Middle East update: February 5 2019

SYRIA

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, declared on Tuesday that further Israeli attacks on Syria would lead to “a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson” to the Israelis. I’m not sure what that means but it’s probably not good from a regional stability standpoint–though, to be fair, neither is Israel’s “we can bomb Syria whenever we want” policy. Ultimately it’s probably a bluff–any overt Iranian response against Israel would at a minimum lead to problems between Tehran and Moscow, which the Iranians definitely do not need right now.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday once again expressed frustration with the slow pace of US efforts to set up a “safe zone” in northern Syria. Erdoğan is threatening to move forward with Turkish offensives against the Kurdish YPG militia in Manbij and/or northeastern Syria unless the US satisfies his demands for a buffer area along the border.

The problem is that there’s seemingly no buffer zone option that is both feasible and acceptable to both Ankara and the YPG. Turkey won’t accept any YPG involvement, the YPG won’t accept any Turkish involvement, and so far the US has struck out in its efforts to find a third party to administer the project. An Arab Syrian rebel leader Ahmad Jarba recently proposed his own solution–an 8000-12000 man peacekeeping force including Syrian Arabs and Kurdish peshmerga fighters–who aren’t affiliated with the YPG–from both Syria and Iraq. This would apparently be acceptable to Turkey.

But the thing is, Jarba may just be stringing the process along on Turkey’s behalf. Ankara has started hinting at its willingness to restore normal diplomatic relations with Damascus in what seems clearly to be an effort to preempt any deal between the YPG and the Syrian government. Dangling Jarba’s very hypothetical force as a buffer zone option could put the YPG at ease and reduce its urgency to make a deal with the Syrian government.

YEMEN

Representatives of the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels met in Jordan on Tuesday to try to salvage plans for a large prisoner swap to which the two sides agreed back in December. United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths stressed the importance of the swap to building confidence for additional peace talks, in addition to being nice for the people who will be released. Griffiths is hoping to come out of this week’s talks in Amman with finalized prisoner lists that are acceptable to both sides.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is accusing the United Arab Emirates of supplying Yemeni militias with weapons it purchases from Western suppliers. Which of course it is.

IRAQ

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi just hit the 100 day mark on the job, and with his big reform plans going nowhere his government already seems to be losing public support:

But with the 100-day mark of his administration gone, Abdul Mahdi and his reform agenda appear to be faltering. He has been able to freely choose only a handful of ministers, while four ministerial positions remain vacant amid haggling among political parties insisting on their candidates. His budget has drawn widespread criticism for failing to shift resources away from salaries and the security sector toward services, agriculture, industrial development, and the reconstruction of war-torn areas in the country’s north.

Still, this political cycle has offered some reason to hope that Iraq’s 14-year-old democracy is gradually maturing. For the first time, the prime minister doesn’t hail from the Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite political movement that opposed Saddam Hussein and emerged as the country’s dominant political force after his overthrow in 2003. The president was elected in parliament in line with the constitution, in contrast to previous years when the candidate was chosen in murky backroom negotiations. For the first time, the two main blocs in parliament are cross-sectarian alliances that include Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties.

Despite these encouraging signs, Abdul Mahdi’s perceived lack of progress in filling his cabinet is gradually eroding public confidence. Many Iraqis on the streets call him “weak” and perceive him as unable to stand his ground in the face of powerful political interests.

LEBANON

Speaking of big reform plans, Lebanon’s new cabinet is apparently committed to–guess what–austerity, in order to appease international donors and unlock more than $11 billion in potential development assistance. To be fair, Lebanon is carrying a lot of public debt (150 percent of its GDP), so austerity makes a lot of sense except for the part where austerity actually doesn’t reduce debt. Anyway at least the Lebanese people can look forward to all the unnecessary hardship and eventual public opposition this will cause.

EGYPT

The Egyptian parliament is now considering a package of constitutional amendments that will not only extend the length of its presidential terms but will enable Pharaoh Abdel Fattah I to remain in office unmolested through 2034 while increasing his control over the Egyptian judiciary. The main changes would both extend the length of presidential terms and reset Sisi’s clock to zero, so he’d be able to finish his current four year term in 2022 and then serve two more six year terms. The other changes would give him still more latitude to appoint judges and prosecutors.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Pope Francis celebrated mass in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday as his visit to the UAE–the first by a Catholic pope to the Arabian Peninsula–came to a close. So that’s nice. Francis says he “found good will to start peace processes” in Yemen while meeting with UAE leaders over the past couple of days. This would seem to be a case where actions would speak louder than words, but sure, good will, whatever.

SAUDI ARABIA

The revelation (if you can really call it that) that the Saudis and Emiratis have been arming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with US weaponry is apparently strengthening calls on Capitol Hill to end the US role in supporting the Saudi-led war effort and to stop selling weapons to both countries at least until the Yemen war is over. Again, actions would be nicer here than words.

IRAN

Saying that Turkey is the only European country still buying Iran’s oil, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh on Tuesday criticized Greece and Italy for refusing to buy Iranian even though the Trump administration gave both countries exemptions from US sanctions. Obviously Rome and Athens are free to buy whatever oil they want, but this is the kind of thing that could push Iran toward exiting the nuclear agreement.

Iranian officials also aren’t reacting too well to recent European criticisms of their ballistic missile program:

The EU has stepped up criticism of Iran’s ballistic missiles program and its regional policies in a dual-track approach analysts say is designed to show Washington it is possible to contain Tehran while remaining inside the nuclear pact.

The Iranian foreign ministry said on Tuesday Iran would never negotiate over its missile program, which it said was defensive and designed as a deterrent.

“Clear threats against the Islamic Republic are not constructive, efficient or helpful, and they are not in line with regional security and the real interests of Europe,” the foreign ministry said in a statement published on its website.

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