Middle East update: February 14 2019

SYRIA

It turns out that ISIS has been shooting at people trying to flee its last Syrian enclave around Baghouz, even when those people are the wives of ISIS fighters. “Hundreds” of women and children have left Baghouz and made it to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ line around the enclave, and some of them have reportedly arrived with gunshot wounds courtesy of ISIS. The remaining ISIS fighters in the area are believed to be hunkering down in tunnels under the town in expectation of the SDF’s final assault, which could come any day though SDF leaders, looking to minimize casualties and avoid booby traps, don’t seem inclined to rush anything.

The presidents of Iran, Russia, and Turkey held another of their Syrian summits in Sochi on Thursday and appear to have agreed that there should be no government offensive in Idlib province–at least, not yet. Idlib is almost entirely controlled by the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, raising concerns about the possible collapse of the ceasefire governing the province. Prior to the meeting the Russians seemed to be nearing the end of their rope and were talking about undertaking an offensive if Turkey failed to do something about HTS as the ceasefire demands. But afterwards Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the three leaders had agreed to take unspecified steps in Idlib but that an offensive wasn’t in the cards.

The three leaders also apparently agreed that the Syrian government and the Syrian army should step into eastern Syria if/when the US pulls its forces out of that area. This would forestall any Turkish plans for an offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia east of the Euphrates River, but might satisfy Turkey’s demands that the Syrian-Turkish border not remain under YPG control. Putin insisted that Turkey would need the Syrian government’s permission before undertaking a(nother) military offensive in northern Syria.

TURKEY

It wasn’t related to Syria, but while they were in Sochi Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and said that Turkey is prepared to create its own “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate commerce with Iran without tripping US sanctions. Britain, France, and Germany created their own SPV last month that will cover trade in humanitarian goods, but Erdoğan seems interested in a more comprehensive arrangement than that.

IRAQ

A roadside bomb in Saladin province, not far north of Baghdad, killed at least nine people on Thursday. One was the military officer in charge of counter-explosives for the province and the other eight belonged to the Saraya al-Salam Popular Mobilization militia, which is under the control of Iraqi religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr. ISIS is presumably responsible though it’s made no claim as yet.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

This week’s big Warsaw summit might not have done much for the Trump administration’s Iranian regime change agenda, but it sure was a big PR triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu:

Israel has formal diplomatic relations with only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan. For decades, one price the country has paid for its occupation of the Palestinian territories has been snubs by the majority of its neighbours.

Events at a two-day summit in Warsaw, however, tell a different story. First there were the videos of Netanyahu sitting with Arab officials at the grand opening dinner on Wednesday night.

“I believe we are beginning a new era,” the US vice-president, Mike Pence, said at the meal. “With prime minister Netanyahu from the state of Israel, with leaders from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all breaking bread together.”

Then there was the meeting and warm handshake with the Omani foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. It built on another landmark trip Netanyahu made in October when he met with the Gulf country’s sultan, the first such visit in more than two decades.

Improving Israel’s relationships with its Arab neighbors is part of Netanyahu’s campaign pitch, so this summit came just at the right time to boost his standing with the Israeli electorate ahead of April’s election. However, he may have pushed it a little too far. Netanyahu’s office briefly posted on YouTube–and shared with the media–a video of parts of a closed session at the summit in which several Arab leaders appear to downplay Palestinian issues while hyping Iran as the biggest threat to regional security. Some of those comments might not go over so well among the citizens of those Arab countries, who still by and large care about the Palestinians even if their leaders do not. Some may not be terribly thrilled that Netanyahu broadcast their private remarks.

EGYPT

Egypt’s parliament preliminarily passed a set of constitutional changes on Thursday that pave the way for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to serve as president through as late as 2034. The changes lengthen the Egyptian presidential term from four years to six years starting with the 2022 election and reset Sisi’s term clock, so that when what should be his second four year term ends in 2022 he’ll be eligible to run for two more at the new six year limit. Other parts of the package vastly increase his powers at the expense of whatever remained of an independent Egyptian judiciary. The amendments will now enter a two month period of debate and revision before a final vote, at while point they’ll go to a referendum that Sisi will probably rig.

There is a fair amount of opposition to these changes among Egyptians, who now have to confront the fact that the democracy they thought they were getting in 2011 has been replaced by yet another military president for life. But whereas Western leaders are eager to demonstrate their solidarity with The People against Their Tyrannical Government when we’re talking about Iran or Venezuela, in this case people like Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump are tripping over themselves to praise Sisi.

SAUDI ARABIA

Turkish police now suspect that the remains of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi were burned rather than soaked in acid. Apparently the furnaces at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul can get hot enough to incinerate a human body, or pieces of one.

Speaking of Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman really hopes you’ll stop speaking of Khashoggi soon. He’s about to embark on a big royal trip across Asia, to countries whose governments don’t seem as hung up on the whole affair:

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is traveling to five Asian countries later this month in his first foreign travels since the G-20 summit in Argentina. The Saudis desperately want to portray this as a business as usual trip, suggesting the fallout from the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is over. Details of the itinerary have been kept vague, probably for security reasons and fears of hostile demonstrations.

After Pakistan he goes on to China, Malaysia, Indonesia and, finally, India. China and India are major consumers of Saudi oil. The Saudis are eager to attract foreign investors to the kingdom, especially as many in the West are leery of business with the Saudi prince after the Khashoggi murder and the continued revelations about his role in the killing.

MBS is expected to do some business deals, to try to bring foreign investment into the kingdom, as well as some damage control in Indonesia, where the Saudis are not terribly popular.

IRAN

Vice President Mike Pence keynoted the Warsaw conference, which many US allies in Europe were reluctant to attend because they disagreed with its focus on Iran and with US policy toward Iran generally, by demanding those countries shut up and fall in line:

He was harshly critical of Britain, France and Germany for unveiling a new financial mechanism last month that U.S. officials believe is intended to keep the nuclear deal alive by evading American sanctions. Pence praised other nations for complying with U.S. sanctions by reducing Iranian oil imports, but he said the Europeans fell short.

“Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”

He said the mechanism, a barter-type payment system that is designed to allow businesses to skirt direct financial transactions with Iran, is “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous regime.”

“It’s an ill-advised step that that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” the vice president said.

Pence then called for Europe to abandon the nuclear agreement altogether, making explicit a demand that Trump administration officials had previously only hinted at.

“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world the peace security and freedom they deserve,” he said.

This seems like a great idea. If threatening them with US sanctions didn’t convince those countries to abandon the nuclear deal, surely treating them like US satellite states will do the trick. I bet they love that kind of thing.

Author: DWD

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