Middle East update: December 11 2017


Having declared victory over ISIS, Patrick Wing says that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now has to show that he can be an effective peacetime leader, and so far the signs are not all that encouraging:

Abadi has proven to be a very good war leader, but now that is over he faces an array of new challenges. For the last two years, the prime minister’s sole concern was recapturing the country’s towns and cities. That proved a huge success, and a decided turn of events from when the Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of the insurgents in the summer of 2014. The PM has absolutely nothing to follow that up with. His government made no plans for reconstruction, and has no money to pay for it anyway as Iraq continues to face low oil prices. The same thing goes for post-IS security. The local security forces have not been rebuilt in many areas for instance. Security in places like Anbar and Ninewa is largely being handled by tribal Hashd units since most of the police have not been brought back and new ones not generated. Those Hashd units can do little more than man checkpoints and are riddled with rivalries. Abadi has also recently said he would deal with corruption once again, as well as economic reform. Those require systemic steps that will take years, and the entrenched interest to maintain them are formidable. There is also the unresolved crisis with the Kurdistan Regional Government. After moving federal forces into Kirkuk and other disputed areas, there has been no movement on this front. Abadi may be using the Kurds and corruption for his 2018 election campaign. That means this may be more smoke than fire.


Russian President Vladimir Putin toured the Middle East on Monday, in particular visiting Syria where he announced the beginning of a Russian drawdown in forces. This isn’t the first time Putin has announced something like this, so probably you should believe it when you see it. But he is running for president next year, and while there’s no suspense about whether he’ll win I’m sure he’d like to run up the score as much as possible. This announcement should be popular with the Russian public. It could also be seen as a message to Bashar al-Assad that it’s time to stop relying on Russian support and start negotiating.

The New Yorker’s Robin Wright writes that “the Trump Administration is now prepared to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled Presidential election, in 2021, according to U.S. and European officials.” This is of course in contrast with the administration’s constant talk about how there’s no future for Assad in Syria. Obviously it’s commonplace for any administration to admit things privately that contradict the things it says publicly, but what’s funny about this to me is that the Trump administration doesn’t really have any way to make Assad go in 2021 either. And hey, if we’re lucky, they won’t be around anymore by then anyway.


The official Yemeni news agency SABA says that the Houthis have killed 20 people and arrested dozens more in their territory since killing former President Ali Abdullah Saleh last week. That may not bode well for the long-term stability of their rebellion.


Turkish authorities say their airstrikes killed 29 PKK fighters in northern Iraq on Monday.

Putin also visited Turkey on Monday, where he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (see below). This gave both men the chance to pose as regional power brokers and mug for a very receptive Muslim audience. They also announced that Russia’s sale of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey would be finalized this week.


Tens of thousands of people attended a Hezbollah-led rally in Beirut on Monday to protest the Jerusalem decision (again, see below). You know, for a group they both profess to hate and would like to see driven from Lebanese politics, nobody has done more to strengthen Hezbollah’s stature within Lebanon over the past couple of months than Saudi Arabia and the United States. Way to go guys.

People looking for deeper meaning behind the rally seem to think, and with some reason, that it was effectively Hezbollah’s announcement that it’s reorienting itself away from Syria and back toward its traditional conflict with Israel. In a sense this could be a concession from Hezbollah to Lebanese PM Saad al-Hariri, who’s been trying to rein Hezbollah in to some extent and could go back to his Saudi bosses and claim victory if Hezbollah does reprioritize things away from Syria.


Let’s get the non-Jerusalem news out of the way first:

  • Israeli forces struck alleged Hamas targets in Gaza on Monday in response to another rocket incident in southern Israel.
  • Tens of thousands of protesters once again hit the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demonstrate against corruption and in particular against the increasingly scandal-plagued Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many are reportedly protesting not just Netanyahu’s alleged corruption but also his unmistakable slide into authoritarianism.

European Union foreign ministers and the bloc’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, told Netanyahu on Monday that the EU will not be joining Trump with respect to Jerusalem’s status:

“I have to say that PM Netanyahu realised, I think, from the ministers themselves that there is full EU unity on this, that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine.


“The EU and member states will continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem until the final status of the holy city is resolved, through direct negotiations between the parties.”

But that’s not to say Trump’s decision has no European fans. On the contrary, there are lots of very fine people who seem extremely supportive:

Speaking this weekend at a meeting of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, Zeman assailed Europe’s “cowardly” response to Trump’s announcement and accused the European Union of letting “the pro-Palestinian terror movement” dominate the discussion about Israel, according to the CTK news agency.


Another European leader with links to the far right, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, had tweeted support last week for the view that Jerusalem was the “undivided, eternal capital of Israel.” Wilders, leader of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV), added that “all freedom loving countries should move their embassy to Jerusalem” and suggested that the Jordanian capital, Amman, was the Palestinian capital.


Austrian far-right leader Hans-Christian Strache also expressed understanding for the Israeli position that Jerusalem was its capital. “It would be our wish too that our embassy would be located there, as is common in the world,” Strache, leader of the Freedom Party (FPO), said in an interview with the newspaper Kurier published Saturday.

If you can tell something about a person by the company they keep, well, this is the company that the President of the United States of America keeps–a bunch of low-rent Third Reich cosplayers. And since the Republican Party keeps company with the President of the United States, well, there’s a transitive property thing happening there that I’ll let you work out for yourselves.


Putin also visited Egypt on Monday (he had quite a day apparently), where he announced a resumption of direct commercial flights that had been suspended following the 2015 bombing of a Russian jet over Sinai. Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi also inked a deal for Russia to begin work on a nuclear power plant in Dabaa, along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.


Good news, everybody–the Saudis can still throw you in jail if you criticize the regime or if Mohammad bin Salman decides he wants your money, but now it will be possible for the authorities to detain you in a real-deal cinema:

In the latest in a series of gestures toward modernization that would once have seemed improbable, Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would allow commercial movie theaters to open for the first time in more than 35 years.


The moves to allow access by early 2018, part of a broad campaign by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to transform Saudi society, followed measures that would give women the right to drive and to attend soccer games, and that would allow concerts and other forms of public entertainment.

I think “gesture” is the right word here, but probably not in the way the NYT means it. Like allowing Saudi women to drive, this is part of MBS’s effort to prepare people for the coming dismantling of the Saudi welfare state by recognizing new freedoms. Unlike the driving reform, which helps genuinely address inequality and potentially offers important economic benefits for the country to boot, this gesture is almost totally empty. The Saudis, who say they want to have 300 working cinemas in the country by 2030, will only show films that pass muster with censors, and anyway Saudis are already able to watch movies on computers, mobile devices, etc.

I grant you that watching a movie in a theater has its benefits, but if the Saudis were really interested in reforming something then their use of capital punishment would be a fantastic place to look. Not for nothing, but as far as the death penalty is concerned the Iranians have made far more substantive reform than the Saudis, and that’s a hell of a lot more important than legalizing movie theaters. Which the Iranians never banned, by the way, but again I’m digressing.


In what is undoubtedly an attempt to claw his way back into political relevance, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has decided to start attacking the prominent Larijani family–judiciary boss Sadegh Amoli Larijani and his brother, Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament and a potential future presidential candidate. Ahmadinejad built his political career attacking another former Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but that was a decade ago when Ahmadinejad actually had some leverage in Iranian politics. When last we saw Ahmadinejad, both he and his handpicked stalking horse, Hamid Baghaei, were being disqualified from running in the 2017 election, a sign that even the conservative powers that be don’t want anything to do with him anymore.

Buried in this Jackson Diehl (not generally a fan) piece on Jerusalem is a preview of coming events at the White House:

Tehran’s biggest gain will come if Trump makes a third china-breaking choice that is looming on the horizon. His decertification of the nuclear deal gave Congress 60 days — until this week — to decide on the reimposition of sanctions on Iran. It will not do so, which means that in January, Trump will be presented with yet another legally mandated decision on whether to preserve the sanctions’ suspension or blow up the nuclear deal once and for all.


His staff, congressional leaders from both parties and European leaders worry about another senseless but attention-grabbing rupture. Because U.N. inspectors have repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance, neither Europeans nor Russia and China — the other parties to the pact — would accept Trump’s voiding of the accord. The regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would have a delicious choice: either stick with the deal and isolate the United States, or use the reimposition of U.S. sanctions as an excuse to resume the stockpiling of highly enriched uranium. Trump would have no recourse but a war for which the United States is entirely unprepared.

Even if the United States were prepared, that war would be a catastrophically bad idea (that Diehl doesn’t seem to get that is part of the reason I’m not a fan). Diehl says that Congressional leaders are working with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on a measure that would impose some new penalty on Iran, presumably over its missile program, while also blocking Trump’s ability to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal or at least his ability to wreck the deal for everybody else in the event he does withdraw from it. That might be the best-case scenario at this point.

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