Middle East update: February 21 2019

SYRIA

There were several bombings across northern Syria on Thursday, likely perpetrated by at least a couple of different parties. At least two civilians were killed in a car bombing in Afrin and four Turkish proxy fighters in a bombing in Jarabulus. It wouldn’t be a big stretch to suggest the YPG was responsible for these. At least 10 people were killed in eastern Syria when a minibus carrying workers at an oil facility controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces was bombed. ISIS would have to be considered the prime suspect here. And five YPG fighters were killed in a bombing near their base in Kobane–again ISIS would make sense as a culprit here.

Meanwhile, the SDF’s operation to clear out the last ISIS-held pocket of territory around Baghouz ran into a complication on Thursday when yet another convoy sent in to the town to evacuate civilians from the war zone was forced to leave empty-handed–er, empty-trucked, I guess. In anticipation of their final assault, the SDF has been trying to evacuate Baghouz’s remaining civilians all week in return for sending food in to the remaining ISIS fighters. It’s unclear whether they’ll make another attempt on Friday, though at some point they’re presumably going to attack whether the civilians have been removed or not.

The French government believes, and the US says it’s attempting to confirm, that one of the ISIS fighters killed recently in Baghouz was a man named Fabien Clain. There’s some evidence that Clain was one of the ISIS fighters involved in the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris in which 129 people were killed.

Say, remember how the US was going to pull all of its 2000 soldiers out of eastern Syria very soon? Well, uh, here’s the thing: the Trump administration now says it’ll be leaving a 200 person “peacekeeping group” behind “for a period of time” after the rest of the force withdraws. They’ll be trying to prevent the Turkish army from attacking the SDF, and also serving as a good faith gesture to entice European countries to send peacekeepers of their own for the same purpose (really this whole idea hinges on European cooperation, because 200 US peacekeepers on their own won’t be able to keep very much peace at all). Which would then ideally entice the SDF to stop negotiating with Bashar al-Assad’s government for protection from the Turks and maybe also interfere with Iran’s activities in the country. The decision to go back on Donald Trump’s big withdrawal plan should serve as an acknowledgement that he came up with the idea on the fly and had no idea how to implement it without undercutting other US objectives in Syria. It means the Syrian phase of the Forever War will now continue indefinitely, as we’d all figured it would before Trump made his surprise announcement back in December. And so finally, thankfully, the Blob can rest easy.

IRAQ

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units are going through something of a purge as the Iraqi government tries to legitimize them under state authority. The leader of one faction, Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji of the al-Abbas Brigade, was arrested earlier this month for suggesting that Iranian elements were behind the recent murder of Iraqi writer Alaa Mashzoub, for example, and that’s just one case in point:

Al-Abbas Brigade was not the only faction to face arrests and closures. The PMU said that it has closed down several “fake” offices in Baghdad. These included the headquarters of the Saraya al-Khorasani faction on Feb. 12; the group vowed to turn to the judiciary to prove the legitimacy of its offices.

Those who follow the PMU leaders’ statements saw these events coming, as many of them have expressed a desire to become a legitimate security institution. The Iraqi government is under international pressure to limit and control the PMU, while PMU leaders want to expand their presence and role.

PMU deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes said in a Jan. 15 interview with Nas News, “We will sacrifice a lot of friends when we cleanse our ranks and will face several obstacles. We have long way to go and we need to be patient.” He said that organizing the different military factions and placing them under the control of the state is a difficult undertaking because some of the factions refuse to cooperate “and we will make many enemies in the process.”

While Europe and the United States are both hedging about repatriating foreign ISIS fighters from Syria (more on this later), the Iraqi government clearly has no such hangups. Over 150 Iraqi ISIS members captured by the SDF in recent weeks were handed over to the Iraqis on Wednesday. The Iraqis have said they will accept all of their nationals captured fighting with ISIS. These 150 are now under investigation and will likely be facing trials.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the two most prominent “centrists” in Israel (this says a lot about where the “center” is in Israeli politics these days) announced on Thursday that they are joining forces heading into April’s Knesset election. Somewhat incredibly, these two massive egos managed to agree on a power-sharing mechanism by which they would take turns serving as prime minister should their new alliance prove victorious. Polling has shown for a while now that a Gantz-Lapid alliance has a genuine chance of beating Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which will now shift even further right in an effort to strengthen its position. Netanyahu is already dismissing Gantz and Lapid as candidates of the left, which is absurd but also a tough sell given that Gantz is a former IDF commander and nearly as militaristic as Netanyahu. He’s also gotten a lot of support from other retired IDF figures, which makes it still harder for Netanyahu to paint him as a dove.

US ambassador to Israel Dov Friedman, whose job is apparently to do PR for Israel’s West Bank settler community, said on Thursday that he’d like to see settlers and Palestinians doing business deals with one another. This would of course help legitimize the otherwise illegal settlements, which has been Friedman’s overarching goal since long before he became a diplomat.

QATAR

The Qatari government says it will continue to send financial aid to Gaza whether the Palestinian Authority likes it or not. The PA does not, in fact, like it, because the aid undercuts the PA’s authority to disburse money and undermines its efforts to pressure Hamas politically by immiserating the Gazan people. As to accusations that the Qataris are funding Hamas, they argue that their air is going directly to the Palestinian people in Gaza, in the form of infrastructure projects and humanitarian programs. It’s probably true that Hamas benefits from this assistance to the extent that it helps alleviate human suffering. On the other hand, if your plan to weaken Hamas involves deliberately forcing a couple of million people living under its rule to go without basic needs for a few years, maybe your plan is bad and you’re bad for coming up with it.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

The UAE held a big defense fair this week and emerged having awarded some $5.5 billion in new contracts to various defense contractors around the world. Chief among these were US stalwarts Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, so congrats to the ghouls who run those places, your bonus checks are on their way. But there are signs that the Emiratis are trying to diversify their arms buying a bit, as Western arms sales come under increasing scrutiny over the Yemen war.

At LobeLog, William Hartung argues that the US-UAE alliance is ready for a long-overdue reassessment:

The idealized version of the U.S.-UAE relationship is based on a history of military and intelligence cooperation that includes fighting side-by-side in Afghanistan, Syria, and other conflicts. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis has described the UAE as “Little Sparta” in recognition of its military prowess, and the former Trump administration official even served as an unpaid advisor to the UAE military prior to his stint at the Pentagon.

Alongside its military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, the UAE has invested large sums in burnishing its image as the good Gulf State: more tolerant, more modern, and more forward-looking than other governments in the region. It has done an excellent job from its own perspective, but its carefully crafted image hides a wide range of activities that are counter to long-term U.S. security interests.

SAUDI ARABIA

In addition to opening up the country’s entertainment industry, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic plan is looking to boost tourism in the kingdom by focusing on its pre-Islamic archeological sites. This is not a minor thing in a kingdom founded on an extremist form of Islam that regards those sorts of things as borderline blasphemous. But it is a potential tourist draw and also, via academic pursuits involving these sites, an effective way to engage in some track II diplomacy with Western countries that are feeling more uneasy about the Saudis these days.

The Center for International Policy’s Ben Freeman describes how foreign governments–including and maybe most especially the Saudis and the Emiratis–have bought much of the Washington think tank community:

Those who run Washington generally trust the inhabitants of think tanks of their political bent to provide the intellectual foundations upon which much of public policy is built. At least in some cases, however, that trust couldn’t be more deeply misplaced, since cornerstones of the ever-expanding think-tank universe turn out to be for sale.

Every year foreign governments pour tens of millions of dollars into those very institutions and, though many think tanks are tax-exempt non-profits, such donations often turn out to be anything but charitable gifts. Foreign contributions generally come with critically important strings attached — usually a favorable stance toward that country in whatever influential work the think tanks are doing. In other words, those experts you regularly read or see on screen, whose scholarship and advice Washington’s politicians and other officials often use, are in some cases being paid, directly or indirectly, by the very countries on which they are offering advice and analysis. And here’s the catch: they can do so without ever having to tell you about it.

IRAN

Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani suggested on Tuesday that Iran will “take revenge” against the Saudis for last week’s Jaish ul-Adl attack in southeastern Iran, in which 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members were killed. Iran has long accused the Saudis, and not entirely without evidence, of supporting Sunni extremists in Sistan and Baluchestan province, whether Jaish ul-Adl or its predecessor, Jundallah.

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