Middle East update: February 12 2019

SYRIA

A car bomb hit a checkpoint near the Turkish border outside the town of al-Rai on Tuesday. Three police officers and four civilians were wounded. That area is controlled by Turkey and its proxies, so there are a number of possible suspects including the YPG, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and of course ISIS.

Speaking of HTS, now that it’s firmly in control of Idlib province, aid agencies are reportedly bailing out. NGOs don’t want to take the risk that their funds, mostly coming from Western donors, could wind up in the hands of the extremist former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. This is not great, since those NGOs have been operating most of the province’s medical and educational facilities, as well as providing basic humanitarian assistance to the people trapped there. There’s also growing concern that HTS may attempt to cut the M5 highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and points beyond, which would almost certainly trigger the kind of Syrian government offensive in Idlib that everybody’s been hoping to avoid.

Elsewhere, the Israelis fired several missiles into Syria’s Quneitra province on Monday but reportedly only caused some physical damage. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in heavy campaign mode, acknowledged the strikes on Tuesday. Hezbollah is active in that region but it’s unclear what the Israelis were attacking.

The US, meanwhile, bombed a mosque in the town of Baghouz on Monday while claiming the ISIS was using the facility for military command and control purposes. Baghouz is the main town in ISIS’s small remaining enclave of territory in eastern Syria. Casualty figures in the strike are unknown, but there were apparently heavy casualties in another overnight US strike on Baghouz’s outskirts. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the figure at seven children and eight women. There are reports that ISIS is trying to negotiate an agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces to allow its fighters to evacuate the Baghouz area and take millions of dollars worth of gold and cash with them, but no confirmation that anything like that is in the works.

YEMEN

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths is warning that stores of grain at Hudaydah are at risk of rotting unless government and Houthi forces can reach an agreement that allows aid agencies to get access to the stores and distribute the food. The local ceasefire the two sides reached in December remains in limbo while its particulars are worked out, and sporadic clashes have continued in the meantime.

In case there was any doubt that Donald Trump would veto any congressional effort to get the US out of Yemen, his administration made it pretty clear on Monday that he would do just that. The House is considering a War Powers resolution that could force the US to stop supporting the Saudi war effort, but there’s no chance it will pass both chambers of Congress with veto-proof majorities. It may not even pass, period.

IRAQ

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited Iraq on Tuesday in an effort to reassure the Iraqi government that the US isn’t using their country as a staging ground for its pressure campaign against Iran. Donald Trump suggested as much in an interview earlier this month, raising alarm in Baghdad and adding to growing calls for the Iraqi government to kick US military forces out of the country or at least heavily restrict the US military presence there.

LEBANON

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Monday called on Syria to make “security guarantees”–in other words, promises that they can return to their homes and won’t be conscripted to serve in the Syrian army–to the remaining Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Many refugees won’t return for fear that they’ll either be drafted or that they won’t have any home to which to return, and the ongoing presence of around a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon is taxing that country’s public services immensely.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, would like the Lebanese government to negotiate with its creditor banks over reducing the cost of debt service. How the government responds will say something about Hezbollah’s level of influence in parliament. The alternative is more austerity, so Beirut really has nothing to lose by giving this idea a try, except insofar as Saad al-Hariri’s government would be knuckling under to Hezbollah to some degree.

QATAR

The French and Qatari governments agreed on Monday to a wide-ranging “cooperation” arrangement that will cover regional security, defense, energy, economic relations, and more. Once again the brilliant Saudi-organized blockade brings Qatar to its collective knees.

The Qataris now believe they may have inadvertently helped bail out real estate buffoon Jared Kushner and his family’s boondoggle at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The Qataris invested funds from their QIA strategic wealth fund into a firm called Brookfield that helped rescue the underwater property last year but did so without informing the Qataris (at least as far as the Qataris are saying). The Qataris say they’re likely to adjust the way QIA’s money is invested to ensure that they have full control over the fund’s resources from now on. But the thing is, this story makes no sense. Brookfield’s decision to invest in 666 Fifth Avenue was widely reported, so it’s not like the Qataris could have been as completely in the dark as they’re pretending to be now. And also, there’s this:

Ah, well, I’m sure there’s a perfectly simple and believable explanation.

SAUDI ARABIA

OPEC cut its collective oil production by 797,000 barrels per day in January, part of an agreement with Russia and other major non-OPEC oil producers to reduce global supply by 1.2 million bpd and bring prices up. The deal actually called OPEC to cut production by 812,000, so it missed the target a bit. The Saudis, as OPEC’s largest oil producer, made the largest cut at around 350,000 bpd. Several other OPEC members actually exceeded their quotas for the month, but the Saudis pumped 100,000 bpd below their quota and unrelated production declines in Iran, Libya, and Venezuela helped make up the difference.

The Senate is considering a resolution that would require any US deal to help the Saudis develop a nuclear power program also include safeguards against the possible militarization of that program. The Saudis have consistently rejected any agreement that would prevent them from either enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, the two steps needed to produce weapons grade material. The Trump administration, nuclear proliferation concerns be damned, seems open to the idea of helping the Saudis develop a nuclear program without putting those limits on it. The resolution may not pass the Senate and is non-binding anyway.

According to the Wall Street Journal, and please feel free to take an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude here, Washington is trying to pressure the Saudis into punishing Saud al-Qahtani, the MBS aide who is widely believed to have masterminded the Jamal Khashoggi murder. But Qahtani’s bro isn’t willing to do it:

The Saudi public prosecutor is investigating the Khashoggi case and has charged 11 people. Mr. Qahtani hasn’t been charged and is one of an additional 10 people who are under investigation, according to the Saudi government.

Prince Mohammed has sought to protect him, according to a Saudi royal familiar with the matter. “For MBS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court, and [Prince Mohammed] assured him that he will be untouched and will return when the Khashoggi case blows over,” he said.

“MBS had no intention whatsoever to let go of Qahtani and was furious when he was fired by his father,” the Saudi royal said.

Mr. Qahtani has been spotted in Abu Dhabi, even though Saudi Arabia imposed a travel ban, a Saudi official said. He was seen in the royal court at least twice until people complained and he was banned, Saudi officials said.

The US isn’t going to apply the kind of pressure to the Saudis that might actually force them to do something, so it appears Qahtani is safe.

IRAN

Newt Gingrich is apparently working for a foreign entity to lobby in Washington for regime change in Iran. Probably he’s working for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is the Mujahedin-e-Khalq’s nicer-sounding front group.

The big US-Poland conference on griping about Iran what to do in the Middle East is starting Wednesday, and most of the major European players are preparing to snub it to one degree or another:

Key European powers will offer only limited participation in a high-profile Trump administration summit on the Middle East starting on Wednesday, reflecting their growing anger over unilateral US policymaking on Iran and Syria.

The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will leave the Warsaw summit early, pleading Brexit Commons business, while France is sending a civil servant and Germany its junior foreign minister.

Federica Mogherini, the EU external affairs chief, will boycott the event, originally conceived by the US as a way to press EU countries to adopt a more aggressive stance towards Iran.

The Europeans, trying to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, don’t want to be seen endorsing the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Iran marked the 40th anniversary of its 1979 revolution on Monday, and the overriding message seems to have been one of defiance:

President Hassan Rouhani, speaking to the sprawling crowd at the Freedom Monument, said the country was in the middle of “a psychological and economical war, waged by cruel enemies.” That was a clear reference to the United States and the sanctions the Trump administration reimposed after it unilaterally withdrew from a global deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

“We will stand against these sanctions together, and gain victory over America,” Mr. Rouhani said, emphasizing that such resistance does not come without costs. “People will face problems, they already have some problems, but we will pass them.”

The celebration even included some pointless chest-thumping threats to attack Israel (though, to be fair, only if the United States were to attack Iran first), which of course drew the requisite threats from Israel to attack Iran. Lather, rinse, etc.

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