Middle East update: March 28 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.

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Wednesday’s Israeli airstrike (confirmed by Israel) in Aleppo killed one Iranian fighter and six Iraqi fighters allied with the Syrian government. This contradicts official Syrian reports that said the strike caused only “material” damage.

Speaking of airstrikes, the US-led coalition that’s been fighting ISIS admitted on Thursday to killing 1257 civilians in the 34,038 strikes it’s conducted during its four-plus year air campaign. Which means the actual total is much higher than that. Airwars estimates that coalition strikes have killed 7595 civilians, by way of contrast.

The actual residents of the Golan, whose interests seem not to have factored into Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the occupied territory as part of Israel, are not happy about the decision (if their public demonstrations against it are any indication), but neither are they particularly surprised it happened:

But demonstrations aside, the US decision was no great surprise for the 20,000 Syrian residents that remain in five villages in the occupied Golan.

Nehad Rada, an actor who runs a nongovernmental theater organization called Golan Heights Artistic Production, told Al-Monitor that nothing will change as a result of the US decision. “In general, our opinions are the same. This land is Syrian and this will not change.”

Rada mocked the US president for “giving away land that is not his own simply on his own whims,” saying, “If someone is interested in one of the 50 states of America, please let me know and we will hold a rally to call for that person getting, say, California or Florida.”

YEMEN

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the AP on Thursday that progress on the first phase of the withdrawal of forces from Hudaydah is “slow” but ongoing. Griffiths says the Houthi rebel and pro-government sides are meeting regularly to discuss the details of their withdrawal from the port area, which if successful would then be followed by a second phase in which both sides withdraw from the city entirely. Griffiths expects that phase to go more quickly than this one.

TURKEY

It’s almost time for another Turkish election (local this time), so it’s no surprise that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is out on the campaign trail blaming all of his country’s woes on somebody else. It’s kind of his thing. In this case he’s blaming Turkey’s economic struggles on “a squeezing operation by the West and the United States in particular,” which sure sounds better than “I don’t really know how to manage an economy” when you’re mostly talking to a bunch of far-right nationalists.

Erdoğan’s campaign attacks are just one of the many ways the US-Turkey relationship is on the rocks, again. Metin Topuz, a former employee at the US consulate in Istanbul who allegedly has links to Turkish public enemy number one Fethullah Gülen, is now on trial over that allegation. The US insists that Topuz has done nothing wrong and is demanding his release, but his case is wrapped up in the broader set of disputes between Ankara and Washington. Chief among them is Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia, a purchase that may cost Turkey the right to purchase the F-35 from the US–a group of senators introduced a bill on Thursday that would bar Turkey from buying the plane unless it cancels the S-400 deal. Because the F-35’s production is spread across several countries, one of them being Turkey, there has been some concern that cutting Ankara out of the F-35 program would harm the F-35 program as a whole. But Reuters claims to have “sources” who say it wouldn’t be that hard to replace Turkey’s contributions.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Things remained quiet in Gaza on Thursday, but that might not be the case very much longer. Benjamin Netanyahu, like Erdoğan in campaign mode ahead of next month’s election, is practically champing at the bit to start bombing Gaza again, and Palestinians are preparing a major protest at the Gaza fence on Saturday to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Great March of Return, the weekly protests against Israel’s Gaza blockade and the displacement of the Palestinian people. The ingredients are all there for this to be a difficult weekend for Gaza.

SAUDI ARABIA

Bruce Reidel says the Saudis are worried about events in Algeria potentially kicking off another “Arab Spring”-type movement across the Arab world. Protesters there are demanding the ouster of their elderly, decrepit head of state and an opening up of the Algerian political system, and as Reidel notes both of those things hit uncomfortably close to home for the Saudis.

IRAN

We need to have a little talk about the latest development in American Exceptionalism, Liberal Interventionist edition, which is the argument that, whenever Donald Trump vacates the Oval Office, the United States should not simply reenter the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and, I don’t know, beg everyone’s forgiveness for having violated it in the first place. Instead, the argument goes, a future Democratic administration should seek a new nuclear deal with Iran, one that goes beyond the JCPOA and wrings more concessions out of Iran in exchange for, in theory, more concessions from the US and Europe. The reason for this is mostly that some of the JCPOA’s sunset clauses are already close to kicking in, and if the US were simply to reenter the agreement some of its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would soon start falling to the wayside.

There are several problems with this line of thinking, the greatest of which is that none of the other parties to the JCPOA, above all Iran, has any reason to negotiate anything with the United States because the United States has proven itself to be an unreliable negotiating partner. Under the new deal plan, we’re supposed to go back to those other parties and say something like “boy, these last few years sure were weird huh? Gah! Anyway let’s just pretend they didn’t happen and move on.” But nobody’s going to be willing to do that. So then the idea becomes that the US should offer Iran more benefits in return for Iran making more concessions.

This is, to be fair, how the JCPOA was supposed to work. It didn’t set up any indefinite restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program because Iran wouldn’t have agreed to that. Instead it asked Iran to concede 15 years of restrictions for 15 years of sanctions relief, with the idea being that Iran would be so pleased with the tradeoff after 15 years that it would gladly agree to extend those terms. Eventually, the implicit hope was that the international community could just run out the clock on the Islamic Republic, that it would collapse before the successive iterations of the nuclear deal did. But then, as it turned out, Iran got almost none of the benefits it was promised under the JCPOA. Inertia prevented it from seeing much benefit under the Obama administration, and then Trump came along and tossed the whole arrangement in the trash.

The “extra benefits” the new deal crowd wants to offer amount to steps that are supposed to ensure that Iran will really for sure get the benefits it was supposed to get under the JCPOA, we promise we definitely mean it this time. Again we’re left to wonder why the Iranians would be stupid enough to believe any of it. We’re in “fool me…can’t get fooled again” territory. And the Iranians aren’t that dumb.

Which brings us to the only real leverage the new deal folks have, which is US sanctions. The same US sanctions that were lifted under the JCPOA and then reimposed when Trump violated the JCPOA. Rather than immediately reenter the JCPOA, as the US should by all rights do, the new deal folks figure that, hey, since we’re out anyway, we might as well turn the screws on Iran to get them to reopen negotiations. They didn’t agree with Trump’s decision to violate the JCPOA, you see, they just want to use the leverage they think his violation has given the US to maximum effect. This is where the American Exceptionalism comes in, because you can be damn sure that if Iran had tried something like this these guys wouldn’t think it was such a cool idea. Breaking an international agreement and then demanding extra concessions for basically reversing that decision is something only the United States could even dream of doing. I’m skeptical it will work, but what do I know?

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