Middle East update: April 1 2019

YEMEN

Al Jazeera claims to have proof that the Saudi-led coalition is recruiting Yemen children as soldiers to defend the Saudi border from Houthi rebels:

There are a couple of things to bear in mind here. One is that this is an Al Jazeera product and Al Jazeera is of course owned by the Qatari government. The Qatari government has a vested interest in reporting stories that paint Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a negative light. I generally try to avoid using Al Jazeera as a source for stories involving the Saudis (among others), but this video struck me as too important to just ignore. The second thing to bear in mind is that the Houthis also use child soldiers, in fact probably in higher numbers than the coalition. Nobody’s hands are clean in this conflict. Is there a moral difference in the Houthis, who are Yemeni, employing Yemeni children as soldiers and the Saudis recruiting Yemeni children to potentially die protecting the Saudi border? I don’t know, but even if there is I would argue that both are condemnable.

TURKEY

As additional returns came in overnight it’s become apparent that in addition to losing the mayoralty of Ankara in Sunday’s local elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also lostthe Istanbul mayoralty. Candidates from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) have won both races—fairly handily in Ankara, but by a scant 22,000 votes in Istanbul. AKP says it plans to appeal the vote count in both cities, and while it’s hard to imagine that could make a difference in the Ankara outcome (barring any electoral shenanigans by the AKP, of course), the Istanbul vote was narrow enough that anything is possible. International observers did notea bunch of irregularities in both the campaign and the voting, but the thing is, when you’re the ruling party and you’ve spent years stacking the country’s political deck in your favor, it’s pretty disingenuous to claim you’ve been cheated. Yet that’s what AKP is trying to do now.

AKP and its Islamist predecessor parties have controlled the mayoralties of both of Turkey’s largest cities for more than a quarter century. Erdoğan himself got his start in high-level politics as Istanbul’s mayor in the 1990s. So these losses sting. They reflect the weakeningof the Turkish economy and Erdoğan’s apparent inability to do anything about it, and moreover they reflect a sense that when he doesn’t have an imminent “threat” to which he can direct voters’ attention, Erdoğan’s “my political opponents are all traitors to Turkey” pitch may be losing its effectiveness—at least among urbanites.

They may also reflect—and this is where the outcome, which doesn’t really do much to challenge Erdoğan’s one-man rule on a practical level, could be a harbinger of things to come—a wizening upof the Turkish opposition. For example, the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) declined to run mayoral candidates in Istanbul and Ankara, throwing most of its votes to the CHP instead, but did run in towns and cities in the heavily Kurdish southeast, where it had mixed results. One of the reasons Erdoğan has been so successful despite his abrasiveness has been the flat-out political incompetence of his divided opposition, and if that’s changing then it could be a big deal.

What happens now is anybody’s guess. Erdoğan may decide to soften his tone and try to work with the opposition, or he could go even harder to the nationalist right. I suspect he’ll wind up doing the latter even if he makes a half-hearted attempt at the former. He’ll also be under increasing pressure to light a fire under the Turkish economy, which could mean going to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout even though he’s ruled that out in the past. If he decides to go to the IMF he may need to patch up his frayed relationship with the United States, given the sway the US has within the “Bretton Woods system” of which the IMF is a part. And if he’s going to do that, he may have to revisit his decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense system after all, even though he’s ruled that out too.

Coincidentally or not, the United States on Monday appears to have taken a major step toward punishing Turkey for that decision to buy the S-400. The Trump administration is freezingthe delivery of “equipment related” to the F-35 aircraft to Turkey. Washington has been saying that the S-400 purchase could make Turkey ineligible to obtain the F-35 even though Turkish contractors have been involved in making F-35 components. Ankara is expecting its first shipment of the aircraft in November, and this is the first real sign that it may not be arriving after all.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly relying on bots to help him hold on to his job ahead of Israel’s April 9 election:

A covert and complex army of fake social media accounts has been disseminating posts in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party ahead of the April 9 elections in Israel, according to a new report by an internet watchdog due for release Monday.

According to the findings of the Big Bots Project, this network has posted more than 130,000 times in Hebrew on Facebook and Twitter – posts that have had 2.5 million hits in Israel. These posts have the sole purpose of praising Netanyahu and spreading false information about his rivals, primarily his main challenger Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief who leads the Blue and White Party.

Netanyahu has been able to find a few accounts that were apparently misidentified as “bots” in the report, and of course he’s makinga very big deal out of that even though a few accounts don’t disprove the main findings.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

According to Reuters, the UAE’s elaborate cyber spying operationhas been bolstered by former US intelligence operatives:

A group of American hackers who once worked for U.S. intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures during a tense 2017 confrontation pitting the UAE and its allies against the Gulf state of Qatar.

The American operatives worked for Project Raven, a secret Emirati intelligence program that spied on dissidents, militants and political opponents of the UAE monarchy. A Reuters investigation in January revealed Project Raven’s existence and inner workings, including the fact that it surveilled a British activist and several unnamed U.S. journalists.

The Raven operatives — who included at least nine former employees of the U.S. National Security Agency and the U.S. military — found themselves thrust into the thick of a high-stakes dispute among America’s Gulf allies. The Americans’ role in the UAE-Qatar imbroglio highlights how former U.S. intelligence officials have become key players in the cyber wars of other nations, with little oversight from Washington.

SAUDI ARABIA

You’ll no doubt be pleased to learn that, despite Saudi Arabia’s many trials and tribulations in 2018, Saudi Aramco posteda net profit of $111 billion, which may make it the most profitable company in the world. Whew, what a relief. Normally, nobody outside of the kingdom is allowed to know how much money Saudi Aramco makes, but the company wants to start issuing bonds and so it had to let Moody’s take a gander at the books. Those bonds will finance a deal to buy the Saudi petrochemical firm SABIC from the country’s sovereign investment fund, basically taking money from Aramco and stashing it in the kingdom’s treasury so that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman can play around with it.

IRAN

A “senior Trump administration official” who was definitely not John Bolton or Brian Hook told reporters on Monday that the administration is preparing new sanctionsagainst Iran in the coming weeks. Presumably these will include ending waivers for countries to buy Iranian oil, but not-Bolton-or-Hook also said the new sanctions will hit parts of Iran’s economy that “have not been hit before.” It’s unclear what that means. Maybe we’re going to start sanctioning Iranian preschools.

The Iranian government, meanwhile, is blaming US sanctionsfor its failure to respond adequately to recent flooding caused by an ongoing spate of heavy rains across the country. That’s very debatable—it’s not like the Iranian government was particularly good at managing disaster relief when it wasn’t under sanctions. But whether it’s a fair excuse, it is a plausible one, and so by reimposing sanctions the administration that wants to put “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government has in the process given it a handy scapegoat for whatever might go wrong.

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