Middle East update: February 26 2019

SYRIA

Activists in Idlib province are saying that the Syrian government conducted an airstrike on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday that killed at least three people. Monitor groups, like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, are claiming that the Syrian military has stepped up the frequency of its air and artillery strikes against Khan Sheikhoun over the past ten days, displacing thousands of people. The main highway between Damascus and Aleppo runs near the town, so this could be an effort to keep that road clear rather than the prelude to something bigger.

YEMEN

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths headed to Sanaa on Tuesday to discuss the implementation of the agreed-upon ceasefire in Hudaydah. That ceasefire is, and you may want to sit down here because this is shocking, faltering again, as the Houthis appear to have blown off a deadline for withdrawing their forces from two smaller ports even though they just agreed to that withdrawal a few days ago. That unilateral withdrawal was supposed to be followed by a joint withdrawal of Houthi and government forces from Hudaydah. It’s unclear why the Houthis have backtracked.

On the plus side, the UN says it’s regained access to grain mills in Hudaydah, which means it can use those facilities to process grain and ship it out across the country. And it raised $2.6 billion of the $4.2 billion in Yemen aid it’s seeking this year in one single-day fundraiser on Tuesday. Half of that haul came from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, and the US, countries that are all responsible for wrecking Yemen in the first place.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is working himself up into an outrage over US arms deliveries to the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria. When the US undertook to make the YPG, later the Syrian Democratic Forces, its main Syrian proxy, it gave some appropriately vague assurances to Turkey that it would collect any heavy arms shared with the Kurds once its Syrian operations were at an end. That’s…unlikely to happen. And look, Erdoğan will say this is because of some kind of anti-Turkish conspiracy by the US, but the reality is that we’re incredibly sloppy about keeping track of our weapons. I don’t know if Erdoğan’s checked Yemen or Afghanistan lately, but we’ve been inadvertently arming the Houthis and the Taliban for years now. And we consider them enemies. Maybe we’re incompetent or maybe we just don’t give a shit, but either way there was no chance those weapons were ever coming back.

Erdoğan also had some choice words for the European Union on Tuesday. He criticized the EU for attending a summit with the Arab League over the weekend in Egypt, despite Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s manifest human rights violations. Not that Erdoğan has any room to talk, but he may have a point that the EU is being hypocritical when it criticizes him while validating a guy like Sisi. The EU did level some criticism at Sisi during the summit, but attending at all was a questionable decision.

IRAQ

A roadside bomb killed at least three people in Fallujah on Tuesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility but presumably ISIS was responsible.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

From the “you couldn’t make this up” file, the Israeli government is quietly asking international donors to pony up money for the Palestinian Authority to make up for the tax remittances the Israelis have decided to stop paying:

The PA is preparing to send senior officials to Arab and European capitals to raise alternative funding for the revenues Israel intends to withhold. They will visit Germany, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among other places. Qatar may be reluctant to sign up for the Palestinian effort after the drubbing it took for trying to help Gaza with cash payments. However, with Israel’s blessing and a push from the United States, the Saudis are expected to help at least until the PA recovers from the blow. Lo and behold, the enhanced Saudi-Israeli relationship is benefitting the Palestinians.

How much money the PA, with Israel’s behind-the-scenes help, will raise is unknown. It will likely manage to raise 500 million shekels ($138 million) to save the PA in the short term. However, the consequences of Israel’s injudicious move are tensions with the PA, which is threatening to cut off security cooperation with the Israelis, as well as a potential escalation on the Gaza border and unrest in Israel’s prisons.

Meanwhile, Jared Kushner is touring the Middle East to try to sell his Israel-Palestine peace plan. Specifically, he’s touring the Persian Gulf trying to raise a pot of money he can use to try to buy Palestinian acquiescence to a plan that’s likely to ignore most of their political demands for an independent state.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

The UAE has apparently decided to make Syria a bigger part of its metastasizing regional conflict with Turkey:

On Jan. 30, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs condemned Turkey’s plan to establish a buffer zone in northeastern Syria and said Ankara’s efforts to geographically isolate the Syrian Kurds worried both the UAE and the United States. Anwar Gargash justified his criticisms of Turkish conduct in Syria by challenging Ankara’s conflation of Kurdish nationalism with terrorism and emphasizing the constructive role that Kurdish militias played in defeating the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

Gargash’s expressions of solidarity with Kurdish nationalist forces in Syria reflect the UAE’s desire to contain Turkish influence in Syria and insert itself as a major stakeholder in the resolution of the Syrian conflict. The UAE’s critical attitude towards Turkish belligerence in northeastern Syria is the product of a broader rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Ankara, which was triggered by Turkey’s alignment with Qatar, Ankara’s close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and competing interests in the Horn of Africa. Tensions over these issues steadily intensified after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the UAE of supporting the 2016 coup against his government, but Syria was initially a secondary flashpoint for confrontation between Turkey and the UAE.

IRAN

First of all, let’s get the big news out of the way: Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh is not resigning. I know you were worried.

As far as anyone can tell, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is still in his job, even though he did resign on Monday. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not accepted Zarif’s resignation and seems unlikely to do so unless he’s ordered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For his part, Khamenei hasn’t said anything, though ultimately he will since he’s the boss, and the foreign ministry is one of four key ministries over which the Supreme Leader exerts direct oversight. He’s known to like Zarif, even though their politics don’t always align, and so the possibility still remains that Zarif–and Rouhani, maybe–have engineered all of this to force Khamenei to give Zarif his stamp of approval and shut up the hardliners who have been after the foreign minister over the nuclear deal failure, among other issues. If he’s seen being begged to stay, Zarif’s political stature will improve, and he might be able to start fending off the challenges to his authority coming from places like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

That said, it may well be that, even if it’s not accepted and he remains in office, Zarif’s resignation was genuine. He’s reportedly been thinking about an exit for a while now:

This week, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, announced that he was resigning from his post after a nearly six-year tenure. During this time, Zarif has become one of the most visible and recognized Iranian politicians at home and abroad—a fact that helped him secure his landmark foreign-policy achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2015. But that nuclear deal also precipitated his fall from favor with Iranian hard-liners and his ultimate resignation. It’s unclear whether Zarif will truly leave the Iranian diplomatic corps or if the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president, Hassan Rouhani, will compel him to stay. But the announcement highlights the regime’s infighting and could be a sign of intensified turmoil during Rouhani’s final two years in office.

Zarif’s seemingly abrupt resignation may have taken Iranians and foreign observers alike by surprise, but the foreign minister was already contemplating leaving the government toward the end of Rouhani’s first term in the spring of 2016. At that time, Zarif indicated that the mounting pressure on his team was becoming overbearing.

If Zarif wanted out in the middle of 2016, imagine how much more he must want out now that the Trump administration has made his job considerably more difficult.

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