Middle East update: February 4 2019

We’re in the midst of Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu pilgrimage festival that began in mid-January and runs through early March. With apologies for not saying so earlier, best wishes to any Hindu readers who are celebrating.

SYRIA

The Syrian government is reportedly evacuating people from 10,000 residential buildings in Aleppo due to the possibility that war damage has left them structurally unsound. The catalyst for this was the collapse of a building in the city over the weekend that left at least 11 people dead. Damascus says that evacuees will be given temporary shelter until the buildings are either deemed safe or rebuilt.

With the US talking about possibly retaining its military base at Tanf even after it withdraws its forces from eastern Syria, entirely in order to facilitate a war with Iran, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports on a 2017 incident at Tanf, appropriately enough involving a port-a-potty, that could have precipitated that war:

The situation escalated quickly. On May 18, the pro-regime group began setting up a rudimentary outpost just 21 miles from al-Tanf. The coalition headquarters called in an airstrike that killed one person and destroyed two unarmed trucks, a tank, and a bulldozer, the official said (the account is backed up by news reports at the time). 

U.S. military officials told Russia that the group could remain in place but could not move toward al-Tanf and could not bring in supplies. The U.S. officials told the Russians they would use military force to enforce the directive, the official told FP.  

The next day, on May 19, U.S. forces detected a vehicle heading toward the group, carrying a port-a-potty. The coalition headquarters gave the strike order.

The strike never occurred. Air Force officers responsible for operations at the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar—the command-and-control hub of air forces throughout the U.S. Air Forces Central Command region—refused to attack because they did not believe it to be “a lawful order that complied with the rules of engagement,” the official said, describing the idea that a threat was posed to U.S. forces as “ludicrous.”

YEMEN

The United Nations Security Council issued a statement on Monday expressing concern over ceasefire violations in Hudaydah and urging both warring parties to withdraw their forces from the city as stipulated in the deal they reached in Stockholm in December.

TURKEY

Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin suggests that the Kurdish storming of a Turkish military base in northern Iraq a couple of weeks ago could have lasting repercussions for Ankara’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan:

Aydin Selcen, a former diplomat and now a columnist for an online journal, sees the storming of the base as a major event that might even be a “watershed.” According to Selcen, an abrupt disruption of security cooperation between the KDP and the Turkish army, or the rise of popular resistance against Turkey’s military presence, is unlikely, but the protest will not go without consequences. “Both the KDP’s belated, meek and timid intervention and Akar’s ambiguous remarks show that this civilian protest in a remote border town in the KRG, backed by tribes which are hostile to both the KDP and the PKK, has achieved its objective,” Selcen told Al-Monitor. “The protest took both Ankara and Erbil aback. Also, it put Baghdad and Erbil at odds and opened rifts between the KDP and other political parties in the KRG and even between prominent members of the KDP itself.”

Asked about the prospect of any change in Ankara’s policies, Selcen said, “We’ve seen once again the limits of security-centered policies and narrow political visions. Still, Ankara will continue on the same path, putting on a brave face, and Erbil will try to brush over the issue with communication tactics.”

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will visit Ankara this week. Al Jazeera reports that border disputes and Cyprus are expected to top the agenda:

IRAQ

The number of ISIS attacks in Iraq ticked up in January to 112, ending a two-month decline. That’s still quite a bit lower than the 171 attacks the group carried out last October, but higher than the 109 and 95 attacks it carried out in November and December, respectively.

During his big CBS interview on Sunday, Donald Trump said that while he wants to withdraw US forces from Syria, he plans on maintaining the US military presence in Iraq in order to “watch” Iran. This apparently came as news to the Iraqis, who I guess figured the US military presence in Iraq was about, you know, helping to protect Iraq (I know, that’s naive, but bear with me). Iraqi President Barham Salih excoriated Trump on Monday, saying that “Iraq does not want to be a party or axis to any conflict between multiple countries” and that it’s in Iraq’s “fundamental interest to develop good relations with our neighbors, including Iran.” There’s already a growing move in Baghdad to boot US forces out of the country, and Trump’s remarks certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade that movement.

LEBANON

Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday that his group would never appropriate public funds for its own use. Nasrallah is trying to dampen concerns that Lebanon’s new government, which for example includes a Hezbollah ally as health minister, could run afoul of US sanctions by directly supporting Hezbollah’s operations.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers shot and killed one Palestinian man and wounded another on Monday outside the West Bank city of Jenin. The Israelis say the man threw a bomb at them, but there were no reports of Israeli casualties.

As expected, the mass resignation of the Palestinian “unity” government headed by Rami Hamdallah late last month reflects President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to abandon talks with Hamas and install a more partisan cabinet of PLO figures. Fatah, as the PLO’s largest party, will presumably wield most of the power in the new cabinet.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Pope Francis visited the UAE on Monday to kick off the first papal visit ever to the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to meetings with Emirati officials and giving a speech on the merits of peace, the pope signed a declaration with the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the leading religious authority in the Sunni world, that calls for all religions to get along with one another:

The document pledges that al-Azhar and the Vatican will work together to fight extremism. Claiming to be in the name of “all victims of wars, persecution and injustice”, it warns against a “third world war being fought piecemeal”.

It says: “We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”

Sunni, Jewish, and evangelical Christian leaders are also having a moment of comity, according to the AP. The latter two are trying to build relationships with Arab governments as a way to strengthen Israel’s position in the Middle East, while the Sunnis view building ties with evangelicals in particular as a way to ingratiate themselves with Donald Trump’s domestic base. It’s all very classy and reputable.

OMAN

The Omanis appear to be in some trouble with respect to international bond markets. Fitch Ratings downgraded Omani debt to “junk” status in December, mostly over concerns that oil prices remain too low to sustain Oman’s economy. Muscat is apparently looking to do some heavy spending to try to boost said economy, but that means it will have to borrow more money. Other Gulf states are feeling the pinch as well, but Oman was the poorest of those states to begin with in terms of per capita GDP, so it’s in worse shape than the others.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi government reportedly plans to take a closer look at the kingdom’s repressive male guardianship laws in the wake of Rahaf Mohammad’s flight to Thailand and on to Canada last month. The 18 year old’s ordeal highlighted the still precarious status of women in Saudi Arabia.

On the bright side, US-made weapons in Saudi Arabia (and in the UAE) are still doing great. Well, the ones that haven’t wound up in Yemen, anyway:

Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States, a CNN investigation has found.

The weapons have also made their way into the hands of Iranian-backed rebels battling the coalition for control of the country, exposing some of America’s sensitive military technology to Tehran and potentially endangering the lives of US troops in other conflict zones.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its main partner in the war, have used the US-manufactured weapons as a form of currency to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes, bolster chosen armed actors, and influence the complex political landscape, according to local commanders on the ground and analysts who spoke to CNN.

By handing off this military equipment to third parties, the Saudi-led coalition is breaking the terms of its arms sales with the US, according to the Department of Defense. After CNN presented its findings, a US defense official confirmed there was an ongoing investigation into the issue.

The possibility of US military hardware falling into Iranian hands is the kind of thing that would keep a lot of DC national security ghouls up at night, but apparently not so much that they start advocating against selling that hardware to our Gulf pals. A lot of people seem stunned by the idea that the Saudis and Emiratis would violate their end user agreements by handing these weapons over to al-Qaeda, to which I can only ask whether they’ve been in a coma for the past few years. I’m more bothered by all the death and suffering those weapons have helped rain down on the Yemeni people, regardless of who’s using them.

Anyway the important takeaway here is that everything bad happening in Yemen is Iran’s Fault, because they’re allegedly arming the combatants. America, the Good Guy, is trying to end this brutal conflict by…definitely arming the combatants.

IRAN

The European Union issued a joint statement on Monday expressing its “concern” over Iran’s ballistic missile program and its involvement in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. These things are apparently worrisome enough that, according to Iranian Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani, Britain, France, and Germany have attached stipulations to INSTEX, the “special purpose vehicle” they unveiled last week to facilitate non-dollar commerce with Iran. One of the stipulations is reportedly that Iran enter into negotiations over its missile program, while the other has to do with Iranian compliance with the rules of the Financial Action Task Force with regards to money laundering and terrorist financing. The Europeans deny Larijani’s charges, especially the suggestion that they’ve linked INSTEX to Iran’s missile program. They say there’s a “strong expectation” that Iran will comply with FATF’s rules, but not a requirement.

An unnamed Iranian dissident has reportedly been attacked by masked men in Berlin who shouted at him in Persian as they attacked him. This could be the latest in a string of attacks or attempted attacks in Europe against Iranian opposition figures. The previous incidents have allegedly been perpetrated by Tehran, though the possibility of a false flag scenario here is pretty high.

Mahsa Rouhi, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that Washington’s frequent demand that Iran become a “normal” nation carries a fair amount of (and this is shocking to hear, I know) hypocrisy with it:

The behaviors Iran needs to abandon to become normal in Washington’s eyes are indeed problematic. But these behaviors are commonly practiced by other nations that U.S. administrations tend to perceive as completely ordinary.

The Iranian government’s practice of hostage-taking after the 1979 revolution was the root cause of Iran’s pariah status during the Ronald Reagan years. These days, Iran’s reputation as a rogue state is usually linked to its regional and domestic policies—in particular, its support for nonstate actors such as Hezbollah and human rights abuses at home. However, a review of Washington’s behavior suggests that the United States would have likely overlooked many of Iran’s unsavory actions—as it did under the Shah before 1979—had Tehran not been defying the international order and challenging U.S. interests in the Middle East.

From Washington’s perspective, it seems as if a midsize power with the size and capability of Iran should either maintain an alliance with a great power or, if in pursuit of a nonalignment policy, should do so without exerting extraterritorial influence or challenging the interests of the United States and its allies. Iran, however, doesn’t fit this paradigm, as it pursues its interests in the region without paying heed to Washington’s wishes. This is perceived as an unacceptable threat and abnormal behavior by the United States, contributing to Iran’s rogue status. The double standards and hypocrisy are evident in the U.S. administration’s fixation on Iran’s actions while avoiding equally “malign behaviors” by U.S. allies.

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