Middle East update: January 19-20 2019

SYRIA

This is still developing, but there was another Israeli airstrike on Syria’s capital on Sunday. Both the Russian military and Syrian media have reported that Syrian air defenses shot down seven Israeli missiles heading toward Duwali International Airport in southeastern Damascus. This seems…unlikely, “missile defense” being what it is, but more likely than the Israeli explanation, which was that their “Iron Dome” system shot down a rocket fired from Syria at the Golan. Then Israelis announced early Monday that they’re attacking “Iranian Quds targets” in Syria, and residents in Damascus reported multiple explosions overnight. The Israelis have reportedly fired a large number of missiles into Syria, some of which have been intercepted by Syrian air defenses but presumably not all of them. More on this tomorrow, probably.

In a (presumably) unrelated story, Syrian bomb technicians reportedly did a controlled detonation of a roadside bomb on Damascus’s southern outskirts on Sunday. It’s unclear who planted the device. In Turkey-controlled Afrin, meanwhile, a bomb planted on a public bus killed three people. Given that we’re at the one year anniversary of Operation Olive Branch, Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and subsequent ethnic cleansing of the region, the YPG has to be considered a strong suspect here, though of course ISIS or some other extremist Islamist group can’t be ruled out.

Speaking of extremists, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s all-but-total takeover of the rebel enclave in and around Idlib province has probably put the ceasefire agreement Turkey and Russia negotiated last year for that area on life support. But the Syrian government and the Russians do have to consider the potential downside of attacking the province. Right now HTS is contained in one place and focused on protecting its authority. A military offensive will change that dynamic:

[The ceasefire] agreement stipulated that “radical terrorist groups” be removed from a buffer zone between Syrian government and opposition forces with the implicit understanding that Turkey — the rebels’ primary backer — would be the one to achieve that.

It never happened. With Turkey unable or unwilling to remove the militants, they flourished instead. The result is something highly unusual: an extremist-controlled statelet guaranteed, at least for the time being, by international powers.

While Idlib is a rare haven for al-Qaeda-linked extremists, they remain primarily focused on the local fight instead of planning and launching attacks beyond northern Syria.

“The gravest threat from Idlib seems not to be the area’s continued existence — rather, it’s Idlib’s end,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “The fear is that if the Syrian military and its allies march into Idlib, then a lot of dangerous people currently inside Idlib will scatter in all directions.”

Also, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently tried to talk Donald Trump into letting Turkey have Manbij in another of their phone calls on Sunday. I’m sure Trump, who definitely knows where Manbij is and absolutely remembers Erdoğan from the last time they talked, had a lively discussion over the idea.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition bombarded Sanaa overnight in what residents of the Yemeni capital said was the worst round of bombing there in months. The main targets appear to  have been several sites associated with the Houthis’ drone program, including an airbase and a plastics factory, though given what we know about the Saudi air force we have to assume that some of the stuff they blew up was unintentional. At least two civilians were reportedly killed in the strikes. The attacks don’t affect the ceasefire in Hudaydah but they do suggest that the combatants aren’t ready to start building on the progress they made at peace talks last month.

A new United Nations report on the war accuses Iran of sending fuel to support the Houthi war effort while also suggesting that the conflict largely remains stalemated:

Fuel is being shipped illegally from Iran to Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen to finance their war against the government, and both sides are violating international law with their military campaigns and arbitrary detention of rivals, U.N. experts said in a new report.

The experts painted a grim picture of a “deeply fractured” country sliding toward “humanitarian and economic catastrophe” with no sign of victory by either side in a conflict that many view as a proxy war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the 85-page report to the Security Council seen Friday by The Associated Press, the experts said the government and its coalition partners led by Saudi Arabia made “significant progress” on the ground against the Houthis in 2018 — but their aim of restoring the government’s authority throughout the country “is far from being realized.”

At the same time, the panel of experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against Yemen said “the Houthi leadership has continued to consolidate its hold over government and non-government institutions.”

LEBANON

The Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut concluded on Sunday with the unveiling of a Kuwait-backed regional investment fund and the adoption of the “Beirut Declaration,” which calls for the creation of an “Arab free trade zone” and asks the international community to support displaced people in the region. Most of the summit focused on the issue of refugees, specifically Syrian refugees, with Lebanese President Michel Aoun arguing for the creation of a safe refugee return process that is not dependent on a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Lebanon has taken in over 2 million Syrian refugees by most estimates, an extraordinary number for such a small (geographically, economically, and demographically) country.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Qatari officials say that their third payment of $15 million to cover public sector wages in Gaza is once again on track and should be dispersed this week. The Qataris are funding a six month/$150 million program to pay public servants in Gaza in an effort to bring some economic stability to the enclave, but the Israeli government blocked the most recent payout after a recent escalation in violence with Hamas.

Meanwhile, Israeli media is reporting that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will begin revoking permits for United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools operating in East Jerusalem next year. It plans to replace those schools with schools run by the Jerusalem government and backed by the Israeli education ministry. UNRWA says the decision violates several agreements it has with the state of Israel, as well as the 1946 Refugee Convention (to which Israel is a party).

EGYPT

Egyptian officials reported off the record on Sunday that their security forces killed 14 militants in an operation in northern Sinai. As usual, they offered no details about when this operation took place or whether there were any casualties among the security forces or civilian population.

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