Middle East update: November 29 2017


Egypt’s White Desert (Wikimedia)

While it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that climate change is expected to (already has, really) hit the Middle East and North Africa quite hard, it’s still helpful to see just how dire the projections are:

MENA is the world’s most water-scarce region. While about five percent of the world’s population lives in MENA, the region only possesses about one percent of the world’s total renewable freshwater resources (T.R.W.R.). In 2011, the average per capita share of T.R.W.R. in the region was 819.8 cubic meters. This number indicates a 75 percent reduction of freshwater availability since the 1950s and is expected to fall by more than 40 percent by 2030.


Almost all the region’s countries are “water-stressed”—per capita water availability has fallen below the threshold of 1000 cubic meters annually. Of the world’s ten countries that are projected to suffer from the highest water stress by 2040, seven are in the MENA region—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Thirteen regional countries are already considered “water-scarce,” where the per capita share of T.R.W.R. is less than 500 cubic meters, namely Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Djibouti, as well as all the countries listed above.


Syrian rebels say they want the Russian government to pressure Bashar al-Assad to engage in peace talks in Geneva with an eye toward resolving the Syrian civil war within six months. In related news, I want Jeff Bezos to name me as his sole heir. Even if Moscow were inclined to lean on Assad in this way, it is far from clear just how much control they actually have over what he does.

If you need evidence of that, consider that the two-day ceasefire Russia implemented in Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday barely lasted a day before the Syrian army started bombarding the place again. That 48 hour ceasefire, by the way, was necessary because both the rebels and the Syrian government have basically refused to abide by the indefinite Russia-backed ceasefire that’s supposed to be in place in Ghouta because Ghouta is supposed to be a de-escalation zone. The United Nations says that malnutrition in this besieged Damascus suburb is the worst seen in Syria since the war began, and obviously that’s saying something. Some 400,000 civilians are trapped in Ghouta, half of them children, and it’s been impossible to get aid to them because of the fighting.

Russia is still happily running cover for Assad at the UN, though. After quashing the international body’s chemical weapons investigation, Moscow now seems to be taking aim at the UN’s cross-border humanitarian aid mission, authorization for which is due to expire next month. The Russians say the program should be revamped or scrapped altogether over concerns that it could be used to smuggle weapons to Syrian rebels, and are arguing, apparently unironically, that plenty of aid is moving through government-controlled checkpoints now so there’s really no reason for the UN to continue bypassing those channels.


The Wednesday morning bombing in Aden that I mentioned in yesterday’s update killed at least five people and has been claimed by ISIS. Meanwhile, in Sanaa, there are reports of gun battles between forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and forces loyal to the Houthis. The Houthis reportedly seized control of the Saleh Mosque–Sanaa’s largest mosque, which opened in 2008 and is, as you can see, named for Saleh. The two factions of Yemen’s rebellion haven’t been seeing eye to eye in recent months. Any further deterioration in their relationship is good news for the Saudis, who are so desperate to extricate themselves from Yemen and so dissatisfied with Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi that there’s a good chance they’d be prepared to leave Saleh in charge if it meant defeating the Houthis.


Turkish authorities say that they conducted an airstrike in northern Iraq on Monday that killed 80 PKK fighters.


Having already indefinitely postponed his resignation, Saad al-Hariri suggested on Wednesday that he might rescind it altogether next week. He’s apparently been quite pleased with his discussions with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri over reining in Hezbollah’s regional ventures.


Israel is replacing its ambassador to Jordan in an effort to mollify the Jordanian government, which is still outraged over a shooting in July that involved a guard at the Israeli embassy. The guard killed two Jordanians, and while he claims that he was attacked first Amman is angry both that the Israeli government has no plans to investigate the incident and that both the guard and the former ambassador, Einat Schlein, were basically given heroes’ welcomes in Israel the following day.


The Trump administration, I’m sorry to say, is back on its bullshit–specifically, its moving-the-American-embassy-to-Jerusalem bullshit. President Trump issued a standard six month waiver delaying such a move in June, so he could order a relocation as soon as next month. However, the thing that could move Trump to issue another waiver is his apparent, and delusional belief that Jared Kushner–the guy who can’t even get anybody to buy his family’s 666 Fifth Avenue property in Manhattan–can somehow negotiate an Israel-Palestine peace deal. Moving the embassy in advance of any such deal would probably kill whatever slim chance Kushner has.

Hamas and Fatah are in emergency talks in Cairo to finalize plans to hand administration of Gaza from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority. The unity deal the two parties signed in October calls for a full Gaza handover by December 1, but Fatah officials have started complaining that Hamas is dragging its feet and the two sides announced on Wednesday that they were delaying the handover by 10 days to allow more time for talks.


Former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq announced on Wednesday that he plans to run in next year’s presidential election. He was promptly barred from returning to Egypt from the United Arab Emirates, where he’s been living since losing the 2012 election to Mohamed Morsi, by Emirati authorities. It’s not clear why his travel is being restricted–the Emiratis deny that they’re restricting it at all–but the UAE and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are very sympatico. Still, as Shafiq’s chances of winning the 2018 Egyptian presidential election–even if it’s a legitimate election, which, lol–are only slightly higher than mine, so again it’s not clear why the UAE is blocking his departure.

Speaking of Sisi, he’s reportedly given his military chief of staff three months to get a grip on the Sinai insurgency, or else…um, something bad, I’m sure. In televised remarks, Sisi told General Mohammed Farid Hegazy to use “all brute force,” which means the next three months should be fantastic for Sinai civilians.

At The Monkey Cage, UC-San Diego Professor Barbara F. Walters explains why the Sisi Method of brutally repressing Islamist political opposition actually plays into the hands of extremist groups:

Why do some extremist groups, such as the one that attacked Egypt’s al-Rawda mosque, thrive in today’s civil wars in ways that moderate groups have not? In 2016, Salafi-jihadist groups accounted for most of the major militant groups in Syria, half of all such groups in Somalia and a third of Iraq’s militant groups.


Most people assume that Salafi-jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State emerged because the “average” Muslim has become more radical over time. But in new research, I show this is not necessarily the case. In times of civil war, moderate Muslims have very good reasons to support extremist groups, even if they don’t believe the radical ideologies behind them.

Egypt may not be in the midst of a real-deal civil war like Syria or Yemen, but Sisi’s campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood ticks off many of the same boxes in terms of radicalizing his opponents.


You’ll be pleased to learn that next month’s GCC summit is going to take place in Kuwait as scheduled, despite the ongoing Qatar business. Bahraini officials had been suggesting they might not attend, but at this point is appears they’ve been talked out of it.


Speaking of the Qatar blockade, you might also be pleased to know that Qatar’s brand new domestic dairy industry, created in response to the closure of the Saudi border, seems to be developing fairly quickly. Amazing what you can accomplish with massive amounts of money.


The Trump administration is considering a plan to share nuclear technology with the Saudis, according to ProPublica’s Isaac Arnsdorf:

The Trump administration is holding talks on providing nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia — a move that critics say could upend decades of U.S. policy and lead to an arms race in the Middle East.


The Saudi government wants nuclear power to free up more oil for export, but current and former American officials suspect the country’s leaders also want to keep up with the enrichment capabilities of their rival, Iran.

The US has historically refused to collaborate on nuclear projects with the Saudis because the Saudis won’t promise not to eventually use the know-how they attain to produce nuclear weapons. The Trump administration is deliberating whether or not to drop that condition and work with the Saudis anyway. Which would be a monumentally stupid thing to do even if we were talking about a regular country, because it completely upends decades of American non-proliferation standards. That we’re talking about Saudi Arabia, which has been comprehensively fucking up in almost every way for a few years now, makes this idea all the crazier. The story of how this ridiculous idea got as far as it has involves a small army of the worst, dumbest, and/or most dangerous people in America, and I urge you to read Arnsdorf’s account.

The AP has done a profile on Thamer al-Sabhan, the Saudi Minister of Gulf Affairs and one of Mohammad bin Salman’s closest advisers. Sabhan is believed to have been intimately involved with the aborted resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, and in fact he hasn’t been particularly shy about letting everybody know it:

A few days before Hariri’s resignation, al-Sabhan warned in an interview with a Lebanese TV station that there would be “astonishing” developments to topple the Shiite militant group in Lebanon. He also said that Lebanon’s government — headed by Hariri — would be dealt with as a hostile government that’s declared war against Saudi Arabia because of Hezbollah’s power-sharing role.


It is up to (Lebanon’s) leaders to decide whether it is a state of terror or peace,” al-Sabhan wrote on Twitter two days after Hariri’s resignation.


In contrast to the Trump administration’s claims that Iran is somehow an existential threat to the United States, and even to the position of non-hawks who often still allow that Iran’s behavior is problematic, Cato’s John Glaser argues in The Washington Post today that Iran is only a “threat” to the US to the extent that the US keeps allowing it to be one:

Indeed, Iran’s regional behaviors are only a threat to the United States to the extent that we continue to insist on meddling unnecessarily in a region whose strategic importance has been overstated for decades. We have thousands of troops and multiple bases in the region, and we’ve been in a constant state of war there for years with little to show for it. The prevailing strategic rationales for America’s excessive over-involvement in the Middle East — defending Israel, fighting terrorism and protecting the free flow of oil — don’t even come close to justifying the costs of pursuing them.

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