Middle East Ticker

Middle East Ticker: Turkey Cracks Down at Home and Abroad, Iraq Caught in Middle of Syria’s Proxy War, and Saudi Arabia Sends Mixed Messages in Yemen

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, May 2, 2017, 10:41 AM

Gloves Come Off in Turkey After Erdogan’s Constitutional Referendum

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was further empowered by the passage of a constitutional referendum last month that granted him sweeping powers—and now he’s acting like it. Since the passage of the referendum—which has since been upheld by the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court—Turkey has cracked down again on people suspected of having ties to the Gulenist Movement, which the government has accused of plotting the attempted coup in July 2016. Last week, Turkish authorities carried out raids across the country to arrest more than 1,000 people and said they were looking for 2,200 others. The Turkish government also suspended more than 9,000 police officers for alleged ties to Gulen.

Erdogan is asserting himself in Syria as well. Last Tuesday, Turkish planes bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria, touching off several days of cross-border clashes. Turkish officials said they were targeting groups with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S. and Turkey have both designated as a terrorist organization. U.S. forces are again running interference between the two nominal allies in the counter-Islamic State coalition; over the weekend, U.S. troops, prominently displaying large American flags on their vehicles, patrolled the border with Kurdish forces in an effort to deter the Turkish military from targeting them. The U.S. military had previously used a visible presence to break up clashes between Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in the area around Manbij in March. U.S. forces were also photographed protecting a senior leader of the PKK, Sahin Cilo, for whom the Turkish government has offered a $1.1-million bounty.

U.S. forces are again running interference between the two nominal allies in the counter-Islamic State coalition...

Erdogan has said that he plans on trying to convince President Donald Trump to reduce U.S. support for the Kurds when he meets with the president later this month and has threatened to target Kurdish forces again. But the U.S. military sees the largely-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition as an indispensable part of the upcoming offensive against the Islamic State in Raqqa. SDF fighters are advancing in Tabqa, to the west of the Islamic State stronghold, but more clashes with Turkish forces would distract from the push deeper into eastern Syria. "We are seriously concerned to see U.S. flags in a convoy that has YPG [a Kurdish militia] rags on it. We will mention these issues to President [Donald Trump] during our visit to the United States on May 16," he said on Sunday.

 

Iraq’s Qatari Hostage Crisis Is Over But Can Another Be Prevented?

In December 2015, armed men abducted 26 members of a Qatari hunting party in southern Iraq. Among those abducted were members of the Qatari royal family, the al-Thanis, and suspicion fell on Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in the area. The incident made the international news wires briefly at the time and then largely disappeared from the headlines. But while the story went quiet, the Qatari hostages became pawns in an elaborate international negotiation that is only now coming to light.

“It is clear now that from the very start, the hunters’ abduction was linked to the civil war in Syria,” the New York Times reports. The hunting party, it is now known, was being held by the Iraqi branch of Kata’eb Hezbollah. Over the past 16 months, Iran has used the hostages, held by one of their Iraqi proxies, to pressure Qatar to compel their rebel proxies in Syria to accept a ceasefire agreement. In addition to convincing their rebel partners in Syria to allow the Assad regime humanitarian access to besieged towns, Qatar is believed to have paid a hefty ransom to Kata’eb Hezbollah. The arrangement also involved payouts to extremist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), Hassan Hassan wrote in The National. Last month, when the Assad regime began implementing an agreement to facilitate the relocation of groups under rebel siege in Fuaa and Kefraya and regime siege in Madaya and Zabadani, Qatar had a plane standing by on the tarmac in Baghdad awaiting the release of the hunting party. The 26 captives were handed over to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, and then to the Qatari embassy.

The Iraqi government has appeared frustrated with the way the hostage negotiations played out. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the abductions “an insult to Iraq and its people” and said that the Qataris had traveled to Iraq legally and should have been protected by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. He also criticized the payouts to militias. Some analysts have suggested that this is evidence that Abadi is chafing at Iran’s assertiveness in Iraq, but Qatari officials have suggested that this is disingenuous and say that Abadi was kept apprised of the negotiations, including the delivery of a large ransom payment.

Syria has created a dense network of proxies tied back to the regional powers of the Middle East. These transnational webs create liabilities, and what happens in Syria doesn’t necessarily stay in Syria.

Syria has created a dense network of proxies tied back to the regional powers of the Middle East. These transnational webs create liabilities, and what happens in Syria doesn’t necessarily stay in Syria. The Qatari hostage crisis in Iraq is over, but it demonstrates a willingness from Iran to work through its proxies to obtain leverage in other battlefields—even at the expense of the sovereignty of one of its partners, Iraq. And if the Iraqi government couldn’t prevent the abduction from happening in the first place, and couldn’t secure the Qataris’ release in their 16-month captivity, it seems unlikely that Baghdad could stop something similar from happening again. As Hassan Hassan concludes, “there is no question that the deal denigrates the government in Baghdad… The deal empowers extremists from both Sunni and Shia sides, fuels conflicts and strengthens Iran’s hands in the region.”

 

Is Saudi Arabia Really Going into Hodeida?

After weeks of discussion about a pending offensive by the Saudi-led intervention force in Yemen to retake the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida, including hints about an escalated U.S. role, the plan is now in doubt. Last Friday, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, now at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor that he has been told the Saudis are looking for a political offramp that could restart negotiations with the Houthis and ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resolve the civil war more broadly. They “are thinking more creatively about how do we achieve this objective without having to resort to military [solutions] and breaking a lot of crockery,” he said. The ousted Yemeni government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi reportedly proposed that the Houthis cede control of the port of Hodeida to the United Nations at a donor conference last week as an alternative to a military offensive.

But on Monday, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said that he is under the impression that an attack is still being prepared, reiterating his concerns about the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe. Those concerns have also been raised by rights groups and experts who have argued that the fighting could restrict access to aid and cause a famine. Other experts have also warned about the opportunity the prolonged civil war has given to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has fought alongside U.S.- and Saudi-backed pro-government fighters against the Houthis—a fact confirmed by the leader of AQAP, Qasim al-Rimi, in a message released over the weekend.

The Saudi-led intervention force and the Yemeni government are facing strains within their coalition that may be prompting the new ambiguity about the Hodeida offensive. Hadi recently fired two prominent southern officials with close ties to the United Arab Emirates, including the governor of Aden, prompting street fights last week. The move appeared to be an effort to rein in southern secessionists, but now seems to have inflamed tensions at the local and regional level instead.