Middle East update: February 25 2019

SYRIA

With thousands of people, mostly civilians but with a few ISIS fighters trying to sneak out of trouble, having fled Baghouz over the past week or so, Syrian Democratic Forces officials have no idea how many people–combatants or otherwise–are left there. They’re guessing around 5000, but they seem to have been underestimating the count at every stage of this offensive. Baghouz is a pretty small place, but ISIS is using extensive tunnels under the town and those are apparently making it difficult to estimate how many people it currently holds. The SDF brought well over 40 more truckloads of people out of Baghouz on Monday in what will probably be the final evacuation even though, again, there’s no good sense for how many people are still there.

Bashar al-Assad dropped by to visit his friends in Tehran on Monday for the first time since the Syrian civil war started. Though from the looks of it, the trip may not have been Assad’s idea:

That looks more like a regional VP having been summoned to speak with the CEO, not of one head of state calling upon another. And that’s probably the point. The Iranians want to make it clear that they carry tremendous weight in Syria and they’re not going to just pack up and go home now that the war is approaching its end.

IRAQ

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh complained earlier this month that the Iraqi government has broken some of its oil agreements with Tehran, presumably in response to US sanctions. In particular, Zangeneh mentioned the Iraqis’ failure to invest in development shared oil fields along the Iran-Iraq border. But those fields aren’t a real priority for the Iraqis in general, and Zangeneh’s comments aren’t being echoed by anybody else in Iranian leadership. Still, this relationship is going to be tested by the sanctions and any sign of wobbliness could be significant.

EGYPT

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi got an earful from European leaders over his human rights record on Monday during the first ever European Union-Arab League summit at Sharm el-Sheikh. He took the criticism really, really well:

But the subject seemed to especially irk the authoritarian leader on Monday when, at the end of a major summit meeting with European and Arab leaders, he lashed out at Europeans who dared to question his record.

“You are not going to teach us about humanity,” Mr. el-Sisi told reporters. Europeans and Arabs have a different “sense of humanity, values and ethics,” he continued. “Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours.”

The awkwardness was problematic for the Europeans, who went to the summit hoping to get Arab states across North Africa to agree to let them set up more migrant detention facilities like the ones where migrants are currently being deprived of their basic human rights in Libya.

SAUDI ARABIA

At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero notes that Mohammad bin Salman didn’t just go to China to make business deals and defend Beijing’s Uyghur internment program. He was also probably there to take notes:

As authoritarian states, Saudi Arabia and China have a common understanding of certain issues that often puts them in the same boat. According to Beijing’s official narrative, the “pacification drive” in Xinjiang is about securing China from the threat of militant Islamist extremists. By focusing on social stability rather than the rights of individuals, the government in Beijing deals with internal security matters in a way that resonates with MbS’s emphasis on maintaining order in Saudi Arabia at the expense of individuals’ freedom of expression and civil liberties.

In fact, the Saudi leadership is attempting to learn lessons from China’s legal system: Riyadh and Beijing recently signed a memorandum of cooperation for sharing judicial information and expertise. In a world where governments increasingly use surveillance technology to hold citizens accountable for crimes, authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikdoms see the government in Beijing as a model in many regards pertaining to internal security policies. China is, as one analyst said, a “perfect prototype” of Saudi Arabia as “people choose riches over freedom.”

IRAN

In a surprise move, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his resignation on Monday, via Instagram because this is the world in which we live now:

“Many thanks for the generosity of the dear and brave people of Iran and its authorities over the past 67 months. I sincerely apologise for the inability to continue serving and for all the shortcomings during my service. Be happy and worthy,” he wrote on his Instagram page jzarif_ir.

It goes without saying that if this is the end of Zarif’s career, he stands as a significant figure if for no other reason than for negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. That remains a major achievement despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to destroy it. But I say “if” because there’s at least some reason to think Zarif is doing a politics here. He’s been at the forefront of a fight within the Iranian government over whether or not to accept the Financial Action Task Force’s reforms to clean up Iran’s money laundering/terrorism financing problems.  It’s gotten pretty heated, with conservatives rejecting the FATF as Western meddling and accusing Zarif of betraying his country in advocating for the adoption of its reform program.

Zarif is also, of course, still taking fire from conservatives over the nuclear deal’s failure, and he seems to have been embarrassingly excluded from the Assad visit on Monday (see above) by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This could have been a “straw that breaks the camel’s back” moment for Zarif, already frustrated about the fact that Iranian politics are moving right and now snubbed by his putative ally, Rouhani.

Zarif’s “resignation” could be a tactic, though I stress “could be.” It’s unlikely that either Rouhani or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would like to see Zarif move on right now, since he’s built up a very good rapport with a number of European diplomats and Iran is trying to strengthen its diplomatic and commercial relations with Europe in the face of US sanctions. Zarif remains publicly popular, and announcing his resignation via social media is a decent way to generate some public clamor for him to remain. If Khamenei in particular were to publicly reject Zarif’s resignation, making it clear that Zarif is needed in his post, it would significantly increase his stature in dealing with his hardline opponents. On the other hand, if Khamenei thanks Zarif for his service and sends him on his way, the tenor of Iran’s foreign policy could be significantly altered (depending, of course, on who replaces him).

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