Middle East Ticker
A DMZ Deal for Idlib, U.S. Tones Down Plans for Confrontation with Iran at the United Nations, Saudi-Emirati Offensive in Yemen Resumes
Russia and Turkey Reach Agreement to Establish Demilitarized Zone in Idlib
This time last week, a regime assault on Idlib, one of the last rebel enclaves in Syria, seemed imminent. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Russian President Vladimir Putin had failed to reach a consensus at negotiations in Tehran regarding how to avert a conflict; Turkey, which recently sent reinforcements to bolster the dozen military posts it maintains in the area as part of a de-escalation zone, called for a ceasefire, but was rebuffed by Russia. An air campaign was already underway, with bombs targeting medical infrastructure and more than 30,000 people displaced. U.S. officials were warning the Assad regime of potential consequences if it resorted to the use of chemical weapons again, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French National Assembly, “the hypothesis of war crimes cannot be excluded ... once one begins to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations and hospitals.” On September 7, after the talks in Tehran ended, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Reuters about the looming attack, “I don’t think there’s anything that can stop it.”
But the anticipated escalation did not come. U.S. officials noted that bombings and shelling stopped unexpectedly last Tuesday, and observed regime forces being redeployed away from Idlib. “We absolutely see something of a pause,” one anonymous U.S. defense official told the Daily Beast. “We’re not willing to define why at this point.” Late in the week, Turkish and Russian officials said that they would be meeting for additional negotiations. The second round of talks, between just Erdogan and Putin in the Russian city of Sochi, led to the announcement of a new plan to avert a regime offensive on Monday. Under the agreement, rebel groups will withdraw deeper into Idlib, vacating a 15-20 kilometer demilitarized zone that will be jointly patrolled by Turkish and Russian troops; Putin said in a press conference that rebels would have until October 10 to withdraw and that the DMZ would be implemented on October 15. “With this agreement we have precluded experiencing a large humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan said. “The opposition will continue to remain in the areas where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion.”
The details of the plan’s implementation are still emerging, but already it has prompted skepticism. While it may forestall an offensive in the near term, it may also create new problems that could develop into a crisis. Putin said Monday that the agreement has the support of the regime, but it is unclear at this point how much Assad and his Iranian allies have bought in to the Russian-brokered deal. Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted on Twitter that several areas along the Idlib periphery in the potential path of the DMZ are populated by extremist groups that are likely to fight against the implementation of the agreement—and potentially against Turkish and Russian forces. The deal backs Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist group prominent in Idlib, into a corner, Lister writes; it will alienate Turkey, which has tolerated its presence in Idlib, if it resists the deal entering effect, and it will risk an internal crisis and potential defections if it accepts it. Daniel Serwer, writing for his blog, Peacefare, argues that the DMZ may leave civilians less safe as a result of being corralled into a safe zone guarded by unreliable allies and vulnerable to provocateurs. “Agreement for the Turks to take over all of Idlib and do what they can to disarm and arrest extremists would be better,” he argues. “Non-extremist fighters would then cooperate with the Turks and ensure the safety of the entire province, provided the regime and its friends would agree not to attack. That is what the regime should want if it looks forward to the eventual reintegration of Idlib with the rest of the country. But Assad is not into peaceful reintegration.”
The front lines in Idlib may have cooled, but the regime came under attack in two of its strongholds over the weekend. Missiles struck near the Damascus airport on Saturday night; Syrian officials said they were launched by Israeli forces and claimed they were intercepted before reaching their targets. Though Israel rarely acknowledges its operations in Syria, it has periodically attacked Iranian installations or weapons that could be transferred to Hezbollah. “Israel is constantly working to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with advanced weaponry,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Haaretz on Sunday. More missiles targeted regime facilities in the port city of Latakia, as well as in Homs and Hama, on Monday night. A Pentagon spokesperson told Voice of America, “I can unequivocally say this is not us.” Syrian air-defense systems shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane while trying to intercept the missile strikes; Russian officials responded angrily on Tuesday morning, blaming Israeli planes for using the Russian IL-20 as cover and forcing it into the line of fire. Though Russia and Israel have maintained an arrangement for de-conflicting their operations in Syria, tensions have flared at times over Israeli strikes on Iranian and Assad regime targets.
United States Backs Off Plans for Trump to Chair UN Security Council Meeting on Iran
The Trump administration has reconsidered plans for President Donald Trump to chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council focused on Iran later this month. As Mark Leon Goldberg explained for the blog UN Dispatch, “This is all made possible by a quirk of the calendar. The United States holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month… This means the United States has the opportunity to preside over a meeting of the Security Council on a topic of its choosing at a time when other foreign leaders are in town.” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced on September 4 that the United States would use its scheduling prerogative to convene a meeting “to address Iran’s violations of international law and the general instability Iran sows throughout the entire Middle East region” on September 26, the day after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly.
In the two weeks since, the administration has reconsidered the focus on Iran. The Washington Post reported on Monday that the meeting will instead be a discussion of the issues of “nonproliferation, constitutionalism and sovereignty.” While the topic of Iran might still be broached, the broader subject circumvents a UN rule that would have allowed Iranian officials to attend the meeting and respond to criticisms as a “party to a dispute under consideration,” the Post notes. Experts pointed out that the focus on Iran was sure to stoke tension with the other permanent members of the Security Council, which are still parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “I don’t think anyone [in the Trump administration] liked the idea of the president having to sit through stern defenses of the Iran deal from May and Macron. He could have got very tetchy, as he did at NATO and the G-7, or walked out of the council causing a diplomatic fuss,” Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at United Nations University, told the Post.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has consistently certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, including since the U.S. withdrawal from the deal. The monitoring group’s latest report, issued at the end of August, stated that Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile were within the limits set by the JCPOA and that inspectors had been granted access to all sites necessary to verify Iran’s nuclear activity. Iranian officials have threatened to leave the agreement, though, if the country cannot be insulated from the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. “Being the party to still honor the deal in deeds & not just words is not Iran’s only option,” Zarif tweeted last month. The European parties to the agreement are reportedly working on creating financial instruments that would limit the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions and preserve the agreement. Politico reported last week that European Union states are planning the creation of a “special purpose vehicle” for maintaining business and financial ties with Iran, what one French official described as “a financially independent sovereign channel.”
The discussion of Iran—or, rather, “nonproliferation, constitutionalism and sovereignty”—comes amid a public feud between current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Obama-era counterpart, John Kerry. In a recent interviews promoting his new book, Kerry said that he had met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” since leaving Foggy Bottom. The comment prompted a press conference from Pompeo last Friday at which he expressed outrage at Kerry’s “unseemly and unprecedented” behavior. Trump went so far as to suggest the meetings had been illegal in a tweet. "I am reasonably confident that [Kerry] was not there in support of U.S. policy with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said Friday.
But as Kerry noted in his interviews, he has kept the State Department informed of his discussions with Zarif, which he says have focused on gauging how Iran might be prepared to change its regional foreign policy. As Colin Kahl, co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a former Obama administration official noted on Twitter, “Encouraging Iran to tamp down its destabilizing behavior & encouraging Iran to exercise patience & restraint for the remainder of Trump’s term by NOT restarting its nuke program in response to Trump’s actions actually seems broadly consistent with *stated* US goals.” A spokesperson for Kerry also told Politico that all of the meetings took place before the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in May. “There's nothing unusual, let alone unseemly or inappropriate, about former diplomats meeting with foreign counterparts. [Former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger has done it for decades with Russia and China,” the spokesperson said.
Pro-government Forces in Yemen Resume Attack on Hodeidah
Following inconclusive diplomatic talks in Geneva earlier this month, the Saudi and Emirati coalition backing the Yemeni government has renewed its assault on Houthi forces in the strategic port city of Hodeidah. Yemeni forces seized two Houthi supply routes last Wednesday, AFP reports, and over the next several days, coalition jets bombarded the city. Houthi media report that airstrikes have targeted a radio station and a navy school in recent days. On Monday night, pro-government forces resumed their ground offensive. "A military operation to liberate Hodeida and its port has begun on multiple fronts," one coalition official told AFP.
The United Nations has been trying to avert a battle in Hodeidah for months. Approximately 600,000 people live in the city and its port has been an important conduit for humanitarian aid entering the country. Diplomats have periodically said that they were close to reaching an agreement in which the Houthis would cede control of the city. But the Houthis refused to attend U.N.-backed negotiations in Geneva earlier this month, and U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has since been scrambling for another diplomatic track. “I am relieved that Hodeidah city has not yet suffered the calamity of military operations. However, I am concerned that the intensive operations on the outskirts of the city are a gloomy portent for what is to come,” he told reporters last week. The fighting has again raised fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Experts and some members of Congress have called for months for the United States to discontinue its support for the Saudi and Emirati coalition in response to the coalition’s indiscriminate bombing. Those criticisms gained new momentum last month after two more attacks hit civilian targets; one struck a school bus, killing 40 children. Earlier this month, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Todd Young published an editorial in the Washington Post that called on the administration to halt its support for the coalition’s campaign. “We believe the United States’ national security interests and our humanitarian principles demand that we use our leverage to press all parties to end the civil war, protect civilians, and provide full and unfettered humanitarian access,” they wrote. Emirati Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba defended the coalition’s actions in a response the next day, but focused more on separate operations targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula than on the campaign against the Houthis; the editorial featured a meandering tangent about the Saudi-Emirati feud with Qatar, which has little to do with the war in Yemen, but made no mention of the thousands of civilian deaths incurred by the coalition air campaign, the primary criticism of the coalition’s operations. The same day, September 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed the importance of U.S. logistical support to the coalition, writing in a memo that the Saudis and Emiratis are “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.” Former officials, members of Congress, and rights groups have said that’s demonstrably false.