Middle East update: March 2-3 2019

SYRIA

The battle for Baghouz, and along with it ISIS’s last enclave in Syria, is on. Syrian Democratic Forces fighters have reportedly entered the town and are meeting the anticipated heavy resistance from the remaining ISIS defenders. As they usually do in the last stages of a fight in which they’re facing a vastly stronger force, ISIS is reportedly relying heavily on booby traps, tunnels, and car bombs to try to even the odds as best they can. The SDF has suggested it could wrap up this operation sometime in the next few days, though it’s refusing to put a deadline on it. The fight could still take a couple of weeks.

Fighters with the small Syrian jihadi group called Ansar al-Tawhid, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, reportedly attacked two Syrian army checkpoints in Hama province early Sunday morning, killing at least 25 Syrian soldiers. It’s not known how many fighters the militants lost. The attacks were ostensibly retaliation for recent army shelling and airstrikes in Idlib province, which have reportedly killed several civilians. Also in northwestern Syria, ten ISIS fighters were reportedly executed in Idlib on Saturday by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of the province.

Arab leaders are still debating whether or not to recognize Bashar al-Assad’s government. The UAE has been cautiously approaching normalization, but the US is warning Arab states that they could run afoul of sanctions if they get too cozy with Damascus. At this point it appears the US argument is carrying the day, mostly because the two dominant members of the Arab League are on Washington’s side:

The issue is expected to be raised at the Arab League summit in Tunisia this month, with several Arab governments, including Tunisia’s and Iraq’s, expressing support for a push to readmit Syria to the league.

But Arab officials say there is no agreement for such a move. “For Syria to return, there must be consensus,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters in Beirut last month. “I do not yet observe conclusions that lead to the consensus that we are talking about.”

Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two regional powers, are holding out against moves to revive Syria’s membership, diplomats say. “It’s clear Egypt and Saudi are holding the line, and as long as they remain firm, the moves of other Arab Gulf countries are not going to be decisive in restoring Assad’s role,” said a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

TURKEY

China’s ambassador to Turkey, Deng Li, offered on Friday a very “nice country you got here” warning to Ankara that it’s recent criticisms of Beijing’s Uyghur internment policy could wind up hurting the Turkish economy. Deng explained to the Turks that if they “choose a non-constructive path” toward expressing disagreements with Chinese policy, “it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.” And that would be a shame, because Chinese firms are really interested in investing in Turkey and the Turkish economy sure could use the investment.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military reportedly bombed a Hamas target in Gaza on Saturday after someone floated an explosive device over the Gaza fence via balloon, then bombed another Hamas target on Sunday after somebody eschewed the balloons and tossed a bomb over the fence. There were no casualties reported either from the Gazan explosives or the strikes. In the West Bank, meanwhile, three attackers who were presumably Palestinian drove a car into a group of Israeli soldiers near a village called Niʿma on Monday morning. Two of the attackers were killed by the Israelis and the third wounded. There have been no reports on the condition of the soldiers.

Dueling protests in Tel Aviv on Saturday reflected a growing divide in Israel over Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal and political status. Netanyahu supporters and detractors hit the streets just two days after Israeli prosecutors announced that they will file corruption charges against the prime minister in three separate cases. Netanyahu is still planning to lead Likud’s list into April’s Knesset election despite the pending criminal charges.

Monday will mark the end of the US consulate in Jerusalem as its functions are merged into the new US embassy in Jerusalem. The consulate once reported directly to Washington and served as the US consular office to the Palestinians. Now that function will be filled by the embassy, no doubt to detrimental effect as far as the Palestinians are concerned. The reports and assessments the consulate used to submit regarding the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine conflict will now simply cease to be.

SAUDI ARABIA

Time to check in once more on Mohammad bin Salman’s new free and open Saudi Arabia:

Saudi women’s rights activists detained last year in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners will be put on trial, prosecutors have said.

“The public prosecution would like to announce that it has concluded its investigation and prepared the indictment list against the defendants … and will refer the case to the relevant court,” the state-controlled Saudi Press Agency said on Friday.

The brief statement did not directly identify the defendants as female activists nor give a date for court proceedings.

More than a dozen activists were arrested in May last year – just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers the following month. Many of them were accused of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state. Some were subsequently released.

Damn, it’s like Finland there now, it’s so free. What a reformer.

IRAN

Analyst Sina Toossi argues that this week’s drama about Mohammad Javad Zarif’s rejected resignation–and particularly the praise the embattled foreign minister received from Quds Force boss Qasem Soleimani–may have left Iranian hardliners who oppose Zarif a bit exposed:

Soleimani’s emphatic support of Zarif comes as the US administration’s abrogation of the JCPOA and pursuit of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has all but decimated the fragile momentum Rouhani had built in favor of diplomacy and increased openness. Rather than the economic dividends he promised with the nuclear deal, Rouhani has wound up with an economy debilitated by reimposed US sanctions and hard-liners vindicated in their warnings not to trust the United States.

However, Soleimani — who is respected across Tehran’s partisan divide but especially revered by conservative forces — has great influence over the balance of power in Tehran’s contentious domestic politics. His comments diminished the political space for hard-line forces to sabotage Zarif’s foreign policy approach and awkwardly positioned them on the same side as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promptly bid Zarif “good riddance.”

Trita Parsi, meanwhile, concludes that Zarif’s resignation was in fact a “gamble” intended to isolate those hardliners and win space and time to try to salvage something from the nuclear deal. I’m not entirely convinced–it’s not that I disagree that Zarif was bluffing so much as I’m not sure he would’ve been that sad had his bluff been called and he’d been told to shove off–but the effect is probably the same. The hardliners who have been agitating for Iran to make like the Trump administration and quit the deal have probably been stymied for now.

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