Middle East update: February 1 2019

YEMEN

The United Nations ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen wrote a letter to the UN Security Council on Friday expressing “growing alarm” at the Houthis’ “persistent, deliberate violations” of the Hudaydah ceasefire agreement. They counted 970 Houthi violations, but the big complaints are that the rebels haven’t withdrawn their forces from the port city and they haven’t opened up corridors for humanitarian aid. The pro-government coalition has also violated the ceasefire, but that uhhhh doesn’t count because of several key distinctions. Please don’t ask me what those are.

UN officials seem to be emphasizing that the ceasefire is holding despite the repeated violations (“it’s just a little airstrike, it’s still good!”), but people living in Hudaydah clearly aren’t seeing it. The UN’s “clap harder” approach here actually makes some sense–if you don’t admit the ceasefire is a bust then you can still try to build on the December talks that led to it–but it’s more diplomatic wishful thinking than a reflection of reality.

TURKEY

One of the odder aspects of the political crisis in Venezuela has been the support that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has offered to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. His primary reasons for doing so aren’t terribly strange: Turkey has warm relations with Maduro and a considerable chunk of change invested in Venezuela, Erdoğan is reflexively opposed to anything that looks like it could involve a military coup, and he’s also happy to thumb his nose at Washington. But there’s another factor at play, which is that Erdoğan believes his pro-Maduro stance will be a hit with Turkish voters:

“The US-organized coup against Maduro,” as it is presented in Turkish press, provides a great opportunity for Erdogan to rally the crowds. This allows him to benefit more from the July 15 coup attempt, while also providing him with an out for economic struggles. His message, as echoed by the media, is: “Venezuela suffers because of the West, just like we do, but we have to stand together in solidarity and resist the imperial powers.” Partial facts mixed with mind-boggling conspiracy theories aim to confuse audiences, if not convince them that the West is to blame for their poverty.

The Venezuela situation also helps discredit Turkish opposition members for interacting with foreign representatives. Erdogan ally and ultra-nationalist party chairman, Devlet Bahceli, for example, has said, “What if Trump wakes up one morning and declares [Kemal] Kilicdaroglu, as the president? What do we do? Do we accept that?” Kilicdaroglu is the chairman of main opposition party, and it is expected that these messages will be repeated at Erdogan’s rallies.

This is all particularly helpful to him because Turkey’s economy is struggling. If things get bad enough that protesters start turning out demanding Erdoğan’s removal, he’ll be able to tell his base that They’re coming for him just like They came for Maduro.

LEBANON

Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon’s new government is substantial enough to raise concerns about triggering US sanctions:

On Friday, the United States warned Hezbollah against propping up its agenda with its new position, which includes key posts in Lebanon’s government, including in the Ministry of Health.

American officials are concerned Hezbollah will use the ministry to provide state-subsidized health care and patronage jobs to its supporters and possibly even its fighters, helping it endure punishing American sanctions that have made it difficult for the group to offer its usual social services to its Shiite Muslim base.

“We call on the new government to ensure the resources and services of these ministries do not provide support to Hezbollah,” said a State Department spokesman, Robert Palladino.

“Support” apparently might include providing free medical care to Hezbollah fighters wounded in Syria, though the Trump administration is being deliberately vague about what acts it would consider worthy of penalizing and what those penalties might entail.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

At least 32 Palestinians were reportedly wounded by Israeli soldiers in protests at the Gaza fence line on Friday. Meanwhile, protesters in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, outside of Ramallah, clashed with Israeli soldiers as they demonstrated against violent attacks by Israeli settlers. At least seven Palestinians were injured there.

The Trump administration announced on Friday that it has cut off security assistance to the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act passed by Congress last year. ATCA lets US citizens sue recipients of US foreign aid over their alleged complicity in terrorist acts, and the PA has decided it would rather not receive any US aid than risk facing lawsuits in US courts. This is an outcome that it doesn’t seem the US government anticipated, and it’s definitely not one that the Israeli government wants, since that aid helps to support collaboration between Israeli and PA security forces. The US and Israel are trying to figure out a work-around, and Congress may try to amend ATCA at some point.

SAUDI ARABIA

Now that we know the Saudis are building their own ballistic missiles–a revelation that could feed into a “missile race” in the Middle East–the obvious question is whether they’re also going to try to obtain nuclear warheads to sit atop those missiles. At this point, without knowing how these Saudi missiles are designed, it’s hard to say:

While Hinz told Newsweek that “it is difficult to tell” whether Saudi Arabia was preparing to go nuclear with its alleged new missiles because their exact model was unknown and “you have a large global trend towards conventionally armed ballistic missiles, which muddies the waters even further,” he said that “if you want to have nuclear weapons, in general, you also want to have the means to domestically build the delivery systems.”

Hinz pointed out that the regional “missile race” was not limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also included a scramble for new homemade capabilities among nations like Israel, Turkey and others seeking foreign assistance. A leaked State Department cable showed the United Arab Emirates purchased missile technology from North Korea in 2015 and Qatar followed in its Saudi rival’s footsteps by parading Chinese-made missiles in 2017. Algeria has reportedly received Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems from Russia and Syria was allegedly building missile factories with help from Iran, who has been accused of supplying the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemeni Houthi movements as well.

IRAN

At LobeLog, I wrote about the new European “special purpose vehicle” intended to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran, including how much its scope was reduced from what the Europeans initially envisioned:

However, what the Europeans announced on Thursday was not what they described when they began talking about forming an SPV last year. At that time, the SPV was envisioned as a much larger financial mechanism that could allow Iran to continue selling oil and gas to Europe with minimal disruption. But major European firms, worried about even the possibility of running afoul of U.S. sanctions, have cut ties with Iran, and it seems unlikely that any degree of assurance from the EU would be enough to get them to risk losing access to U.S. banks and the U.S. market.

Consequently, INSTEX is likely to be a much less ambitious device, used primarily by small European firms with little exposure to U.S. sanctions and only—at least initially—to trade in humanitarian goods like medicine and food. U.S. sanctions do not directly block Iran’s import of these items, so by focusing on them INSTEX would avoid a potential confrontation with Washington. But banking sanctions generally prevent Iranian firms from financing their purchase, and so INSTEX could fill an important role in easing the pain those sanctions are causing to the Iranian people.

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