Middle East Ticker

Assad Regime Enters Turkey-Kurdish Fray in Afrin

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, February 20, 2018, 10:00 AM

Assad Regime to Move into Afrin Conflict as Turkey-Kurd Fighting Continues

The Assad regime has authorized pro-regime militias to enter Afrin and secure the surrounding area, according to Syrian state media, but the move may indicate an escalation of the clashes prompted by the Turkish intervention, not a resolution. The arrangement was reportedly reached on Sunday after talks between Kurdish fighters and the Syrian military, but a formal announcement of the plan scheduled for Monday was delayed. A Kurdish official in the area told reporters that the agreement is strictly on military matters and does not include a political deal, but that it will allow regime forces to take over several positions along the Syria-Turkey border.

The arrangement is unlikely to satisfy Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded to reports of the regime’s plan on Monday. “If the regime is entering there to cleanse the PKK and PYD, then there are no problems,” he said, but “if the regime is entering to protect the YPG, then no one can stop us or Turkish soldiers.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday but no details have been released.

Regime forces south of Afrin have been providing some support to the Kurdish forces facing down the Turkish-backed offensive, allowing them to move reinforcements through regime-held territory. But providing troops to secure the area is a significant escalation that will draw the Kurds closer to the regime and put regime forces in Turkish troops’ crosshairs.

As the situation in Afrin grows even more complicated, U.S. officials are trying to de-escalate the conflict. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reports that the United States has reached out to Ankara with “a tentative package meant to appease the Turks by offering them a buffer zone in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, joint Turkish-American patrols of the Manbij region where Erdogan has threatened an ‘Ottoman slap’ if U.S. troops don’t leave and gradual dilution of U.S. ties with a Kurdish-led militia that Erdogan despises.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara last week and discussed what he called a “crisis point” in U.S.-Turkey relations with Cavusoglu. In a joint press conference, Cavusoglu said that the United States had broken previous promises to Turkey—a theme he also returned to at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend—but that Turkish officials have made their interests clear; “We’d like to think that our vital security concerns are taken seriously,” he told reporters. U.S. and Turkish officials are expected to meet for further discussions about resolving tensions in early March, and the Trump administration is apparently making patching things up a priority because it is seen as a prerequisite to countering Iranian influence, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reports. “We’re going to lock arms, we’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulty for us,” Tillerson said on Friday.

 

Corruption Investigations of Netanyahu Conclude with Recommendations to Indict

Israeli police recommended the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week after concluding there was sufficient credible evidence of corruption in two long-running corruption investigations. In one case, Netanyahu stands accused of accepting bribes of jewelry, cigars, and pink champagne, possibly requested using code words, from business interests in exchange for assisting a movie producer lobby the U.S. government for a long-term visa, and in another case, of offering to implement policies to depress circulation of the newspaper Israel Hayom in exchange for more favorable coverage from a rival publication, Yedioth Ahranoth; a third investigation involving potential bribery in the Israeli government’s purchase of German ships and submarines is ongoing. The police recommendation will now be considered by the attorney general and can be challenged by Netanyahu’s lawyers, a process that could take months before a decision is reached to issue an indictment or not.

Netanyahu was defiant in a speech timed to just about coincide with the police’s recommendation and dismissed the evidence as baseless. “There is a shadow lurking behind the recommendations publicized tonight," he said. "It is impossible to get rid of the impression that they are influenced by the groundless feelings of the investigators who believe that I plotted against them. ... These allegations are completely false and ungrounded." Netanyahu said the allegations “will lead to nothing” and that the “authorities will not accept half of the police's recommendations.”

Since last Tuesday, Netanyahu has tried to pivot to other issues, and on Sunday addressed the Munich Security Conference. Holding a piece of wreckage from the Iranian drone that was intercepted earlier this month by an Israeli attack helicopter, Netanyahu said that Israel “will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.” According to Elizabeth Tsurkov, writing in War on the Rocks, in addition to its occasional airstrikes targeting regime and Iranian weapon caches that could be transferred to Hezbollah, Israel has also increased its support to Syrian rebels in recent months to preserve Free Syrian Army groups as a counterweight to Iranian forces in southwestern Syria. “Rebels from Quneitra and western Daraa, as well as media activists in those regions with ties to the rebels, told me that Israel began providing more military support to a greater number of rebel groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army,” Tsurkov wrote. “This support came in the form of weapons, ammunition and money to purchase weapons on the black market.”

 

Iran Cracks Down on Foreign Currency Exchanges

Iran is trying to contain a currency crisis. In recent days, Iran’s central bank allowed hikes in interest rates in an effort to convince individuals to keep their money deposited in rials rather than buying foreign currency, and Iranian authorities shut down more than 700 accounts moving large sums of money and “distorting the foreign exchange market,” AFP reports. Police also shuttered several foreign currency exchanges and arrested around 100 people last week for engaging in speculation.

The value of the Iranian rial has slipped over the past several months, losing approximately one-fourth of its value since last September. Officials fear the precipitous decline could spur inflation—and greater public frustration. The widespread protests in January were at least partly in response to popular discontent with the Iranian economy, which has not mounted the recovery from international sanctions that politicians have promised. Many Iranians have had their savings wiped out by collapsing banks. “Most protests in Iran are over economic issues,” Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney told the Washington Post in January. What made those protests different, she said at the time, “is that it seems to have tapped into a deep sense of alienation and frustration, that people aren’t just demonstrating for better working conditions or pay, but insisting on wholesale rejection of the system itself.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is trying to advance his economic agenda on a trip to India. On Saturday, Rouhani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finalized India’s $85-million lease of a port in the Iranian city of Chabahar. The deal “creates a transit route between India, Iran and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan,” Reuters reports, and situates Iran as a waypoint for trade passing south from central Asia for international shipping. At a press conference, Modi said the two countries are also discussing partnering to develop Iranian rail infrastructure to better supply the port.