Middle East update: February 6 2019

SYRIA

The United Nations sent a large (100 truck) humanitarian aid convoy to the Syrian displaced persons camp at Rukban, near the Jordanian border, which arrived on Wednesday. There are as many as 50,000 people at Rukban, most of them believed to be women and children displaced by ISIS who are now unwilling to leave the US-controlled deconfliction zone around the military base at nearby Tanf to return to their government-held homes. Their condition is believed to be pretty desperate, and these periodic convoys only offer a little relief. The only real solution to their predicament is to return home, but that carries some risk with it, like the risk that young men will be conscripted into the Syrian army.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, ISIS is almost gone, but not really:

The Islamic State gunmen came out of hiding in the middle of the night and set up a checkpoint on a rural road in eastern Syria. For several hours, they stopped those passing and searched through their mobile phones to check their allegiances, until they vanished again into the desert.

One young man, an education worker, got through the checkpoint safely. But when he got to his destination in the next village, the threat was waiting for him. An IS loyalist told him: Don’t remove pro-IS graffiti from school walls or you will pay the price.

The incident, one of many similar ones in past weeks, sent a bigger message — the Islamic State group may have lost almost all its territory, but it hasn’t left.

ISIS’s continued existence is being used as an argument against the US leaving Syria, which is asinine because the United States could stay in Syria for the next 50 years and still not eradicate a group that has almost no territorial presence anymore and exists more as an ideology than a physical thing. But it is an argument against withdrawing in a way that creates more chaos in eastern Syria, like say the chaos that would ensue if Turkey were to start attacking the YPG.

On the plus side, Donald Trump says he’s expecting an official Mission Accomplished announcement next week, to the effect that the Syrian Democratic Forces have taken the last patch of territory in Syria still under ISIS control. That seems realistic if a bit optimistic, given that the SDF was talking about finishing ISIS off within a month about two weeks ago. Trump also did seem to acknowledge, in remarks at the State Department, that ISIS will continue to be a problem for some time to come even after its territory is gone.

TURKEY

Unsurprisingly, the Turkish government has not reacted well to France’s announcement that it was establishing April 24 as a day to officially commemorate the Armenian Genocide. Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın on Wednesday suggested that French President Emmanuel Macron made the announcement to distract from his domestic problems, which might make sense except that this was something Macron talked about doing while he was running for president.

Despite Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s visit to Turkey this week, Greek-Turkish relations are unlikely to improve any time soon. For one thing, Athens seems intent on expanding its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea to the internationally recognized 12 mile limit rather than the six mile limit currently observed by both Greece and Turkey. This would give Greece control of around 75 percent of the Aegean and is unacceptable to Ankara. Related to that and perhaps more combustible, both countries are interested in exploring for oil under the Aegean and their claims about the continental shelf are already in conflict with one another.

IRAQ

Add Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiʿa majority, to the list of Iraqi leaders who don’t seem too happy about Donald Trump’s recent comments regarding Iran. Over the weekend, Trump told CBS that he wants to leave US forces in Iraq to “watch” Iran. The Iraqis, understandably, aren’t terribly keen on facilitating the US-Iran conflict in this way since Baghdad views good relations with Tehran as essential to its stability and prosperity. Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi have already expressed their displeasure with Trump’s comments, and now that the widely-respected Sistani has done likewise the calls in Baghdad to boot the US military out of the country may grow louder.

LEBANON

The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Shiʿa politician Nabih Berri, accused Israel on Wednesday of licensing a company to drill for oil in waters that are disputed by the two countries. Lebanon and Israel both claim a patch of about 330 square miles offshore, and with an increasing interest in drilling for oil and gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean that’s likely to become a bigger sticking point unless they can come to some agreement.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli authorities say they shelled targets in Gaza Wednesday night in response to a rocket fired from the enclave that struck Israel’s Southern District. This is a developing story and there’s no word yet on the extent of the shelling or any casualties.

Palestinian leaders seem pleased with the rhetoric they’re hearing from Israeli PM candidate Benny Gantz about West Bank settlements. Gantz, seen as probably the only real threat to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu in April’s election, suggested in a newspaper interview on Wednesday that some Israeli settlements would have to be abandoned as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. That may not seem like much–because it isn’t–but compared to Netanyahu’s policy (i.e., giving lip service to a two-state solution while inexorably annexing the West Bank), it’s positively dovish. Which may wind up hurting Gantz politically. Netanyahu is already painting Gantz as a soft leftist appeaser over his remarks, and given Israel’s radically right-wing electorate those attacks could very well hurt.

EGYPT

For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Immiserating Austerity, the International Monetary Fund has awarded the Egyptian government a prize of $2 billion. In loans, of course. The Egyptians will now undertake additional austerity to pay off this $2 billion and to unlock the final $2 billion of the $12 billion loan package it negotiated with the IMF back in 2016. Then whatever remains of the Egyptian economy will attempt to pull itself out of the austerity death trap, which will probably require more IMF loans and therefore more austerity.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Emirati authorities are denying that they’ve arrested a British citizen for wearing a Qatar jersey while attending the Asian Cup last month (Qatar won the tournament, if you’re wondering). Instead they say the man was arrested for making false statements to police. Normally I’d be inclined to assume that the Emiratis are lying here, and it is a crime in the UAE to “show support” for Qatar, but there were plenty of Qatar fans who attended the tournament while wearing pro-Qatar gear and so far this is the only case of somebody allegedly being arrested for it.

SAUDI ARABIA

Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he finds reports that the Saudis and Emiratis have been distributing US weapons to Yemeni militias–including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula–to be “very troubling.” He wants the administration to “investigate further and work to prevent this from happening again.” Engel is too far in the tank for the military-industrial complex to seriously threaten US arms sales to the Saudis, but for him to even go this far reflects how controversial the US-Saudi relationship is becoming even in DC.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration appears to simply be ignoring Congress’s investigation into the role Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman played in the Jamal Khashoggi murder. Congress ordered the administration to look into MBS’s involvement last year, but the investigation is supposed to end on Thursday and there’s no sign that it’s been completed or ever will be completed.

IRAN

The AP is reporting that satellite imagery suggests Iran conducted a space launch on Tuesday to put a satellite into orbit, while NPR is reporting that the launch seems to have failed. The evidence of its failure seems to be that Iran isn’t talking about it, which is a little specious. But the satellite imagery suggesting there was a launch looks pretty compelling, and if there was a launch then the best explanation for the Iranians’ silence is that it was unsuccessful. Tehran has been promising to put two satellites in orbit for a while now–their attempt to launch the first one (also?) failed last month. The Trump administration has been warning Iran against pursuing a space program, arguing that the whole thing is cover for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But while there is some overlap between developing space rockets and developing ICBMs, most experts argue there’s not enough of an overlap to really be concerned about one leading to the other.

Two men got into a shootout with police in the northwestern Iranian town of Dareh Garm on Wednesday and in the process blew up a truck carrying liquified gas. One police officer was killed and another wounded, and it’s not clear whether there were any other casualties. That includes the gunmen, whose conditions (and identities) have not been revealed by Iranian authorities.

At LobeLog, University of Southern California professor Muhammad Sahimi distinguishes between the genuine Iranian opposition and the charlatans who seem to be preferred by the Trump administration:

As Iranian people struggle for democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law, as well as preserving the national security and territorial integrity of their country, two main groups have emerged among the opposition to Iran’s hardliners, both within Iran and in the diaspora. One group, the true opposition that includes the reformists, religious-nationalists, secular leftists, various labor groups, human rights activists, and others, believes that it is up to the Iranian people living in Iran how to change the political system in their country. This group is opposed to foreign intervention, particularly by the United States and its allies, the illegal economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran, and the constant threats of military confrontation espoused by John Bolton, President Trump’s national security advisor, and other Iran hawks.

Many Iranians refer to the second group as the “fake” opposition. It consists mostly of the monarchists, some ethnic groups, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the exiled group that is universally despised in Iran and was on the State Department’s list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” from 1997 until 2011. It is called the “fake” opposition because it supports the economic sanctions and the threat of military attacks, and has completely aligned itself not only with the Trump administration, but also with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel, and endorses their propaganda against Iran. This group, whose followers are based mostly in the diaspora, acts more like a lobby for convincing the Iranian people to support the Trump-Mohammed bin Salman(MbS)-Benjamin Netanyahu triangle in their confrontation with Iran, rather than as a group supporting the true opposition within Iran for lasting, irreversible, and positive changes in the political system.

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