Middle East update: December 7 2017


Saudi-aligned Yemeni fighters captured Khoukha, a coastal region around 220 miles southwest of Sanaa, from the Houthis on Thursday. Khoukha is not that far south of Hudaydah, if you’re wondering how the Saudis might be planning to make Yemen even more of a hellscape than it already is. If they attack Yemen, all those people who are starving to death now will likely starve to death, because there’s no other port in Yemen that can handle the size of the necessary humanitarian effort.

The United Nations estimates that some 230 people were killed in Sanaa during the week of clashes (which thankfully seem to be over at least for now) between the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rebel faction. The International Crisis Group’s April Longley Alley does not seem to think that Saleh’s death is going to change the military situation in Yemen very much:

There is a chance that the military balance in the north could still shift – albeit a small one. Some are pinning their hopes on Saleh’s son Ahmed who vowed revenge for this father’s death. The UAE kept him under “soft” house arrest in Abu Dhabi during the war to have him available as back-up, a kind of wild card, for a moment like this. While he is influential within the old Republican Guard, the most recent events demonstrated these forces’ weakness and disarray. Opposing the Huthis militarily would require some reconstitution of these troops, support from the tribes around Sanaa and cooperation between Ahmed Ali and his bitter enemy, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the vice president under Hadi, who commands forces in Marib.


Thus far, and despite media bluster from Hadi calling for troops to march on Sanaa or for Yemenis to rise up against the Huthis, there is little indication that troops are prepared for such action. Instead, the coalition has intensified its air campaign in Sanaa, something that will not dislodge the Huthis and works to their advantage by increasing anti-Saudi sentiment.


Russia did it, everyone, they killed ISIS:

“The mission to defeat bandit units of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the territory of Syria, carried out by the armed forces of the Russian Federation, has been accomplished,” Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, head of the general staff’s operations, said on Rossiya 24 TV channel.

This is horse shit, naturally. There’s no reason to think ISIS has been permanently defeated, particularly not when there’s so much sparsely populations and largely uncontrolled Syrian desert into which its fighters could have disappeared. It would be swell to think that the Syrians and Russians precluded that from happening, but given that it took them at least two tries just to secure control of al-Bukamal, it’s clear that ISIS fighters had plenty of time and opportunity to slip away.

Speaking of slipping away, former Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Talal Silo says that “thousands” of ISIS fighters were allowed to evacuate Raqqa under a US-approved deal the SDF cut with them in mid-October. That’s a much higher number than had been previously thought, and the US for one insists that Silo is lying. Silo left the SDF and defected to Turkish lines last month, possibly under some duress (his children are in Turkey), so make of that what you will.

As far as the Geneva peace talks are concerned, there was a bit of a breakthrough on Thursday when Syrian state media reported that the Syrian government delegation would be coming back to the talks on Sunday. They quit the talks late last week because of the opposition’s insistence that Bashar al-Assad must go before there can be a negotiated peace. United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura says he’ll be watching the rebel and government delegations to see if either side is deliberately trying to derail talks.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Greece on Thursday, the first visit by a Turkish president to that country in over 65 years (though it was not Erdoğan’s first visit, since he traveled there back when he was prime minister). It went really, really well:

With Turkey’s relations with Europe and the United States deteriorating, there had been hopes that Mr. Erdogan’s visit might portend closer ties with Greece, and greater stability in the region. It had been touted, on both sides of the Aegean, as aimed at improving ties.


Instead, Mr. Erdogan managed to provoke his hosts even before landing in Athens. In an interview published in the Greek daily Kathimerini on Thursday, he suggested an “update” of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined Turkey’s borders with neighboring countries after World War I.


He repeated the demand at a tense, televised news conference with his Greek counterpart, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

Turkey and Greece have longstanding territorial disagreements in the Aegean Sea that have almost led to war at least a couple of times over the past 30-40 years. Erdoğan is also angry at his feeling that the Greek government is harboring fugitives from the 2016 attempted coup, at the Greek government’s alleged mistreatment of its Muslim citizens, at the status of negotations over Cyprus–you name it, he’s pissed about it.


Reuters has a new piece on the Hariri saga today, and it doesn’t break any news but it’s a decent summary of where things are if you’re interested in something like that. I’m calling attention to it only because of this anecdote at the end:

On the last day of Hariri’s stay in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman summoned him for a meeting and kept him waiting for hours, delaying his departure for France where President Emanuel Macron was waiting for him, the senior politician and a top Lebanese official said.


“Macron was calling Saad to find out where he was,” said the senior politician, adding that Macron then called Crown Prince Mohammad to tell him he was expecting Hariri for lunch.

This story so perfectly encapsulates all three of the putzes involved that I almost struggle to believe it actually happened.


I think this tweet from Nima Shirazi expresses an important thought with respect to Jerusalem:

The problem is that there will be violence because of Trump’s announcement–there already has been and there’s likely more to come–so you have to talk about that component of the story. But Trump’s decision is wrong because it’s wrong, not because of how the Palestinians or anybody else might respond to it. Please have that in the back of your mind as you read coverage of this story, here or anywhere else.

Marc Lynch emphasizes another important point here:

The status of Jerusalem has always been one of the key issues set aside for final status negotiations. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has traditionally been understood as a major concession that could be offered to Israel in exchange for an agreement on other issues such as borders, settlements or the return of Palestinian refugees. Trump gave Israel this prize for nothing, while offering Palestinians nothing of consequence in exchange. While preemptively giving away a prime bargaining chip seems like an odd negotiating tactic, a number of commentators and former diplomats have made the case that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem could actually help peace negotiations.


Most likely, the recognition of Jerusalem will have none of the promised benefits for negotiations and relatively few of the threatened costs. This is not because Jerusalem does not matter, but rather because there is no real peace process to disrupt, little meaningful prospect for a two-state solution to squander, and little belief in U.S. neutrality to violate.

The appropriate question is not “can the peace process survive Trump’s decision,” it’s “what peace process?” Asserting that there is or has been one doesn’t make it so. And while Trump’s move openly declares that America is not a neutral arbiter, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that America really never was a neutral arbiter to begin with.

Lynch also gets questions about what the Jerusalem decision will mean for the US-Israel-Arab anti-Iran axis. Noting that Arab governments have made it clear that Palestine is not a priority for them, he argues that Arab publics could still make it a priority:

Palestinian territories continues to be one of the few unifying issues among these deeply divided Arab publics. There is little question that Arabs still care deeply about Palestinian territories, or that Jerusalem has particularly salient emotional and political resonance. That concern may be latent, but survey research and social media data alike show that it is real and intense. The key question is whether this public opinion can have any meaningful effect on the policies of Arab states. Arab public attention in recent years has been focused on the wars in Syria and Yemen, and on domestic political turbulence. Public mobilization in most Arab countries faces steep obstacles following the harsh resurgence of brutal forms of authoritarianism.


There’s a new debate in Egypt over whether the government should begin arming Sinai tribes that are opposed to ISIS. The upside is that those tribes are in some ways better equipped to combat ISIS in Sinai than the Egyptian military. The potential downside is that these newly armed tribes could pose a different problem for Cairo if they, say, start fighting among themselves or develop their own grievances with the Egyptian government.


One group that seems to be very much in favor of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement is Iranian hardliners, who see it as the birth of a new resistance movement (led and supported by Iran, naturally) in Palestine. This will be music to the ears of American hardliners, who see anything that strengthens Iran’s hardliners as just another step forward on the road to the war they’ve been after for nearly four decades.

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