Middle East Ticker

New Tensions on Temple Mount, CIA Ends Aid to Syrian Rebels, Gulf Crisis Affecting Regional Foreign Policy, and Trump Looking for Excuse to Leave Iran Deal

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 25, 2017, 10:30 AM

Attack on Israeli Police on Temple Mount Launches Protests and Clashes

Israel and the Palestinians are lurching through another round of violence. Though it’s always controversial to point to a particular incident instigating a crisis in Israel and the Palestinian territories, a reasonable place to start this time is the terrorist attack on July 14, in which three Arab Israeli citizens assassinated two Israeli police officers before fleeing into the al-Aqsa mosque complex. The three assailants were chased by security forces and killed in a firefight in the courtyard outside the mosque. The attack is the latest in a long string of small-scale attacks, often carried out with knives or amateur-made firearms, targeting Israeli citizens and police; the Old City, which surrounds the Temple Mount, has been a frequent site of violence. What made the July 14 attack different, though, was the assailants’ flight to the al-Aqsa mosque and Israel’s response. Israeli authorities immediately closed off access to the mosque that Friday; it is only the third time in 50 years that Israel has refused to grant Muslim worshippers access for Friday prayers, and when the mosque was reopened, Israeli authorities had set up metal detectors at the entrance.

The installation of metal detectors prompted a week of public demonstrations building to large protests last Friday. Thousands of Muslim worshippers gathered to pray in the streets outside the mosque rather than pass through the metal detectors. At least three Palestinians were killed in clashes with security forces in Jerusalem throughout the day. The tensions are also inciting new terrorist attacks and anti-Semitic attacks in Israel and abroad: A Palestinian man stabbed three Israelis to death on Friday in Halamish, a settlement near Ramallah, a Jordanian man tried to stab a security guard with a screwdriver outside the Israeli embassy in Amman, and a mob attacked the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey.

The security precautions may be prudent, but they reinforce Palestinians’ worst fears that their tenuous access to Jerusalem may be slipping away. “Israelis may view the metal detectors as careful safety measures meant to prevent terrorism, but for Palestinians the narrow silver-colored gates that are manned by hostile Border Policemen are yet another bloody Israeli checkpoint on their way to their holiest site. It is a last-minute reminder of the occupation which they hate before they enter the one place in Palestine in which they rule,” Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev wrote last week. Daniel Nerenberg, writing for Monkey Cage Blog, notes that many Palestinians see the metal detectors as the latest policy in a broader trend of marginalization of Palestinians and Israel’s Arab minority, of a kind with discriminatory housing policies and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. And with Israel’s religious right ascendant—Nerenberg notes the rise of Temple Movement politicians and groups, one of which openly calls for removing “pagan shrines” like the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque from the Mount—Palestinians worry more aggressive measures may be coming.

The security precautions may be prudent, but they reinforce Palestinians’ worst fears that their tenuous access to Jerusalem may be slipping away.

It also comes amid a moment of tense competition among Palestinian political factions. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to fend off a threat to his authority from a new alliance between Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, who was Abbas’ enforcer in Gaza until Hamas seized control in 2007. Abbas is trying to take a hard line on multiple political fronts, both against his Palestinian rivals and Israel; last Friday, as protests grew violent in Jerusalem, Abbas announced he would break off communication with the Israeli government until the metal detectors has been removed.

Officials are trying to avert any further escalation of the crisis. Late last night, the Israeli cabinet ordered the metal detectors removed; they’ll be replaced with “advanced technologies and other means,” possibly surveillance cameras linked to facial-recognition software, an idea that was floated on Monday. Today will be a test of whether the decision can put a lid back on the crisis. The Trump administration’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt, arrived yesterday for meetings in Israel and Jordan. “If reason doesn’t prevail now, in the next few hours or days, it will be weeks or months before it returns,” Shalev warns.

U.S. Ends Clandestine Assistance to Syrian Rebels

The United States is winding down its clandestine support for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. According to a report in the Washington Post, President Trump directed CIA Director Mike Pompeo to end the program in a meeting at the White House last month, before his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin or agreeing to a Russian-backed ceasefire in portions of western Syria. In an unusual acknowledgement of the secret program, Trump confirmed that he had ended the program in a tweet on Monday night while impugning the Post’s report. “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad,” he wrote.

After at least four years, some key facts about the program are still not publicly known. A recurring criticism of the program was that it began too late to be effective, but reporting varies about when it actually started: The Post states that it began in 2013, but the New York Times noted that the CIA was working with Turkey and the Gulf states to guide weapons to rebels in June 2012 and McClatchy first reported finding rebels trained by the CIA that December.

But much about the nominally secret program (authorized under Title 50, as opposed to the other, publicly disastrous train-and-assist program authorized under Title 10) is publicly known. The CIA’s assistance often made headlines. There was the internal CIA report leaked to the New York Times in 2014 that warned “that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.” The funding and distribution of weapons, shepherded by the CIA and funded by the Gulf states, was extensively documented—from weapons depots in Croatia and Libya to moderate rebels on the Turkish border to jihadists in Syria. PBS’ Frontline spoke to rebels who were flown by the United States to Qatar to receive training in guerilla tactics. The support contributed to a string of rebel battlefield victories in early 2015 that threatened to topple the Assad regime. U.S. officials began backpedaling and warned of the potential for a “catastrophic success” that could destroy what remained of Syrian government infrastructure. “None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition, and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus,” CIA Director John Brennan said in March 2015.

The minimalism of the train-and-assist program was one of its defining characteristics. It always felt like a token concession by President Obama to advocates for intervention within his administration and in partner states...

That catastrophic success never came: Russia deepened its intervention in Syria that September, deploying combat troops and aircraft to help the regime push back the rebel advance. In his post-mortem on the CIA program, David Ignatius concludes that “the program was too late, too limited and too dependent on dubious partners, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” and the rebels too fractured to be effective. He’s hardly the only critic to argue that the United States did not act quickly and forcefully enough. I’m not so sure; a more aggressive U.S. policy would likely have only hastened Russia’s escalation, which raised the stakes far beyond what the United States was willing to invest in Syria. The minimalism of the train-and-assist program was one of its defining characteristics. It always felt like a token concession by President Obama to advocates for intervention within his administration and in partner states; it was just enough to be doing something, but was never part of a broader strategy to advance U.S. interests in Syria. “By the time Trump took office, the program no longer made sense, if it ever did,” The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller writes. “The United States couldn’t just keep fueling a war that had no definable end and feeding a rebel host body from which al-Qaeda could suck blood.” As CNAS’ Ilan Goldenberg told the Post, ending it now is “probably a nod to reality.”

The effects of the decision could have larger ramifications than the program itself. U.S. partners in the program, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and others, may take up the slack left by the United States, and they have fewer qualms about arming extremists or providing more advanced weaponry. U.S. relations are already strained with these partners: Turkey has been playing the United States and Russia off one another and just last week disclosed the locations of secret U.S. bases in Syria, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar are embroiled in a public feud that the U.S. State Department is scrambling to resolve. All, with maybe the exception of Qatar, have demonstrated that they feel empowered to act far more independently of the Trump administration’s policies than they did with his predecessor. As U.S. influence and involvement in Syria declines, new challenges to the United States’ more considerable intervention in the east of the country may also emerge. “We're a bad day away from the Russians saying, 'Why are you still in Syria, U.S.?,'" Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command said at the Aspen Security Forum last week. "If the Russians play that card, we could want to stay and have no ability to do it.”

Qatar Crisis Bleeds into Regional Foreign Policy

In the first positive sign of a potential resolution to the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the other Gulf states, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, who even just a couple weeks ago was warning of a “long estrangement” from Qatar, said he welcomes the progress Qatar is making on counterterrorism issues. Gargash’s comments came in response to reports that Qatar would amend its anti-terror laws, though he noted that Doha still has a long way to go to address the Gulf states’ concerns. “The pressure of the crisis has started to bear fruits, and the wiser course would be changing the whole orientation,” he wrote on Twitter.

Other than Gargash’s tweets, the feud remains deadlocked despite a new round of shuttle diplomacy, this time led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called on the Gulf states to lift their embargo on Qatar in a show of goodwill and in recognition of Qatar’s efforts to respond to concerns about terrorist financing, but the Gulf states have not taken action.

With the crisis now two months old, it has begun to have visible effects on foreign policies in the region. Oman is reportedly showing particular concern about the way Qatar has been targeted by the Gulf states. Like Doha, Oman has set itself apart from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s mainstream by cultivating stronger ties with Tehran. “The Saudis have always tried to coerce Oman to take [Riyadh’s] lead, to submit to its position,” Sigurd Neubauer, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, recently told Al-Monitor. “It has a chilling effect in Oman.” Rather than driving a wedge between Qatar and Iran, though, the crisis has facilitated an apparent expansion of the two countries’ cooperation on exploiting a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf.

The crisis is also affecting Yemen’s already deeply fractured politics.

While that relationship grows, others are faltering. Saudi Arabia and its partners have made inroads in weakening Qatar’s ties to Hamas; the combination of the Gulf crisis and Hamas’ new alliance with Mohammed Dahlan has provided an opening for Egypt to deal directly with political actors in Gaza, leading to the recent reopening the Rafah border crossing. The crisis is also affecting Yemen’s already deeply fractured politics. Adam Baron, writing for the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, notes that divided loyalties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have split the country’s Islah party, which receives Saudi support but also has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. “In short,” he writes, “the crisis has exacerbated longstanding generational, regional, and ideological divides within the party, which themselves were exacerbated by the divergent political paths of the party’s two primary bases in exile, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.” The Gulf feud has also caused rifts on the other side of the conflict: The Houthis have expressed sympathy for Qatar, but their partners in Sanaa, the loyalists to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are openly siding with Saudi Arabia. “Yemen’s collapse into civil war has only increased its susceptibility to instability wrought by shifts in regional geopolitics,” Baron concludes.

Trump Administration Looking for Reasons to Ditch Iran Nuclear Deal

The U.S. State Department certified that Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last week, but other elements of the Trump administration may be laying the groundwork for breaking from the two-year-old agreement when it comes up for its next review in three months. Trump reportedly only reluctantly agreed to the recertification last week. After arguing with senior staff who advised him to accept the State Department’s decision, Trump has now tasked members of the White House staff with preparing a report “to lay the groundwork for decertification” independent of the State Department’s recurring 90-day review process, Foreign Policy reports.

The push for decertification is already in evidence in the Trump administration’s messaging and policy. Talking points circulated by the administration last week make no mention of Iran’s compliance with the deal, arguing instead that Iran is violating the spirit of the agreement. The announcement of the recertification was accompanied with new sanctions targeting Iran’s missile program, which is not subject to the deal. The move towards decertification will be welcome news to Iran hawks who opposed the JCPOA when it was reached in 2015 and have been pushing the United States to break the pact ever since. Earlier this month, Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, David Perdue, and Marco Rubio sent a letter to Trump and Tillerson encouraging them not to recertify the agreement; they were frustrated this time, but may not be in October.

Pulling the review out of Foggy Bottom to Trump’s political office suggests that they’re looking for pretext rather than accuracy...

The shift is deeply troubling. There’s a reason the State Department and Trump’s senior advisors concluded that recertification was the right course of action; it’s also the conclusion that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international organization tasked with officially monitoring the JCPOA, has reached time and time again. Pulling the review out of Foggy Bottom to Trump’s political office suggests that they’re looking for pretext rather than accuracy, and the result could look a lot like the White House’s misleading report on the GOP’s health care legislation, which has been presented as an alternative to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis.

Obama administration officials are warning that failure to recertify in October could be disastrous. In a lengthy thread on Twitter laying out how the Trump administration is already working to undermine the JCPOA, Georgetown professor Colin Kahl warns that the collapse of the deal could lead to a nuclear Iran that “would be more aggressive & crisis-prone, risking a regional nuclear war.” Andrew Exum, writing for The Atlantic, notes how successful the accord has been in halting Iran’s nuclear program and argues that progress shouldn’t be thrown away on account of Iran’s other problematic policies. “Few who work on North Korea think the Iran deal was a bad deal. Asia specialists would kill for the kind of deal we Middle East specialists spend so much time griping about,” he writes.

Perhaps the biggest hazard is that there may be no second chance if Trump unravels the agreement. The JCPOA worked because it was a product of international consensus; if the Trump administration bucks the official conclusion reached by the IAEA and even its own State Department, there will be no convincing the other P5+1 countries that made the agreement a success to join the United States in reinstating the sanctions that compelled Iran to negotiate in the first place. Iran will be free to pursue its nuclear development again, and there will be no international initiative to stop them this time. The United States will be on its own with a diminishing set of military options.