attack the SDF whether or not the US is in the way though that may be bluster.

Either way the SDF appears to be continuing its negotiations with the Syrian government, whose assistant foreign minister, Ayman Sousan, told reporters on Sunday that it “hopes for the intensification” of those talks. With the US still apparently pulling out and threatening to do so soon, Damascus has a chance to bring northeastern Syria back under its control with a minimum of concessions toward Kurdish autonomy, since cutting a deal with the government appears to be pretty much the only way the Kurdish YPG militia can avoid a Turkish offensive.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he’s optimistic that the US can negotiate a withdrawal that includes protection for the YPG, but that’s such nonsense that I don’t think Pompeo himself believes it. I mean, the only way the US could effect something like that would be to outright threaten Turkey with retaliation if it were to attack the YPG, but Turkey is a NATO ally and I’m not sure even Donald Trump would go so far as to-

Well, OK then. I’m sure this will be extremely well received in Ankara.

YEMEN

Mohammad Saleh Tamah, the head of Yemeni military intelligence, died on Sunday of wounds he received from that Houthi drone attack in Lahaj province on Thursday. That strike, because it used a different type of drone that the Houthis hadn’t used before, has raised new questions about whether Iran is directly arming the Yemeni rebels. There’s still no conclusive evidence to support that claim, but meanwhile the Houthis say they’re “stockpiling” drones and plan to begin using them in multiple simultaneous operations.

These drone attacks don’t violate the ceasefire the Houthis negotiated with the Yemeni government last month inasmuch as that ceasefire only covered Hudaydah, but they still risk upending that ceasefire and don’t exactly help generate any forward momentum for further negotiations. Of more immediate concern in Hudaydah, the Houthis blew off a scheduled meeting on Sunday with the UN team monitoring the situation in the port city. They accused the head of the monitoring team, Patrick Cammaert, of “implementing other agendas,” and it’s not clear to what they’re referring but it should be noted that fighting in Hudaydah escalated on Saturday in spite of the ceasefire.

IRAQ

The Iraqi government says it supports the return of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad-led government to the Arab League, a fairly unsurprising announcement given that Arab governments that have been far more hostile to Assad–the United Arab Emirates, for example–are starting to normalize relations with Damascus. The Arab League technically gave Syria’s spot to the rebel Syrian National Coalition back in 2013, but the seat has remained empty because the rebels have failed to sort out their political structure. And since Assad has all but won the civil war, other Arab states are increasingly adjusting their regional policies accordingly.

LEBANON

The Israeli military says it’s done looking for tunnels from southern Lebanon into northern Israel, having found six of them. The Israelis have accused Hezbollah of digging what they call “attack tunnels,” though it’s unclear that Hezbollah dug them and what purpose the tunnels were meant to serve. Some of them may have been pretty sophisticated–the Israelis say the final one they discovered, on Saturday, included a “rail system” for moving equipment, though that claim hasn’t been verified and that still doesn’t mean the tunnel had a military intent as opposed to something like smuggling.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military struck two Hamas targets in Gaza on Saturday night after reports of a projectile fired from Gaza. There have been no reports of casualties.

The Israelis acknowledged on Sunday that they struck “Iranian weapons warehouses” in Syria on Friday night. While the Israelis are open about the fact that they strike Syria regularly, they’re usually not this forthcoming about specific strikes. Then again, Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t usually in full-on campaign mode and isn’t usually serving as defense minister in addition to prime minister and foreign minister. You can expect more touting of Israeli military activity, like the aforementioned operation to locate and destroy those alleged Hezbollah death tunnels or whatever, until April’s election.

The World Food Program, meanwhile, has had to cut assistance to some 27,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and reduce aid to another 165,000. Why? Funding shortfalls, of course. Chief among these is the decision by the Trump administration to nearly zero out aid to Palestinian relief organizations, under the apparent belief that they can solve the Israel-Palestine conflict by starving the Palestinians. The WFP says it’s about $57 million short of a full budget for its Palestinian programs and is hoping for additional international contributions.

EGYPT

Egypt’s interior ministry says its forces killed six militants in a Saturday raid in the middle part of the country. As usual, the Egyptian announcement said nothing about who the militants were or whether the Egyptian forces suffered any casualties of their own.

QATAR

Pompeo’s Middle East trip took him to Doha on Sunday, where he reiterated US calls for an end to the Qatar-Saudi rift. He framed this, of course, as a necessity in order to Contain Iran. Neither the Qataris nor the Saudis and their acolytes seem particularly interested in closing said rift anytime soon.

IRAN

It turns out that the Trump administration almost took us to war with Iran last September:

President Trump’s National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year, generating concern at the Pentagon and State Department, current and former U.S. officials said.

The request, which hasn’t been previously reported, came after militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s sprawling diplomatic quarter, home to the U.S. Embassy, on a warm night in early September. The shells—launched by a group aligned with Iran—landed in an open lot and harmed no one.

But they triggered unusual alarm in Washington, where Mr. Trump’s national security team led by John Bolton conducted a series of meetings to discuss a forceful American response, including what many saw as the unusual request for options to strike Iran.

“It definitely rattled people,” a former senior U.S. administration official said of the request. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”

So that’s cool. It’s unclear exactly how far along the White House got in its thinking, but that it got anywhere at all is obviously cause for concern.

Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told state media on Sunday that Iran has taken “initial measures” to enrich uranium to 20 percent using its own centrifuge designs rather than buying or copying foreign designs. Iran is barred from enriching uranium past 3.67 percent–enough to power a civilian reactor–under the terms of the nuclear deal, so Salehi’s comments could be taken as a signal they’re preparing to ditch the accord now that the US has decided to violate it.

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