Middle East update: February 28 2019

SYRIA

Donald Trump, perhaps looking for a distraction after his summit with Kim Jong-un fell apart (more on that later), told US soldiers during a stopover in Alaska that the Syrian Democratic Forces have retaken the last bit of Syrian territory still held by ISIS. This was a big revelation, and would probably come as a great surprise to the SDF since their leaders are saying they need another week to defeat ISIS. This is at least the third time Trump has prematurely declared that the SDF has defeated ISIS, but I guess if he keeps saying it he’s bound to be right eventually.

The SDF says it uncovered a mass grave outside of Baghouz, the town ISIS either is or is not still holding, containing the bodies of hundreds of mostly women. There’s strong reason to suspect these are the bodies of Yazidis who were enslaved by ISIS after the group overran the Iraqi town of Sinjar in 2014. The militia also says it freed 24 of its fighters who were being held by ISIS though it’s unclear how. The US-led coalition, meanwhile, has confirmed that among the ISIS dead in Baghouz is Fabien Clain, a French national who served as the spokesperson for the attackers during the November 2015 ISIS attack in Paris. His death had been reported days ago but was unconfirmed. I’m going to assume that for the most part he will not be missed.

The European Union is internally fractured (I know, this came as a shock to me as well) over what to do about Bashar al-Assad. Officially the EU has said it will not offer any reconstruction aid to Syria unless there’s a political settlement to the civil war, which is a diplomatic way for Brussels to say that it’s not going to send any money unless Assad voluntarily agrees to step down even though he won the war. Assad is, to say the least, unlikely to do that. And the thing is, all those wonderful far right governments that have been getting themselves elected all over Europe are now agitating for the EU to send aid regardless of what happens to Assad, because as xenophobes their main concern is getting Syria rebuilt so they can send as many Syrian refugees as possible back home. Assad for his part is trying to prod the EU to accept him by canceling visas for European diplomats who have been shuttling between Beirut and Damascus since most European countries closed their Syrian embassies due to the war.

By the way, in case you were wondering the Russian government–which definitely has no issues with Assad remaining in power and is run by the Grand Poobah of the European Far Right, Vladimir Putin–is already telling its Syrian refugees that they need to shove off. The Syrian government insists that it’s perfectly safe to return, but even if most of the fighting is over the effects of the conflict on infrastructure and basic services are such that it’s still not really suitable for many of these people to go back.

The Syrian government is urging the 40,000 or so people in the Rukban displaced persons camp, which is in a zone claimed by the United States for the protection of its military base at Tanf, to quit the camp and go home. Rukban is a humanitarian catastrophe in waiting, because it’s in a desolate area, cut off from the rest of Syria, and not in any way a US priority. People are staying there because they may face reprisals, or at the very least forced conscription, from the Syrian government if they leave, but the US didn’t set up the camp and isn’t interested in administering it, and the Jordanian government absolutely refuses to allow camp residents to cross the border for fear that there may be some ISIS fighters among the IDPs. Damascus has so far refused to give the United Nations unfettered access to the camp, so every humanitarian aid shipment is subject to negotiations with Assad’s representatives.

IRAQ

A car bomb killed at least two people and wounded 24 others in Mosul on Thursday. In a separate incident just south of the city, four Popular Mobilization militia fighters were wounded by a roadside bomb. ISIS was presumably responsible for in both cases.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli aircraft struck targets in Gaza on Wednesday night after somebody used balloons to float an explosive device over the Gaza fence that later damaged a home in Israel’s Eshkol region. There have been no reports of casualties.

Speaking of Gazan casualties, though, a new United Nations report suggests that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes in responding as violently as they did to the weekly Great March of Return protests last year. The Commission of Inquiry report argues that Israeli defense forces “should be held individually and collectively accountable” for the 189 Gazan protesters they killed and the thousands they wounded in 2018, and says Israel’s rules of engagement were too severe and led to the killing of protesters who did not pose any threat. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the UN of harboring “an obsessive hatred of Israel.”

The Israeli PM visited Moscow on Wednesday for a meeting with Putin that was meant to show the world that the Israel-Russia relationship is just fine despite September’s unfortunate incident in which an Israeli air raid in Syria ended with Syrian air defenses shooting down a Russian aircraft. They presumably discussed Syria, but mostly the trip was about making Netanyahu look like an international big shot ahead of April’s Knesset election.

Netanyahu actually has bigger political fish to fry back home at the moment–he’s about to be indicted:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges arising from three separate corruption investigations, pending a hearing, Israel’s attorney general announced Thursday evening.

The announcement, so close to April’s general election, marks a dramatic moment in Israeli politics and is a major blow to Netanyahu as he seeks a fifth term in office.

He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, denouncing the investigations as a media-led witch hunt. In a prime time broadcast shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu blamed the left for pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — to issue an indictment.

“The left understands that they will not beat me at the ballot box,” Netanyahu said. “They exerted extraordinary pressure on the attorney general to issue an indictment even though there is nothing, in order to influence the elections and to crown a left-wing government.”

The “Israeli left” is down to like three guys who work out of a rented storage facility in downtown Tel Aviv at this point, so the notion that they have the leverage to force Israeli authorities to indict the massively powerful sitting prime minister is of course laughable. But as long as none of Netanyahu’s voters are doing the laughing, it doesn’t matter. He needs them to be terrified that some kind of coup is happening–because their undoubtedly corrupt leader is being investigated for his corruption–so they’ll still vote for his people the election despite the indictments. Not everybody will. Whatever center-right voters still remain in Likud may be sorely tempted to go over to Benny Gantz’s new Blue and White party, which is the only one that has any chance of unseating Netanyahu in April.

SAUDI ARABIA

Under pressure from both the Saudis and the US, it appears that most European Union member states will vote to quash the bloc’s new money-laundering blacklist. In order to block the adoption of the new list, which includes the Saudis, 21 of the 28 EU members need to oppose the list, and at this point at least 20 have reportedly already expressed their opposition. The power of the purse is definitely in action here, as a letter from King Salman to the leaders of every EU state intimated that the Saudis would have to take their business elsewhere should this list be adopted. British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose arms sales to the Saudis may soon become the only thing keeping the UK economy from complete ruin, was apparently front and center whipping votes against the list.

The Saudis are planning a sizable investment to develop their natural gas sector and become a major global player in the gas export business. To James Dorsey, this suggests that they’re maybe not as interested in regime change in Iran as you might think:

Viewed through the lens of the timeline of Saudi Arabia’s gas plans, the kingdom is likely to benefit more from an Iran that is isolated and weakened for years to come to give the Saudis the time to get up to speed on gas rather than an Iran that under a new more accommodating government returns to the international fold. A potential destabilization campaign that is low-level and intermittent but not regime threatening would serve that purpose.

It would also extend the window of opportunity on which Saudi Arabia relies to assert regional leadership. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive economic sanctions, international isolation and domestic turmoil serve to keep Iran weak and unable to leverage its assets.

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