Middle East Ticker

With New Ceasefire, Assad Regime Looks to Israel-Syria Border

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 10, 2018, 10:00 AM

New Ceasefire Reached between Rebels and Regime in Southwest Syria

Rebel forces reached a ceasefire agreement with the Assad regime in southwest Syria on Friday after a three-week regime offensive. Under the arrangement, rebel groups have agreed to hand over weapons and cede territory in Deraa province, including the provincial capital and a strategic border crossing on the Syria-Jordan border, in exchange for safe passage to rebel-held areas in Idlib province, farther north. Russia will manage the process of evacuating rebel forces from the area, and has initial plans for the withdrawal of 1,000 rebels by bus.

The offensive has displaced more than 320,000 Syrians from the area since it began in mid-June. People fled urban areas targeted by the Russian-backed air campaign toward the closed Israeli and Jordanian borders, despite limited access to humanitarian aid and harsh desert conditions. “Daytime temperatures are nearing a hundred degrees,” Dexter Filkins wrote for the New Yorker. “Women on the run are giving birth; children are dying not just from dehydration brought on by diarrhea but from scorpion bites.” At least 28,000 people have returned to areas under the new ceasefire agreement since it was reached on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP, but they are wary about their safety in regime-administered territory.

With regime forces now besieging rebel-held districts of Deraa awaiting the Russian-managed evacuation, fighting is expected to shift toward Quneitra and the Israeli border, where the Islamic State retains a presence. Israeli officials are concerned that the offensive will press into the demilitarized buffer zone established in 1974, especially given the presence of Hezbollah troops operating in the area with the Assad regime. On Friday, Israeli jets bombed a Syrian military position that had shelled the buffer zone and issued a statement that it would enforce the 1974 lines. Though concerned about the area along the border, Israeli officials signaled that they are comfortable with the regime’s control of Deraa and one military official even suggested to the Financial Times that it could present an opportunity to reach an agreement on withdrawing Iranian and Hezbollah forces from southwest Syria.

That will likely be a subject of discussion when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week. On Sunday, Syrian state media reported that Israeli jets had once again attacked the T4 airbase in Homs province; the regime claimed that forces at the site had been able to intercept the Israeli strike, though there is no evidence to support this. It is the third time Israel has targeted the airbase, where Iran has positioned drones and command-and-control equipment. The latest strike was “a strategic signal” ahead of the Netanyahu-Putin summit, Amos Harel writes for Haaretz. Russia has suggested it will keep Iranian forces away from the Israeli border, but Israeli officials are concerned about Iran’s longer-range weapons and Russia’s commitment to maintain a buffer. The strike on Sunday, then, was a warning that if Russia does not hold Iranian forces back, Israel might.

 

Trump Administration Turns to Gaza with Peace Plan on Indefinite Hold

After months of preparation, the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is on indefinite hold. In the meantime, the Washington Post reports that the United States will work with Israel and the Gulf states to offer an aid package to Gaza in an effort to engage Hamas, tamp down violence along the Gaza-Israel border, and pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate. But it is unclear if even this “Gaza first” phase can succeed, and plans might never progress to the broader proposal the Trump administration has reportedly been developing.

This comes despite months of quiet diplomacy. Some form of the plan has been in development since late last year, when the New York Times reported that Jared Kushner, head negotiator Jason Greenblatt, Amb. David Friedman, and Dina Powell were consulting policy experts about potential options. The administration’s proposal was expected “early next year,” the Times was told last November. At the Saban Forum at Brookings in December, Kushner suggested a plan was taking shape in discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials. “We know what’s in the plan... The Palestinians know what discussions we’ve had with them. The Israelis know what discussions we’ve had with them,” he said.

But leaks about the proposal from around the same time sound like it was unworkable from the start. Palestinian officials told the Times that the drafts they had seen contained none of the concessions they had requested; Israel would control “the vast majority” of its settlements in the West Bank and the deal would preclude a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. As the Palestinian leadership balked at the terms, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly tried to strongarm Abbas into accepting the proposal. Then, in December, Trump announced the United States would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was the last straw in already strained U.S.-Palestinian ties; Abbas broke off direct communication afterward and talks have not recovered since.

The Trump administration’s turn to Gaza is a way to do something productive that bypasses Abbas, but administration officials also hope it will draw him back to the table. In recent public diplomacy, Kushner and Greenblatt have left the door open to Abbas returning to discussions—but the Palestinian leadership has not been receptive and, for good reason, still doubts the Trump administration’s credibility as an interlocutor. For now, the proposal is not just on hold; the Arab states are reportedly urging the Trump administration to bury it rather than publicize an arrangement that could inflame political tensions.

The Times reports that the near-term plans for Gaza could include “development projects to provide energy, water and health-care facilities,” with the Gulf states providing funding and acting as an intermediary with Hamas. But for the deal to proceed, Hamas would first have to accept a truce and a prisoner exchange with Israel—which Israeli officials say Hamas may still reject.  

 

Erdogan Inaugurated with New Powers, Shakes Up Cabinet

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sworn in yesterday for a new term in office, officially assuming the expanded executive powers he secured with a constitutional referendum last year and snap elections last month. The ceremony was attended by leaders of several notable illiberal countries, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (who recently won a new term in a fraudulent election), Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes), and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (who, like Erdogan, has consolidated power and limited the role of the opposition); no prominent politicians from any of the Western democracies were in attendance.

The revised Turkish government eliminates the office of prime minister—a point of pride for the last man to hold the office, Erdogan loyalist Binali Yildirim. It also grants the president free rein to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers and other civil servants, a power Erdogan wasted no time to exercise. Only three cabinet ministers kept their posts in the shake up—Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, as well as the ministers of justice and the interior.

The biggest move was the appointment of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as the new finance minister. Albayrak was previously the energy minister and some experts believe that Erdogan is grooming him to be his political heir. But moving him to the finance ministry is a risky move: Turkey is facing an economic crisis and its currency, the lira, has been declining for months. In fact, part of the reason for calling early elections was to preempt a potential economic downturn that could have undermined support for Erdogan as the incumbent candidate. Albayrak has a business and financial background—he received an MBA in financial management from Pace University in New York—but is not the kind of experienced, steady hand that would reassure markets. During the campaign, he suggested that the wobbly value of the lira was the result of a foreign conspiracy, in stark contrast to his predecessor, who the Financial Times described as a “rare [voice] of economic orthodoxy who enjoyed good relations with foreign investors” and who was “able to smooth over concerns on Mr Erdogan’s own less conventional views.” After news of Albayrak’s appointment broke, the lira declined another 3.8 percent. “This is absolutely not what we hoped for,” an economist at a Dutch bank told the Financial Times. “Markets were awaiting the cabinet appointed and the signal is clear: it is not market-friendly, but rather Erdogan-friendly.”

During the campaign, Erdogan called for greater government intervention in the economy and lower interest rates. Albayrak will be responsible for implementing those policies, but they might not stave off a crisis. Instead, they might accelerate one.