Diary

Trying To Keep Track In The Middle East

Things are moving fast in the Middle East, so this is me just trying to figure things out.

Iraq. Douglas Ollivant has an assessment of Iraq going forward, and his main thesis is that PM Abadi’s biggest challenge is beating down corruption. This may be true but there are other challenges. Left unsaid is Iran’s role in Iraq, which still has a military presence in Iraq, helping the Iraqi army taking out the last remnants of the Islamic State. I don’t see them wanting to lessen their influence on Iraq. Yet another issue is how Abadi will behave toward the Sunnis. Recall that the previous prime minister, al Maliki, so disenfranchised and so mistreated the Sunni population that they would rather take their chances with militant Islamists. Finally, there’s the matter of reconstruction after the almost complete destruction of Mosul and other cities from rooting out the Islamic State.

Numerous Iraqi cities were reduced to rubble in the fighting, particularly Mosul, the country’s second largest. Yet, while Iraq estimated that it would need $88 billion to pay for reconstruction, it is expected to receive only $4 billion in pledges by Wednesday, when the conference ends. The majority of that is to come from Arab donors in the Persian Gulf, with the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and Qataris all pledging around $1 billion each.

As I see it, the US has already doled out plenty of cash, and the country still sits on a huge pot of oil, and their government was primarily responsible for their Islamic State problem in the first place. What should the US do? Not disengage like Obama did, IMO. We should keep a strong diplomatic presence and some level of military presence because militant Islamists have not gone away. I’m not opposed to humanitarian aid (not a penny to the Iraqi military), mainly to stem the Iranian mullahs’ attempts to widen and expand their influence.

Israel. Item #1. Israel’s response to an Iranian drone flying into their airspace sends several messages to the de facto theocratic dictatorship in Iran but, IMO, the primary point was this: “Don’t f**k with us.” More:

What’s different is that now Iranian military forces are themselves at Israel’s door and Israel is engaging them directly, as opposed to playing cat-and-mouse with Iranian proxies and arms convoys. That means Syria could become the theater for a direct confrontation between two of the most powerful states in the Middle East.

Saturday’s engagement — an Iranian drone shot down over Israeli airspace, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire while firing on the Iranian base and forced to crash land, and a retaliatory strike by Israel on 12 targets in Syria including four other purported Iranian military installations — took place in Syria but had little to do with Syria. The belligerents in this battle were Israel, Iran, and in a supporting role, Russia, which likely supplied Syria with the anti-aircraft missiles that shot down the Israeli plane.

Notwithstanding Russia’s statement urging all parties to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” neither Israel nor Iran really perceives Syria as an integral sovereign state at this point. And why would they? It’s a failed state beset with intractable violence and a humanitarian crisis virtually unparalleled in recent history. Bashar al-Assad’s government is only recapturing territory from the various rebel factions thanks to the intervention of its patrons in Tehran and Moscow. Even if Assad is able to restore full military control over the entirety of Syria, political control is another story.

Thus, to Iran, Syria is a badly damaged puppet that nonetheless helps it solidify its influence in the Shiite Arab heartland; from Israel’s point of view, it’s a forward operating base in Iran’s campaign to wipe the Jewish state off the map.

As I said somewhere else in comments, an asymmetric response by Israel is the right move against bullies.

Item #2: What with all the caterwauling and ululating from the likes of PLO Secretary General Erekat and West Bank leader Abbas, I almost missed this report on how Hamas has bankrupted Gaza:

Across Gaza, the densely populated enclave of two million Palestinians sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, daily life, long a struggle, is unraveling before people’s eyes.

At the heart of the crisis — and its most immediate cause — is a crushing financial squeeze, the result of a tense standoff between Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, and Fatah, the secular party entrenched on the West Bank. Fatah controls the Palestinian Authority but was driven out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007.

Leftists and cultural Marxists have long criticized Israel for Gaza’s travails, but Hamas has been in charge for over a decade and has been in near perpetual conflict with the Israeli state, thus the blockade, which is only getting more elaborate due to Hamas’ belligerent behavior. After all, it is Hamas that calls for the destruction of Israel in its charter and fully endorses a one-state solution, with that one nation being an Islamic state run by Palestinians. Also this, barely heard above the din of Abbas’ noise is the cooperation between Israeli and West Bank security forces.

Syria. The scope of the conflict is morphing.

With Assad having prevailed over the rebellion against him and the Islamic State squeezed into a last sliver of territory along the Iraqi-Syrian border, the rival players now are battling to shape the final outcome of the war.

The Syrian government controls the biggest chunk of territory, with over half the country at least under nominal control of Assad loyalists, backed by Russia and Iran.

The United States holds sway over the second-largest area, the 27 percent of Syria that was captured mostly from the Islamic State by Kurdish-led forces in the northeast, with the help of U.S. weapons, air power and Special Operations advisers. The United States says it will remain until there is a peace settlement, leaving open the question of how long that will be.

Turkey holds a pocket of territory in the north alongside Syrian rebels and last month launched an incursion into the adjoining Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

One of the more laughable comments comes from Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, that the US is trying to maintain control over eastern Syria: We’re not trying, we do control eastern Syria (as the lastest Syrian and Russian mercenary dismal failure attests), and meantime Lavrov’s boss is trying to control all of Syria. But it was an amusing deflection, and now the conflict is arguably worse than ever in a situation where Putin’s forces have become dominant.

Iran. Here’s what happens when a liberal finally comes to his senses: What if the Iran deal was a mistake? If? Obama limboed and equivocated and appeased for practically his entire term in order to work a deal with the mullahs, and now we’re dealing with the aftermath. Joshua Keating:

This is not what happened on either side of the Middle East’s sectarian divide. Instead, the deal has more often contributed to escalating tensions. In retrospect, this was foreseeable: Iran was perfectly capable of projecting power across the region with or without a nuclear arsenal. As for its rivals, they never trusted Iran’s assurances and saw warming relations between Tehran and Washington as a new and potentially even greater threat.

Following the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, with aid from the U.S., stepped up their involvement in the tragic and destructive war in Yemen to counter perceived Iranian encroachment in their backyard. The Saudis also exacerbated the region’s sectarian tensions by executing a prominent Shiite cleric in January 2016. This, predictably, led to the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the cutting off of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Saudi moves were viewed as a reaction to warming U.S. ties with Iran. As political scientist and Mideast analyst Marc Lynch wrote, “Saudi Arabia views Iran’s reintegration into the international order and its evolving relationship with Washington as a profound threat to its own regional position. Mobilizing anti-Shiite sectarianism is a familiar move in its effort to sustain Iranian containment and isolation.”

At the same time, rather than moderating its regional ambitions as the JCPOA’s proponents might have hoped, Iran has spent the years since the deal was signed supporting a network of Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other countries, part of a larger project to, as BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi put it, “establish territorial dominance from the Gulf of Aden to the shores of the Mediterranean.” Iran might have done all this regardless. But it was also responding to the Saudi actions. Either way, there’s certainly no evidence that nuclear diplomacy, or the lack of a nuclear weapon, has helped the neighbors overcome their differences.

Part of Obama’s sloppy thinking is the urban myth that President Rouhani is some kind of moderate, but a moderate doesn’t arrest 29 women for doffing their headscarves in public. A moderate doesn’t kill an Iranian-Canadian environmentalist professor in prison (no, I don’t believe Iranian officials when they say he committed suicide). And now the mullahs are holding an American political hostage, bringing the number to five Americans held in Iranian prisons. Shoot, they’re even imprisoning native-born environmentalists for spying.