Big powers move to consolidate positions in Syria; Iraqi finance minister: Syrian Kurds have no choice except to deal with Assad; Can Imran Khan deliver an Iran-Saudi rapprochement (Take II)?
Welcome to The Takeaway, where we break down trends in the Middle East that you shouldn’t be missing.
Highlights: The endgame in Syria: Putin and Trump still posturing; Iraqi official says Syrian Kurds had no choice except to deal with Assad; Khan’s shuttle diplomacy (Take II); Halloween treat: Unopened mummy coffins
Three quick takes:
1. Big powers move to consolidate positions in Syria
Recent events make it clear that the two major powers in Syria — the United States and Russia — see a final resolution of the conflict coming into focus.
For President Donald Trump, getting US troops out, the success of the US-brokered cease-fire and securing Syrian oil all signal a ‘major breakthrough,’ thanks to US diplomacy.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, there’s the MoU with Turkey, and now a chance to play peacemaker between Turkey and Syria — which could move the conflict closer to his own version of the endgame in Syria.
So here’s what we’re watching.
Putin’s peacemaking (4 Points):
Putin briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday about his meetings and agreement in Sochi with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emphasizing the priority of “Syria’s territorial integrity” and “joint efforts to reach a settlement by political means, including through the work of the Constitutional Committee.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovsaid today that Russia will “act together with the Syrian government … based on the provisions of the Syrian-Turkish Adana agreement, which was signed in 1998 for the express purpose of ensuring security on the joint Syrian-Turkish border.”
Russian military police are working with Turkish forces, and the Syrian military has established border observation posts.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the Russia-Turkey agreement as “positive,” and again advocated the Adana agreement as a “proper basis for allaying the concerns of Turkey and Syria, and will not spare any effort to help create dialogue and understanding between Ankara and Damascus.”
Trump seems to view the Putin-Erdogan agreement as complementary to the ceasefire, saying, “The nations in the region must ultimately take on the responsibility of helping Turkey and Syria police their border. We want other nations to get involved.”
Trump’s deployment of troops to secure Syrian oil means the United States maintains a key lever of influence, as Jack Detsch reports. Consider this decision a big win for those in the administration who want to keep the heat on Assad and Iran. But under what congressional authority such troops will operate (besides fighting the Islamic State, or IS), and under what authority the United States can claim control of Syrian oil, remain open questions.
Trump probably doesn’t see much of an electoral hit resulting from his approach to Syria. A USA Today/IPSOS poll Oct. 18 revealed that only 37% of Americans considered the US withdrawal of troops from Syria as wrong, while 27% said it was right, and another 36% were unsure.
Our take: A Syria-Turkey deal could eventually allow the return of refugees to all of Syria (not just a safe zone), and probably lead to an all-out Russian-backed Syrian offensive on Idlib, which houses close to 30,000 terrorists and armed gangs. Trump’s decision to control Syria’s oil, without local partners, and without congressional authority, could spark a new round of questions about the US mission. And finally, will Trump host Erdogan in Washington next month? He had some nice words today for his Turkish counterpart. And while Trump reportedly plans to invite Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Commander Mazlum Kobane to Washington, and despite the congressional and other recriminations of Trump for ‘betraying’ the SDF, it nonetheless looks like the Kurdish question is now in the hands of the Syrians.
Al-Monitor President Andrew Parasiliti sits down with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Fuad Hussein and Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Fareed Yasseen, Oct. 21, 2019.
2. Iraqi finance minister: Syrian Kurds have no choice except to deal with Assad
A key US ally in the Middle East considers an agreement between Syrian Kurdish parties and the Syrian government a step in the right direction, while conveying his government’s deep concerns about a potential “rebirth” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
No choice: Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Fuad Hussein said “it will be good” if the Kurdish parties in Syria “will solve their problem within the Syrian government.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces agreed to an arrangement with the Syrian government Oct. 14, in response to the Turkish invasion, after the Trump administration announced its troops would withdraw from northeast Syria.
“What is their choice?” Hussein asked.
US troops in Iraq can only fight IS: Hussein, who was both a presidential candidate and a former chief of staff to Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani, told a select group of reporters in Washington DC that US troops in Iraq, which Baghdad emphasized do not have permission to stay permanently, can only be used to fight IS.
“Nobody is allowed to wage ... an attack against any citizen inside Iraq or from Iraq to attack another country, except in the fight against ISIS.”
Refugees and reconstruction:
Iraq has received 1,000 refugees per day, 7,100 so far since the invasion began, according to the UNHCR, in addition to the 228,000 displaced Syrians already in Iraq, putting a heavy burden on both the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional governments.
Hussein estimates that it will take $88 billion to rebuild the towns destroyed by IS, and that $150 billion is needed overall for investment in Iraq.
Our take: Iraq is gearing up for renewed protests among disenchanted youths in Baghdad and southern cities Oct. 25, when the Arbaeen religious holiday ends, as well as an increased threat of an IS resurgence in the north. Separate UN and Iraqi reports on the excessive use of force against protesters has only served to heighten the tense mood.
Read more: See our Iraq Pulse coverage of the protests and developments in Iraq.
3. Can Imran Khan deliver an Iran-Saudi rapprochement (Take II)?
We continue to track the efforts of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to do the seemingly impossible: Facilitate talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Khan was in both Tehran and Riyadh earlier this month on his shuttle diplomacy, which has the blessings of both Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Sabena Siddiqui describes three reasons why Khan’s effort may have a pulse:
Saudi Arabia and Iran are both signaling a willingness to consider a mechanism for diplomacy to de-escalate tensions.
The chances of an imminent war in the Gulf, for now, are greatly reduced.
An alternative take: Hemad Kermani, writing from Iran, is more pessimistic. “While there could be some progress in Yemen in the near future, the hostile relations between Iran and the United States suggest no promising breakthrough at the moment,” he writes. “This, along with Khan’s intimate ties with Saudi Arabia and the long history of Pakistan’s failures when it meddles in Tehran-Riyadh affairs, has dealt Khan a very tough hand of cards to play. At best, expect nothing more than armed silence between two rivals following the Pakistani premier's initiative.”
One other cool thing:
Mummy coffins ‘greatest discovery of century’
“Egypt's Minister of Antiquities Khaled el-Anani called the discovery of 30 finely painted wooden coffins in the southern city of Luxor ‘the greatest discovery in the nation’s modern history.’ The 30 coffins, which contained the mummies of men, women and children, were discovered in the area of Al-Assassif, a necropolis on the Nile's west bank. Unlike most of the coffins discovered in the last few years, they were unopened.” Read the article by Menna Farouk here.
What we're reading ... and why:
IMF report on Lebanon helps explain protests
The economic underpinnings of the protests in Lebanon are explained in an International Monetary Fund report this month. Lebanon’s deficit and debt are approaching 155% of the gross domestic product, among the worst ratios in the world. It has a population of approximately 6.8 million, with an estimated 42% under 24 years of age. Economic growth is abysmal: a projected 0.2% rate in 2019, following just 0.3% last year. You can read all about it here.
In case you missed it:
Check out the fantastic reporting and photos by Ben Hubbard and Ivor Prickett from IS prison cells in Syria.
“The prisoners cover the floor like a carpet of human despair,” writes Hubbard. “Many are missing eyes or limbs, some are bone-thin from sickness, and most wear orange jumpsuits similar to what the Islamic State, the terrorist group they once belonged to, dressed its own captives in before it killed them … Upstairs, jammed into two cells with little sunlight, are more than 150 children — aged roughly 9 to 14 — from a range of countries.”
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