Middle East update: February 23-24 2019

SYRIA

According to Syrian media, an ISIS-laid landmine killed at least 20 farm workers when their van ran over it in Hama province on Sunday morning. This was not a conscious ISIS attack–the mine was left over from earlier in the Syrian war when ISIS controlled part of the province. Mines and other leftover explosive devices are likely to be one of the enduring legacies of this conflict, and should plague Syrians for years if not decades to come.

Although it’s evacuated most of the remaining civilians out of Baghouz and captured hundreds of ISIS fighters over the past week, the Syrian Democratic Forces militia still isn’t rushing to make its final assault on the last ISIS-held town in Syria. ISIS is still holding human shields in Baghouz, and is believed to be using an extensive network of tunnels to place traps and potentially to enable its defense when the attack does come. The remaining ISIS fighters in Baghouz, who could number upwards of 1000, are diehards, almost entirely foreign fighters, and the fact that they haven’t already surrendered suggests a willingness to fight to the death if necessary. So the SDF’s caution is understandable.

That said, it wouldn’t be surprising if the SDF were deliberately slowing things down in order to delay the planned US withdrawal and give Washington and its European allies time to work out an arrangement that doesn’t leave the SDF to be wiped out by Turkey. The Turks, meanwhile, are insisting that whatever arrangement winds up being implemented, any safe zone in northern Syria has to be under Turkish control–which would seem to be precisely the thing the SDF and US are trying to avoid.

YEMEN

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have agreed to withdraw from two smaller Yemeni ports on Monday with an eye toward withdrawing from the country’s main port city, Hudaydah, in the coming days. The Houthis will quit both Ras Isa, an oil port, and Saleef, a grain facility, on Monday, while coordinating the Hudaydah withdrawal to coincide with a similar retreat by Yemeni government forces in the area. The government has insisted on the initial Houthi pullout before it would redeploy its Hudaydah forces.

James Dorsey argues that Saudi Arabia’s worries about Yemeni instability are likely to only intensify once the war finally ends:

The problem is that even if the United Nations mediated peace talks ultimately produce an end to the war, Yemen, if anything, will pose in the post-war era an even greater and more real threat. Yemen for much of post-World War Two history has been an after thought in the international community if it sparked a thought at all. Yet, what a post-war Yemen will represent is a devastated country that largely needs to be rebuilt from scratch, a country whose traumatized population has suffered one the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and will need all the after-care that goes with that.

Beyond the taking care of the most immediate humanitarian issues, there is little reason to believe that investors and governments with massive aid packages and offers of reconstruction will be knocking on Yemen’s doors. Like in Syria and Libya, the risk is of the emergence of a generation that has nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose. In Yemen, that generation is likely to deeply resent what it perceives Saudi Arabia has done to their country. If Saudi Arabia, long saw Yemen as the Gulf’s most populous nation with a battle-hardened military that needed to be managed, that new generation is likely to put flesh on the skeleton.

IRAQ

ISIS terrorists reportedly killed five Iraqi fishermen in Anbar province on Saturday. It’s likely they were one of a few groups of ISIS fighters who have crossed into Iraq from Syria and have been suspected in several attacks as they make their way across the western Iraqi countryside.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Thousands of people demonstrated in Gaza on Sunday, but not just against Israel for a change. In addition to protesting against the Israeli blockade, they demanded the resignation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the payment of Gaza’s public sector salaries by the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has been cutting salary payments to Gaza for months to try to squeeze Hamas. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians reportedly protested against Hamas and in favor of Palestinian unity on Sunday in Hebron.

The Israelis on Sunday arrested and then released Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, a Palestinian religious leader, after he reopened the Bab al-Rahmeh section of al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday. Bab al-Rahmeh was closed off by Israeli authorities during the Second Intifada, over 15 years ago.

Benjamin Netanyahu is taking a good deal of heat for his new alliance with the Jewish Power party, made up of devotees of the late far-right racist/terrorist Meir Kahane. AIPAC, which has had nary a discouraging word to say about Netanyahu over the latter’s nearly ten year-long second stint as prime minister, criticized Jewish Power over the weekend, as did the American Jewish Congress. Netanyahu has of course responded to these criticisms with his usual cool level-headedness:

“What hypocrisy and double standards by the left,” he wrote on Facebook, in a post that did not mention AIPAC. “They’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc.”

He then went on to list several instances of alleged support by left-wing politicians for radical Arab legislators and leaders.

Well of course he did. Jewish Power is accusing AIPAC of trying to engineer the rise of a left-wing government in Israel, which I only mention because it might be the most absurd thing anyone anywhere said this week.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudis did a little diplomatic shuffling over the weekend. They moved Khalid bin Salman–younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman–from his post as US ambassador to the post of deputy defense minister, working for his big brother. Then to replace Khalid bin Salman (KBS?), the Saudis appointed Princess Rima bint Bandar Al Saud, the first woman to hold their US ambassador post. Princess Rima is the daughter of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, AKA “Bandar Bush.” Bandar is a former ambassador to the US and head of Saudi intelligence, whose close relationship with the Bush family became public knowledge after 9/11. He was one of the Saudi princes arrested as part of the 2017 “anti-corruption” purge, and as far as I can tell it’s not clear what he’s been doing since, if anything. There may be a deeper motive behind these moves, like positioning Khalid to become his brother’s heir apparent if and when MBS moves up to the big chair, but the obvious explanation is that the Saudis feel Khalid botched their response to the Jamal Khashoggi story.

If you missed it in Friday’s update, since I updated it after posting, then please allow me to reiterate here that, during his visit to China, not only did MBS not criticize the Chinese government for its mass incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, he actually defended Beijing:

On Friday, the leader colloquially known as MBS arrived in China, another country accused of authoritarianism, to meet with officials there. He was greeted by China’s Vice Premier Han Zheng and signed key agreements with Beijing related to energy production and the chemical industry. During his visit, he also appeared to defend China’s use of re-education camps for its country’s Muslim population.

“China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security,” the crown prince was quoted as saying on Chinese television.

The Saudis have long styled themselves the leaders of the Islamic world, or at least the Sunni world. Maybe they gave that up as a New Years resolution. Chinese officials returned the favor by downplaying the Khashoggi murder, and the trip reportedly yielded about $28 billion in new business deals between the two countries. Good for them.

IRAN

According to Iranian media, the Iranian navy successfully test fired a cruise missile from its new Fateh submarine on Sunday. The launch was the culmination of a three-day naval exercise around the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

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