Middle East update: December 2-3 2017


It’s been brewing for a while now, but the break between the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rebel faction now seems to be complete:

Violent clashes between rival factions in Yemen’s rebel-held capital have continued for the fourth straight day as forces loyal to a former president and Iran-backed Houthi rebels faced off in the streets of Sana’a, signalling disintegration in the rebel alliance that has been at war with a Saudi-led coalition for nearly three years.


Fighting intensified on Saturday, according to accounts of local residents who said loud explosions were heard overnight across the city and into the morning. Mediation efforts by tribal elders and officials over the past few days have come to no avail.

The final straw probably came on Saturday, when Saleh gave a televised speech in which he disparaged Houthi “recklessness”–a weird statement from somebody who’s been allied with them for a couple of years now–and offered to “turn the page” and engage in peace talks with the Saudi-led coalition if the coalition ended its blockade and stopped, say, double-tapping preschools. That speech came amid days of clashes between the two factions that have reportedly killed dozens of people in Sanaa.

The Saudis naturally welcomed Saleh’s speech, which potentially gives them a way out of Yemen, and predictably started conducting airstrikes in Sanaa on Saleh’s behalf. The only real question here is whether the Saudis are reacting to events in Sanaa or whether they’ve been talking to Saleh and, if so, for how long. Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi also welcomed it, from whatever tower in Riyadh in which the Saudis have locked him away. Hadi probably isn’t going to feel so good about all of this when Saleh, or his son Ahmed, comes out of this with Hadi’s job.

There’s obviously some question as to whether Saleh can deliver on his decision to dump the Houthis. He’s got part–maybe most–of Yemen’s pre-war military on his side, but the Houthis are no slouch and if you believe the Saudis they’re now equipped with an advanced arsenal of 12th generation android-flown fighter craft, so this could be a real battle if these two factions can’t come to some accord. Which is the last thing people in Sanaa need, but on the other hand part of the reason why there can’t be a resolution to the civil war is that both sides of that war are at odds internally. So maybe this is a step back leading to several steps forward.


The Syrian Democratic Forces declared on Sunday that they’ve cleared the entire eastern side of the Euphrates of any ISIS presence. In the announcement, YPG spokesperson Noureddine Mahmoud praised both US and Russian assistance and said the SDF is prepared to work with other forces to continue fighting ISIS. It doesn’t seem like Russia had much to do with the SDF’s success, but thanking Moscow could be about building that relationship to a point where the Russians would be inclined to talk Bashar al-Assad out of, say, sending his army to attack Raqqa. The SDF’s usefulness as a military force is also likely to decrease if the US follows through on its announced plans to stop arming the YPG.

Syrian and Russian strikes on Eastern Ghouta reportedly killed at least 27 civilians on Sunday. Observers say there were 30 strikes on the rebel-held suburb in a 24 hour period. That’s some de-escalation zone the Russians have got going there.

Israeli missiles reportedly struck an arms depot just south of Damascus on Saturday. Syrian officials claim their missile defenses intercepted two of the Israeli missiles, but clearly that wasn’t enough to prevent the strike.

The New York Times‘ Somini Sengupta reports on the Western debate over whether or not to help rebuild Syria while Assad is still in power:

If Al Waer, reclaimed by the government this past spring, symbolizes President Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless triumph, it also embodies a looming challenge as the war approaches an end: the politics of reconstruction.


That challenge is as acute for Mr. Assad as it is for his Western critics. Can they afford to pour money into a regime that has starved, bombed and occasionally gassed its own people? Or, having failed to topple Mr. Assad, who — with help from Russia and Iran — has reclaimed much of the territory he lost over nearly seven years of war, can the West abandon the people of Syria to live in the ruins?

This is becoming one of my pet peeves, but anybody who writes about the implications of Syrian reconstruction without even mentioning China is really committing journalistic malpractice. While Western leaders debate whether to dangle reconstruction assistance as leverage to force Assad to institute political reforms, the massive elephant in the room is that, depending on how involved Beijing wants to be, Assad could very well be in a position to tell the West to get bent. And to this point Beijing has given every indication that it wants to be very involved in rebuilding Syria. Sure, their terms could be more financially onerous than whatever Syria could get from the West. But they’re almost certain to be far less politically onerous.


White House MC Jared Kushner told an audience at Brookings on Sunday that Donald Trump is still weighing a decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, or at least to recognize the city as Israel’s capital in a formal sense. An administration source said late last week that Trump might be making an announcement about the embassy on Wednesday, though nobody seems to know what the announcement will actually be. The announcement that there will be an announcement was enough to spur the Jordanian government into kicking its diplomatic efforts to rally Arab support against whatever Trump might be planning to do. Likewise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly been on the phone to leaders throughout the Middle East to rally them against any change in US policy.

During his chat with Haim Saban at Brookings, Kushner was either unable or unwilling (I know which one I’m going with) to go into any detail about the administration’s plans for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, particularly not after they blow the whole thing up by doing something stupid over Jerusalem. His message basically boiled down to asking everybody to trust the dumbest presidential administration in American history to sort out this complex, decades-long international dispute:

Experts in the region eagerly awaited any updates during the public remarks from the seen-but-rarely-heard son-in-law of President Donald Trump. Kushner offered assurances that there was a concrete plan in the works but added little in terms of details. “We’ve been deliberate about not setting time frames,” he said.


“The president has a very long career of accomplishing things that a lot of people say weren’t possible,” Kushner told Saban during a skeptical grilling about how Trump could achieve a deal that has eluded all of his predecessors. “The most recent example of that was the election.”

It’s true, very few people thought it was possible for Donald Trump to be elected president. Prior to that, almost nobody believed it was possible for anyone to go bankrupt running a casino, but Trump proved them wrong on that too. Repeatedly. Kushner also compared the negotiations to a “real estate issue,” which, given his record in real estate, doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence.

Whether Benjamin Netanyahu will be around to complicate peace efforts much longer remains to be seen. On Saturday, some 20,000 people protested in Tel Aviv against a draft law that would bar Israeli police from publishing the findings of their investigations, including their corruption investigation into the prime minister. Under pressure from Netanyahu, apparently, the bill’s author, Likud MK David Amsalem, withdrew the measure on Sunday. He’s supposedly going to amend the bill so that it no longer would apply to Netanyahu.


Former Egyptian Prime Minister–and possible future presidential candidate–Ahmed Shafiq finally left the United Arab Emirates on Saturday. Fascinatingly, after reportedly being denied permission to leave the UAE to return to Egypt last week, on Saturday UAE authorities actually deported him. If it wasn’t clear why Shafiq was denied permission to leave the UAE, neither is it clear now why he was deported. Shafiq then disappeared for several hours before resurfacing in Cairo on Sunday with an announcement that he’s still, ah, mulling over the idea of running for president next year. He seemed all in just a few days ago, so one wonders what happened between then and now to cause him to walk that back. Shafiq met his lawyer in a Cairo hotel, and then his lawyer told reporters that she wasn’t sure if he was actually allowed to leave that hotel.

Shafiq is probably the strongest potential opponent for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in next year’s presidential election, but he has very little chance of actually winning that election. For Sisi to try to intimidate him like this…well, suffice to say it appears that Egyptian democracy is healthier than ever.


Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is going to attend this week’s Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Kuwait. I know this was eating at you guys so I wanted to let you know.


The Houthis claim that they fired a cruise missile at Abu Dhabi’s under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant on Saturday. Emirati state media denied the claim and said that anyway the UAE’s missile defenses are too robust for any Houthi attack to succeed.


Iranian officials opened a new extension to their port at Chabahar on the Arabian Sea on Sunday. The expansion more than triples the port’s capacity to 8.5 million tons annually and was partially financed by India, which views it as a potential commercial route to customers in Afghanistan (and the rest of Central Asia) that totally bypasses Pakistan.

CIA Director and potential future Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo recently sent a mash note to Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, but the Iranian general apparently refused to read it:

Pompeo, who has voiced staunch opposition to Iran and was this week reported to be under consideration to become secretary of state, said he sent the letter to Gen Qassem Soleimani, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and elite Quds Force, but the general didn’t read it.


“I sent a note. I sent it because he had indicated that forces under his control might in fact threaten US interests in Iraq,” Pompeo said at a defense forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley, California. “He refused to open the letter – didn’t break my heart to be honest with you.


“What we were communicating to him in that letter was that we will hold he and Iran accountable … and we wanted to make sure that he and the leadership of Iranunderstood that in a way that was crystal clear.”

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