Middle East update: March 29 2019

SYRIA

Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reports that Arab tribes aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces have been trying to cut their own deals with the Syrian government, potentially leaving the Kurdish YPG militia–the largest faction within the SDF–holding the proverbial bag:

On March 23 the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory after the fall of the jihadis’ last sliver of territory in Baghouz. But even before the Islamic State was vanquished in battle, Hadi had embarked on another mission — to probe the contours of a possible settlement between the SDF, its allies and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Yes, I am ready to shake Assad’s hand,” Hadi told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview at his marble palace, where he breeds his prized horses and camels. The sheikh had recently returned from a diplomatic tour that took him to Baghdad, Damascus and an overnight encounter with Russian officials at the Hmeimim airbase in western Syria. “The aim is to stop the war and sit around the table,” Hadi said.

The Shammar leader is not the only one mulling such an agreement. Over the past several months, a growing number of Arab tribal leaders residing in SDF-controlled areas have been reaching out to the Assad regime and cutting individual deals, according to Syrian Kurdish officials and Arab notables interviewed by Al-Monitor. In the mainly Arab town of Manbij, which is run by local allies of the US-backed SDF, the shift among the sheikhs is palpable. Requests to meet with Mohamed Khaeir al-Mashi of the Bou Bana tribe, Ismail Rabia of the Hanada tribe and Abdallah al-Bakouri of the Bou Sultan tribe revealed that all had migrated to regime-held territory when Russia and the Syrian Arab Army moved within close proximity of the town in November to forestall a possible Turkish incursion targeting the YPG. And it’s not just the Arabs: The Kurds have been sending out feelers to Damascus as well.

The complicating factor here is that nobody knows what the US is doing. It’s likely that nobody in Washington knows at this point, let alone in eastern Syria. The plan right now appears to be a troop reduction to about 1000 soldiers in Syria by May, and then…well, nobody knows. The situation will be reevaluated every six months with a goal of reducing the US presence in Syria to around 400 soldiers, half of them in eastern Syria. But that’s only if the US can work out the details of a safe zone in northeastern Syria to keep the Kurds and Turkey apart, and so far it hasn’t been able to do that–which is why it’s on at least the third withdrawal plan since Donald Trump announced that the US was leaving Syria altogether back in December. So, again, nobody knows what the US is doing.

The Kurds, who have bigger political demands (on autonomy, communal rights, etc.) of Damascus than do the Arabs, have reached out to the Syrian government but have more reason to wait and see what happens with the Americans than their Arab allies. Which is not to say that the Arabs wouldn’t prefer the US hang around as well–most of them probably would, but if the US is leaving anyway than it will be easier for the Arabs to come to an accord with Damascus than it will be for the Kurds. But the Kurds are the ones who really need that accord, to protect them from Turkey. If the Arab tribes cut their own deal then the Kurds will lose a lot of whatever negotiating leverage they might have left after a US departure.

TURKEY

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and declared Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system “a done deal.” That purchase continues to rankle in Washington, where Congress may block Turkey from purchasing the F-35 in response.

The Trump administration is reportedly hoping to reengage with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after this weekend’s Turkish elections, when Erdoğan hopefully won’t be in campaign mode anymore. But the thing is, people have been suggesting that Erdoğan might tone it down after the election for about four elections now, and he never does. There’s always another election and he’s always paranoid that he might lose it, no matter how heavily he’s stacked the political deck in his own favor. This weekend’s elections are just local, which means their potential impact on Erdoğan is pretty small, and still he’s campaigning obsessively. And he may not be wrong to do it. As long as Erdoğan is campaigning, as long as he’s raging against the vast network of foreign and domestic enemies he’s invented as part of his appeal to nationalist voters, he can be sure that his base, at least, won’t be paying attention to Turkey’s lousy economy and Erdoğan’s role in making it lousy. He’s perpetually in campaign mode because that’s what works for him politically.

IRAQ

Iraqi President Barham Salih told the AP on Friday that he sees a “general consensus” in Iraq that US military forces can remain in the country indefinitely so long as they limit their mission to containing any potential resurgence of ISIS. Around 5200 (declared) US soldiers are in Iraq now, but Donald Trump has raised eyebrows in Baghdad by suggesting they’re not there so much to contain ISIS as to contain Iran. The Iraqis have no interest in getting between the US and Iran, and in fact there are a number of Iran-friendly politicians in Baghdad who have talked about booting US troops out of Iraq.

JORDAN

An estimated 3000 people hit the streets of Amman on Friday to protest Trump’s decision to recognize the occupied Golan as Israeli territory and to mark Land Day, which commemorates Israel’s March 30, 1976 seizure of several Arab villages in the Galilee region in which six Arab Israelis were killed by Israeli forces. Protests against Israel can be awkward for the Jordanian government, since they are often organized by the opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood in this case) and inevitably make reference to the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers wounded ten Palestinians during this week’s Friday Gaza protest, but that’s probably just a preliminary for Saturday’s planned demonstration to commemorate both the aforementioned Land Day and the one year anniversary of the start of these weekly protests. A large crowd of protesters is expected, and the Israeli military has already positioned tanks and other heavy assets near the Gaza fence. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu itching for a reason to blast Gaza again ahead of next month’s Knesset election, it could be.a very combustible mix.

EGYPT

Donald Trump plans to host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House next month for the second time. Sisi may be a virtual dictator whose brutal suppression of political opposition has only exacerbated Egypt’s extremism problem and whose economic mismanagement has probably sapped most of his popularity–though there’s no way to know that because dissent in Egypt has mostly been outlawed–but he’s Trump’s second-favorite Arab leader after Mohammad bin Salman and if you think there’s a pattern there, you’re probably right.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

At Foreign Policy, Ola Salem and Hassan Hassan argue that authoritarian Arab regimes, like the one running the UAE, are making a substantial contribution to the rise of global Islamophobia:

In 2017, at a public panel in Riyadh, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, issued a warning about Islamists in Europe. “There will come a day that we will see far more radical extremists and terrorists coming out of Europe because of lack of decision-making, trying to be politically correct, or assuming that they know the Middle East, and they know Islam, and they know the others far better than we do,” Zayed said. “I’m sorry, but that’s pure ignorance.” The message was clear: European leaders would face a future endemic of Islamic extremism if they continued to tolerate the presence of what he described as radical extremists and terrorists in the name of human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy.

Although the statement is two years old, a clip was recently circulated by a prominent Emirati on social media, Hassan Sajwani, in an entirely different context: in the wake of the terrorist attack allegedly carried out by an Australian white supremacist against Muslim worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that led to 50 deaths. Sajwani, who has family links to both the Emirati government and the Trump family (his uncle is the founder and chairman of Damac Properties, which developed the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai), then posted tweets that echo the type of fear-mongering and dog-whistle attacks on Muslims that have been widely credited with inspiring the Christchurch attacks.

It’s just one example of an often-overlooked trend: the culpability of Arab and Muslim governments in fueling anti-Muslim hate as part of their campaigns to fight dissent at home and abroad. By trying to justify repression and appease Western audiences, some of these regimes and their supporters have forged an informal alliance with conservative and right-wing groups and figures in the West dedicated to advancing anti-Islamic bigotry.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius has put together an account of the Jamal Khashoggi murder that might be worth your time. A lot of Ignatius’s work is based on his anonymous sources and most of the time it amounts to simply pushing whatever narrative the Blob wants to push, so take what he writes with a grain of salt. But there is at least one new detail in his piece that seems pretty plausible:

Some members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group that was sent to Istanbul received training in the United States, according to U.S. and Saudi sources. The CIA has cautioned other government agencies that some of this special-operations training might have been conducted by Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company, under a State Department license. The training occurred before the Khashoggi incident, as part of ongoing liaison with the Saudis, and it hasn’t been resumed.

American counter-terrorism and special forces training has had a whole host of negative impacts all over the world, so it’s not terribly surprising to find out that it had something to do with this incident.

At LobeLog, meanwhile, Paul Pillar wonders how Mohammad bin Salman plans to pursue deeper economic reform–as opposed to the splashy but relatively cosmetic changes he’s made so far–while maintaining his grip on Saudi politics:

MbS has declared an ambition for more sweeping reform under the label of Vision 2030. The declared goals include reducing dependence on oil revenues and expanding the private sector so it would account for most of Saudi GDP, which it does not now. Such changes, if they ever occur, would be fundamental reform involving a growth in centers of economic power.

Such changes would raise questions, which social scientists have long debated and analyzed, about the effects that economic development has on the prospects for political development. A significant expansion of an entrepreneurial class and of a middle class not dependent on the state can lead to increased dissatisfaction with authoritarian rule and demands for a say in how society is to be governed. The demands flow from the emerging classes having a larger stake in the decisions about how society is to be governed as well as a larger awareness of their own capabilities.

IRAN

A court in Luxembourg ruled earlier this week that families of victims of the 9/11 attack cannot seize Iranian assets in Luxembourg as part of a 2012 US court ruling against Tehran. That ruling found that Iran gave “material support” to al-Qaeda and awarded the plaintiffs $7 billion. Iran has around $1.6 billion in assets in Luxembourg that were frozen under past nuclear-related sanctions and never released to Tehran after the 2015 nuclear deal went into effect, so the plaintiffs were looking to take that money as partial payment under the 2012 ruling. But the Luxembourg court ruled that the US decision was not in alignment with international law and therefore could not be applied in Luxembourg.

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