Middle East Ticker

Middle East Ticker: Syria Ceasefire Collapses and New Aid Package for Israel

By J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, September 21, 2016, 9:58 AM

Syrian Ceasefire Falls Apart

The ceasefire in Syria fell apart over the weekend after less than a week. The Assad regime resumed its bombardment of rebel-held districts in Aleppo on Sunday afternoon and said it would cease its participation in the truce that evening. The failure of the agreement comes after an incident on Saturday in which U.S.-led forces killed 62 pro-Assad forces in airstrikes. U.S. officials said they notified the Russian military in advance of the strikes and believed they were targeting an Islamic State position. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, suggested that the United States intentionally hit regime forces to derail the agreement before reaching the one-week mark, at which point the agreement stipulated that the United States and Russia would begin coordinating strikes against extremist groups. Previously, Russian officials complained that the United States wasn’t doing enough to encourage moderate rebel groups to separate from extremists in preparation for the joint strikes.

Methinks Russia doth protest too much, and if there’s a lesson from the ceasefire, it’s that Moscow could not (or maybe would not) compel its client in Damascus to fulfill even the basic obligations of the ceasefire. U.N. humanitarian aid was supposed to be deployed to besieged areas of Syria as soon as the truce took effect last week. That was initially delayed because Syrian regime forces refused to grant access to the Castello Road, the main artery into besieged eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo. Then, when Russian forces took over control of the area to enforce the ceasefire, the Assad regime refused to grant permits to the U.N. convoy to allow safe passage in the country. On Monday, pro-regime forces targeted a humanitarian convoy and warehouse, killing 12 aid workers. Witnesses said both regime helicopters dropping barrel bombs and Russian jets armed with cluster munitions participated in the attack.

U.S. and Russian officials met on Tuesday at a conference of the International Syria Support Group in New York and were expected to discuss restoring the ceasefire, though prospects for that seem low. The New York Times’s Anne Barnard spoke to Syrian civilians over the weekend as fighting resumed. “Militarily speaking, it still feels the same: Fighter jets are still bombing, and machine guns never stop at night,” one told her. “But I think this truce or any truce is always good since people are really tired of the war.” Her comments echo Max Fisher’s recent review of the academic literature on ceasefires, which suggests that even failed ceasefires can have a cumulative effect of reducing violence.
 

U.S. and Israel Agree to New Aid MOU

After months of negotiations, the United States and Israel signed an agreement that sets the terms for U.S. military aid for the next decade. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) guarantees that the United States will provide Israel at least $3.8 billion in military aid each year, the largest promise of bilateral military assistance ever. And the figure could grow if the United States approves supplemental funding (as it has in recent years to support Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which wasn’t included in the last agreement). The new agreement is a significant expansion of the previous 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, which expires in 2018 and guaranteed $3.1 billion each year, but Israeli officials had reportedly been pushing for as much as $4.5 billion annually in the new agreement. The new MOU will also phase out a provision that allowed Israel to spend a significant portion of its annual aid package domestically to develop its own defense industry; that’s less of a concern now that Israel has become the 11th largest arms exporter in the world over the past five years, and Israel will be obligated to spend its aid on U.S. weapons systems, like the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, under the terms of the new MOU.

The agreement may finally be finished and signed, but it has prompted a new fight with Congress—or at least with Sen. Lindsey Graham, who lashed out at both the Obama and Netanyahu administrations about the deal this week. Graham supported legislation to approve more aid to Israel than was designated in the proposed MOU and has rebuffed requests from the administration to bring appropriations in line with the agreement. Israeli officials have agreed to return any additional funds approved by Congress in excess of the terms of the MOU for at least the next two years. Graham said this week that the arrangement undermines Congress’s appropriations power and that he will challenge the agreement by proposing new supplemental aid. But Graham also expressed anger at the Israeli government for proceeding with the agreement at this time. “Here is what I would tell Bibi," he said on a conference call on Friday. "When members of Congress come to Israel, you do a great job talking about the State of Israel’s needs and threats. Well, don’t tell us about all those needs and when we try to help you, you pull the rug from under us. I think that is bad for Israel.”

Other reactions to the agreement have been mixed. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak argued in the Washington Post that the MOU is “an important contribution to our security,” but that Israel could have received more aid had the Netanyahu administration not lobbied so aggressively against the Iran nuclear agreement. The top Israeli negotiator of the agreement said the criticism is “detached from reality.” The New York Times editorial board warned against Congress approving supplemental aid, concluding that “in truth, the aid package is already too big.” Public opinion polling by Brookings’s Shibley Telhami found U.S. opinion about the size of the aid package split along party lines.

 

Someone Say “Revolution Disguised as Reform” One More Time

Saudi officials are on a charm offensive to promote the kingdom’s slate of planned economic reforms. Dennis Ross and Zalmay Khalilzad wrote last week about their recent trip to Saudi Arabia to discuss the plan, Saudi Vision 2030, and reported that they found Saudi officials surprisingly honest about the challenges the country faces.

Both Ross and Khalilzad cited the same anonymous official who told them Saudi Arabia is undergoing a “revolution under the cover of modernization” (Ross phrased this slightly differently his piece, but it appears to be another translation of the same quotation.) One more citation and it will be a trend. It’s a good talking point, but it’s not a very convincing one. If there’s a revolution to be had, it’s strictly limited to the Saudi economy. The royal family has not shown much interest in political liberalization, with maybe the exception of the government’s decision to grant women suffrage in municipal elections last year. The kingdom remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, and with the way the government has stifled the formation of political institutions, it seems unlikely that authorities will allow much dissent.

And that dissent is coming if Saudi Vision 2030 proceeds. The plan includes structural adjustment reforms that would walk back subsidies, disrupt the country’s bloated public sector, and introduce a value-added tax. Reporters and analysts have almost universally described the plan, perhaps euphemistically, as “ambitious.” Similar efforts in other countries have provoked bread riots and calls for political inclusion; as Alexis de Tocqueville once warned, “the most dangerous moment for a government is when it tries to reform.” Saudi Arabia has a history of throwing in the towel on economic reforms at the first sign of rebounding oil prices, documented by CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman. Speaking at a book event on September 7, Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, said he was skeptical this new effort would go very far either. Experts like Brookings’s Bruce Riedel have noted that Prince Mohammed bin Salman is motivated and passionate about the reform program, but that the program also hasn’t faced any major hurdles yet.

 

Lebanon’s Sunni Dynasty Challenged by Collapsing Business

Lebanon has been deadlocked over the selection of a new head of state for more than two years now, but the absence of a president is not the absence of politics. The country’s notoriously fractious political order is currently being shaken by a power shift within its Sunni bloc. For decades, the unofficial political leaders of the Lebanese Sunni community have been the Hariris; Rafiq Hariri was assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005 after completing a term as prime minister, and since his death, his son, Saad, has filled the role, serving as prime minister from 2009 to 2011 and leading the Future Movement political party. The Hariri family’s wealth has come largely from the success of its construction company, through which the Saudi government has funneled patronage to its political party of choice in Lebanon. But that may be coming to an end. The Saudi government now owes the Hariri’s company, Saudi Oger, $8 billion for construction projects, and the Saudis have dropped out of talks with the company. “It is unclear why Riyadh might have ended the talks aimed at saving a company whose collapse would send shockwaves through the Saudi banking system and wider economy,” Reuters reports. Oger is now trying to sell half its stake in the operation of the airport in Medina, Saudi Arabia, according to Bloomberg, and likely faces severe debt restructuring to prevent its complete collapse.

The business troubles with Oger are affecting Hariri’s political influence in Lebanon, contributing to layoffs within Hariri’s party. "We can't deny the existence of a financial crisis, which is a reflection of another one that has nothing to do with the organization. It has an indirect link to the crisis of Saudi Oger," a Future Movement official told Reuters. The news has prompted rumors about how Hariri will respond: at least one commentator has predicted his imminent retirement from politics, while Naharnet reported that he plans to try to resolve the country’s stalemated debate on a presidential nominee. Ashraf Rifi, a fellow Sunni who has previously served as the head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and Minister of Justice, issued a broadside against Hariri in an interview last week, saying that he’s “finished” and that Lebanese Sunnis are “awaiting a new Hariri.” Rifi also boasted about his own ties to Saudi Arabia and his growing political influence in an apparent bid to challenge Hariri. Part of their rivalry stems from differing policies regarding Syria: Hariri has taken a compromise position, supporting Suleiman Frangieh, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for president. Rifi has taken a more hardline stance and resigned from the Justice Ministry earlier this year after complaining that the cabinet was controlled by Hezbollah.