Middle East update: December 5 2017


Well, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death had one fairly immediate impact: there were no reports of fighting between his supporters and the Houthis in Sanaa on Tuesday. Instead, the Houthis and their supporters held a rally to celebrate killing their erstwhile ally and rounding up Saleh diehards in the capital.

Ahmed Saleh, the ex-dictator’s son, promised vengeance for his dad, from whatever undisclosed location he’s currently occupying. On Saudi television, no less, Ahmed Saleh swore to continue “the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen … the blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran.” There’s virtually no question that Ahmed is the new leader of his father’s faction, or whatever’s left of it–Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, Ali Abdullah’s nephew and military adviser, has apparently also been killed by the Houthis, and the rest of Saleh’s sons appears to be missing. But whether, and how, Ahmed plans to get himself into Sanaa to lead the fight remains to be seen.

Questions linger about the circumstances of Saleh’s death. The Houthis continue to insist that he was intercepted while fleeing Sanaa by convoy and killed in the resulting gun battle, but Ahmed Saleh claims, and there’s some evidence supporting this, that Saleh was killed in his residential compound after engaging the Houthis in talks and then rejecting their offer to place him under house arrest in exchange for letting him stay alive.


ISIS claimed credit for bombing a bus in Homs on Tuesday. At least eight people were killed in the attack.

Speaking of which, and on the plus side, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS now estimates that the group has fewer than 3000 fighters still left in its core Iraq-Syria heartland. Though if its math here is as bad as its math on civilian casualties (the coalition estimates it’s killed about 800 civilians when the real figure is closer to 5700), then for all we know there could still be 22,000 ISIS fighters running around the place.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri formally withdrew his resignation on Tuesday, ending a bizarre saga that seems to have left everybody exactly where they were when it began one month ago. This might seem like another humiliating defeat for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s foreign policy, but not so! Hariri says he did it in response to a decision by all parties in the Lebanese government, presumably including Hezbollah, to reaffirm the principle of disassociation from regional conflicts. He (and the Saudis) can claim victory over that reaffirmation.

The only problem with that formulation is that Lebanese parties first adopted the principle of disassociation in 2013, and, um, it hasn’t exactly meant anything. So the reaffirmation is basically meaningless–Hezbollah still has forces in Syria right now–and Hariri’s un-resignation is in fact the Saudis capitulating.


Boy, he bout to do it:

President Trump told Israeli and Arab leaders on Tuesday that he plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a symbolically fraught move that would upend decades of American policy and upset efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.


Mr. Trump is expected to announce his decision on Wednesday, two days after the expiration of a deadline for him to decide whether to keep the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.

By “he” I of course mean “former host of TV’s The Apprentice Donald Trump,” and by “it” I mean “something incredibly damaging to both American and international interests.” Trump will waive moving the US embassy to Jerusalem for another six months, so tomorrow’s announcement could be worse–but not by much.

International reaction is already pouring in, and folks let me tell you, so many people are saying, Jerusalem, it’s got to be the capital, you have to make it the capital, it’s amazing, and I think this decision is something that’s going to be recognized more and more most of it is not good:

  • Palestinian leaders are calling for “three days of rage” across the West Bank, while the Jordanian government is trying to organize an emergency Arab League meeting to coordinate a response
  • Turkey is threatening to break off diplomatic ties with Israel
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Republican Party’s Favorite Muslim™, says that the move will “complicate the situation in the region”
  • German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called the move “a very dangerous development”
  • Saudi King Salman told Trump on the phone that the move “will harm peace talks and increase tensions,” though given reports that his son is the guy in charge of selling Trump’s ultra-lopsided Israel-Palestine peace framework to Arab governments, I’m not sure Salman really means it

It’s hard to express just how malicious this decision is. I almost wrote “stupid” there, but “stupid” is too kind to Trump. Jerusalem, or the western half of it anyway, was inevitably going to be the recognized capital of Israel, but not until there was a peace deal in place with the Palestinians. Jerusalem’s status was one of the few bits of leverage the Palestinians had in negotiations, and we’re talking about a situation in which Israel has felt comfortable turning the West Bank into its landfill, so clearly the Palestinians already didn’t have very much leverage before Trump took this piece away from them.

Trump is hilariously trying to convince the Arab leaders he calls that this decision will actually increase the chances of negotiating an Israel-Palestine peace accord by taking a thorny issue off the table. But you don’t establish your bona fides as a mediator by walking into the room, forcing party A to give party B the keys to his car, and then kicking party A in the nuts for his trouble. The notion of America as impartial facilitator was already a laughable fiction but at least it was one that the Palestinians were willing to observe. Good luck maintaining even that, let alone making progress in any talks.

Meanwhile, this decision gains the United States nothing, either in the Middle East or around the world. It doesn’t even help Trump politically except among his base, and only a little bit there. Most people who thought Trump would eventually go through with recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital assumed he would do it in a fit of rage after Jared Kushner’s peace effort flopped. But instead he’s doing it now, before that effort ever even had a chance to get started. There’s nothing about this decision that makes sense unless you accept that Trump is a bigot who, when it comes to Muslims, will always act in deliberate bad faith no matter the implications.


Tuesday’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait was actually supposed to be Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait, but the whole summit came to an abrupt end after a single closed session. Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah said afterward that the GCC may need to change the way it functions to deal with internal discord, suggesting the formation of a task force to handle such occurrences. But, uh, the GCC itself is supposed to be the task force that deals with discord between the Gulf Arab states. If it can’t do that, then it’s not clear why the GCC still exists.


Which may be exactly what Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are thinking. Both countries (along with Bahrain) sent relatively low-level representatives to Kuwait, clearly displaying their disinterest in the proceedings there, and then upstaged the summit when UAE officials announced that the two countries are forming their own political and military alliance. Said alliance, assuming it gets off the ground, would presumably supplant the GCC at least for the Saudis and Emiratis (and maybe Bahrain too if they decide to expand).

Finally I leave you with photos of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visiting Saudi Arabia, because, well, because how else are you possibly going to see anything this hilarious this evening:

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One thought on “Middle East update: December 5 2017

  1. Yeah, definitely not a coincidence Trump tweets those anti-muslim videos and then wants to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Bigots gonna bigot. At the time, I think, “Wow, I can’t believe this guy is so brazenly racist and is still president.” And then there’s the reminder of what racists can do as president.

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