Turkey’s damage-control campaign in Idlib | Weekly Briefing

In this week's briefing, MEI experts Robert S. Ford, Randa Slim, Gerald Feierstein, and Marvin G. Weinbaum provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including Turkey's attempts to prevent a major escalation in Syria's Idlib province, ongoing political turmoil in Iraq, the implications of the Trump administration's decision to cut off U.S. aid to UNRWA, and Sec. Pompeo's upcoming trip to Pakistan.

Turkey’s damage-control campaign in Idlib
Robert S. Ford, Senior Fellow

The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet on Friday, Sept. 7, in Tehran to discuss agreed-upon paths forward in the Syrian war. The Turkish government hopes to forestall a massive Syrian government assault on the crowded opposition-held province of Idlib. Ankara is trying to convince Moscow to restrain such an assault while Turkey’s allies among the armed groups in Idlib work to reduce large al-Qaeda–linked groups in Idlib.

However, on Sept. 3 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that the Syrian government has the right to “liquidate” the terrorists in Idlib, adding to his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem’s Aug. 30 pledge that the Syrian army “would go all the way in Idlib.” Also on Sept. 3, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pledged support for the Syrian government’s effort to reassert control over Idlib. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thus faces substantial pressure from both Iran and Russia either for Turkish allies to attack extremists in Idlib immediately or to order the small Turkish observer force in Idlib to stand aside while Syrian forces backed by Iran and Russia launch attacks.

Sharp disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey about Syria strategy have left the country isolated. An American diplomatic team is due in Ankara this week, and Washington is urging restraint in Idlib to the Russians. However, Washington’s strongest warning was about the potential use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Unless Erdogan has a strong case in Tehran on Friday about progress against the more extreme armed opposition elements in Idlib, the Syrian government backed by Russia and Iran is likely to begin an operation in Idlib by early next week.

Iraq’s political free-for-all
Randa Slim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues

As predicted, the first session of the 2018-2022 Iraqi Council of Representatives on Sept. 3 did not elect a new speaker of the parliament. The election has been postponed until mid-September to provide more time for ongoing government formation negotiations. These are currently mired in a debate over which of the two leading coalitions--headed by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the one hand, and Badr militia leader Hadi al-Ameri and Nouri al-Maliki on the other--can form the largest parliamentary bloc.

At the heart of this debate are two questions: Are electoral list leaders able to join a parliamentary bloc on behalf of all list members without the latter’s consent? And can individual list members sign with competing coalitions? There have been defections from the Abadi-led Victory list and others, resulting in some members of parliament being double-counted. As in 2010, Iraq’s Federal Court is being called upon to address these questions, and in doing so, intervene in what is essentially a political dispute.

Meanwhile, a joint delegation of the two leading Kurdish parties the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is in Baghdad to present their demands for joining the next government. If the two parties remain united, their seats will be enough to tip the balance in favor of the coalition they join.

Amid this political wrangling, the question of who controls the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) is back at the forefront. Following PMF chairman Faleh al-Fayyad’s split with Victory list, Prime Minister Abadi dismissed his ally from his post. This move follows a previous decision by Abadi calling on Fayyad to dismiss Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a strong Iranian ally in Iraq and PMF vice-chairman. Some interpreted Abadi’s move as currying favor with Iraqi parties, both Shi‘i and Sunni, that are opposed to a large Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Others see this move as the first firing shot in what is shaping up to be an intra-Iraqi dispute over who controls the PMF and what their future will look like in relation to the Iraqi security forces.

Trump’s UNRWA aid cutoff draws swift rebuke
Gerald Feierstein, Director of Government Relations, Policy and Programs

The Trump administration’s announcement that it would cut all funding to UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, drew quick rebuttals from around the world, including from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The State Department notice alleged that UNRWA is “an irredeemably flawed operation” that has failed “to mobilize adequate and appropriate burden sharing.” In response, Guterres credited the aid agency with “rapid, innovative and tireless efforts to overcome the unexpected financial crisis,” including “extraordinary internal management measures to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.”

The official U.S. announcement made no specific reference to the refugees as a final status issue. But the statement did assert that the agency’s difficulties are “tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.” Elsewhere, administration spokespersons have made the factually incorrect argument that UNRWA’s definition of “refugee” is at variance with definitions applied to other, similar refugee populations. In fact, by U.N. refugee agency UNHCR’s definition, the Palestinians are in a protracted refugee situation, one in which 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five consecutive years or more in a given asylum country. UNHCR registers children born to refugees in protracted refugee situations as refugees until a durable solution is found.

Through its assertions, however, the administration has reinforced suspicions that the real motivation for its criticism of UNRWA is its desire to reduce the number of internationally recognized Palestinian refugees by as much as 90 percent and eliminate the refugees’ right of return as a final status issue in the anticipated White House peace plan.

Pompeo in Pakistan
Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet tomorrow with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad. The purpose of the Pompeo visit is “to make very clear what we have to do… in meeting our common foe, the terrorists.” It is hoped the meeting can smooth over the recent controversy surrounding reports that the terrorism issue had been discussed during a recent phone conversation between Pompeo and Khan. Pakistan has adamantly denied it--undoubtedly for domestic political reasons--despite U.S. officials’ claim to have a recording of the phone call. More broadly, Pompeo and defense officials in Washington hope to get a good sense of the direction that Khan, known for his deep suspicion and harsh criticisms of U.S. policy, now intends to take in Pakistan.

The portents for U.S.-Pakistan relations suggest a rocky path ahead. On the eve of the trip, the Pentagon announced the cancelation of $300 million in suspended counterinsurgency assistance for Pakistan, alleging that Pakistan had failed to take more decisive action against militants. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s paramilitary personnel have been accused by the Afghan government of having actively participated in the Taliban’s recent assault on the strategically important city of Ghazni. The upcoming U.S. visit also follows on the heels of highly friendly meetings by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with both Khan and Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. It is pointedly observed that Zarif was the first foreign minister with whom the leaders of the newly installed government decided to meet.