Middle East update: March 25 2019

Hello and welcome to our next-to-last week here at WordPress! I’m packing things up and moving to Substack starting next week, when I’ll be posting in both places by way of transitioning to the new site. I’m also, in case you haven’t noticed, returning from an unplanned week away due to the flu. As with all extended absences around here I’ll be mostly starting fresh today rather than trying to recap everything that happened while I was gone. I’m still not 100%, so please bear with me this week.

SYRIA

One thing that did happen while I was out–on Saturday, specifically–is that the Syrian Democratic Forces declared victory over ISIS in Baghouz. Reports of some ongoing fighting in Baghouz notwithstanding, this ends ISIS’s “caliphate,” which at one time controlled much of central and eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq but now controls nothing apart from maybe a few unpopulated patches of central Syria. It does not end ISIS, whose remaining fighters have either slipped away in the form of sleeper units in Syrian and Iraqi cities or–in the case of foreign recruits–are attempting to return home with unknown intentions, nor does it end the threat of individuals radicalized and motivated by ISIS’s ideology. The SDF has captured many of those foreign fighters over the past several months but for obvious reasons has no desire to hold them indefinitely, and with their home nations generally unwilling to repatriate them the SDF is now calling for an “international tribunal” to be set up to handle their cases.

The SDF’s victory declaration now pulls back the curtain on eastern Syria’s next big drama: will the US withdraw or won’t it, and what will happen to the SDF as a result? Donald Trump announced a full withdrawal of all 2000+ US troops from Syria in December, which was soon amended to allow for around 200 US soldiers stationed at a base at Tanf, near the Syrian-Iraqi and Syrian-Jordanian borders, to remain in place. Then it was amended further to say that another 200 or so US soldiers would be remaining in eastern Syria as the nucleus of an international peacekeeping force stationed there to keep Turkey from attacking the SDF administer a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria. No other country has agreed to participate in that force, though, and so the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that more like 1000 US soldiers will be remaining in eastern Syria. The Pentagon is also apparently looking to maintain its budget for supporting and growing the SDF, with an eye toward increasing it to over 60,000 fighters, despite the fact that the anti-ISIS operation now appears to be over. Suffice to say it’s hard to get a bead on exactly what it is the Trump administration wants to see happen in eastern Syria over the next few months.

Meanwhile the SDF’s best bet for long-term survival remains trying to cut a deal with the Syrian government and Russia that frees it from dependence on the US, which is historically not a terribly dependable Kurdish ally.

Elsewhere, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reports that Syrians who remained loyal to Bashar al-Assad and whose residential areas have been spared the worst effects of the civil war are beginning to feel the effects of a shattered economy. They’re beginning to turn, not on Assad but on local officials whose corruption is seen as a major part of the problem:

Many thousands of men who fought on the front lines for years are returning home without hope of finding jobs. The wartime economy has fueled corruption on an unprecedented scale, compounding the daily challenge of queuing for long hours to secure basic necessities with the indignity of having to pay multiple bribes to layers of officialdom, according to Damascus residents.

Widespread expectations, encouraged by the government — that wealthy Arab investors would flock back to Damascus, Chinese funding for reconstruction projects would flow and U.S. sanctions would be relaxed — have been disappointed and don’t seem likely to be fulfilled any time soon.

The cafes and bars of Damascus are packed at night, creating the impression of a city on the path to recovery. But the revelers represent a tiny elite that has profited from the war, and their conspicuous consumption only fuels the resentment of the vast majority of people for whom life is a daily struggle to survive, the residents say.

YEMEN

Houthi and pro-government forces began fighting overnight in Hudaydah, killing at least eight people so far, in an exchange that according to the Yemeni government began when the Houthis attempted “a surprise assault.” The Houthis claim they were attacked first and only responded. The United Nations reportedly plans to barrel ahead this week with plans for disengaging the combatants and withdrawing their forces from the port city, despite the fact that the ceasefire that’s supposed to precede that withdrawal appears to be collapsing. Once again those plans include preliminary Houthi withdrawals from the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa, which the Houthis have so far reneged on carrying out.

Accomplishing the withdrawal would only solve one of many problems facing the UN peace process. The Houthis are adamant that even if they pull their military forces out of Hudaydah they will retain control of the port, while the government is demanding that its representatives take control of the port and the UN seems to be trying to find some kind of “independent third party” sweet spot to which both sides can agree. It wouldn’t take much for the military withdrawal to be reversed if one side is unhappy with the ensuing administrative arrangement.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been suggesting, mostly as an offering to his political base, that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum could be converted back into a mosque. This has been an ongoing issue for Turkish nationalists and neo-Ottomanists, who would like to see the former Byzantine cathedral–built in 537–turned back into a mosque, as it was from the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 until the Turkish government turned it into a museum in 1935. Their case has gained strength in recent days after the New Zealand terrorist mentioned the Hagia Sophia in his manifesto. But it’s also a hot button issue for the government of Greece, which sees itself as the protector of Byzantine heritage and arguably has international law on its side since the Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Greece and Turkey already have a shaky relationship without adding this to the pile of mutual grievances.

Erdoğan has been hitting the campaign trail hard ahead of local elections at the end of this month, but it’s unclear how much his message is resonating in Turkey’s biggest cities, where he’s most in need of a boost. He’s focused, as is his style, on hyping threats to Turkey and his ability to protect against them, but a lot of voters seem way more interested in the rapidly weakening Turkish economy than they do in national security, and Erdoğan doesn’t have much to offer them at this point.

IRAQ

ISIS boss Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, assuming he’s still alive, apparently wasn’t holed up in Baghouz along with his followers. It’s believed he’s in Iraq somewhere but nobody seems to have a good idea where to find him. On Monday ISIS’s spokesperson, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir (a pseudonym), issued his first audio statement in nearly six months. He referred to very recent events, including the mosque attacks in New Zealand and the situation in Baghouz, so the message must have been recorded recently. He also apparently referred to Baghdadi with the phrase “may God preserve him” (presumably hafizuhu’llah though I haven’t heard the audio), which you only use for someone who’s still among the living. So most likely Baghdadi is still kicking around somewhere.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military bombed Gaza again on Monday before reaching another Egyptian-brokered truce with Hamas. The trigger this time was a rocket fired out of Gaza that hit an Israeli home north of Tel Aviv early Monday morning and injured at least seven people. There have been no casualty reports from Gaza so far and no claim of responsibility for the rocket attack, though Israel blames Hamas for anything that happens in Gaza anyway so the particulars aren’t that important. One of the strikes reportedly targeted the offices of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, though that’s unconfirmed at this point. Also unconfirmed? Reports that rocket sirens were going off in southern Israel after the truce was reached. So there may be more to talk about here tomorrow.

If Hamas was actually responsible for the rocket launch there’s some reason to believe it did so to provoke an Israeli response and thereby tamp down a days-long protest movement in Gaza, in which demonstrators have been criticizing Hamas over recent price increases. Hamas officials tried to crack down on the protesters directly but that seemed to have no effect, so it’s entirely possible they decided to try a different tactic.

The biggest piece of Middle Eastern news to happen while I was sick was presumably Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan, which the Israelis occupied during the 1967 Six Day War but which remains Syrian territory under international law, as part of Israel. He finalized the move by signing a decree to that effect on Monday while hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. As with Trump’s previous decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this move does not change the Golan’s status under international law but, international law being what it is, does change the Golan’s status by any practical measure. Barring a decision by Trump’s successor to reverse the policy, which would probably be politically impossible, the Golan is now for all intents and purposes Israeli.

Yes, this is a direct violation of Syrian sovereignty, but almost nobody with any degree of international influence ever cared about Syrian sovereignty, and certainly they don’t care now in the wake of the civil war. Even Russia is unlikely to go to any great lengths to defend Syria’s claim on the Golan, since Moscow values its relationship with Israel as much as its relationship with Syria. It’s a violation of the rights of the Syrians still living in the Golan, many of whom have resisted offers of Israeli citizenship in the past, and the Syrians who were displaced from their homes in 1967, but again nobody with any international influence actually cares about any of that. It’s a political gift to Netanyahu, who is after all in high campaign mode ahead of next’s month’s Knesset election, and that’s really the main point here. In the long run it’s possible Israel may regret this annexation to the extent that it could derail the already pretty well derailed Arab-Israeli peace process and/or strengthen the influence of Iran and its allies in the region with respect to countering Israel. But that remains to be seen, and the military value of the Golan is such that Israel might be willing to risk it.

In a larger sense, this decision also undermines the post-World War II international order, which is above all supposed to be based on the principle that you can’t conquer and annex territory by force anymore. That’s kind of down the drain now, I guess. Defenders of the annexation have been popping up all over the place offering reasons why Israel ought to get an exception here, ranging from the notion that Israel was only defending itself in 1967 to the argument that Israel needs to control the Golan to defend itself from a hostile Syrian government. But Israel fired the first shots of the 1967 war, and while it’s always claimed preemption there’s never been any conclusive evidence to show that the Arabs were planning to attack. And anyway there’s no “self-defense” exception under international law to the prohibition on conquering territory. Yes, Israel had legitimate reasons to resist giving the area back to the Assad government, but then nobody has really been on Israel to do that. Unlike the West Bank there’s been no international groundswell demanding an end to the Golan occupation. Even the people living there, who have long resisted Israeli rule, have since the start of the civil war seemed thankful (can you blame them?) not to be living under Syrian rule.

Israel could have held on to the Golan indefinitely without upsetting international order, but that wouldn’t have boosted Netanyahu’s political fortunes. So now we’ve repudiated that international order and opened up a whole box of goodies, the first one being Russia’s insistence that this move legitimizes its annexation of the Crimea. And they have a pretty good point here. If anything, Moscow’s annexation was more legitimate than this one. I mean, Crimea held a referendum beforehand–a rigged referendum to be sure, but at least there was some handwaving toward the rights of the people living there, the majority of whom (though certainly not a 95 percent majority) may well have preferred becoming part of Russia to remaining part of Ukraine. Here we have plenty of evidence to suggest that the people of the Golan do not want to be annexed by Israel, even if they also don’t really want to go back under Syrian control at this point either.

Next on the list, by the way, will be the West Bank. That’s going to be a really wild annexation.

SAUDI ARABIA

Although it appears to be the only outlet running with this story, The Guardian is sticking by reports of a rift between Saudi King Salman and his son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. MBS has been absent from recent cabinet meetings and other high profile events that he would normally attend, apparently to King Salman’s irritation, and the Guardian’s sources say he’s “been stripped of some of his financial and economic authority” by his pops. Those responsibilities have allegedly been handed off to one of Salman’s advisers, Musaed al-Aiban. Salman may simply be trying to reduce his son’s public profile while the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi murder continues to settle, but that may be grating on MBS. Again the Guardian is the only place reporting this stuff as far as I can tell, and it should be treated as highly speculative.

IRAN

Iran’s Mahan Air has lost its license to operate in France after the French government, under US pressure, revoked it over the airline’s alleged role in shuttling Iranian military forces and assistance around the Middle East (in particular to Syria). Mahan currently operates four flights between Paris and Tehran per week. It was blacklisted by the US government back in 2011 over its alleged assistance to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Author: DWD

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