Middle East Ticker

Israeli Strike in Syria Meets Unusual Opposition, Iraqi Prime Minister Meets with Trump, and Morocco Reshuffles Its Prime Minister

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 1:30 PM

After Four Years of Israeli Airstrikes, Syria Fires Back and Gets Shot Down

Israeli warplanes have periodically carried out airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria since at least 2013. Despite Syria’s supposedly sophisticated Russian-supplied air-defense system, these incursions have gone relatively unchallenged—at least as far as reporters can tell, given the Israeli military’s secrecy about the strikes. This is why it was surprising when Assad regime forces activated their air defenses last week to interdict Israeli jets striking a target near Palmyra, Syria, firing several SA-5 surface-to-air missiles at Israeli F-15s. And it was even more surprising that Israel fired an Arrow 2 interceptor missile in response, and then publicly acknowledged the entire incident.

The Israeli airstrike last Thursday, like all the previously reported strikes, targeted Hezbollah forces; in particular, Israeli officials said this strike was to prevent the transfer of certain weapons systems that could be used by Hezbollah to target Israel. After the F-15s carried out the strike, Assad regime forces fired several missiles at the jets. None of them hit their targets, but the flight ballistics were similar enough to Scud missiles that the Israeli military fired its Arrow 2 interceptor. “It wasn’t a Scud-class ballistic threat. But from our perspective, it doesn’t matter if it was a SAM [surface-to-air missile]. Once it behaved like a ballistic missile weighing tons and with a warhead of hundreds of kilograms, we couldn’t allow it to threaten our cities and towns,” an Israeli air force official told Defense News. The Arrow 2, which is designed to intercept long-range missiles and is part of a multi-tiered missile-defense shield that will be completed next month, has been in service since 2000 but never used in combat, so its successful shoot-down of a Syrian SA-5 is its first battlefield success. The disabled Syrian missile crashed in Jordan and no casualties were reported. On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman went on Israeli public radio to warn Syria that if it tries to shoot down an Israeli jet again, “we will destroy all of them [Syrian air-defense systems] without thinking twice."

Russia’s complacency about Israeli airstrikes on pro-Assad forces has...left the impression that Russia was giving Israel leeway to hit Hezbollah and Iranian proxies...

In another unprecedented show of opposition to the Israeli strike, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador in Moscow, Gary Koren, to lodge a formal complaint over the strikes. Russia’s complacency about Israeli airstrikes on pro-Assad forces has long been a curiosity of the Syrian civil war and left the impression that Russia was giving Israel leeway to hit Hezbollah and Iranian proxies when necessary, so long as it steered clear of Russian forces. It is unclear if there was something different about this particular airstrike, or if the understanding between Russia and Israel has somehow changed.

Abadi Assured of U.S. Support in Meeting with Trump

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the U.S. support he has received in the fight against the Islamic State and said he expects the delivery of new assistance to accelerate after meeting with President Trump at the White House yesterday. “I think this administration wants to be more engaged in fighting terrorism,” Abadi told reporters. “I sense a difference in terms of being head-to-head with terrorism.” Despite perceiving Trump as more aggressive, Abadi also said yesterday that he was struck by how successful the U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive has been. “We have come a long way,” Abadi said at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the funding for which is on the chopping block in Trump’s recent budget proposal. “Nobody could have imagined when I was here last year that we’ll be in Mosul today.”

That battle proceeded slowly this past week as forces cut off the Old City neighborhood and advanced toward the Nuri Mosque. Losing the mosque would be a large symbolic defeat for the Islamic State; it was where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the the Islamic State to be the new caliphate in 2014. Iraqi forces suffered a setback on Monday, though, when a police colonel and eight other officers were captured by the Islamic State after they ran out of ammunition in an early-morning shootout in the Bab Jadid neighborhood. Civilians continue to flee the violence in the city and are finding camps for the displaced in the area already full to capacity.

Abadi seemed willing to joke rather pointedly about Trump’s unsubstantiated wiretapping claim and his most famous campaign promise.

Abadi’s meetings yesterday had some awkward moments as well. Abadi seemed willing to joke rather pointedly about Trump’s unsubstantiated wiretapping claim and his most famous campaign promise. As journalists shouted questions about Trump’s allegation that the Obama administration ordered the monitoring of Trump Tower during a press availability, Abadi turned to Trump to joke that "We had nothing to do with the wiretap.” Trump did not respond to the joke or the reporters’ questions. Later, when discussing how Iraq is caught between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey’s jockeying for influence in the region, Abadi said that Iraq must “build bridges with others and work with others to be more secure...Otherwise, what do you do? You build walls.” The comment drew laughs in the audience at USIP.

Morocco Reshuffles Prime Ministers to Form a Government

Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) won a plurality of parliamentary seats in elections last October but has failed to form a coalition government in the five months since. Last week, King Mohammed VI finally decided to replace Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane with another PJD official, Saadeddine El Othmani, in the hopes of breaking the deadlock. Othmani is no stranger to the government—he previously served as foreign minister and the head of the PJD’s parliamentary bloc—but Mohamed Daadaoui notes for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog that the move may have been pushed by elements of the monarchy to elevate allies in the parliament.

The past five months have only reaffirmed the sense that Morocco’s parliament is still too fractious to present an effective counterweight to the monarchy...

The structure of Morocco’s constitutional monarchy prevents any one party from receiving a majority of seats in the parliament, so the PJD, which has been a dominant force in Moroccan politics, was always going to have to forge alliances to govern. But this time around, the PJD has had to contend with an unusually powerful rival in the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which placed second in the October polls. Benkirane has refused to form a coalition with PAM or the National Rally of Independents (RNI), which are perceived as being closely aligned with the regime. “The choice of Othmani suggests the gridlock was more about Benkirane than the PJD,” Daadoui writes. “Othmani...is seen as more of a consensus-building politician.”

The past five months have only reaffirmed the sense that Morocco’s parliament is still too fractious to present an effective counterweight to the monarchy, which retains the power to overrule any decision made by the democratically-elected government. Daadoui points out that this is by design: the monarchy has co-opted some parties and pushed out others, allowing it to manage parliament. “These limited spheres of contestation shape government-opposition relations and dictate the rules of the game for the opposition within the formal political system. The resulting recycling of political parties and coalitions is necessary to maintain the smokescreen of political participation,” he writes. The removal of Benkirane is “strategic and calibrated”: it takes out the obstacle to the coalition the government wants “without subverting the will of the voters.”