Middle East update: August 9 2017


War crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who among other things has worked on criminal cases related to the genocide in Rwanda and the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, has resigned from the United Nations’ Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria over its inability to accomplish, well, anything:

“I give up. The states in the Security Council don’t want justice,” Carla Del Ponte said in comments to the Swiss publication Blick, as quoted by The Associated Press. “I can’t any longer be part of this commission which simply doesn’t do anything.”

Her departure means only two members remain on the panel.

Del Ponte’s frustration is understandable to some degree, but this commission was always going to be little more than a head fake in the direction of actually prosecuting any Syrian war criminals. On one side, Russia is protecting Bashar al-Assad and the rest of his government/allies. On the other, the US is protecting any rebel factions that aren’t absolute extremists (i.e., anybody who isn’t aligned with either ISIS or al-Qaeda), and good luck getting any extremists to trial when it’s far, far more likely those guys are going to die in battle than be captured. Moreover, the war is still going on and a peace settlement is already too complicated to achieve–starting war crimes prosecutions now could complicate things even further. And as important as it might be to see justice done once the war is over, it’s nowhere near as important as just ending the freaking war.

A number of outlets, including Haaretz, are reporting that Israel was involved in talks with the US and Russia in early July involving details of the safe zone deal that Washington and Moscow later announced for southern Syria. Israeli officials had several objections to the plan, chiefly around the US-Russia focus on ISIS when the Israelis see the long-term Iranian influence/presence in Syria as a much bigger problem. These objections were clearly ignored in the final deal, with which officials in Washington profess to be quite pleased so far. But the Israelis are continuing to pressure both the US and Russia to take their security concerns into account. Neither country is really in much position to leverage Iran entirely out of Syria though, so all this Israeli complaining may be for naught.


Reuters has a report from Mosul on the dangers that face residents who are trying to return to their homes:

Hundreds of yards away on Wednesday Federal Police shot an Islamic State fighter as he emerged firing his gun from an underground tunnel on Makkawi Street.

Similar stories have been reported by aid workers and residents of West Mosul in the past few days.

“West Mosul is still a military zone as the search operations are ongoing for suspects, mines and explosive devices,” a military spokesman said.

“The area is still not safe for the population to return.”

Remaining ISIS sleepers are not the only issue. Many buildings–of the ones that haven’t been totally reduced to rubble–are structurally unsafe, there’s no clean water or electricity, and bodies are rotting in the streets. Rebuilding Mosul is going to be a years-long effort costing potentially billions of dollars that the Iraqi government probably doesn’t have.


Aid groups are calling for the reopening of the Sanaa airport, whose closure for the past year has exacerbated the challenge of bringing food and medicine to a population that’s dying from starvation and cholera. Yemen’s health ministry says that as many as 10,000 people may have died for lack of medical treatment that they could have gotten had they been able to fly out of the country.

The International Organization for Migration says that at least 50 migrants trying to get from Africa into Yemen were deliberately drowned by smugglers off the coast of Shabwa province on Wednesday. The traffickers feared being caught by authorities and forced their 120 passengers to jump into the water instead of taking them ashore. Some 22 of the migrants are still missing, so the death toll is likely to rise.


Comparisons between Benjamin Netanyahu and the last Israeli Prime Minister who had to resign from office over corruption charges, Ehud Olmert, are obviously imperfect. But they’re imperfect in one way in particular that suggests Netanyahu might be able to ride this scandal out longer than Olmert was able to ride out his: the coalition Netanyahu is leading now is more stable than the one Olmert was leading in 2009. That means there may not be any internal pressure on Netanyahu to step down or see his government collapse even if he’s indicted. That’s the thing to watch for though–Netanyahu’s coalition has managed to stay pretty cohesive but it involves six political parties and it’s only got a narrow majority in parliament, so if even one of his partners decides that serving under an indicted PM is too much, that could be it for the government.

Another difference, of course, is that Netanyahu isn’t Olmert. You can certainly find plenty of things to criticize about Netanyahu, but his skills as a politician are pretty first-rate and he’s monopolized power in Likud very skillfully. Olmert was a much weaker politician who only became prime minister because of Ariel Sharon’s 2006 stroke. It’s not surprising that Netanyahu has been able to hold his coalition together better through his corruption scandal than Olmert did through his. He’s now trying to pin his corruption scandal on The Left and the HASHTAG FAKE NEWS as a little rallying cry to his ultra-right pals.

One of the great looming problems for the Palestinian Authority, and for Israel frankly, is that the PA’s leadership is aging and infirm yet the organization has no clear or apparent succession plan in place. Reuters is the latest outlet to look at the question of who might take over for Mahmoud Abbas when he finally exits the stage. None of the major candidates seems likely to change Palestinian policy in any significant way.

As expected, Israeli aircraft struck Gaza on Wednesday in response to reports of rocket fire into Israel. At least four people have been wounded, one “seriously.”


Four Egyptian policemen were killed Wednesday when their patrol car was attacked by gunmen in the northern Sinai city of al-Arish.


Qatar has been increasingly asserting itself in response to the Saudi-led blockade against it:

The tiny nation of Qatar is defiantly weathering a boycott by four of its neighbors in a deepening crisis that has roiled the region and threatened U.S. interests.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties and imposed an economic blockade on Qatar in early June, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar has denied the allegations and has since gone on the offensive.

Two months into the isolation campaign, the energy-rich Persian Gulf nation has used its billions to strengthen its economy and security. It has announced reforms and bolstered ties with Turkey and Iran that could potentially reshape the region and its alliances for years.

Two of Qatar’s biggest recent measures have involved changes to its travel and residency laws designed to make Qatar more attractive to international travelers and to eliminate uncertainty for mixed-background families.

Last week, the Qatari government instituted a new law that creates–and this is unprecedented in the Persian Gulf as far as I know–a permanent residency status for certain non-citizens in Qatar. In particular, children of Qatari women married to non-Qatari men (citizenship in the Gulf states is determined by a child’s father) will now be eligible for many, though not all, of the same benefits that Qatari citizens have. The beneficiaries of this new status will now be eligible for Qatar’s generous social benefits and won’t have to scramble to remain in the country on a series of temporary visas. This means a lot of mixed families in Qatar won’t have to think about leaving the country or separating as this diplomatic crisis wears on, but it’s also a measure that the Qataris may have been interested in adopting for some time but that they were reluctant to pursue for fear of a bad reaction from the rest of the GCC. That’s obviously no longer a concern because of the diplomatic crisis.

On Wednesday, the Qataris announced that they would be dropping visa requirements for nationals of 80 countries, an effort to boost business and tourist travel in spite of the blockade. Nationals of 33 of the countries on the list will be allowed to stay in Qatar for 180 days (!) without a visa, while nationals of the other 47 countries can stay for 30 days.


Riyadh finally allowed reporters to see the carnage its security forces have wrought in the Shiʿa town of Awamiyah, and the descriptions sure do sound an awful lot like the place is being deliberately cleansed of its inhabitants on religious grounds:

Journalists on a government tour of the town on Wednesday were the first outside witnesses of the damage wrought by the rare battle in the tightly controlled kingdom, a key Western ally and the world’s top oil exporter.

Reporters escorted by special forces in armored vehicles saw streets in Awamiya’s old quarter transformed into a war zone a world away from the sparkling cityscapes elsewhere in the energy-rich Gulf. There was no fighting during the tour.

Rusted-out cars lay half-flattened next to eviscerated homes pocked with hundreds of bullet holes.

As many as 20,000 people have been driven out of the town by their own government. The Saudis say they’ve “compensated” everybody who’s had to flee, but there’s no way to know if that’s true or whether they’ve been compensated commensurate with having the government bulldoze their homes, which is what is apparently happening.


Nikki Haley will meet later this month with representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency to discuss Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. If she’s looking for a reason to scuttle the deal or certify Iranian noncompliance then she’s probably barking up the wrong tree, since the IAEA has consistently maintained that Iran is upholding its end of the deal. But involving the IAEA in the Trump administration’s obsession with busting the deal raises a genuine concern. The JCPOA’s enforcement mechanisms all run through the IAEA. It’s indispensable. It’s also an organization that gets a huge chunk of its annual budget from the United States. There’s an administration in power in DC that, among other things, wants to scale back America’s already-meager foreign aid commitments and wants to create a justification for threatening the nuclear deal. It could, in theory, kill two birds with one stone by slashing funding to the IAEA to such an extent that the organization is no longer able to fulfill its JCPOA role. Just something to keep in mind.

Hassan Rouhani has named three women to serve among his 12 vice presidents for his second term in office. This sounds neat, but the thing is that the Iranian government uses the title “vice president” to describe a lot of people who are no more than advisors to the president. Apart from the actual, first Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, the other 11 VP posts fall into this sub-cabinet level advisory status. So the fact that Rouhani’s cabinet is 100 percent male is still relevant and still worthy of criticism.

Six Iranians, meanwhile, have been arrested for teaching Zumba dancing. Just in case you thought the Iranian establishment was maybe starting to lighten up a bit. To be fair, it’s pretty impressive that a state security apparatus that failed to stop a major terrorist attack in Tehran a scant two months ago now has so much free time that it’s able to track people’s exercise habits. They must really have solved that terrorism problem in short order. I’m sorry, what was that? Oh, they haven’t actually solved it? Well, I’m sure the insidious dangers of people exercising are roughly comparable to the threat posed by ISIS.

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