Middle East update: December 4 2017


Two bros, just hanging out back in the day, RIP guys


You can throw out a bunch of yesterday’s update, because ex-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recently seen divorcing the Houthis and moving in with Mohammad bin Salman, up and got himself killed, to death even, on Monday. The circumstances of his untimely demise cannot be entirely hashed out at this point, and might not ever be entirely hashed out. Based on footage and photos from social media that I will spare you in case you’re eating something, it appears Saleh was killed by the Houthis when his car was attacked somewhere outside of Sanaa. Saleh was clearly fleeing the city, either heading south to get to coalition lines or north/east to get to the Saudi border, when his car was intercepted and attacked.

Why was he fleeing the city, you ask? Well, it probably had something to do with the fact that his forces were about to lose control of it to the Houthis, despite a steady Saudi air campaign over the city in Saleh’s defense. Before reports of Saleh’s death started coming in, there were reports that the Houthis were shelling and possibly about to capture Saleh’s compound in Sanaa. Whether Saleh was inside the compound and then had to flee when it came under attack or not, I can’t say. But if he was, then that seems pretty dumb. I’m not sure what else to call going on TV and dissolve your alliance with an armed force occupying the city you’re in and then retire to your own well-known home in that city. But again it’s not clear that’s what Saleh did.

Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi went on his movement’s al-Masirah TV station after Saleh’s death and said that Saleh had been killed for his “treason,” though as far as I can tell he didn’t mention Saleh directly. He further announced that the “uprising” by Saleh’s forces against the Houthis had been defeated, but that may be premature. The “treason,” obviously, was Saleh’s opening to the Saudi-led coalition, which seems to have been brokered by the United Arab Emirates rather than a spontaneous gesture. Yet another spectacular success for UAE-Saudi regional policymaking.

Saleh’s death obviously has huge implications for the conflict moving forward. Forces that were loyal to him can be expected to join the coalition, which will now truly be anti-Houthi since they’re the only group continuing to rebel. But I don’t think you can assume they’ll switch sides as a bloc. Many rebellion supporters will continue being supporters, even with Saleh out of the picture. But those who do flip sides will probably be led by Ahmed Saleh, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son. Ahmed, the former commander of Yemen’s Republican Guard, was Yemen’s ambassador to the UAE when the Saudis and Emiratis decided to intervene in Yemen back in 2015, and he’s been a “guest” of the Emirati government ever since. There are already rumors that they’re sending him back to Yemen to step in to his father’s position as head of the General People’s Congress party, and that Saleh’s nephew and top military adviser, Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, will also now play a more prominent role.

On the one hand, then, this incident will isolate the Houthis and deprive them of a fair portion of their army. Which could hasten the end of the war. On the other hand, turning the elder Saleh was supposed to be the big Saudi-UAE gambit to bring the war to a close and give the coalition a new proxy to back in place of the out-of-favor Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Notice this is the first time I’ve mentioned Hadi, and it’s because he’s become almost wholly superfluous to what’s happening in his country. Now Saleh is dead, and maybe his son can fill the same role but it’s quite possible he can’t–whatever else you want to say about Ali Abdullah Saleh, he was a pretty smooth political maneuverer. Maybe his presence within the coalition is going to awaken a lot of barely latent anti-Saleh feeling among secession-minded southerners, and thereby open up yet another front in the war as the coalition comes apart. Maybe the Houthis will be able to strengthen their control over Sanaa and the north now, or maybe they’re going to start losing control as their former allies turn on them.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. That’s the thing–Saleh’s death above all else plunges Yemen into uncertainty. Not just with respect to the civil war, though especially with that. But with the exception of a couple of years after his ouster in 2012, Saleh has been the dominant figure in Yemen since unification in 1990 and there isn’t really a close second. With him out of the picture, what happens now is really anybody’s guess. The closest thing to a certainty now is that the beatings–or, in this case, the Saudi airstrikes–are going to continue until morale improves. Hell, the intensity of the Saudi air campaign was already increasing before Saleh was killed. In the long term, Saleh’s death may yet lead to a path out of war. But in the short term, it’s likely to lead to more intense fighting in a country that can’t even continue to tolerate the current level of fighting.


Syrian opposition leaders are trying to twist the knife a little bit by concern trolling about how embarrassed Russia must be over the Syrian delegation’s decision to quit peace talks in Geneva. Obvious troll is obvious, but there’s also an underlying point, which is that Moscow has a limit in terms of how much treasure it’s willing to expend in Syria. Clearly we haven’t hit that limit yet, but the Russians would probably prefer to see Damascus actually engaged in trying to end the war.

Israel struck another Syrian military facility outside of Damascus on Monday. Jamayra is a Syrian military research facility that the Israelis are believed to have already struck once, back in 2013.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will be heading back to Paris on Friday for a meeting of the International Lebanon Support Group. They’ll be discussing ways to stabilize the country following Hariri’s strange non-resignation odyssey, and presumably they’ll kick around ideas for reining in Hezbollah to the extent that’s even possible.


One story I did not cover yesterday was the situation involving Australian billionaire James Packer and his testimony to Israeli police investigating corruption charges against Benjamin Netanyahu. Basically this was for lack of finding a decent source to cite. But I finally found the story in the Israeli outlet Yedioth Ahronoth, so here’s what Packer reportedly said:

Australian billionaire James Packer corroborated testimony recently given by businessman Arnon Milchan, who claimed that expensive gifts given to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife were not gestures of friendship, but rather demands made by the couple.


Packer’s testimony was the latest in the corruption investigation involving illicit gifts the Israeli premier and his wife allegedly received as bribes, also know as Case 1000. “Milchan asked me to help with the gift giving,” the Australian tycoon told police.



According to Packer, he was forced to give Netanyahu gifts, after being asked to do so by Milchan. Packer’s gift-giving was coordinated by Milchan’s assistant Hadas Klein.


“She would put together whatever was needed and what was still missing and I would approve it. That’s how it worked,” Packer recounted, adding he had never asked for anything in return.

Netanyahu looks dirtier and dirtier the longer this investigation goes on. If you had his surviving 2018 in your office pool, you might want to check and see if there’s still time to change your entry.

Meanwhile, the ongoing speculation about what Donald Trump will do to make his donors happy regarding Jerusalem has spilled over into a rumor that the US is about to propose a horribly lopsided “peace” deal to the Israelis and the Palestinians. Moreover, the rumor says that the Trump administration’s top pitchman trying to sell Arab governments on the deal is none other than Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government, one that presumably no Palestinian leader could ever accept.


The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The White House insists that it hasn’t settled on a peace framework and the Saudis are angrily denouncing this story and saying they would never betray the Palestinian cause like this, but come on. Have you seen anything in the past ten months that would lead you to believe that this story isn’t true? Frankly I’m surprised we’re not giving the entire West Bank to Israel and moving all the Palestinians to an ice floe in the south Atlantic.

The Palestinians, of course, won’t agree to anything like this. The PLO’s representative in Washington, Husam Zomlot, told Reuters on Monday that for America to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital alone would be the “kiss of death to the two-state solution.” I disagree, but only because I think the two-state solution died several years ago. But any prayer the Trump administration has of mediating a peace deal will certainly go out the window if it takes this step.


Egyptian authorities say their security forces killed five “militants” in a raid on their hideout in the Nile Delta on Monday. This is becoming a regular occurrence for the Egyptians, who rarely identify who these “militants” are. Are they ISIS? Or are they Muslim Brotherhood? Are they a genuine military threat to Egyptians or are they a potential political threat to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi? These details aren’t filled in.

Sisi’s repressive rule is only getting more repressive, and analyst James Dorsey wonders how long that can continue before Sisi goes too far:

Al-Sisi has, however, not concluded in advance of elections expected next year that he should perhaps loosen the reigns, reduce the role of the military in the economy that is drowning out much of the private sector, and opt for economic policies that are not centred on huge, white elephant infrastructure projects but instead target job creation and lifting millions out of poverty.


Instead, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Al-Sisi is tightening his grip on youth groups and sports clubs that were at the core of the 2011 revolt. He is also believed to be attempting to ensure that credible presidential candidates are prevented from running in the election for which he has yet to declare himself a candidate.


Al-Sisi’s failed policies, insistence on repressive state-centred control of public life, and electoral processes that are everything but free and fair, raises questions about the sustainability of UAE-Saudi-led counterrevolution that aimed to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab uprisings in which the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown. Al-Sisi came to office in 2013 in a UAE-Saudi backed military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected leader.


Finally, we need to go back to Yemen, sort of. That November 4 Houthi missile strike at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh was, as you know, intercepted by Saudi missile defenses. Or, at least, that’s what the Saudis said. And what the Americans said, too–Donald Trump was so proud to let everyone know that it was an American-made Patriot missile battery that shot the Houthi missile out of the sky. Missile defense works! Except, uh, it’s starting to look like the Houthi missile wasn’t really intercepted and just missed the airport on its own:

Instead, evidence analyzed by a research team of missile experts appears to show the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi defenses and nearly hit its target, Riyadh’s airport. The warhead detonated so close to the domestic terminal that customers jumped out of their seats.


Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment. Some U.S. officials cast doubt on whether the Saudis hit any part of the incoming missile, saying there was no evidence that it had. Instead, they said, the incoming missile body and warhead may have come apart because of its sheer speed and force.

Based on the debris the Saudis have shown, it seems that if they hit any part of the missile they hit the back end, which was designed to separate from the warhead and may already have separated when it was struck. The fact that the warhead–the part of the missile that actually, you know, does the damage–apparently hit so close to the airport suggests that it was not intercepted.

The details of a single failed Houthi missile strike against Saudi Arabia probably aren’t that important in the big scheme of things. But it is a big deal that the US government routinely lies about the efficacy of missile defense and about its supposed success stories. Those lies help whip up war fever by reassuring the public that they’re protected from the consequences of any conflict. And when a military superpower is led by an infantile pea-brain who actually believes the shit that most presidents know to be lies, well, things can get downright dangerous. If Donald Trump genuinely believes, erroneously, that US missile defenses can shoot down incoming North Korean nukes, for example, there’s no telling how that will affect or has affected his approach to Pyongyang. Ironically, we could all pay the price for his inability to parse real news from fake news.

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