Middle East update: December 12 2017

Happy Hanukkah to those readers who are celebrating! Now on to the bad news:


Syrian opposition negotiators say the government’s negotiating team is refusing direct talks and will not engage on any issue at all other than “combatting terrorism.” Which, under Damascus’s definition, presumably includes everybody in the opposition delegation. Obviously there’s no particular reason to believe the opposition’s interpretation of events (though it’s consistent with the way Damascus has previously approached peace talks), but the fact that they’re making the accusations at all tells us that things are going really well in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon says it’s seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from Syria–though, given that Vladimir Putin just announced said withdrawal, uh, yesterday, it might be a little premature to draw any conclusions. At any rate, somebody will have to define what “withdrawal” means here, because the Russians have already said they’ll be maintaining their air and naval bases in Syria. To fight terrorists, obviously, not to project power in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. I don’t know where you’re getting those ideas from. Also too, it’s not clear if the Russian “withdrawal” includes “private” security contractors, who thanks to the AP we now know have put thousands of operatives in Syria. Those operatives can’t be considered Russian soldiers, but they sure do keep showing up in places–Crimea, for example–where you might expect Russian soldiers to be. Purely a coincidence, I’m sure.


Patrick Wing tracks the displacement crisis in Iraq with data from the International Organization for Migration. While hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have returned home as ISIS has been pushed back, there are still hundreds of thousands more (over 300,000 each in Baghdad, Irbil, and Salahaddin provinces alone) who remain displaced. Many of them are now displaced not by the risk of violence, which has largely dissipated, but because they have nothing to which they can return–their homes have been destroyed, their neighborhoods left in ruins, etc. Iraq lacks the money to rebuild these places on its own, so without substantial foreign assistance the country will be saddled with a long-term displacement problem.


Yemeni police killed three suspected militants in Aden on Tuesday, in a raid that also saw three officers killed. Also in Aden, a Muslim cleric was murdered, the seventh such killing in the past three months. It’s not clear who the “militants” were or who killed the cleric.

This map of the Yemeni civil war is updated through Sunday–green areas are controlled by the Houthis, red by the government, white by al-Qaeda, orange by the Saleh faction, yellow by southern secessionists, gray by ISIS, and blue by local councils (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

Meanwhile, USAID administrator Mark Green says he’s seen no actual evidence that the Saudis have eased their blockade of Yemen to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country. The United Nations’ coordinator for Yemen, Jamie Green, says the blockade has been relaxed a bit but the humanitarian situation is still dire, with millions at risk of starvation and many communities starting to run out of clean water (increasing, among other things, the risk of cholera).

The Guardian is reporting on the mechanics of the Saudi war effort, which unquestionably has deliberately sought to starve the Yemenis into submission. On top of the Saudi naval blockade, devastating to a country that depends to a very large degree on food imports under the best of circumstances, evidence suggests that the Saudi-led air campaign has intentionally targeted Yemen’s domestic capacity for food production:

Research on the pattern of bombing, carried out by emeritus professor Martha Mundy at the London School of Economics, concluded that in the first 17 months of the Saudi-led bombing campaign there was “strong evidence that coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution” in areas controlled by the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was killed by Houthi forces in Sana’a last week, days after declaring he had switched allegiances.


Data on coalition airstrikes collected by the Yemen Data Project have recorded 356 air raids targeting farms, 174 targeting market places and 61 air raids targeting food storage sites from March 2015 to the end of September 2017.

This is as unambiguous a war crime as it gets, and let’s remember that America is partly responsible for it.


Despite their publicly stated opposition to the American decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to the offensively lopsided Kushner-Trump peace plan being circulated around the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are apparently both fully on board with helping Donald Trump screw the Palestinians. At least that’s what Al Jazeera is reporting, so grain of salt and all. They’re reporting that both the Saudis and the UAE are withholding financial aid to Jordan to squeeze Amman into supporting these Trump policies. This puts Jordan in a serious bind, since economically it needs that aid but politically it’s going to be difficult for King Abdullah to back something so obviously unacceptable to the Palestinians.


Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar seems to think there’s a possibility that Donald Trump’s Jerusalem announcement was a way to butter the Israelis up before he hits them with a peace deal that is more favorable to the Palestinians than they might otherwise like. That seems like a fantasy and contradicts reporting that’s already been done about the peace plan the White House is circulating. So ignore that part of this piece. That stuff aside, though, Eldar has some interesting details on the American consulate in Jerusalem that are news to me:

Tillerson promised that the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem was at least two years away. He cited unspecified “logistical” considerations as the reason for this delay, although those in the know say there is nothing preventing the embassy in Tel Aviv from calling in the movers tomorrow. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, tweeted last week that a recently completed US consular facility in West Jerusalem could fit the bill and house relocated embassy staff.


Indyk knows whereof he speaks. As US ambassador and a senior member of the Middle East negotiating teams under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Indyk has been closely following progress on the construction of a potential US embassy in Jerusalem. Planning sources in Jerusalem said a year ago that the building erected in the city’s Arnona neighborhood, ostensibly for use by the US Consulate, was being outfitted with the needs of an embassy in mind. The new building, located in what was a no-man’s land between the Israeli and Jordanian borders from 1948 to 1967, covers an area of 210,000 square feet, making it almost as big as the embassy in Tel Aviv. Although the building has long been ready for tenants, the US Consulate in the western part of Jerusalem and the one in the eastern part have both stayed put. The delay, therefore, does not stem from logistical difficulties.

So it’s possible Tillerson is trying to slow-roll the actual embassy move in an effort to minimize the damage from the Jerusalem announcement. I wonder if Trump knows that?


Congress is not going to reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran before its 60 day window to do so expires this week. Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), Trump’s refusal to certify the deal in October triggered that window, wherein Congress could have withdrawn from the nuclear accord without the filibuster coming into play. There’s also no sign that Congress is making headway on imposing new penalties on Iran over its missile program or some other unrelated issue. Which means the onus for preserving or killing the deal is now back in Trump’s lap. In mid-January he’ll have to waive an automatic reimposition of sanctions and decide whether or not to certify the deal all over again. If he doesn’t issue the waiver then the US will be out of the deal and that’s that. If he issues the waiver but refuses to certify again, that will trigger another 60 day. window for Congress to do…well, nothing, probably

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