Israel and the Gulf States Are Becoming Closer. But It Won’t Make Biden’s Life Much Easier.

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/12/16/israel-emirati-rapprochement-biden-middle-east-problem-524851

Biden Wants to Leave the Middle East, But He’s in a Vicious Bombing Cycle in Iraq

“Joe Biden is starting to do what every administration talks about but never manages to really do: Get U.S. forces out of the Middle East. His administration has removed Patriot missiles from the region, curtailed B-52 shows of force against Iran, and is preparing to bring home U.S. aircraft carriers after decades of dangerous Gulf deployments. In addition, of course, Biden is ending what he himself called the “forever war” in Afghanistan.

But if the goal is to reduce military involvement in the Middle East, then it should be alarming that the Biden administration has bombed Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria more times in the last three months than the Trump administration did in all of 2020. If the current exchange rate continued, we would expect a total of nearly 50 attacks on U.S. bases by militias with ties to Tehran, a handful of U.S. deaths, and half a dozen U.S. retaliatory strikes by the end of the year. On Monday and Tuesday, the United States hit back for the second and third times since Biden took office, striking militia targets in Iraq and Syria in response to increased drone and rocket attacks on U.S. troops in those two countries.”

” The dilemma for the White House is that it sees maintaining a small, focused counter-terrorism mission in Iraq and Syria as a worthwhile alternative to a full withdrawal, which would benefit adversaries like the Islamic State and Iranian hardliners. But Iran-backed groups will not stop attacking those outposts. Now, it seems the administration is caught in a vicious cycle of using small, pinprick strikes in an effort to deter the militias while avoiding escalation, but these half-measures achieve neither intended outcome. The Biden team needs to end the tit-for-tat cycle by hitting back smarter, harder and less openly.”

“The Biden team has been periodically hitting back at a time and place of its choosing, wisely separating provocation from retaliation in time. But the strikes have not been inventive or bold enough to affect the calculations of the militia leaders, instead hitting targets that just don’t matter. The administration seems fixated on sending clear and unambiguous deterrent messages that are anything but clear and unambiguous to Iran and her militias. This is because U.S. strikes are deliberately limited in order to avoid escalation — but this means they are too weak to deter. Each U.S. strike has been calibrated to roughly mirror the prior militia strike in destructiveness, but when 11 of every 12 militia attacks go unanswered, the cost exchange is still heavily in the group’s favor.”

“to reduce the risk of escalation, do not announce U.S. involvement. The U.S. was criticized by Iraq’s government for the recent strike inside Iraq, yet Iran and the militias it backs in Iraq were not criticized for their rocket and drone strikes because they do not openly claim such attacks. Israel has, for years, not claimed many of its deterrent strikes, which has given its enemies some leeway to ignore, prevaricate over or delay retaliation. Although unclaimed strikes will raise valid concerns about oversight and transparency, the U.S. government has procedures not only for undertaking strikes using Title 50 intelligence community and covert action authorities, but also for informing Congress of these actions in closed session.”

“Iran must understand that there is a cost to giving advanced drones to their militia proxies. Send messages to Iran’s security establishment — separately from the nuclear talks happening in Vienna — that the U.S. will match Iranian covert action with its own.”

China is buying Muslim leaders’ silence on the Uyghurs

“As the world increasingly speaks out against China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the quietest voices continue to belong to the leaders of Muslim-majority countries.
Look no further than Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s interview this week with Axios’s Jonathan Swan. Swan asked why the premier, who often speaks out on Islamophobia in the West, has been noticeably silent on the human rights atrocities happening just across his country’s border.

Khan parroted China’s denial that it has placed roughly 2 million Uyghurs in internment camps and then evaded the issue over and over again. “This is not the case, according to them,” Khan said, adding that any disagreements between Pakistan and China are hashed out privately.

That’s a jarring statement. Instead of offering a pro forma “Yes, of course we’re concerned by this” before moving on, Khan chose instead to minimize the problem altogether.

Why would Khan do such a thing during a high-profile interview, with his self-enhanced image as a defender of Muslims on the line? The prime minister gave the game away later in the interview: “China has been one of the greatest friends to us in our most difficult times, when we were really struggling,” Khan told Swan. “When our economy was struggling, China came to our rescue.”

China has given Pakistan billions in loans to prop up its economy, allowing the country to improve transit systems and a failing electrical grid, among other things. China didn’t do that out of the goodness of its heart; it did so partly to make Pakistan dependent on China, thus strong-arming it into a closer bilateral relationship.

It’s a play China has run over and over through its “Belt and Road Initiative.” China aims to build a large land-and-sea trading network connecting much of Asia to Europe, Africa, and beyond. To do that, it makes investment and loan deals with nations on that “road” — like Pakistan — so that they form part of the network. The trade, in effect, is that China increases its power and influence while other countries get the economic assistance they need.”

“”In 2019, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were among 37 countries that signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council praising China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause” — with claims that China restored “safety and security” after facing “terrorism, separatism and extremism” in Xinjiang…

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited China in 2019, he declared that “China has the right to take anti‐terrorism and de‐extremism measures to safeguard national security.” And a March 2019 statement by the Saudi‐based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) praised China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens.”””

“In 2009 — as Chinese authorities cracked down on Uyghurs amid ethnic violence in Xinjiang, and long before there were credible reports of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and forced labor — the Turkish leader spoke out about what was happening.

“The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There’s no point in interpreting this otherwise,” Erdoğan said.

ut now his tune has changed. In January, Turkish police broke up a protest led by local Uyghurs outside China’s consulate in Istanbul, and the government stands accused of extraditing Uyghurs to China in exchange for Covid-19 vaccines.

Why such a shift? You guessed it: Money.

The Turkish economy was in a downturn well before the coronavirus pandemic, but China has come to the rescue. Erdoğan and his team have sought billions from China in recent years, and China became the largest importer of Turkish goods in 2020. Saying anything negative about the Chinese government — especially on the Uyghur issue — could sever the financial lifeline China provides.

That said, the pressure from the pro-Uyghur public in Turkey has forced a slight shift in the Erdoğan regime’s rhetoric in recent months. In March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his administration has brought up the plight of the Uyghurs in private discussions with Chinese officials.

Still, that falls far short of what the world should expect from Muslim leaders.”

“It is not a blockade”: US says Saudi Arabia isn’t to blame for Yemen’s fuel shortage

“Saudi Arabia, along with several other countries in the region that joined its war effort, has been fighting a war in Yemen since 2015. They’re fighting to oust the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran that had just overthrown Yemen’s internationally recognized government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led coalition, which until recently was also supported by the US, wants to return Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, to power.

When Saudi Arabia and its allies launched the war, they used military force to stop planes from landing and ships from docking in Yemen, saying such measures were necessary to stop the Houthis from smuggling in weapons, including from Iran.

But critics warned the blockade would keep much-needed food, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian aid from reaching desperate Yemenis, including millions of children, who are caught in the middle of the fighting.

That concern proved devastatingly prophetic.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the world’s top authority on food security, said last year that 47,000 Yemenis were suffering from famine-like conditions and that more than 16 million — over half of Yemen’s population — couldn’t reliably and adequately feed themselves. United Nations agencies have said that at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve.

What CNN found last month fit the years-long pattern: Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year.”

“It turns out the State Department disagrees with the growing narrative since the CNN report’s release.

“It is not a blockade,” a spokesperson for the agency said Monday. “Food is getting through, commodities are getting through, so it is not a blockade.”

However, the administration does acknowledge there has been a slowdown in the amount of fuel coming into the country, and they’re concerned about it. “The United States understands the urgent need for fuel to get into Hodeidah port,” Lenderking told me on Tuesday. “This is a constant priority in our conversations with the Republic of Yemen government and Saudi Arabia.”

But the primary culprit for the fuel slowdown, the State Department and the National Security Council contend, is not Saudi Arabia but rather the Hadi government.

Here’s why: Even though it doesn’t actually control the bulk of the country and is operating out of Saudi Arabia, it is still the legitimate, recognized government of Yemen and thus retains authority over who is allowed to dock in Yemen’s ports.

Which means that if the Hadi government doesn’t grant permission to a particular ship to dock in Hodeidah (or elsewhere), that ship can’t dock. The Saudi-led coalition enforces those decisions if necessary with its ships and planes, blocking any vessels Hadi’s government says can’t come in.

And that process of approving ships to dock is where the State Department says the real problem lies, leading to the fuel shortage.

The State Department said it opposes any arbitrary restrictions of commodities entering Yemen, but that “we respect the right of the government to control its access to ports.” However, the spokesperson added, “We do press them and work with them to make sure that their process improves and runs as smoothly as possible.””

“The Houthis are partly to blame here, too. Experts told me the rebels aren’t great about dispersing the fuel that is allowed to come off the ships. Sometimes they shut down gas stations so that the price of fuel they control on the black market goes up. So they are also responsible for why fuel isn’t getting to those who need it.”

“All three parties — the Hadi government, the Saudis, and the Houthis — are guilty of purposely using fuel, and access to it, as a weapon in this war.”

“the severe restrictions in fuel imports at Hodeidah aren’t happening out of pure malice, but they are happening on purpose. It’s part of an effort by the Hadi government and the Saudis to stop the Houthis from exploiting fuel revenues for their own benefit. The Hadi government “has declined to let them in [to Hodeidah] because of a long-running dispute with the Houthis over revenue payments,” the UN spokesperson told me.”

Why Biden can’t ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he might want to

“When President Joe Biden gave his first foreign policy address two weeks ago, he didn’t once mention the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan.” But events in those two countries over the past 24 hours have offered a stark reminder to the administration that it can’t forever ignore America’s forever wars.

In Iraq, rockets seemingly launched by an Iranian-backed militia on Monday killed a non-American civilian contractor at a military base in Erbil. Nine others were injured, including four US contractors and one service member, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS.

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has closed in on major cities just a few months before the scheduled departure of US forces on May 1. The insurgent group released an open letter to Americans on Tuesday, basically asking the Biden administration to trust the Taliban to lead the nation and respect human rights after the troops leave — a dubious claim at best.

Even as Biden would prefer to spend most of his time addressing the coronavirus, China, and climate change, it’s clear that, like every president since George W. Bush, he’ll continually have his attention diverted toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s not that he and his team have neglected those countries. Defense chiefs from NATO nations are meeting over the next two days in large part to discuss plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration is also reviewing its policies in the two countries, weighing what to keep from the past four years and what to change.

But recent events have added an extra sense of urgency, with US troops under threat in an increasingly unstable Iraq, and a tough decision looming for the president in Afghanistan: leave the country to almost certain ruin, or stay and face another deadly fighting season against the Taliban?

In normal times, those would be tough issues for any administration to handle. In this era, they’re extra difficult.”

Turkey

“For Turkey, the outcome was also the latest successful example of its assertive and game-changing use of military hard power, which has so far redrawn geopolitical realities from Libya and Syria to the southern Caucasus.

The moves take advantage of a vacuum left by now-absent U.S. and European actors, analysts say, in order to realize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitions of regional preeminence – and to enhance his popularity at home.

The result is that Mr. Erdoğan is the latest exemplar of the effectiveness of gunboat diplomacy, even as traditional military players withdraw from the field. If there is one important caveat, though, it is that Turkey’s ambitions have also brought it increasingly into competition with another power, Russia.”

” Few think Azeri troops could have broken the years-long stalemate with Armenia without Turkey’s ironclad support and weaponry. Ankara’s arms sales to Azerbaijan increased six-fold this year, rising to $77 million in September alone – making Azerbaijan the biggest client for Turkish weapons – Reuters reports. Turkey also reportedly deployed Turkish-trained mercenary fighters from Syria.”

““There are inherent limits to how far this can go, and the limit is really the Turkish economy, because it is very interdependent with the Western economy,” says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).

Turkey’s assertiveness abroad has been aided by two concurrent changes in the global order, he says: A United States that is “much more disinterested in this part of the world,” coupled with the “continuing ineffectiveness of the EU as a foreign policy actor.”

“This combination has opened up space for mid-power countries like Turkey to exert themselves more assertively in the regional theater,” says Mr. Ülgen. “The domestic dimension is that the [ruling] AK Party has espoused a narrative of a strong Turkey abroad, and hard power tactics tend to nurture this narrative.””