Middle East update: December 8 2017



One of the positives that came out of the Mosul operation was the performance of Iraq’s elite “Golden Division” (Counterterrorism Service or CTS) special forces unit. That unit had received considerably more US training and materiel than other Iraqi units, and it clearly outperformed the rest of Iraq’s fighting forces. Outperformed them so much, in fact, that Iraqi officials overused it badly. Now it needs to be rebuilt, to say nothing of American plans to expand the unit to 20,000 soldiers over the next three years. Strengthening these forces is supposed to be part of an overall campaign to get the US to the point where it feels, rightly or not, like it can draw down its own forces in Iraq without Iranian-backed militias stepping into a vacuum that the US is leaving behind. It’s fairly inexplicable, then, that the US and its coalition partners have spent all their time since the liberation of Mosul not training as much as a single new CTS soldier.


American pilots say that Russian aircraft are routinely violating deconfliction agreements in eastern Syria that are supposed to keep the two countries’ planes far enough apart to avoid incident. Or, in other words, they say the Russians keep flying on the wrong (east) side of the Euphrates River without calling ahead first as they’re supposed to do in those instances. The Americans describe incidents in which they say they could have justified firing on the Russians in self-defense.


Saudi Arabia killed at least 23 Yemeni civilians on Friday in airstrikes on Yemen’s northern city of Saada, in the Houthis’ geographical heartland. Elsewhere, the US says it killed five al-Qaeda members in airstrikes on the country’s central Bayda province.

Reuters has produced another version of the tale of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s final days:

A day before they killed Yemen’s former president, gunmen from the Iran-aligned Houthi militia group overran one of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s fortified compounds in Sanaa.


Ransacking the villa, they snapped photos of liquor flasks and vodka bottles and posted them online.


“This is how the traitor (Saleh) and his family lived during a time of war, siege and cholera,” Hamid Rizq, a senior Houthi official, said on his official Twitter account.


The Houthi gunmen acted fast and mercilessly to punish the 75-year-old Saleh for having appeared to switch sides in Yemen’s three-year civil war – a proxy battle for influence between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, went on trial yesterday on terrorism charges. Ankara claims that Demirtaş has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, but there’s reason to believe he’s a political prisoner. As such, there’s a good deal of concern about whether or not Demirtaş will be able to get a fair trial, concern that was exacerbated yesterday when the court ruled that he cannot participate in the trial himself, at least not in person, ostensibly over “security” concerns.


For a while today it seemed that violence in Gaza and the West Bank over Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been relatively muted:

Palestinian protesters headed in their hundreds for the Gaza border after Friday Prayer to confront Israeli soldiers, and clashed at military checkpoints across the West Bank. In Amman, Jordan, demonstrators held large posters of President Trump bearing the words “Go to hell.” Muslims rallied from Beirut, Lebanon, to Tehran.


In Gaza, Palestinian health officials reported one death and more than 30 injuries by midafternoon from Israeli fire along the border. In the West Bank, more than 20 protesters were said to have been wounded, mostly by rubber-tipped bullets.

One death is obviously one too many, but things could have been considerably worse. And it now appears they’re getting worse–Israeli aircraft have reportedly wounded at least 25 people in Gaza in airstrikes retaliating for alleged rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

Protests against the US decision are happening throughout the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey) and elsewhere (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan). The Palestinians are saying they will not speak with any American representatives again until the decision is reversed–that includes Vice President Mike Pence, who is supposed to tour the region later this month and now looks like he won’t be meeting with Palestinian leadership and also won’t be welcome at al-Azhar in Cairo.

And things didn’t go so great for Nikki Haley at the United Nations, either:

One by one, the ambassadors of Sweden, Egypt, Britain, France and Bolivia, among others, reiterated their position that President Trump’s announcement had subverted the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a longtime bedrock of the United Nations position on resolving it. Some, like Bolivia’s ambassador, Sacha Sergio Llorenty Solíz, demanded that the body take action, “otherwise the Security Council will become an occupied territory,” he said.

In response, Haley had the gall to complain, her president’s boot still firmly pressing down on the Palestinians’ collective throat, about the UN bullying Israel. As if it were even possible for the UN, arguably the most routinely ignored major institution on the planet (particularly by Israel, come to think of it), to bully anyone.

The University of Connecticut’s Jeremy Pressman sees the Jerusalem decision as a microcosm of Trump’s maliciously anti-Palestinian (that”s my description, not his) approach to the whole Israel-Palestine situation:

What Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation tells us is that the Trump administration does not view the Palestinian national movement as a near-equal negotiating partner, and therefore the administration is unlikely to produce a proposal for negotiations that might bridge gaps between the two sides. The complete lack of symmetry, even for a country that has long favored its relations with Israel over those with the Palestinian national movement, was clear in his remarks — despite the glancing comment “God bless the Palestinians” in his sign-off. That’s why Netanyahu could compareTrump’s statement to the historic Balfour Declaration of 1917, a British statement that viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Oh, and it turns out that Peace Envoy Jared Kushner’s family charity funds Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. So that’s nice. What an honest broker he’s been.


Giorgio Cafiero’s new piece on the divide between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is well worth your time. It’s no secret that a big factor in their falling out has been their divergent views on the Muslim Brotherhood. As Cafiero notes, the positions of both countries on the Brotherhood represent departures from Gulf tradition. The UAE is bucking decades of Gulf support for the organization, which found sanctuary in the Gulf states when it was driven underground by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-20th century. Though to be fair, UAE leaders began souring on the Brotherhood at least a decade before any of the other Gulf states. Qatar, on the other hand, has been bucking one of the GCC’s core principles: opposition to revolution:

Since its 1981 establishment, the GCC has served as a conservative anchor in the Middle East that has opposed revolutionary activism from any part of the Arab world’s political spectrum and both sides of the sectarian split. Although no other GCC states has gone to the pains that the UAE has to push back against Islamist factions in the region, most of the other Council members have shared Abu Dhabi’s view of the Arab Spring as a destabilizing development with negative implications for GCC security.


However, there was one exception—Qatar—which uniquely embraced revolutions that shook the MENA region in 2011. Important examples of Doha’s support for the Arab Spring were in Egypt, where Qatar’s state-owned network al-Jazeera played a pivotal rolein shaping events that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and in Libya, where Doha’s ties with rebel forces were game-changing variables in Muammar Gaddafi’s fate.


Middle East Eye is reporting that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has been sacked and replaced by Khaled bin Salman, younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and current Saudi ambassador to the US. This story just came over my RSS feed a short time ago so there’s not much detail and frankly I wouldn’t even say it’s confirmed yet, but obviously if accurate it represents yet another consolidation of power by the crown prince. This being the Saudi royal family, we have no idea if Jubeir may have said something to MBS that prompted the move or if MBS was dissatisfied with his performance somehow.

UPDATING: The longer this goes with no major outlet reporting this story, the less inclined I am to think it’s true. MEE has a spotty record breaking news like this and that’s why I tried to be circumspect in the paragraph above. In this case, though they initially reported several sources making the claim, it now appears (they’ve rewritten the piece to reflect this) that they were relying almost entirely on one report from Assad-friendly Al-Masdar, which has a decidedly poor record breaking news like this. I’m striking through paragraph now and you can treat it as fake news until further notice.

If Jubeir was canned, maybe it was over what appears to be a decline in the Trump administration’s zeal for Saudi foreign policy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met in Paris on Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, and some harsh words for Riyadh:

“With respect to Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Qatar, how they’re handling the Yemen war that they’re engaged in, the Lebanon situation, we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions to, I think, fully consider the consequences,” Mr. Tillerson said at a news conference at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris.

That’s not much, but coming from this administration isn’t practically a full-on denunciation. As with everything else that Tillerson says these days, it’s hard to know if he’s actually speaking for Trump or if he’s getting some things off his chest before he finally gets canned. However, coupled with Trump’s recent statement calling on the Saudis to allow full humanitarian access to Yemen (Tillerson expanded this on Friday to include commercial access as well), it certainly seems like there’s a big of a shift in the administration.

Last month, MBS, the Anti-Corruption Crusader, apparently spent $450 million to buy the Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. I wonder how he managed to squirrel away enough money but I’m sure it was all through totally legal and above-board means. MBS seems to have tried to use one of his hapless cousins as a front guy to conceal the purchase, but that didn’t work. So now he says he purchased the painting on behalf of the UAE ministry of culture and that the UAE plans to display the work in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened last month. And indeed the Louvre Abu Dhabi says it does expect to take possession of the work. Which is a bit strange–it’s hard to imagine a museum in conservative Abu Dhabi displaying a painting that not only represents the image of Jesus (questionable under Islamic law) but that portrays him as the savior of the world (obviously also problematic).

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