Middle East update: January 26-27 2019

SYRIA

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Saturday that artillery fire from the SDF killed at least 42 people in the remaining ISIS-controlled enclave in eastern Syria, including 13 civilians. ISIS’s remaining territory is so rural that there’s not even a clear town or village name with which to identify it, though it’s in the vicinity of the villages of Marashida and Baghuz on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. US and SDF officials are talking about a two to four week timeframe for eradicating this remaining ISIS presence, though a fair number of the group’s fighters have by this point scattered and may attempt to continue the fight using asymmetrical tactics (“guerrilla warfare” or “terrorism” depending on the target and on your perspective).

The big remaining question in northeastern Syria is of course what will happen after the US withdraws, assuming it does withdraw. Turkey wants to secure the region and drive out the Kurdish YPG militia, which is pursuing talks with Damascus over forming some kind of alliance to resist the Turks. Turkey has justified its presence in northern Syria under the terms of the 1998 Adana Protocol, which gives Ankara leeway to deal with PKK elements in Syria (Turkey views the YPG and PKK as identical). But the Syrian government over the weekend argued that Turkey is in violation of that protocol because it is “occupying Syrian territory via terrorist organizations [i.e., rebels] linked to it or directly via Turkish military forces.” On this point Turkey, Syria, and the YPG are all trying to convince one actor–Russia–to support their claims. How Russia finally decides to handle northern Syria will likely be decisive.

One thing working against Turkey here is the situation in Idlib province, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has virtually taken over even though Turkey made itself responsible, in the deescalation agreement it negotiated with Russia last year, for ensuring that didn’t happen. Both the Syrians and Russians are now suggesting that HTS’s takeover in Idlib is increasing the chances that they will attack the province, which would likely be catastrophic from a humanitarian perspective. And Russia is unmistakably blaming Turkey. On Sunday, Syrian air defenses reportedly downed three drones near Russia’s airbase in Latakia province that were probably launched from Idlib, and if that kind of thing continues it will further inflame tensions. The Syrians and Russians have a decision to make though–HTS is problematic but right now (occasional drone attacks aside) seems content to consolidate its position in Idlib. If the Syrian army attacks the province it could scatter HTS fighters all over the place and increase the risk of insurgent attacks (asymmetrical tactics, see above) in places like Latakia and maybe Damascus.

YEMEN

One of the combatants in Yemen shelled a displaced persons camp in Hajja province on Saturday, killing at least eight people. The United Nations, which runs the camp, did not identify the responsible party. Since the camp is in a government-controlled part of the province the Houthis are the likelier suspect, but as parts of the province are held by the Houthis a careless and/or mistaken strike by pro-government forces can’t be entirely ruled out.

IRAQ

At least four Iraqi police officers were killed on Sunday by two roadside bombs in the country’s Saladin province. Two police officers were killed when their convoy hit the first bomb, near Shirqat, and two more were killed when they hit the second bomb while trying to respond to the first bombing. It’s unclear if the bombs were intentionally coordinated. ISIS is presumably responsible.

Protesters stormed onto a Turkish military base outside the Iraqi city of Dohuk on Saturday, setting fire to several vehicles in the facility. Turkish soldiers shot and killed at least one protester and wounded ten others. The Turkish military accused the PKK of carrying out the attack by disguising its fighters as civilians and riling up the crowd. Because no Iraqi–and especially no Iraqi Kurd–could just naturally have a problem with the Turkish military. The Iraqi foreign ministry criticized the Turkish soldiers and summoned the Turkish ambassador to lodge a formal complaint over the incident.

LEBANON

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told the country’s al-Mayadeen TV service on Saturday that there are still “two obstacles” to the formation of a government, “but during the past few days and last night and today an extraordinary effort was made and there is an effort to find a solution.” It’s been almost nine months since Lebanon’s parliamentary election and the country still doesn’t have a government. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said this week that he hopes to resolve things over the next week or so, which seems like the 20th straight week he’s said something like that.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli settlers shot and killed a Palestinian man during a confrontation outside of Ramallah on Saturday. Nine people were wounded in the confrontation though it’s unclear if those were just Palestinians or also included settlers.

EGYPT

Egyptian authorities say their air force struck a militant target in northern Sinai, killing “several” fighters including two commanders. As usual they offered no additional details.

Al_Fattah_Al_Aleem_Mosque_in_Cairo
Al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque, the first building in Egypt’s planned new capital (Wikimedia Commons | Xbrain17)

The Egyptian government is preparing to open phase one of its massive, and massively expensive, project to construct a new, purpose-built capital a few dozen kilometers east of Cairo:

No one knows what all of this will cost (the initial estimate was $45bn) or how Egypt will pay for it. The project has been plagued by financial problems since its start in 2015. Contract talks have stalled with Emaar, a Dubai property giant, and with a second Chinese firm meant to build $20bn worth of facilities. As ever in Egypt the army stepped into the breach. It owns 51% of the firm overseeing the project, with the rest controlled by the housing ministry.

A modest first phase opens this year. Parliament hopes to move as early as this summer. About 50,000 bureaucrats (less than 1% of public-sector workers) will soon follow. But foreign embassies are reluctant to move while the city is still deserted. They also worry that, confined to a city with an army “command centre”, they will be cut off from what remains of civil society. Mr Sisi’s government warns that it cannot (or will not) secure embassies in Cairo.

The main goal is to ease congestion in Cairo, which is admittedly very congested. But previous efforts to build new urban space for that purpose have failed as very few people have been willing to relocate. In this case, residential space in the new capital is likely to cost vastly more than most Egyptian civil servants can afford to pay, and they’re the ones who will have to work there. If they won’t be moving, it’s hard to see how the new city will be able to attract anybody.

Along these same lines, the Egyptians have built a new international airport in west Cairo, close to Giza and its new Grand Egyptian Museum, and they’re going to start a small “trial run” at the facility next month. Aside from reducing congestion at Cairo International Airport, the “Sphinx International Airport” would allow people to fly in and remain close to Cairo’s main tourist attractions. The hope is to boost tourism, which still hasn’t reached its pre-Arab Spring heights and was set back by the Metrojet Flight 9268 bombing out of Sharm el-Sheikh in late 2015. This new airport could facilitate day trips to Giza for European big shots staying at one of the Sharm el-Sheikh resorts.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Giorgio Cafiero says that US sanctions on Syria are tying Gulf states’ hands when it comes to bidding for Syrian reconstruction projects:

By opposing the legitimacy of Assad’s government and continuing to impose sanctions on Damascus and individuals in Assad’s clique, Washington is creating dilemmas for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, such as the United Arab Emirates, that see Syria’s reconstruction as representing important opportunities for economic and geopolitical empowerment. Undoubtedly, securing lucrative contracts in Syria’s reconstruction will inevitably entail cooperating with the Damascus regime. Yet this reality has potential to create further complications in regional dynamics, as well as US-GCC relations.

The UAE’s hosting of a Syrian trade delegation earlier this month was a case in point. Mohammed Hamsho, a Syrian closely tied to the Assad family who has been sanctioned by the US Treasury, led the delegation. Other Syrian lawmakers and businessmen also targeted by US sanctions attended too. The long reach of US sanctions is unquestionably a concern for GCC states that seek to exert their influence in Syria, primarily via construction projects. Non-US companies, such as Emirati ones, seeking to enter Syria must account for Washington’s sanctions because any involvement of US citizens or American firms risks trouble. Given that Syria’s business climate is opaque, even careful companies that do their due diligence may find themselves violating US sanctions if they deal with Syrian individuals or entities targeted by Washington.

Gulf leaders view those reconstruction projects as not only opportunities to make money, but also as opportunities to increase their influence in Syria at Iran’s expense. If they try to lobby the Trump administration to change its sanctions policy that’s probably the argument they should use.

SAUDI ARABIA

UN rapporteur for executions Agnes Callamard, who is heading up a new international investigation into the Jamal Khashoggi murder, says she’s requested access to both the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi was killed, and to Saudi Arabia itself. For some weird reason she hasn’t heard back yet. Maybe the Saudis switched phones or something.

The Saudis have released another of the business figures they detained during the kingdom’s “anti-corruption crackdown” back in 2017. In this case it’s Ethiopian-born wealthy dude Mohammed al-Amoudi, who was reportedly worth a bit over $10 billion before Mohammad bin Salman brought him in for a shakedown. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reportedly requested Amoudi’s release last year, but presumably that release didn’t come cheap. The kingdom has released a handful of prominent tycoons over the past couple of weeks, though one–Bakr bin Laden of the 9/11 Bin Ladens Saudi Binladen Group–returned to custody on Sunday after attending a family funeral.

IRAN

Iranian authorities say that fighters with the separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz killed two police officers in Khuzestan province on Saturday. Luckily, the Iranians have identified the real danger: men who support women peacefully protesting against the country’s mandatory hijab law. They sentenced two such men to six years imprisonment a few days ago, definitely a suitable punishment for their, uh, “crime.”

Meanwhile, facing inflationary pressure and US banking sanctions, Tehran is reportedly thinking about creating a cryptocurrency that would facilitate commercial activity without having to go through international financial institutions. Crypto is an increasingly attractive idea to governments that find themselves on the wrong end of US sanctions and in the long term–especially if Washington continues to dish out sanctions like they’re Halloween candy–it could hasten the de-dollarization of global commerce. But in the short term…well, I mean Venezuela tried something like this and I think the results there kind of speak for themselves.

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