Middle East update: January 24 2019

SYRIA

At least three people were killed and eight injured by a motorcycle bomb that hit the town of al-Bab in Turkish-controlled northern Syria on Thursday. Similar bombings in the towns of Qabasin and al-Ghandura injured three people, and a bomb in the town of al-Rai was discovered by authorities and destroyed via controlled detonation. The Kurdish YPG militia may be responsible, though of course ISIS or another extremist group can’t be ruled out either. Thursday also saw a car bombing in Damascus, though nobody was hurt according to Syrian media. There’s been no claim of responsibility in that incident.

Further east, there are conflicting reports about the YPG’s (actually the Syrian Democratic Forces’) war against ISIS. AFP claims that the SDF pushed ISIS out of Baghouz, the last village it controlled in eastern Syria, leaving its remaining fighters surrounded on rural territory. But the New York Times is saying that ISIS is still holding out in two villages, Baghouz and Marashidah. And AFP later reported that ISIS had attempted a major counterattack in Baghouz that apparently failed, with 34 ISIS fighters and 16 SDF fighters killed. Whatever happens next, the group’s final days as a territorial president in Syria seem to be nigh. Which is not to say that ISIS is finished–while many of its fighters have been killed or surrendered, it’s believed that many others have managed to escape, and at any rate its ideology survives.

With the fight against ISIS wrapping up (at least in a territorial sense) and the US likely getting ready to withdraw from Syria, YPG leaders say they’ve gotten a “positive” response from the Syrian government over the idea of negotiations on the status of northeastern Syria, and they expect those negotiations to begin soon. A deal between the YPG and Damascus that lets the Syrian army secure that part of the country would throw a massive monkey wrench into Turkey’s plans to invade northeastern Syria to put down the YPG, though it’s one that Ankara would probably have to accept. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters on Thursday that while Turkey is prepared to establish a “safe [i.e., YPG-free] zone” in northern Syria on its own, it’s happy to work with the US, Russia, or whomever. Ankara would like to get Russia’s support for this safe zone idea, but Moscow hasn’t given it yet and probably won’t. The logistics of such a thing alone, ignoring the geopolitics, seem daunting.

The Moroccan government on Thursday became the latest Arab government to signal some tepid support for the idea of Bashar al-Assad’s government returning to the Arab League. Lebanon has outright called for its return, and several previously hostile Gulf Arab states have begun slowly normalizing their relations with Assad’s government.

YEMEN

“Heavy fighting” reportedly broke out between Houthi and Yemeni government forces in Hudaydah on Thursday. It’s unclear what exactly that means, but the AP says it’s the biggest violation so far of the ceasefire the two sides negotiated in December.

In somewhat related news, the United Nations is replacing the head of its ceasefire monitoring unit in Hudaydah. Former Dutch general Patrick Cammaert will be swapped out for current Dutch general Michael Anker Lollesgaard. There’s been no reason given for the switch but it’s likely Cammaert only agreed to a short term gig.

TURKEY

Congress has passed a compromise Middle East aid package for 2019 that included good news for Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco compared with an earlier House-passed version of the bill. The compromise measure restores Turkey’s ability to purchase US arms and specifically the F-35, undoes language treating Western Sahara as a sovereign entity rather than as a disputed part of Morocco, and restores $300 million in military aid to Egypt that had been trimmed by the House. The bill isn’t great news for Saudi Arabia, though–it removes the Saudis from the State Department’s International Military Education and Training program, which isn’t a huge deal in and of itself but could impact Riyadh’s ability to purchase other, more important, types of US military training at a discount. That could cost the Saudis a few million dollars–no big deal for them but kind of embarrassing.

LEBANON

“Hundreds” of Syrian refugees were bused back home from Lebanon on Thursday. There’s been a steady stream of refugees heading back to Syria as the conflict has died down in much of the country. Lebanon is still home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and is increasingly desperate to see them return to Syria.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The next $15 million Qatari payment of public sector salaries was supposed to be delivered to Gaza on Thursday after having been held up by the Israeli government, but now Hamas is rejecting the money. It’s unclear exactly why but it would appear that the Israelis released this payment with some new strings attached that Hamas was unwilling to accept.

If anybody is going to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu in April’s election it’s like to be former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz. He’s not a favorite, but he’s not a total long shot as are the other contenders. So it’s worth noting that his campaign released its first few videos this week, and the message seems to be “Vote Gantz: He’s Killed So Many Arabs!”:

The first video showed the 2012 killing of Ahmed Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas, in an airstrike. Jabari was responsible for the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After Jabari’s car goes up in flames in the video, a slogan appears onscreen, saying, “Only the strong will win.”

The second video opens with a body count. The numbers flash quickly over footage from funerals and the sound of cries in Arabic: 1, 2 … 11 … 537.… They stop at 1,364, and the words “1,364 terrorists killed” appear on screen in big, bold letters, followed by “3.5 years of quiet.”

The third video is even more disturbing. It opens with aerial footage of Gaza in ruins in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge. Then we hear Gantz’s voice boasting that “6,231 targets were destroyed,” followed by, “Parts of Gaza have been returned to the Stone Age.” Some of the footage in this clip also documents the devastation in Gaza’s Rafah after “Black Friday,” on which Israeli officer Hadar Goldin was killed and his body was captured. Then-Col. Ofer Winter, who commanded the Givati Brigade, at the time ordered his troops to activate the Hannibal Protocol (a controversial military order that grants troops broad permission to do whatever is necessary to prevent the kidnapping of a fellow soldier) and entire neighborhoods in Rafah were bombed indiscriminately.

Remember, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and also the only one in the world run entirely by spree killers.

SAUDI ARABIA

UN investigator Agnes Callamard, the body’s “special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,” says that next week she’ll begin an international investigation into the murder of former Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She will report her findings to the UN Human Rights Council in June to what is almost certain to be virtually no effect.

The Saudis have reportedly released billionaire businessman Amr Dabbagh and two other men who were arrested in November 2017 as part of Mohammad bin Salman’s supposed corruption crackdown. Kudos to Dabbagh and the other two guys for purchasing their freedom. Bakr bin Laden, head of the Bin Laden family’s massive construction empire and another detainee from the corruption crackdown, has also reportedly been released but probably just temporarily to attend a family funeral.

Of substantially more concern than any of this other stuff, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that satellite images appear to show a ballistic missile production facility in Saudi Arabia:

If operational, the suspected factory at a missile base in al-Watah, southwest of Riyadh, would allow Saudi Arabia to manufacture its own ballistic missiles, fueling fears of an arms race against its regional rival Iran.

Saudi Arabia currently does not possess nuclear weapons, so any missiles produced at the apparent factory are likely to be conventionally armed. But a missile-making facility would be a critical component of any eventual Saudi nuclear weapons program, hypothetically giving the kingdom capability to produce the preferred delivery systems for nuclear warheads.

“The possibility that Saudi Arabia is going to build longer-range missiles and seek nuclear weapons — we imagine that they can’t. But we are maybe underestimating their desire and their capabilities,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who discovered the factory with his team when analyzing satellite images from the region.

Two additional missile experts who reviewed the satellite images for The Washington Post, Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the high-resolution photographs of the al-Watah site appear to depict a rocket-engine production and test facility, probably using solid fuel.

IRAN

Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reports that the Trump administration is still scrambling to try to salvage its big Iran bashing conference in Poland next month by pretending that it’s not about bashing Iran. So far they don’t seem to be having much luck with that:

But if US envoys were at pains to stress that the Warsaw meeting is not intended to be a forum to bash Iran, European diplomats are unconvinced. Among the reasons for their skepticism is that the meeting is being planned on the US side by Brian Hook, Trump’s special envoy on Iran and head of the Iran action group.

“It is really about Iran for the US,” one European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “They don’t even mention Poland when they discuss it with us.”

The State Department is expected to brief invited countries on Thursday on the agenda for the ministerial, diplomats told Al-Monitor.

The Treasury Department levied new sanctions against two Iranian-backed militias in Syria and two Iranian airlines on Thursday.

The US government released Press TV anchor Marzieh Hashemi from custody on Thursday. Hashemi had been detained as a material witness earlier this month, though as far as I know the case in which she was supposed to testify remains unclear.

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