Middle East Ticker

Assad’s Assault on Eastern Ghouta Worsens, Netanyahu Visits White House Amid Corruption Scandal

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 7:40 AM

Regime Escalation in Eastern Ghouta Evokes Aleppo

Turkey is continuing its assault on the Kurdish enclave in Afrin, and has now begun clashing with pro-regime forces that have entered the area in an arrangement to reinforce Kurdish forces. The Turkish offensive had drawn Kurdish fighters previously participating in the fight against the Islamic State away from eastern Syria, and yesterday U.S. defense officials announced an “operational pause” in the fight against the terrorist group. Dozens of regime militiamen, Kurdish fighters, and civilians have been reported killed over several days of Turkish airstrikes and shelling. Turkish authorities have rejected allegations of civilian deaths. “All the claims that Turkish forces are harming civilians in Operation Olive Branch are unfounded,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Monday.

The violence is even worse in the embattled enclave of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, where the regime has renewed its assault in recent weeks despite a U.N.-mandated 30-day ceasefire. Assad has claimed that residents of the neighborhood want regime control and that the fighting in Eastern Ghouta was against terrorism and therefore not subject to the ceasefire. The latest offensive has been staggering in its brutality: More than 700 people have been killed in the past two weeks, including at least 77 yesterday. Assad regime forces have used chlorine gas, reportedly prompting a debate within the Trump administration on whether another punitive strike would be an appropriate response. On Monday, a convoy carrying humanitarian assistance tried to reach the besieged district; much of the urgently needed food and medical supplies were withheld by regime forces, and the convoy was ultimately forced to turn back early due to the continued bombardment of the area. The destruction evokes for some analysts the regime’s offensive in Aleppo in 2016. “The endgame is clear: another round of evacuations,” Aron Lund writes for The Century Foundation, arguing that the best scenario is one in which the current fighting isn’t prolonged unnecessarily. Though not ideal, “there’s little doubt that a negotiated handover along the lines of ‘normal’ Syrian capitulation deals would be a better outcome for most people in eastern Ghouta than an Aleppo-style conclusion through overwhelming force, where tens of thousands of civilians are herded onto buses or marched into government shelters through the smoke and fire of their collapsing cities.”

Netanyahu Visits Washington as Scandal Worsens

President Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House yesterday; their fifth meeting since Trump took office comes while Netanyahu is in Washington to address the annual AIPAC convention. The Washington Post reported last week that the Israeli government was one of four foreign governments that, in communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence, discussed how they could take advantage of Jared Kushner’s business interests and inexperience. But there appeared to be no sign of tensions between Netanyahu and Trump on Monday, and Kushner attended the meetings despite the recent decision to downgrade his security clearance. The two men spoke to reporters in the Oval Office. Trump seemed blase about the poor state of the peace process. "The Palestinians, I think, are wanting to come back to the table," Trump said. "If they don't, you don't have peace. You don't have peace… and that's a possibility also. I'm not saying it's going to happen." Netanyahu praised Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, comparing him to the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, and Trump said he might attend a ceremony marking the move later this year.

Netanyahu told reporters that conversations today focused on “Iran, Iran, Iran,” both the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that Trump declined to recertify last year and Iran’s regional foreign policy. “I told him what I thought: That the nuclear agreement with Iran must be either totally fixed or totally canceled, and there were detailed discussions on this issue,” Netanyahu said. “I think that he shows great interest in my assessments.” Last night, in a speech at the AIPAC conference, Vice President Mike Pence seemed to support Netanyahu’s position. “Make no mistake about it, this is their last chance. Unless the Iran nuclear deal is fixed in the coming months, the United States of America will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately,” Pence said. Trump also discussed Iran with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed last week.

While Netanyahu was receiving a warm welcome at the White House, his political and maybe legal situation was worsening back in Israel. Investigators pursuing five separate corruption investigations are closing in on the prime minister. Last month, Israeli police recommended indicting Netanyahu in two cases, and on Friday questioned him for five hours in connection to a third investigation involving the offer of financial incentives to Shaul Elovitch, the chairman of Walla News, in exchange for positive coverage. The Washington Post called the case “possibly [the] most serious corruption case so far involving Netanyahu.” Then on Monday, shortly before Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with Trump, police announced that Nir Hefetz, the former spokesman for the Netanyahu family, had reached a state’s witness deal to testify against the prime minister in that case. Hefetz was arrested two weeks ago for his suspected involvement in several potential abuses of power, as was Elovitch. Netanyahu has called all the allegations against him “completely false and ungrounded.”

The legal case against Netanyahu is heating up just as his coalition government comes under strain from divisions over legislation to exempt ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from the country’s military service requirement. Those divisions could prompt early elections, Haaretz reports, but Netanyahu’s legal troubles seem unlikely to deter him from trying to retain his office. That could present a legal conundrum if the indictments proceed, writes Elena Chachko in a review of the Israeli precedents for indictments of public officials for Lawfare. “Netanyahu would set a precedent if he chooses to remain in office while facing a criminal trial,” she writes, and while the Israeli Supreme Court could force the issue, doing so “clearly raises substantial difficulties from a democratic standpoint.”