Middle East update: March 6 2019

SYRIA

At least 2000 more people evacuated Baghouz on Wednesday to escape the Syrian Democratic Forces’ assault on the town. Among these were reportedly “hundreds” of ISIS fighters who surrendered to SDF fighters. Another 400 or so ISIS fighters were caught attempting to hide themselves among the crowd of evacuees, and while it would be great to think the SDF has been able to throw a net around Baghouz and nab every single ISIS fighter attempting to flee, it seems naive to assume that at least a few of them haven’t managed to escape.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated on Wednesday that Turkey simply must be in control of any safe zone implemented in northern Syria. I would imagine that the Syrian government, at a minimum, will have something to say about that. On the other hand it’s not clear anybody else wants to be in control of a northern Syrian safe zone. As Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen writes, and despite its decision to reverse course about withdrawing all US forces from eastern Syria, the Trump administration is having a hard time convincing US allies–European and Australian, at least–to commit their own forces to the cause. The 200 or so US soldiers who will remain in eastern Syria are supposed to anchor a new “multi-national force” to keep the peace in the area, but at this point there’s nothing for them to anchor. The Europeans are wary about getting sucked into a proxy war with Iran and for some reason aren’t sure they can trust Trump’s commitment to the mission.

TURKEY

Erdoğan also said on Wednesday that Turkey will not rethink its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system despite US objections. The purchase could jeopardize Turkey’s purchase of both the Patriot missile system and the F-35 from the US, and will complicate Turkey’s relationship with the rest of NATO, but Erdoğan seems unperturbed and is even talking about buying the S-500 system whenever it’s available. That’s cool. I have an S-600 system myself but I’m sure the 500 is nice.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu told Turkish media on Wednesday that Ankara will be conducting “a joint operation” against the PKK with Iran. He didn’t say when this operation might take place and Iran hasn’t mentioned it. The PKK does have an affiliate in Iran, similar to the PYD in Syria, called the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which has clashed with Iranian authorities in the past.

IRAQ

I saw a report this morning that said Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish authorities were holding around 1500 children suspected of ISIS affiliation, and without having a chance to read the story I thought that sounded pretty bad. Later in the day I learned it’s actually much, much worse than I initially thought:

Iraq and the Kurdish regional government have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged affiliation with the Islamic State group, often using torture to coerce confessions, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

In a report, the New York-based group estimated that Iraqi and Kurdish authorities were holding approximately 1,500 children for alleged IS affiliation in detention at the end of 2018. It said the prosecutions are often based on dubious accusations and forced confessions obtained through torture.

The children are then sentenced to prison in hasty and unfair trials, HRW said.

“The approach that Iraq has adopted is one that completely fails to acknowledge what is commonly understood and reflected in international law, which is that children who were forcibly recruited are indeed victims, they should be treated as victims not as criminals,” said Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Not only are these kids not being treated as victims, they’re reportedly being beaten until they confess and then railroaded through sham trials.

Iraqi oil revenue was down slightly in February even though worldwide oil prices were up. The reason is not really Iraq’s fault–Turkey had to shut down its pipeline to Iraqi Kurdistan for a few days due to maintenance meaning Iraq couldn’t get much of its oil to market for that period–but the result was lost revenue for a country that needs every penny. The positive news, from Baghdad’s perspective, is that prices remain up and the pipeline shouldn’t need any more work for a while.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli settlers in the West Bank are growing increasingly violent:

Palestinians in [the West Bank town of Deir Dibwan] woke one morning last month to find their mosque vandalized, with a Star of David painted on the exterior alongside Hebrew graffiti accusing it of preaching “incitement.”

“We are at an alarming point,” said Barakat Mahmoud, the mosque’s imam. “We’ve never had direct confrontation with the settlers in this town.”

The incident was one in a recent spate of attacks blamed on Israeli settlers that officials on both sides of the conflict say are spiking. Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, documented 295 of what it calls “Jewish terror” incidents last year, a 40 percent increase.

Although no Israeli government figures were available for January, the United Nations had recorded at least 30 incidents this year in which Israeli settlers were accused of causing casualties or damaging property, with a total of 14 Palestinians injured and one killed.

Many of these incidents appear to be retaliation for Palestinian violence against the settlers, but the settler community does appear to be emboldened by the current far right Israeli government that (with the support of the current far right US government) coddles them and rarely polices their activities.

That current Israeli government, led by the Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing a real test in April’s election, and its main rival–the Blue and White party led by former IDF head Benny Gantz–said on Wednesday that if elected it would pursue a policy of “separation” with Palestinians in the West Bank. It’s not entirely clear what this means, though it could look something like Ariel Sharon’s disengagement with Gaza in 2005, only without the wholesale abandonment of the settlements. Large West Bank settlement blocs would likely be incorporated into Israel, though land swaps for the Palestinians could be negotiated later. It’s not statehood, but it’s certainly better than what Netanyahu is offering, which is practically full ethnic cleansing and annexation at this point.

KUWAIT

Over the past two years, Kuwait has emerged as a critical and essential broker — and bridge — among an otherwise fractious Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) split by the blockage of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain as well as Egypt.

Kuwait, which served as GCC chair last year, as well as Oman, which holds the chair now, have pursued policies that have sought to de-escalate multiple flashpoints, including preventing the blockade of Qatar from escalating into outright conflict, seeking a mediated solution, all the while holding together what remains of the GCC security structure.

From the start, Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has emerged as a steady statesman and go-to leader during the Qatar crisis. He embarked on a frenetic round of shuttle diplomacy in the opening days of the crisis and, at a press conference with US President Donald Trump at the White House in September 2017, suggested that his efforts had successfully prevented military action. Sabah and senior members of the Kuwaiti government have continued to relay messages between the two sides to keep open an indirect channel of communication between the parties as the “hot” crisis in its opening days has settled into a prolonged face-off that has so far defied easy resolution.

IRAN

In the grand tradition of US foreign policy planning that brought us brilliant ideas like “hey, maybe Ahmed Chalabi could be the next president of Iraq,” the Trump administration has apparently decided that Mojahedin-e Khalq would make a fine pick to run a post-regime change Iran:

In the past, State Department talking points have said that the United States believes that the MEK is not a viable political alternative for Iran. But that line was changed just before the Warsaw conference last month.

“We have said in the past, and say it now, that the Mujahideen Organization has no place among the people of Iran,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Stickney told Deutsche Welle’s Persian-language channel as recently as September.

Asked this week if the MEK is now on a list of acceptable alternatives to the current government in Iran, a State Department spokesperson would not rule it out.

“We support the Iranian people. We have had many opportunities to engage the large and vibrant Iranian diaspora to hear many diverse views about the future of Iran,” the spokesperson told Al-Monitor. “As President Trump has clearly stated, the United States wants to see a free and prosperous future for the people of Iran. We do not back any specific Iranian opposition group; rather we back the Iranian people as they struggle to secure the freedoms and dignity they deserve.”

The MEK spent big bucks on high profile lobbyists to get itself removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012. Among those lobbyists were former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Donald Trump confidante; New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who plays Donald Trump’s lawyer on TV; and John Bolton, who is Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. So I don’t think we need to ponder the reason for this policy shift. The MEK now spends big bucks on lobbyists and social media bots to try to convince powerful people that it has a massive popular following inside Iran, even though all available evidence suggests that the vast majority of Iranians hate MEK because its members fought for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. So this is definitely going to work out great.

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