Middle East update: March 13 2019

SYRIA

Syrian and Russian forces commenced a sustained attack on rebel-held Idlib province on Wednesday, with at least 12 airstrikes reportedly hitting Idlib city alone. At least 13 people were killed and that number may well go up. Russian officials say they conducted the strikes against weapons and drone facilities used by the jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of the province, to defend against HTS attacks against Russian military facilities in nearby Latakia province. As such these strikes would technically not violate the ceasefire agreement governing Idlib, since HTS is not party to that agreement. Nevertheless it’s a troubling sign in a province that’s become packed with Syrians displaced from other parts of the country whose population now stands at somewhere in the four million range. If these strikes continue or are a prelude to a bigger military campaign a bloodbath could ensue.

In the east, ISIS reportedly attempted a couple of counterattacks against the Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz on Wednesday but came up empty both times. The SDF says it’s made a bit of progress but it sounds like their offensive was hampered by smoke and dust over the town, which made airstrikes more difficult. Meanwhile, the US said on Wednesday that it is not, contrary to whatever the Turkish government might say, discussing a Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria. Washington and Ankara have had talks about a future safe zone there, but not one whose establishment involves Turkish military action.

Israeli officials claim they’ve “uncovered a militant network run by the Lebanese Hezbollah group inside Syria, along the frontier with Israel.” Allegedly they’ve been recruiting operatives and stocking up on weapons for carrying out attacks against Israel and have been doing so without the knowledge of the Syrian government, though the network is also apparently “not operational” just yet. There’s no particular reason to believe any of this but whether it’s true or not it will likely be used to justify further Israeli strikes on Syria moving forward.

YEMEN

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths reported to the Security Council on Wednesday that there’s been “no progress” in implementing the terms of December’s ceasefire agreement for Hudaydah. The UN says the agreement is not “unraveling,” so I guess that’s something, but Griffiths’ assessment is quite a bit gloomier than the one he gave the council last month.

The US Senate on Wednesday voted 54-46 in favor of a War Powers resolution that would end the US military role in Yemen’s civil war. The House of Representatives, which passed its own version of the resolution earlier this year, will now have to vote on the Senate’s version before it gets sent to the White House where it’s a virtual certainty to be vetoed. Neither chamber has the votes to override that eventual veto.

TURKEY

The European parliament voted on Wednesday to freeze Turkey’s application for European Union membership over its deteriorating human rights record, a decision that will impact some of the aid Turkey gets from the EU if it’s implemented. The vote is only a suggestion, as the EU’s member states will ultimately make any decision about Turkey’s membership process. The uncomfortable secret underpinning Turkey’s membership bid is that the EU doesn’t really want to admit Turkey but also doesn’t want to alienate it by scrapping its application process entirely, and the Turkish government doesn’t really seem to want admission anymore but it also prefers to let the EU be the bad guy because that’s good for domestic political reasons.

Speaking of domestic politics, Turkish human rights activist Orhan Kemal Cengiz argues that this month’s local elections in Turkey could have an outsized national impact:

Erdogan’s march to power began with his election as Istanbul’s mayor in 1994. The same year, Melih Gokcek, a member of Erdogan’s party, was elected as mayor of Ankara. For Erdogan, who has won all his elections with big margins, the municipal elections could be his Achilles heel. The loss of some big cities, a general loss of votes for the AKP, and new victories for the HDP in elections in provinces with large Kurdish populations could mean early general elections.

Recently, Amberin Zaman reported in an Al-Monitor article that former close associates of Erdogan were looking into setting up a new party. Establishment of this new party by politicians said to include former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan would depend on AKP’s vote count in the coming election. Should the AKP suffer a serious loss of votes, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some of Erdogan’s former associates go their own way and set up their party.

IRAQ

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Wednesday in a session that had deep implications for Iraqi foreign policy. On the one hand, the mere fact that Sistani met with Rouhani was an unmistakable signal to the US that Iranian-Iraqi ties are here to stay whether Washington likes it or not. Coupled with the economic agreements Rouhani signed with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi earlier in the week and the message is clear that Baghdad isn’t going to help the US squeeze Iran. On the other hand, Sistani pointedly told Rouhani that he hopes Iran and Iraq can build their relationship “based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs.” Since Iran interferes in Iraqi domestic affairs on the regular, that signal was also unmistakable. The meeting with Sistani, who is quite revered in Iran, is likely to provide a political boost for Rouhani back home, and Sistani’s message was a clear shot at the hardliners who oppose the Iranian president.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Great news, everybody: the West Bank, Golan, and Gaza are no longer occupied. What? No, the Israelis still control all those places, it’s just that the State Department, in its annual human rights report, has decided to stop using the term “occupied” to describe them. Maybe next year they can get rid of the term “Palestinians” as well, and then this whole mess will at long last be defined out of existence.

BAHRAIN

At LobeLog, Austin Bodetti writes about the risk that climate change poses to Bahrain, whose land mass (primarily its most populous coastal areas) could be over 50 percent submerged by rising seas by 2100. The influx of all that new sea water will, among other things, wreak havoc on the country’s fresh water supply:

In addition to the more obvious problem of coastal erosion, rising sea levels will likely contribute to water scarcity in Bahrain. A research paper presented at the Twelfth Gulf Water Conference in Bahrain in 2017 notes the dangers of seawater contaminating the aquifers on which many Bahrainis depend for their water. Bahrain’s overreliance on some aquifers his exacerbated this environmental issue.

By 2025, shortages of water may affect as many as 30 percent of Bahrainis. The World Resources Institute expects Bahrain to become one of the world’s seven most “water-stressed” countries by 2040, joined by neighbors Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as well as Palestine.

SAUDI ARABIA

In addition to rhetorically ending the Israel-Palestine conflict, the State Department human rights report also categorizes the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October as a human rights abuse. The report talks about an “environment of impunity” for Saudi officials who commit human rights violations. Don’t worry though–the report barely mentions Mohammad bin Salman and not at all in connection with Khashoggi, and the US-Saudi alliance looks like it will roll on regardless, even though the Saudis are now apparently torturing US citizens on top of everyone else. Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a dual US-Saudi citizen, was arrested in November 2017 as part of the kingdom’s alleged crackdown on corruption, according to his son Ahmed. As far as his family knows he hasn’t been charged with anything but he was able to tell them that he’s been subjected to whipping and electric shocks while in custody.

IRAN

The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told state media on Wednesday that Iran may have to “revise our strategy” for national defense because “some countries in the region are spending their petro-dollars on suspicious nuclear projects.” Presumably he’s talking about Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of a civilian nuclear program, albeit one without any apparent safeguards to prevent the Saudis from repurposing it toward a nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration is reportedly so eager to sell nuclear technology and assistance to Riyadh that it will forego the usual non-proliferation restrictions placed on those sales because, well, the Saudis don’t want them.

At TomDispatch, journalist Bob Dreyfuss warns that the Trump administration may be edging closer to war with Iran:

Here’s the foreign policy question of questions in 2019: Are President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, all severely weakened at home and with few allies abroad, reckless enough to set off a war with Iran? Could military actions designed to be limited — say, a heightening of the Israeli bombing of Iranian forces inside Syria, or possible U.S. cross-border attacks from Iraq, or a clash between American and Iranian naval ships in the Persian Gulf — trigger a wider war

Worryingly, the answers are: yes and yes. Even though Western Europe has lined up in opposition to any future conflict with Iran, even though Russia and China would rail against it, even though most Washington foreign policy experts would be horrified by the outbreak of such a war, it could happen.

Despite growing Trump administration tensions with Venezuela and even with North Korea, Iran is the likeliest spot for Washington’s next shooting war. Years of politically charged anti-Iranian vituperation might blow up in the faces of President Trump and his two most hawkish aides, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, setting off a conflict with potentially catastrophic implications.

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