Middle East update: February 13 2019

SYRIA

The Syrian Democratic Forces have paused their operation in Baghouz to give the people remaining in ISIS’s last pocket of territory in Syria a chance to leave. An estimated 1200 have done so just in the past day or so. There were ISIS fighters among them, and the fact that they were able to leave without being attacked indicates that ISIS leaders in Baghouz decided to let them leave. Several thousand more people are believed to still be in the village, sheltering in tunnels to try to escape the fighting.

Elsewhere, a group of Spanish politicians are calling for an investigation into the possibility that Turkey has been looting Afrin of its olives, pressing them into oil, and then selling that oil as its own. Afrin is of course controlled by Turkey and its rebel proxies, who would presumably be the recipients of most of the revenue generated by the pilfered oil. It’s probably impossible to devise a test to detect whether Turkey is passing off Syrian oil as its own, and even if it weren’t the Turks could just blend the Syrian oil into their own olive oil products to mask it. And anyway, Afrin business leaders are claiming that they sold the oil to Turkey at market prices, a claim that’s difficult if not impossible to disprove.

YEMEN

The House of Representatives voted 248-177 on Wednesday to suspend US involvement in the Saudi war effort in Yemen under the War Powers Act. Shortly before the vote, the House partially undermined the resolution by adding an amendment that would exempt intelligence sharing, meaning the US would still be able to feed the Saudis targeting information on where to find the largest orphanages in Sanaa and the like. The resolution will now go to the Senate, where an identical resolution passed last year, though with a more Republican Senate its chances of passing again are uncertain. If it does pass the Senate it will then move to the White House where it will be vetoed by Donald Trump, and the war will go on as it has been.

The Trump administration has already blown off a February 9 deadline to inform Congress of steps that the Saudi-led coalition has been taking to minimize civilian casualties (LOL), which means the Pentagon can no longer refuel coalition aircraft. Which it already stopped doing in November to what appears to be little effect.

LEBANON

The Saudi government is lifting the travel warning it’s had in place for Lebanon since 2011. The warning has significantly impacted Lebanon’s tourist trade, which depended heavily on travelers from the Gulf looking for a nicer environment to ride out a week or so during the oppressive Gulf summer. The Saudis didn’t really offer any specific reason for the policy change, but presumably they’ve realized that their “tough love” approach toward Beirut hasn’t done anything except increase Iran’s influence there.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli government apparently will not allow the United Nations Security Council to send a delegation to the West Bank and Gaza in response to its decision to kick out an international observer mission from Hebron last month. Israel’s near-constant claims of bias at the UN are undoubtedly the reason, though it’s interesting that the Israelis decided to take the PR hit themselves rather than letting the US block a visit with its veto. It’s possible this is another campaign move by Benjamin Netanyahu to show how he’s bravely standing up against international meddlers who want to, uh, make sure the Israelis aren’t ethnically cleansing the West Bank. How dare they.

The big US Iran bashing conference that took place on Wednesday in Warsaw was pretty much a fiasco (see below), but it did give Netanyahu a chance to make nice with several Arab governments whose representatives were in attendance. He met, for example, with the foreign minister of Oman, and made sure to let everybody know about it. Netanyahu also maybe said the quiet part out loud by suggesting that the whole affair was about getting ready for a war with Iran.

I say “maybe” because there’s some discrepancy about whether what he said (in Hebrew–that tweet is a transcription/translation of something he told reporters) should be more properly translated as “war” or something like “combat” or “struggle” that wouldn’t necessarily imply a military conflict. Regardless of what he said, the intent seems pretty clear.

SAUDI ARABIA

The European Union has decided to add Saudi Arabia to its watchlist of countries engaged in money laundering and/or terrorist financing, despite objections from several of its largest members including the outgoing United Kingdom. EU member states could reject the list and force Brussels to redo it, but if the decision holds it will make it more difficult for the Saudis to conduct financial business in Europe.

Like the obligation to report to Congress on Yemen that it’s also ignored, the Trump administration last week blew past a deadline to make a report to Congress on the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Congress opened a window under the Magnitsky Act for the administration to pronounce sentence on MBS, with sanctions a possibility if it concluded that he was involved. Presumably because it couldn’t clear the prince without outright lying, the White House opted to just ignore the whole thing. Which isn’t really how the whole Congress-President relationship is supposed to work, but what can you do?

IRAN

A suicide attacker struck a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel in Sistan and Baluchestan province on Wednesday, killing at least 27 people. The Sunni extremist group Jaish ul-Adl, which is active in Baluchestan on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border, took responsibility for the attack.

The US Justice Department has gotten an indictment against Monica Witt, a former US Air Force intelligent agent who defected to Iran in 2013 and provided classified information to Iranian intelligence. It’s unknown how much, if any, damage her defection caused in the US intelligence community. Witt is believed to still be in Iran so the indictment doesn’t really mean anything.

As I mentioned above, the Trump administration’s Middle East conference in Warsaw was pretty much a fiasco. After assuring recalcitrant European allies that the conference was not merely a chance for everybody to bash Iran, that’s basically what it turned out to be:

An international conference US officials had insisted was not about demonizing Iran got off to an awkward start in Warsaw today thanks to two close allies of US President Donald Trump.

First, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer in the Russia investigation, called for Iran regime change at a rally in Warsaw of the controversial Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group until recently designated as a terrorist group by the United States, and widely reviled by Iranians both inside and outside of Iran as a cult that fought with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

Then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his spokesman tweeted comments whose English translation said the Warsaw meeting was important for bringing Israel together with Arab countries “to advance their common interest of war with Iran.” Those tweets were subsequently deleted and reposted with the translation of Israeli-Arab common interest being in “combatting” Iran, but not for over an hour from the Israeli prime minister’s official Twitter account.

The Netanyahu brouhaha was silly, but the Giuliani thing was pretty embarrassing and thoroughly pulled the curtain back on the conference as a whole. Meanwhile, Iran and France are about to restore full diplomatic relations and the International Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that it has the jurisdiction to hear a case brought by Iran back in 2016 over some $1.75 billion in Iranian assets frozen by Washington. So really, the “maximum pressure” campaign is going incredibly well. I expect the Iranians to surrender and plead for mercy any day now.

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