Middle East update: January 31 2019


When (if?) it finally pulls US forces out of Syria, the Trump administration reportedly wants a “coalition of Western nations” to establish and maintain a buffer zone in northern Syria to protect the YPG from Turkey. Which would be huge for the YPG and maybe prevent it from having to capitulate to the Syrian government for protection. There’s only one teensy problem, which is that no European countries have expressed any willingness to participate in something like this. I’m sure it will be fine.

In eastern Syria, the battle to mop up the remaining ISIS fighters in Deir Ezzor province is taking an extra toll on those whom it’s displaced, thanks to the harsh winter weather they’ve been forced to endure:

As families have made the long, frozen, sometimes barefoot trek out of the last shards of Islamic State territory to a refugee camp in northeastern Syria over the past two months, at least 29 children and infants among them have died before reaching help, mainly from hypothermia, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

At least 18 of them died over the past week, it said, a toll that added to the hundreds of thousands killed over the course of Syria’s civil war, now approaching its eighth year. Millions of people have been displaced, and thousands continue to flee the violence, across distances full of their own dangers.

About 23,000 people have arrived at a refugee camp in the Hasakah region of Syria over the last eight weeks, mostly women and children fleeing the battle to oust the Islamic State from nearby Deir al-Zour province, the W.H.O. said.


I’m going to go out on a limb and say this, from United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths’ office, is probably bad:

The Saudis reportedly bombed a Houthi drone storage facility outside of Sanaa on Thursday, so deescalation doesn’t seem to be in the cards at the moment.

Meanwhile, a new report from a British watchdog finds that the UK, despite its repeated insistence to the contrary, is selling weapons that are being used in Yemen:

Fundamental changes are urged to save lives and reduce the impact of UK-manufactured weapons. The report reinforces concerns raised by CAEC last year following a review of UK arms sales in 2016, when the body called for greater regulation, transparency and compliance in the government’s decision-making process. The government response then acknowledged improvements were needed but failed to agree that the system fell short.

Taking Yemen as a case study, the report uses statistical analysis to support the case for a suspension of arms to the Saudi coalition, as well as other warzones and countries on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) watchlist for human rights breaches. The authors advocate a joined-up approach to conflict resolution, with improvements to development and peace-building initiatives currently supported by the Department for International Development (DfID).

Quoting statistics on arms supplies to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen conflict, the report shows that the British government authorised 18,107 open license deliveries of arms and dual-purpose equipment between 2015 and 2017, with no disclosure required of the quantities or value involved. A delivery could range from a single part for an aircraft valued at £1 to 20 Eurofighter Typhoon jets valued at £2.5bn. The figures exclude authorisations under single individual export and broker licenses.


UN investigator Agnes Callamard says she has been unable “to get all the information we requested related to the investigation” into Jamal Khashoggi’s murder from Turkish authorities, but she’s “still hopeful” that additional information will be forthcoming. Since Turkey’s been leading the outcry for an international investigation over Khashoggi, it would look pretty strange if the Turkish government were to impede Callamard’s work. The investigation has also been stymied by the Saudis’ refusal to allow it access to their Istanbul consulate.


Against the odds, Lebanon finally has a government. The big positive change would appear to be the inclusion of four women as cabinet ministers, up from one in the previous government and a new high for Lebanon. Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil kept their jobs, so there’s not much turnover in the senior-most ranks. Hezbollah was able to place three allies in the cabinet, including Health Minister Jamil Jabak, reflecting its strong showing in last May’s election. The new cabinet’s first order of business will presumably be finding some way to improve Lebanon’s sputtering economy.


Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar writes that much of the recent back and forth over Qatar’s financial support for Gaza has been caused by the lingering bad blood between the Qataris and Egypt:

Al-Monitor has learned from a source in Hamas that the Egyptians were furious about Qatari involvement with Hamas, especially the financial aid. They were angry about the Qataris’ conspicuous foothold in Gaza and the elevation of Qatari envoy Mohammed El-Emadi to the status of veritable emir and savior of the Gaza Strip, and it led to further deterioration in the relationship between Gaza and Cairo.

Egypt is already involved up to its neck in everything pertaining to the arrangement between Israel and Hamas. It played a mediator role in all the armed conflicts between the parties, forcing them to reach cease-fires and preventing them from escalating to full-scale war that would have left Gaza in ruins. At the same time, Egypt has also invested considerable effort into a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. So far, it has led nowhere, but Egypt has promised the Hamas leadership in Gaza an unprecedented easing of restrictions, the opening of the Rafah border crossing to trade and an increase in power lines running from Egypt to Gaza. There has even been talk of greater use by Gaza of the Egyptian port in El-Arish.

Then Qatar entered the picture. Gaza became dependent on it and Egypt took a step back. As far as the Egyptians were concerned, Gaza could deal with its own problems if that is what it wanted. The Egyptians were enraged by all the travels of Qatari envoy El-Emadi and the suitcases stuffed with cash he has been hand-delivering to the Gaza Strip since November 2018. Like quite a few Israelis, they saw it as a protection racket paid by Israel to Hamas (by allowing the money to enter the Gaza Strip), but even more as a slap in the face after all of their efforts to help Hamas escape the risks that threatened to bring the regime tumbling down.

Egypt is of course part of the Saudi-led anti-Qatar boycott movement, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is still hostile toward Qatar going back to Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-led government he deposed in 2013. Ultimately Hamas decided that it could live without Qatari cash more easily than it could live without the Rafah border crossing, which Egypt controls. Qatar’s money is still going to get to Gaza, at least in theory, but now it will be used to fund UN humanitarian aid programs rather than being disbursed to Gaza’s public workers.


UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash on Thursday acknowledged that his government does have a cyber warfare program as Reuters reported earlier this week. But he denied that the Emiratis have been targeting Americans or citizens from other Emirati allies, as Reuters also reported.


British, French, and German authorities announced on Thursday that they’ve opened the “special purpose vehicle” they intend to use to maintain commercial relations with Iran despite US sanctions, thereby preserving the nuclear deal. But it’s a significantly pared down SPV from what the Europeans were talking about a few months ago, and may not be enough to meet Iranian demands. Initially the SPV–which I guess we should now start calling by its actual name, the Instrument In Support Of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)–was intended to act as a barter vehicle to allow Iran to continue “selling” oil to Europe in return for European goods, but as it stands it’s only likely to be used to facilitate humanitarian needs. Iranian officials noted that it’s a good first step, but seem to be hedging on whether or not this is going to be enough to keep them in the nuclear deal.

At Bloomberg, analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that INSTEX’s real importance isn’t so much in its impact on the nuclear deal, but as perhaps the first step toward Europe disentangling itself from the US economically:

The SPV, called INSTEX, or Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges,  is registered in France with a German managing director. It will take some months to become operational, but its registration marks an important milestone in the European effort to counterbalance U.S. economic power.

The surprising speed with which the SPV was established reflects a sense of urgency in Europe for an assertion of greater economic independence from the U.S. The French treasury played a leading role in devising the SPV, working closely with the French, German, and British foreign ministries and in consultation with the European Commission. Shortly after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal last May, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire spoke of a “realization among all European states that we cannot keep going in the direction we are headed today whereby we submit to American decisions.” 

European determination was underlined in the speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week at the World Economic Forum. Observing that “you can only leave an international footprint if you are economically strong,” she pointed to U.S. sanctions on Iran, which hinge on “the strength of the dollar as a currency.” Merkel then asked the questions that have for some time been reverberating in European capitals: “How can we in the eurozone become as dominant? How can we arrange it so that we have economic weight on the scales?”

For now, though–paradoxically–INSTEX could actually work in the Trump administration’s favor. If it facilitates Iran obtaining food, medicine, and other essentials, it could lessen international criticism that US banking sanctions are hurting the Iranian people.

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