Middle East update: November 30 2017

I’ve been occupied with other projects today and on top of that WordPress wasn’t working for me for most of the afternoon. So you’re getting a compressed update this evening, sorry.


Negotiators for the Syrian government and Syrian rebels did not meet face to face in Geneva on Thursday, despite indications from United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura that this round of peace talks might include direct contact between the warring sides. They were both in the same building though, so…progress? As usual, events on the ground are overshadowing events in Geneva–this time, it’s the roughly 400,000 people slowly being starved to death in Ghouta who are the focus.

The US is pulling 400 soldiers out of eastern Syria in the aftermath of the Raqqa operation and with little prospect that the Syrian Democratic Forces are going to be able to advance anywhere now that their forward progress has been cut off by the Syrian army. The move still leaves probably–the Pentagon won’t admit how many soldiers it actually has in Syria–around 1600 US troops in place with the SDF. China, meanwhile, which has stayed out of the Syrian conflict for the most part, is stepping up its engagement with Damascus now that there’s money to be made in rebuilding the country. The Chinese government is also eyeing Syria as one of the western corridors for its Belt and Road Initiative.


Saudi forces intercepted another missile fired from Yemen on Thursday, this time in the direction of the city of Khamis Mushait in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Yemeni rebels insist that the missile hit its intended target. While we’re on this subject, Reuters says it’s seen a UN report that concludes that four missiles fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia this year “appear to have been designed and manufactured” by Iran. UN investigators were shown remnants of the missiles by the Saudis and were taken to the missile impact sites, and conclude that what they saw was consistent with Iran’s Qiam-1 ballistic missile.

Of course, the Qiam-1 is a Scud variant, just like the ballistic missiles Yemen already has, so it’s not clear what characteristics the investigators saw that caused them to decide that they were Qiam-1 remnants. And not that I doubt the honesty of Saudi officials, but I’d be curious just how much of the investigators’ work in the kingdom involved careful supervision by Saudi counterparts. I would hope the investigators didn’t just take Riyadh’s word for it, because this is the kind of thing the Saudis can use to justify, for example, cutting off humanitarian assistance to millions of Yemenis who are starving to death and/or dying of completely treatable illnesses.

Meanwhile, fighting between the Houthis and pro-Saleh factions continued in Sanaa on Thursday for the second day in a row.


Alleged Iran sanctions buster Reza Zarrab’s cooperation with prosecutors in New York has already generated its first major development:

Turkey’s government kicked into full defensive gear today as Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, prepared to stand witness before a New York jury for a second day, continuing his account of a billion-dollar scam to smuggle gold for oil in violation of US sanctions on Iran and in collusion with top Turkish officials. The trial continued at the Federal District Court in Manhattan with allegations of further government malfeasance. The proceedings took a further sensational turn when Zarrab said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan had signed off on the scheme. “The prime minister at that time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, … had given instructions, had given an order, for [Ziraat and Vakif banks] to start doing the trade,” Zarrab testified. He dropped this bombshell as allegations of further government corruption swirled at home.

The European Union is getting closer to cutting aid to Turkey over the country’s authoritarian turn. EU lawmakers are prepared to block up to 175 million euros worth of aid earmarked to help Turkey meet obligations to join the EU, while redirecting as much as 3.5 billion euros in planned development loans away from Turkey and toward other countries in Eastern Europe.


You can be pretty sure that Donald Trump is going to do something involving Jerusalem and the US embassy in Israel at some point next week. What or when that might be exactly is something nobody seems to know. He might postpone moving the embassy to Jerusalem on Monday, the legal deadline for issuing such a postponement. Or he might not. He might give a speech about the issue on Wednesday instead, in which he could announce that he is moving the embassy, or he could announce that he’s not moving it. He could recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without moving the embassy, which is somehow supposed to be a compromise. He could announce that he’s recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, appeasing Palestinians who want their future capital to be East Jerusalem. Whatever he does, expect one side or the other to argue that Trump’s decision has doomed the peace process, which died at least a quarter century ago and has been propped up by Western diplomats in a grotesque Weekend at Bernies-style charade ever since.


The Atlantic Council’s Zack Gold says that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s brute force approach to terrorism is, say it with me now, only going to make the problem worse:

As in previous moments of national shock and mourning, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised after the attack that the martyrs will be avenged with “brute force.” Sisi received support from U.S. President Donald Trump, who tweeted that such evil must be defeated “militarily.”


Such a strategy won’t bring peace to Sinai, nor forestall further terror attacks elsewhere in the country. A congressionally mandated study that I recently helped conduct with CNA’s Center for Stability and Development concluded that military efforts won’t defeat jihadi groups like the Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai. Sisi’s strategy is liable to only worsen North Sinai’s status as a breeding ground for al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the next generation of global jihadis.

In Russia’s latest move to rebuild its cache in the Middle East, it has apparently completed a preliminary agreement with Egypt to allow the Russian military to station aircraft there. Assuming the preliminary agreement becomes an actual agreement (which is not a sure thing), it’s not clear yet what, if anything, Egypt will get out of the deal. Russia might be expected to help Khalifa Haftar next door in Libya, and perhaps Moscow will now be inclined to resume direct tourist flights to Sharm el-Sheikh.


China is also pushing heavily to develop its economic ties with Iran:

China is financing billions of dollars worth of Chinese-led projects in Iran, making deep inroads into the economy while European competitors struggle to find banks willing to fund their ambitions, Iranian government and industry officials said.


Freed from crippling nuclear sanctions two years ago, Iran is drawing unprecedented Chinese funding for everything from railways to hospitals, they said. State-owned investment arm CITIC Group recently established a $10 billion credit line and China Development Bank is considering $15 billion more.


“They (Western firms) had better come quickly to Iran otherwise China will take over,” said Ferial Mostofi, head of the Iran Chamber of Commerce’s investment commission, speaking on the sidelines of an Iran-Italy investment meeting in Rome.

There are implications here for the Trump administration, if anybody cares to notice them. Namely, there’s a good chance that if Trump and/or Congress attempt to scrap the JCPOA for shits and giggles, China at least is going to tell them to fuck off. Russia probably will too, but China alone is enough to drastically weaken America’s leverage.

This is just breaking, but a 6.3 magnitude earthquake reportedly struck near the Iranian city of Kerman on Friday morning. No word yet on potential casualties or damages.

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