Middle East update: February 27 2019


People are apparently still pouring out of Baghouz to try to escape the eventual Syrian Democratic Forces assault on Syria’s last ISIS-held town. Hundreds reportedly evacuated on Wednesday, including both people who have been held captive by ISIS (including some Yazidis captured back in 2014 in Iraq) and ISIS supporters who either decided to make a break for it or figured that captivity couldn’t be any worse than staying. It’s still unclear when the SDF plans to finally attack the town, and indeed the constant exodus of people may be delaying that operation.

ISIS leaders have reportedly been asking the SDF to allow them to leave Baghouz and to go to rebel-held Idlib province. The thing is, while there are a few ISIS sympathizers and perhaps even cells in the province, almost nobody wants ISIS there:

After serious clashes in the past, the IS-HTS enmity continues today with assassinations and executions. Bomb attacks have been on the rise, especially in peripheral areas in southern and eastern Idlib province, which brings to mind the question of whether IS is coming back.

The perpetrators of the attacks aren’t clearly known. They could be IS militants or rival forces at loggerheads in the region. HTS and NLF factions had traded accusations over a string of assassinations from February to April last year.

IS fighters have previously tried to sneak into Idlib and the Operation Euphrates Shield area (northern Syria) by mingling in with civilians. As the last IS holdout is falling, infiltration attempts could increase. To head off militants fleeing from Deir ez-Zor to Idlib, HTS has erected earthen barriers on several roads. The Turkish military has also taken fresh security precautions around Idlib in recent days.


The New Yorker’s Bernard Avishai recounts how Benjamin Netanyahu’s new political alliance with radical Kahanists has mobilized a number of ex-IDF generals to rally behind opposition leader Benny Gantz heading into April’s election:

One would think that the prospect of a government dominated by mutually supportive former generals would constitute a crisis for any democracy, and it is increasingly clear that this election will, indeed, determine the fate of democratic norms in Israel for the foreseeable future. But that is because of Netanyahu’s own actions, not because of Blue and White, whose generals have, paradoxically, mobilized to preëmpt him. Lapid told Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” that “everything else moved aside” last Wednesday. “I suddenly said, ‘We must prevent this.’ ” The “this” in question goes beyond Netanyahu’s routine bashing of the police, the courts, and the press about the various investigations against him, which, according to television reports, may produce indictments as early as tomorrow. It involves a new and disquieting political scandal: Netanyahu’s alliance with the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”), a party of acolytes of Meir Kahane.

Netanyahu has defended his decision to align himself with the fringe of Israel’s right-wing fringe by arguing that he’s trying to save the country from Gantz, who (he says) can’t get to a parliamentary majority without bringing at least one of Israel’s two Arab parties into his coalition. Aside from the speculative math involved here, and the outright racism implicit in the notion that any Israeli government that includes Arabs must ipso facto be dangerous and illegitimate, Israeli Arab politicians tend to be about as moderate as moderate gets and are certainly far closer to any reasonable definition of “moderate” than a party that idolizes actual terrorist Meir Kahane. They’re almost entirely within the “two-state solution” camp, which used to be the mainstream position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In Netanyahu’s Israel, however, pretty much anything short of outright ethnic cleansing in the West Bank is treated as an unconditional surrender to some combination of ISIS and the government of Iran.


While he may be ever Western leader’s favorite Arab dictator, the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Amy Hawthorne and Andrew Miller write that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi–recently seen telling European officials to get off his back about his human rights abuses–is even exceeding his predecessor Hosni Mubarak’s track record for repressive autocracy:

Those familiar with Egypt’s modern history of nearly uninterrupted authoritarianism may ask how much these latest amendments even matter. But the new constitutional changes do signal something troubling. They would mark a crucial step in the institutionalization of Sisi’s new political system—one that is closer to totalitarianism than Mubarak’s ever was. The repression of the Mubarak era should not be whitewashed, but the former leader did at least delegate certain decisions, allow a bit of space for civilian institutions and independent civil society groups, and build a somewhat diverse constituency for his regime. His semi-authoritarian system helped him stay in power for 30 years before his repression and corruption finally caught up with him.

By contrast, Sisi is creating a regime that is more dictatorial, more stifling, narrower in its base of support—and ultimately more fragile. Viewing Mubarak as too lenient, Sisi has put civilian bodies such as the parliament and universities under the full control of security agencies that have filled them with pliant loyalists. He has crushed all independent political activity, eviscerated the rule of law, and severely punished anyone who dares step out of line. Having dispensed with Mubarak’s relatively wider patronage network of ruling party apparatchiks, local notables, and business elites, Sisi rules through a tiny coterie of military and intelligence sycophants (reportedly including his own sons). His penchant for military-style control—he even recently issued a decree stipulating the paint colors for buildings—exceeds Mubarak’s own zeal for micromanagement.

Those Western leaders like Sisi because he’s an avowed secularist who’s Tough On Terror, or at least he fakes it convincingly. But his repression of even the most nonviolent political opposition is apparently making Egypt’s ISIS problem worse:

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Cairo on January 10, he commended President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi for his “leadership” in combating “the ongoing threat of terrorism as well as the radical Islamism that fuels it.” In fact, a report out this week documents how Egypt’s prisons, since Sisi took power in July 2013, have been helping to fuel that very threat.

The report, written by Brian Dooley, senior advisor with the U.S.-based Human Rights First, draws on recent interviews with dozens of former prisoners and examines the ways imprisoned cadres of the Islamic State group in Egypt have turned the prisons themselves into recruiting centers for the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Considering that Egyptian authorities are holding an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, and well over 100,000 prisoners altogether, this should be a matter of grave concern for Egypt’s international backers who provide security assistance and political support for Sisi’s regime.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hosted US Court Fool Jared Kushner in Riyadh on Tuesday for the two besties’ first face-to-face since that unfortunate incident in which MBS totally had nothing to do with murdering that journalist guy he kept asking people to kill. They talked about increasing US-Saudi cooperation, because goodness knows we could all use a little more of that, and discussed how they’re going to try to force the Palestinians to go along with Kushner’s Israel-Palestine peace plan when he finally unveils it in a couple of months.


It seems pretty clear now that, despite his abrupt resignation on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is remaining in his post. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally rejected Zarif’s resignation on Wednesday, calling it “against national interests” and praising Zarif as an “honest, brave and pious person.” And since you can’t resign a gig like Iranian foreign minister unless the president says you can, Zarif is staying. He later withdrew his resignation via Instagram, where he’d announced it publicly two days earlier, saying that he “never had any concern but elevating the foreign policy and status of the Foreign Ministry.” Which seems to validate reports that he quit after being excluded from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s weekend visit to Tehran, though that was more the final straw after several months in which Zarif and his ministry have been increasingly sidelined by hardliners in the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

There’s no question Zarif is back on the job, by the way. He reportedly called Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Wednesday offering to mediate his country’s current crisis with India (more on that later).

Leaving aside the question of whether his resignation was genuine or a stunt designed to get everybody to beg him to stay, the question now is whether Zarif is going to emerge from this kerfuffle with his stature enhanced. Writer Hooman Majd seems to think he worked the Iranian political system quite effectively:

Presumably fuming at the optics [of the Assad visit], Zarif did what anyone with an ounce of dignity would do: He resigned. While it has been reported that he has previously offered to resign multiple times in his six years as foreign minister, this was the first time he took his resignation straight to the public. In a typically Persian flourish, he also apologized to the people for his “shortcomings.” This put Iran’s “nezam”, or system, into what can only be described as a tizzy. Should the government accept the resignation, and thus admit to the irrelevance of the moderate faction in Iranian politics, or should it reject it instead, thus admitting its role in the wrongs that Zarif apologized for? The nezam doesn’t do apologies well.

Zarif played it brilliantly. It was hardly a case of his having thin skin and taking offense over a perceived slight, as some opined. It wasn’t a Persian ghar, or sulk, as has been suggested by some. No, it was a unique opportunity that he recognized—after years of tolerating insults; accusations of timidity; “Westoxification,” to use a derogatory pre-revolution term for Iranians enamored of the West; threats of impeachment; and even death threats—for him to finally have redress. And there was only one circumstance under which he could remain in office: a mea culpa from above, along with a public affirmation of his and his ministry’s preeminent role in the execution of Iran’s foreign policy.

There are some indications to support this. Rouhani lavished him with praise, though that can be discounted since the two of them are political allies. But so did Qasem Soleimani, who as the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force is probably Zarif’s main competition in terms of being the public face of Iranian foreign policy. Soleimani told Iranian media that Zarif is the person in charge of Iranian foreign policy and suggested that he was speaking for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which is probably the closest Zarif could get to having Khamenei ask him personally to stay. The Quds boss even suggested that Zarif’s absence from the Assad meeting was due to a bureaucratic error, which is bullshit but a decent face saving gesture. Assad even invited Zarif to Damascus to try to make nice.

However, I’m skeptical that this outpouring of support is actually going to win Zarif much new leverage within the Iranian government. He and Rouhani came into office with one big mandate from Khamenei: fix the nuclear issue and get Western sanctions lifted. Which they did, only to have the rug (I swear I’m not doing a Persian carpet thing here) pulled out from under them by Donald Trump. You don’t need a decoder ring or a source inside Tehran to figure out why he’s been sidelined–he had one job and failed, albeit not really though any fault of his own, and now his credibility is shot.

But even before the nuclear deal really went south, Zarif was conspicuously not handling major chunks of Iranian foreign policy. Regional issues are, for better or worse (mostly worse) being handled by the IRGC these days, for example. And while there’s every indication that Zarif and Khamenei get along well personally, the Supreme Leader seems to prefer having his own people, like his own foreign affairs adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, handle relations with the countries he really cares about–i.e., Russia and China. Zarif’s job these days is more “minister to Europe” than “foreign minister,” and unless there are some outward signs to indicate that’s changing I would assume that’s what he’ll continue to be.

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