Middle East Ticker

Assad Regime Strains Russian Ceasefires, Iran Responds to Trump’s Plans for Nuclear Deal, Israeli Officials Snared in Corruption Scandals

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, August 8, 2017, 11:00 AM

Russian-backed Ceasefires Falter in Syria

Russia’s efforts to wind down the conflict in Western Syria were set back by renewed clashes over the past week. In recent months, Russia has sought to expand its patchwork of local ceasefires into a blanket “de-escalation zones” to be patrolled by Russian forces, and even gained some support for its plan from the Trump administration. But this past week was marked by clashes in Homs and Hama province and rebel-held districts in Damascus.

Russian diplomats continued to work on new agreements through the week; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to discuss ceasefire arrangements and announced a new agreement last Thursday for northern regions of Homs province. But that held for only a few hours, and by the end of Friday rebel and regime forces had resumed fighting. Fighting over the weekend in Hama province was the heaviest it’s been in months; rebel forces and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say regime forces there tried to advance on the town of Maan in violation of a Russian de-escalation agreement. And on Monday, the regime bombarded the Jobar and Ain Terma neighborhoods of the capital. “The army's offensive has dented a Russian-sponsored ceasefire announced two weeks ago in the Eastern Ghouta area to the east of Damascus,” Reuters reported yesterday.

Russia’s policy has been met with resistance from a key stakeholder: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s recent actions have demonstrated a clear effort to rein in the civil war and project force throughout Western Syria—even holding a military parade of Russian sailors in Tartous last week in celebration of the Russia’s Navy Day holiday. But Russia’s policy has been met with resistance from a key stakeholder: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While Russia is trying to wind the war down, Assad is reportedly feeling empowered by recent successes and is eager to push farther into remaining rebel-held enclaves. “Russia’s relations with Assad are ‘tense now’ because he’s suspected of deliberately blocking the long-stalled negotiations in Geneva” and preparing for a new offensive that Russia is reticent to support, Andrei Kortunov, a Kremlin-affiliated research official, told Bloomberg. Once regime forces have made more gains against the Islamic State near Deir Ezzor, Assad reportedly wants to attack rebel strongholds in Idlib province—an area where U.S. officials have recently expressed concerns about extremist groups and rebels operating from Lebanon were recently relocated under a ceasefire agreement reached with Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces. “In an effort to recover leverage, Russia is refusing to provide air support to enable Assad to begin an assault on the last rebel bastion of Idlib,” Bloomberg reported last week.

Rouhani Warns against Trump Administration’s Plans for Nuclear Deal at Inauguration

The Trump administration is weighing its options for how it can exert pressure on Iran in an effort to find it noncompliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) when the State Department conducts its next review. “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July after recertifying Iran’s cooperation with the nuclear deal for the second time; he has reportedly instructed his staff to prepare their own report, separate from the State Department’s, “to lay the groundwork for decertification.”

In addition to the new report, the Trump administration is looking to impose new conditions in an effort to compel Iran to balk. The Associated Press reported recently that members of the administration are requesting inspections of military sites that Iran has declared off limits and are meeting with European officials to propose negotiating a follow-on agreement that would extend the enrichment limits agreed to in the JCPOA. The administration also approved new sanctions against Iran; the policy has been endorsed by critics of the agreement Mark Dubowitz and David Albright, who dubbed it “the waive-and-slap approach,” and argued that it can keep pressure on Tehran while buying time for a more thorough policy review. “The last thing Mr. Trump should do before this policy is finalized is to make drastic and premature decisions that could incite a diplomatic backlash,” they cautioned in an editorial in the Journal.

[McMaster] also said that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shouldn’t be surprised if the United States withdraws from the nuclear deal.

Trump’s national security advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster, seemed to suggest that the administration will take this slower, more pragmatic approach—rather than outright decertification—in an interview with Hugh Hewitt. While he said he agreed with Trump that “in many ways, it was the worst deal ever,” McMaster told Hewitt that “we’re not prejudging this… And we’re working hard on it as part of a broader approach to the problem of Iran.” That includes coordinating with other parties to the agreement in Europe, according to McMaster. But he also said that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shouldn’t be surprised if the United States withdraws from the nuclear deal. “I don’t think it would be a shock to him or anybody, because the president has made clear that he will judge whether or not Iran is sticking to this agreement based on the merits,” McMaster told Hewitt.

That’s a message that’s come through loud and clear not just in Tehran, but in Europe as well. After the announcement of new U.S. sanctions, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqhchi said they were a violation of the nuclear deal and that Iran “will show an appropriate and proportional reaction to this issue.” The European Union also pushed back on efforts to undermine the agreement, issuing a statement that “reiterated the EU’s unwavering commitment to the deal, recalling its historic significance, multilateral dimension and its importance for regional and global stability.” In a speech at his second inauguration this past weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that he wouldn’t revisit the agreement and claimed that the world would be on his side if it collapses. “We do not wish to engage with political novices,” he said. “Those who want to tear up the nuclear deal should know that they will be ripping up their own political life by doing so and the world won’t forget their noncompliance.” And he has a point: Ties between Iran and Europe are continuing to improve. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini attended the inauguration and Iranian politicians competed for pictures with her. If the Trump administration breaks from the JCPOA, they’ll be unlikely to convince the EU to do the same.

Indictment Looms for Netanyahu as Corruption Investigations Snare Israeli Officials

With the news that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, will testify as a state’s witness in the long-simmering investigation of corruption allegations targeting his old boss, an indictment of the prime minister now appears imminent. Netanyahu is the subject of three investigations: He is suspected of accepting expensive gifts from a supporter in exchange for backing certain policies, bargaining with the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot for favorable press coverage, and corrupt practices in a government deal to purchase German submarines for the Israeli navy. Harow was also under investigation for using his connection to the prime minister to advance his own business interests, but he will face reduced penalties—a fine and community service, dodging jail time altogether—under his agreement to act as a state’s witness.

The tidal wave of corruption accusations could finally sink Netanyahu’s political career, but he has a reputation as a wily political survivor for a reason. His allies are rushing to his defense. This past weekend, members of his cabinet told press that its still premature to analyze his political straits, and that an indictment could be postponed until after the next elections in 2019. Even if there is an indictment, he might not have to step down. “From the legal perspective, if there’s an indictment, the prime minister doesn’t have to resign,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told the Israeli program Meet the Press.

The tidal wave of corruption accusations could finally sink Netanyahu’s political career, but he has a reputation as a wily political survivor for a reason.

Netanyahu is not the only Israeli official facing legal trouble. His interior minister, Aryeh Deri, is also being investigated for corruption. Deri was reportedly scheduled to be interviewed again this past week by authorities regarding his advocacy for a candidate for the position of chief rabbi of Lod. Deri has pushed for Rabbi Yitzhak Mozgarshvili to be appointed, despite objections from Lod’s mayor. Authorities are investigating whether Deri accepted bribes for his support of Mozgarshvili from Georgian billionaire Mikhael Mirilashvili; records indicate that Mirilashvili donated large sums of money to a foundation run by Deri’s wife. Deri is the chairman and one of the founders of the Shas party, part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. He was previously convicted of accepting $155,000 in bribes in 2000 and spent nearly two years in prison.