The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) captured al-Watiya airbase from Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), depriving the LNA of its only airbase in western Libya and the launching pad for air attacks on the capital. Airstrikes over the weekend, likely conducted by Turkey, destroyed three Russian Pantsir-type air defense systems at al-Watiya that the UAE rushed to the LNA in the previous 48 hours. Ankara signed a deal with the GNA last November to provide military support in exchange for access to Mediterranean gas fields. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Sunday Turkey has now transported 8,950 Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight for the GNA.
At a press conference Monday, Attorney General William Barr announced the FBI gained access to the two locked iPhones of Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who murdered three US Navy sailors in a terrorist attack last December while undergoing training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. FBI Director Christopher Wray said the phones prove the "Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] associate" while Barr added that the phones provided intelligence enabling a recent strike on an AQAP leader in Yemen. Barr and Wray each lambasted Apple for refusing to help decrypt the information on Alshamrani's devices. Like many other Silicon Valley firms, including Facebook, Apple claims overriding their security protocols would expose users to malicious cyber activity. Wray countered, "The delay from getting into these devices didn't just divert our personnel from other important work, it also seriously hampered this investigation."
After Iran's Fars News reported Saturday that four US Navy warships in the Caribbean might intercept five Iranian tankers delivering oil to Venezuela, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter Sunday to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decrying "America's movements in deploying its navy to the Caribbean in order to intervene and create disruption in [the] transfer of Iran's fuel to Venezuela" and threatening America will be responsible for "the consequences" of its "piracy." Also on Sunday, Iranian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents Washington's interests in Tehran, to promise a "quick and decisive response" to any threats to the convoy. The US has imposed sanctions on both nations' oil exports and a senior Trump administration official told Reuters last Thursday that the US is looking into measures to stop Nicolas Maduro's government from paying Iran tons of gold for fuel.
House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday hypothesized that President Trump fired US State Department Inspector-General Steve Linick in part because of his investigation into the Trump administration invoking in 2019 a provision of the Arms Export Control Act to bypass Congressional review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Engel tweeted: "I've learned there may be another reason for IG Linick's firing. His office was investigating—at my request—Trump's phony emergency declaration so he could send Saudi Arabia weapons. We don't have the full picture yet, but it's troubling that Sec Pompeo wanted Linick pushed out." The president under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act must notify Congress of arms sale greater than $14 million and Congress can pass legislation, subject to a presidential veto, to modify or block the deal. However, a president can forgo the congressional oversight if he determines "an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States." In May 2019, the Trump administration invoked the "emergency" provision, citing Iran's threat to the region, to fast track an $8.1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan just before Congress drafted bipartisan legislation to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia that President Trump successfully vetoed.
Bashar al-Assad's billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf posted Sunday his third video on Facebook in recent weeks condemning the government for extorting money from his business empire. In the latest video, he claims officials demanded he resign as head of Syria's main mobile operator, Syriatel, and forfeit 120 percent of his profits or be arrested. Although the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the arrest of 60 managers and technicians at Makhlouf-owned businesses, Ribal al-Assad – a rebel supporter and cousin of the president – believes that Bashar al-Assad would never permit such dissent and sanctioned the videos to persuade the Russians to reduce their financial demands on the regime. A combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic turmoil in neighboring Lebanon has contributed to the Syrian pound's greatest depreciation vis-à-vis the dollar since the beginning of the civil war.
Israel's 35th government was sworn in Sunday, a parliamentary vote of confidence passing 73 to 46. With 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers, the unity government's cabinet will be the largest in Israel's history. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust opens on May 24.
Israel's Channel 13 reported Monday that in recent weeks Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer has been lobbying the Trump administration and senior Republicans to approve Israel annexing part of the West Bank before the 2020 election since Joe Biden is on the record opposing annexation. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi expressed reservations about unilateral annexations when meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.
Although Biden foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken stressed at a Monday briefing with the Democratic Majority for Israel that Biden opposes annexations because they make a two-state solution more difficult, he promised Biden "would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions that it makes. Period. Full stop." Later in the day, Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, criticized Blinken for quoting Abba Eban's 1973 quip: "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Ayoub grumbled, "Biden's campaign is so beholden to AIPAC that they have adopted racist tropes to define Palestinians, the same tropes used to justify apartheid policies" and that Biden's stance on the conflict makes him "no different than Trump."
Concluding that amendments from 2008 to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act could apply retroactively, the Supreme Court Monday reversed 8-0 a 2017 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit exempting Sudan from $4.3 billion in punitive damages for its complicity in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of America's embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The ruling reinstated about $826 million in punitive damages, the rest of the $4.3 billion being subject to further litigation.
Dozens stormed the studio of the Saudi-owned MBC channel in Baghdad on Monday after a program about Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani insinuated Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was involved in the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut that killed Qabbani's wife. Al-Muhandis was the de facto leader of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and killed with Qasem Soleimani by an American drone strike in January. MBC said that the attack did not injure anyone, but caused "severe damage" to their studio.
The Mada Masr investigative media outlet informed AP that security forces Sunday arrested their editor-in-chief Lina Attalah, while she was interviewing the mother of a jailed activist, on the charge of filming a military facility without permission. Attalah's interview took place outside Tora prison, which is considered a military facility. Police released Attalah after she paid a $125 fine, but she may face further charges. Despite the government blocking Mada Masr and regularly arresting its journalists, it continues through mirror sites.
Micah Levinson is the Washington, DC Resident Fellow at the Middle East Forum