Middle East update: February 18 2019

SYRIA

What appears to have been a double-tap bombing killed at least 15 people in Idlib city on Monday. A car bomb detonated first, followed by a nearby motorcycle bomb a short time later. Several of the casualties were apparently first responders caught in the second blast. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but the civilian wing of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls Idlib, is reportedly rounding up people suspected of links to either Syrian intelligence or ISIS.

Sunday’s New Arab report that ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces had reached a deal turns out to have been only partially right. There is apparently a truce in effect for the next five days. Additionally, ISIS did release a few SDF prisoners in return, according to activist groups, for shipments of food into the town of Baghouz. But the SDF denies that it’s negotiating any kind of deal for the remaining ISIS fighters in Baghouz to be relocated to another part of Syria (i.e., Idlib). Nevertheless, the decision to allow food into the town is a little curious since it undermines any plan to starve ISIS out.

Defying Donald Trump’s demand to accept all of its nationals captured while fighting with ISIS, the French government says it will consider repatriation on a “case by case” basis. US plans to withdraw from eastern Syria have raised concerns that the hundreds of ISIS foreign fighters currently in SDF custody could go free unless they’re repatriated en masse. The SDF, for its part, insists that it won’t intentionally release its captives but warns that they could “escape,” which is probably another way of saying that the SDF won’t waste a lot of resources on guarding them once the US has pulled out. The risk then, obviously, is that they could return home of their own accord and carry out attacks. But the idea of repatriating them officially is proving to be extremely unpopular among European citizens, hence the dilemma.

The rush of Arab countries to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad’s government has slowed, in part due to some active US lobbying against it. Washington wants Arab governments to continue to isolate Assad commercially and diplomatically unless/until he agrees to a “political settlement” to end the Syrian civil war, which in DC-speak means until he agrees to hold elections and step down. Assad is, of course, not going to do that, and some Arab countries–the UAE chief among them–have been warming to the idea of restoring ties with his government. The Emiratis in particular view Assad as preferable to most of the alternatives and believe that over time they could even coax him out of Iran’s orbit.

IRAQ

Chatham House’s Renad Mansour says there are tensions bubbling to the surface between factions of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization forces:

Earlier this month, Iraq’s paramilitary group raided the home of and arrested one of its own — a prominent and longtime paramilitary leader, Aws al-Khafaji. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) — an umbrella organization of about 50 predominantly Shiite paramilitary groups — has initiated a crackdown on groups.

The purging reveals an emerging reality in Iraq: The paramilitary groups that fought together against the Islamic State are competing against each other for power, legitimacy and resources. In this process, the PMU is further institutionalizing by centralizing power and the disparate groups that fall within its umbrella. This competition has profound implications for stability in post-Islamic State Iraq — and for how we should understand its emerging state.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about Poland’s role in the Holocaust have apparently put the kibosh on the whole Visegrád 4 summit that was supposed to begin on Tuesday in Israel. With the Poles now refusing to attend, leaders from the other three members (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia) will hold a series of bilateral talks with Netanyahu and his people instead. The whole incident highlights the emerging incoherence in Netanyahu’s European foreign policy:

This was the latest twist in a long-running diplomatic dispute between Israel and Poland after Warsaw last year introduced a new law calling for prison sentences of up to three years for accusing Poland of crimes committed against Jews during World War II, including collaborating in the Holocaust.

Israeli officials took the lead in accusing Poland’s nationalist, right-wing government of trying to suppress historic inquiry and whitewashing the past.

But at the same time, Netanyahu has been keen to build ties with Central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, with which Israel sees itself increasingly politically aligned. Israel views the countries as important allies within the European Union because of their sympathy for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

Amid criticism of the new law, Poland watered down the wording, and relations with Israel appeared to be on track again until Netanyahu commented on the subject while returning from a U.S.-led Middle East summit in Warsaw last week.

EGYPT

Two police officers chasing a militant in Cairo’s old district (aka its “Islamic district”) were killed on Monday when an explosive device the man was carrying went off. It’s unclear whether the detonation was intentional. The militant was also killed and five people (three civilians and two police officers) were injured.

IRAN

The fallout from last week’s Jaish ul-Adl attack in southeastern Iran, in which 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces were killed, continues to percolate around the region. Saudi officials responded angrily on Monday to Iranian suggestions that they were behind the attack, though notably they don’t appear to have actually denied the allegation. Meanwhile, on Sunday Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the Iranians that his government will “fully cooperate” into Iran’s investigation of the attack, and the Pakistanis additionally say they’ve begun a military operation in their southwest intended to hunt down Jaish ul-Adl members.

For Iran’s part, its security forces have reportedly broken up a cell linked to the attack and arrested three militants in the process. The operation involved raids in the cities of Saravan and Khash, both in Sistan and Baluchestan province.

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