Middle East update: March 12 2019

SYRIA

ISIS’s defeat in Baghouz is “imminent,” according to Reuters, as hundreds of the group’s remaining fighters and their families (perhaps as many as 2000 people total) reportedly surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday. At least 25 ISIS fighters have reportedly been killed so far in the SDF operation.

The Turkish government, meanwhile, claims that it’s talking with Russia and the United States about a potential military offensive/”safe zone” in northeastern Syria. The Turks describe this as “coordination” but it’s more like “asking permission,” and it’s hard to imagine Russia at least green lighting something like this. I can believe the US is prepared to sell out the Kurds, which is what something like this would entail, but the Syrian government undoubtedly opposes a larger Turkish footprint in the northern part of the country and Russia would presumably support that opposition.

Among other things (education, health care, food aid, etc.), Donald Trump’s 2020 budget envisions completely eliminating aid to the SDF-controlled parts of Syria. The US provided $130 million in economic aid and $44.5 million in security aid to Syria in 2019 but it’s apparently expecting the Gulf states to pick up the slack here. Cutting this aid would seem to be antithetical to the Trump administration’s goals in Syria–preventing a resurgence of ISIS and denying the Syrian government and therefore Iran access to a large part of the country–but I’m sure Trump is playing some 483 dimension chess here or something. The administration is also looking to cut some $2 billion from its anti-ISIS budget, with much of that apparently coming from troop reductions in Syria and cuts to training programs in both Syria and Iraq.

IRAQ

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has only been PM since October, but apparently that’s enough time for Iraqis to have soured on him. New polling shows his approval rating at 45 percent, with majorities of Iraqis saying that his government has failed to provide basic services like education, electricity, and health care. On the plus side, a plurality of Iraqis think the economy will be better in 12 months than it is now–on the minus side, the plurality is only 35 percent.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli police shot and killed one Palestinian in Hebron on Tuesday, after he allegedly attacked them with a knife, and killed another Palestinian in an unrelated incident in the West Bank town of Salfit. In Jerusalem, meanwhile, someone reportedly threw a firebomb at an Israeli police outpost near the al-Aqsa compound. Israeli authorities closed access to the compound and now say they’ve arrested two men in connection with the incident.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

The European Union adopted a new and considerably larger blacklist of tax havens on Tuesday, and probably the most significant addition was the UAE. The tax avoidance blacklist is mostly a “reputational” thing, though if the EU ever agrees on sanctions the countries on the list could face some actual penalties. The Emiratis insist that they’re working on improvements to their financial regulations to address this issue, and the EU has apparently said that they’ll be removed from the list if they can demonstrate compliance with EU requirements.

SAUDI ARABIA

Time for another check in on Mohammad bin Salman’s New and Improved Saudi Arabia:

Several prominent women’s rights activists are to appear in a Saudi court Wednesday, nearly a year after they were arrested on charges of undermining national security, according to human rights groups and a relative of one detainee.

Some of the women have said they were tortured while in custody, including with beatings and electric shocks, according to relatives and rights groups, and are headed to court despite complaints they have not been given access to lawyers.

They include Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading activist in the campaign to lift a female driving ban in Saudi Arabia. During a call with her family last week, Hathloul said she had been notified by authorities that her first trial session would be held Wednesday in a specialized criminal court used to try terrorism cases, said her sister, Alia al-Hathloul.

Tortured and then tried before a terrorism court for the crime of advocating for women’s rights. Can’t you just smell the freedom? Hathloul’s family claims that she’s been forced to sign a letter requesting a pardon, which may signal that the royals are looking for a way to release these women without looking bad in the process, but we’ll see.

IRAN

New Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi got another new gig on Tuesday: an appointment as the deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts. For all intents and purposes this makes him the chairman of the assembly, since the actual chairman, Ahmad Jannati, is 92 years old. The Assembly of Experts is in theory the body that checks the Supreme Leader, could remove the Supreme Leader if necessary, and is charged with electing a new Supreme Leader upon the death or retirement of the previous one. In reality it does none of these things. It never performs any oversight functions, wouldn’t dream of trying to remove Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and probably won’t choose Khamenei’s successor so much as it will ratify the consensus choice of the various stakeholders in the Iranian system (mostly senior clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). Which is not to diminish this appointment–it’s a prestigious promotion and may even suggest that Raisi has the inside track to succeed Khamenei, though I still consider Expediency Council chair Sadeq Larijani a slight favorite. I still can’t envision Khamenei passing the top job to Raisi after he got thoroughly wrecked by Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 election.

A new corruption scandal in Iran is blowing back on one of the many fine pro-regime change folks in Washington. The case involves a long-term project to evade US sanctions via dummy corporations, and then repatriate part of the profits at the official exchange rate and the rest via Iran’s foreign currency black market, where rates are much more favorable. The big plot twist involves the husband of one of the major players in the scheme:

Much of the outrage on Iranian social media and news sites is focused on one of the chief suspects: Marjan Sheikholeslami Aleagha. As CEO of two Turkey-based trading companies, Sheikholeslami has been described as the “partner” of prime suspect Reza Hamzelou, the former managing director of the Iranian Petrochemical Commercial Company (PCC). Most of the suspects were reportedly PCC managers at the time of the alleged offenses. Of further note, PCC was privatized in 2009.

Court records allege that Sheikholeslami transferred proceeds from sales of Iranian petrochemical products to the accounts of her trading companies, earning almost $9 million in the process. As early as 2017, the conservative Bultan News claimed that Sheikholeslami had won a contract to evade sanctions from Sepanir Oil and Gas Company, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters. The report also alleged that she had later “fled” for Canada “with a lot of money.”

The uproar has also engulfed Sheikholeslami’s spouse, Mehdi Khalaji — the Libitzky Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Given Sheikholeslami’s alleged profiteering from sanctions evasion on behalf of the IRGC, Khalaji has also become the target of a public backlash since he has long been a prominent sanctions advocate.

Khalaji, who to be clear may have gotten rich via his wife’s exploitation of a policy he’s been advocating in DC, insists that the trial is “illegal” and talking about it amounts to “character assassination.”

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