Middle East update: January 30 2019

SYRIA

Al-Monitor’s Metin Gürcan reports that there’s no discernible sign yet that Turkey is preparing to invade northeastern Syria and take on the YPG Kurds, mostly because the Turks can’t get a green light from Russia:

Turkish forces continue to mass in the region but there is no a sense of an imminent operation. As I emphasized in my Jan. 2 article, there is no perceptible reconnaissance, surveillance and target-acquisition activities by the Turkish air force over a potential area of operations. For Ankara, close air support for ground forces is essential. Such preparations are usually the most significant signals of an imminent operation. So far there is none of that.

In the latest summit between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin on Jan. 23 in Moscow, which Turkey had high hopes for, it appears Erdogan was unable to get what he desired. It was obvious that Moscow did not outright give support to Turkey’s proposals for a safe zone in northeast Syria nor to Turkey’s free use of Syrian airspace.

At a joint press conference in Moscow, when asked how Russia evaluates the proposed safe zone, Putin said, “The treaty between Syria and Turkey of the year 1998 is still valid. And it deals, in particular, with the fight against terrorism. Today we have been discussing this issue quite thoroughly, fully and actively.”

YEMEN

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths says that while things may look bad, the Hudaydah ceasefire that the Yemeni government and Houthis negotiated last month is surviving. But maybe not for long. An international demining team was attacked in Hudaydah on Wednesday while trying to clear a path to grain silos in the city so that the stockpiled food could be distributed by aid workers. Each side has blamed the other for the attack. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition is apparently escalating its air campaign:

In all fairness, “use more calibrated force” is a phenomenal euphemism for “bomb a bunch more stuff.” But for some reason I question whether the goal is really to prod the Houthis to comply with the ceasefire deal. I kind of think the bombing is an end in itself.

TURKEY

A former worker at the US consulate in Adana, Hamza Uluçay, was convicted on Wednesday over his alleged connection to Fethullah Gülen’s organization, but was then released from custody. Uluçay was sentenced to four and a half years in prison but got sprung for time served. This is in all seriousness probably the best that Uluçay could have done in this situation, particularly since the Trump administration doesn’t seem terribly concerned with protecting US diplomatic workers who have been swept up in the Turkish government’s Gülen hysteria.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz kicked off his campaign to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister on Tuesday, and after promising Israeli voters that he’ll deliver dead Palestinians for some and miniature Israeli flags for others he seems to have gotten a substantial bump in the polls. Gantz’s “centrist” (or what passes for centrist in Israel nowadays) Resilience party would take 19-24 seats in the Knesset if voting were held today, up from 12-15 seats in previous surveys. That still puts it a distant second to Netanyahu’s Likud party, with 29-31 seats, as Gantz draws mostly from the “left” (or what passes for the left in Israel nowadays). But it suggests Gantz could actually mount a legitimate challenge to Netanyahu, which would be a rare thing in Israeli politics.

Bitcoin is the new hotness in sanctions evasion, and Hamas is apparently getting on board the train. It’s begun asking its international supporters to donate in the cryptocurrency, though what it expects to do with the Bitcoin when Israel still has an embargo in place on Gaza is unclear.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Reuters has broken a major story into the UAE’s sophisticated hacking operation, dubbed “Project Raven”:

The story of Project Raven reveals how former U.S. government hackers have employed state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools on behalf of a foreign intelligence service that spies on human rights activists, journalists and political rivals.

Interviews with nine former Raven operatives, along with a review of thousands of pages of project documents and emails, show that surveillance techniques taught by the NSA were central to the UAE’s efforts to monitor opponents. The sources interviewed by Reuters were not Emirati citizens.

The operatives utilized an arsenal of cyber tools, including a cutting-edge espionage platform known as Karma, in which Raven operatives say they hacked into the iPhones of hundreds of activists, political leaders and suspected terrorists. Details of the Karma hack were described in  a separate Reuters article today.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi government’s great shakedown anti-corruption operation is over, apparently, with Riyadh a cool $106.6 billion richer than it was when the whole thing started back in November 2017. The money comes from settlements reached with some 87 detainees, while another 56 remain under investigation and eight have opted to stand trial rather than buy their freedom. The whole effort remains entirely opaque, from the evidence used to justify all the arrests to the treatment the detainees received while in custody–though it’s pretty clear that torture was involved. The good news is that the heavily oil-dependent absolute monarchy wherein most revenues are funneled to the royal family and its acolytes will never have any issues with corruption again.

One thing the Saudis won’t be doing, apparently, is increasing oil production to counteract the effect of US sanctions against Venezuela. The Saudis agreed to up production last year in advance of the reimposition of oil sanctions on Iran, but then kind of got screwed when the Trump administration was unexpectedly generous in handing out waivers to Iran’s oil customers. So this is a “fool me–can’t get fooled again” situation. The Saudis are in the midst of cutting production to try to get oil prices into the $80/barrel range from the ~$60/barrel range they’re at now. The administration might ask Iraq to increase its production, but the Iraqis may not have the capital they’d need to ramp up production significantly.

IRAN

During one of many public ceremonies Iran is holding to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that the country is facing “the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past 40 years.” Or, in other words, don’t blame him for the crappy economy, blame the US government. And, by the way, expect that crappy economy to get even worse:

China has dramatically reduced its trade with Iran in line with US sanctions, raising questions whether Iran will remain committed to an international agreement that puts severe limits on its nuclear endeavours.

Reduced Chinese trade also suggests that Iran is likely to face increased obstacles as it seeks to blunt the impact of the harsh US sanctions imposed last year in a bid to force the Islamic republic to change its regional and defense policy.

China’s apparent willingness to accommodate the sanctions is remarkable given Beijing’s declared efforts to salvage the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program as well as its escalating trade and technology dispute with the United States.

It’s tempting to connect China’s decision to pare down trade with Iran to a desire to appease Donald Trump with respect to trade negotiations with Washington, and/or a desire to avoid any other punitive sanctions-busting actions like the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou last month. And, well, those may very well be part of the explanation. If even China, which can afford to risk pissing off the US and has a vested interest in opposing overreaching US sanctions, isn’t willing to flip the proverbial bird to Washington in order to maintain its commercial relationship with Iran, then there’s no chance Europe (which is supposedly close to unveiling its “special purpose vehicle” for facilitating trade with Iran) will be willing to do so.

By the way, in case anybody still cares, Iran is still complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance, warned on Wednesday that countries trying to pressure it into demanding sensitive site inspections from the Iranians are being “counter-productive and extremely harmful,” not that it was referring to any country in particular or anything.

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