Middle East update: January 22 2019

SYRIA

A car bomb in the city of Latakia on Tuesday killed at least one person and wounded 14 others, according to Syrian state media. No word on responsibility–obviously ISIS can’t be ruled out, but given the location Hayat Tahrir al-Sham may be the likelier suspect.

Bashar al-Assad’s government has revoked multiple-entry visas for European Union diplomats who frequently shuttle between Beirut and Damascus. It’s given no explanation but this is likely a ploy to force European countries to reopen their Syrian embassies, something those governments say they will not do until there’s a political settlement to the Syrian civil war. In the meantime the EU says this will hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid, though that could also be a ploy to neg Assad into reinstating the visas.

YEMEN

It appears the Saudis bombed Sanaa again on Wednesday morning. Explosions were reported south of the city, in what Saudi TV reported were Houthi missile and weapons facilities.

TURKEY

The Turkish government is seeking a life sentence for Metin Topuz, a former DEA liaison at the US consulate in Istanbul who was arrested in 2017 on allegations that he was involved in the attempted 2016 coup against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turks are holding two other consulate employees, but as all three are Turkish nationals none of them has gotten much attention from the Trump administration. You might want to contrast the silence out of DC over their cases with the great fuss that attended the case of US pastor Andrew Brunson.

IRAQ

The Washington Post tells the story of an Iraqi geologist in Mosul who was corralled by ISIS into helping it develop mustard gas and is now awaiting execution for his trouble:

The black-clad militants who had seized Mosul in 2014 were making their way through each of its bureaucracies, rounding up workers and managers who had not yet fled the city and pressing them into service. When his turn came, Afari, then a 49-year-old geologist with Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals, hoped his new bosses would simply let him keep his job. To his surprise, they offered him a new one:

Help us make chemical weapons, the Islamic State’s emissaries said.

Afari knew little about the subject, but he accepted the assignment. And so began his 15-month stint supervising the manufacture of lethal toxins for the world’s deadliest terrorist group.

“Do I regret it? I don’t know if I’d use that word,” said Afari, who was captured by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in 2016 and is now a prisoner in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. He frowned, his fingers flicking a gray-stubbled cheek.

“They had become the government and we now worked for them,” he said. “We wanted to work so we could get paid.”

JORDAN

King Abdullah visited Iraq earlier this month with an apparent eye toward improving relations between Amman and Baghdad, which haven’t really been the same since the US invasion. Mostly that’s because Iraq moved closer to Iran once Saddam Hussein was out of the picture, and because of lingering anger at Jordan’s friendly ties with Saddam Hussein. The latter is no longer an issue, but Iraq’s relationship with Jordan remains tightly bound up with its relationship with Iran:

King Abdullah’s arrival in Baghdad was praised by Jordanian commentators for ushering in a new phase in relations with Iraq. Jordan hopes that the king’s visit will put the final touches on a strategic project to build an oil pipeline from Basra to Aqaba. Also, the two sides had agreed last November to establish a joint industrial zone on the border between the two countries. Jordanian contractors hope that improving ties will allow them to take a share in Iraq’s multibillion-dollar reconstruction plans.

Unlike the 1990s, however, when Iraq was entirely dependent on Jordan for its imports, the country is now openly doing business with its neighbors, such as Iran and Turkey, which pose serious competition to Jordanian businessmen.

Politically, the royal visit comes at a time when Arab countries are taking steps to encourage Baghdad to distance itself from Iran.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli forces shelled Gaza on Tuesday, killing a Hamas fighter and wounding two others. According to the Israeli military the attack was in retaliation for a shooting on the Gaza fence line earlier in the day in which an Israeli soldier was “lightly” wounded. Of perhaps more importance than the shelling, the Israeli government has in response to the violence once again suspended Qatar’s next $15 million payment to cover the salaries of Gazan public workers. That money is supposed to help stabilize Gaza’s economy and reduce tensions, but the Israelis keep blocking the payouts. This contributes to the violence, which in turn leads to Israel blocking the payouts further, and round and round we go.

Along those same lines, the Trump administration’s decision to basically zero out US aid to Palestinian relief organizations has thoroughly decimated those organizations and is, contrary to the stated purpose, making the Palestinians less amenable to peace talks:

President Donald Trump says the USAID cuts are aimed at pressuring the Palestinians to return to peace talks, but Palestinian officials say the move has further poisoned relations after the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. The aid groups, many of which have little or no connection to the Palestinian Authority, say the cuts hurt the most vulnerable Palestinians and those most committed to peace with Israel.

“If you want to maintain the idea of the peace process, you have to maintain the people who would be part of the peace process,” said Lana Abu Hijleh, the local director for Global Communities, an international NGO active in the Palestinian territories since 1995.

Along with humanitarian assistance, the US is now no longer providing security assistance to the Palestinians either. Congress passed a law last year that opens recipients of US security aid to lawsuits in US courts related to terrorism. So the Palestinians have decided to reject the aid rather than risk getting sued. The difference between this aid and the humanitarian aid the Palestinians are no longer getting is that the Israeli government wants the Palestinians to get US security aid, unquestionably. Congress may look into amending the law to remedy this issue, which could hit the Palestinians harder than other US aid recipients because Palestine is not recognized as an independent state by the US and therefore doesn’t have any sovereign legal immunity in US courts.

EGYPT

The Egyptian government says it has killed 59 militants in Sinai and lost seven of its own security personnel over “the last period.” What is “the last period,” you ask? No idea. The Egyptians haven’t defined it.

IRAN

Hey, you know how the Trump administration is organizing a conference in Poland next month for everybody to get together and bash Iran? Well, about that:

The United States said Tuesday an international conference next month to promote peace and stability in the Middle East is not aimed at demonizing Iran, which has denounced the gathering as America’s anti-Iran “circus.”

U.S. deputy ambassador Jonathan Cohen told the Security Council that the conference in Warsaw on Feb. 13-14 sponsored by the United States and Poland is also not aimed at discussing the merits of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, which U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.

He called the ministerial meeting a brainstorming session to “develop the outline of a stronger security architecture” in the Mideast with sessions on the humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen, missile development, extremism and cybersecurity.

It would be nice to say that the administration never intended its conference to focus on Iran and its nefarious Evildoings, or that it took the criticism about the conference to heart and changed its plans. But the truth is that it was about to be humiliated and is trying to save face:

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