Middle East update: January 3 2018


Russian media is reporting that at least seven Russian aircraft were destroyed on December 31 by rebel shelling at Khmeimim airbase, just south of Latakia. If true, it’s Russia’s biggest loss of materiel in one incident in their 2+ year long Syrian intervention. It also suggests some rebel movement in northwestern Syria that’s gone otherwise unreported.


David Roberts of the Arab Gulf States Institute says there are signs that Saudi and even UAE leaders are relaxing their hardline anti-Muslim Brotherhood views, at least when it comes to Yemen’s Islah party:

While there is widespread international agreement on the need to counter AQAP, the UAE has long insisted that groups like Islah, with established links to the wider Muslim Brotherhood, are also beyond the pale. This puts the UAE in a minority of states that are unwilling to coexist with groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen, this led to repeated conflict with Saudi Arabia over whether Islah-aligned forces could be embraced. This is because an article of faith underpinningrecent Emirati foreign policy is to, wherever possible, support forces that are ranged against those groups and parties that seek to mix politicized Islam and governance.


Consequently, it was surprising to see the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, sitting alongside the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and senior members of Yemen’s Islah Party, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yidoumi and Abdulwahab al-Anisi, in mid-December. This signals a profound change in UAE strategy in Yemen. Though in the works for weeks, such a rapprochement became entirely unavoidable after the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who, under the logic of being the least worst option, the UAE hoped to return to power in Yemen to assemble a viable coalition. The UAE secured from Islah its disengagement from the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement, paving the way for the establishment of a pragmatic alliance without compromising core Emirati policy objectives.

If the UAE can work with Islah it could help ease some of the internal divisions that have hampered the anti-Houthi coalition. At the same time, though, it’s never been more clear that Yemen’s internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, is almost totally superfluous to events involving the country he supposedly leads.

In somewhat related news, Al Jazeera is reporting that Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh and former commander of Yemen’s presidential guard, is still alive. There were reports that the Houthis killed him along with his uncle last month but now it appears he was safely smuggled out of Sanaa by the Emiratis. Tareq gives the Saudis and Emiratis another Saleh who they can foist upon the Yemeni people instead of Ali’s son Ahmed–who doesn’t seem to have impressed anybody in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, Emirati media is reporting that the coalition has cut one of the Houthis main supply lines into Taiz, which could be a significant break in the stalemate that’s doomed that province and its people going all the way back to 2015.


Former Turkish president and erstwhile Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ally Abdullah Gül made a rare entry back into Turkish politics on Christmas day to criticize a couple of his ex-pal’s new presidential decrees:

The man who has long been touted as Erdogan’s sole credible rival took to Twitter to criticize a pair of new decrees that critics charge effectively legitimize violence carried out by ordinary citizens to defend Erdogan and his government against their perceived enemies.


Using typically guarded language, Gul wrote that while he believed the decrees were issued to protect “our heroic citizens” who poured into the streets to face down the coup plotters on the night of the coup, their wording was “vague” and “troubling” and not in keeping with the spirit of the rule of law.

Though Gül helped found Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and served as its first parliamentary leader before Erdoğan was able to win an election and step in as prime minister, he’s become the dream candidate for anti-Erdoğan types going into the 2019 presidential election since he could unite the opposition and probably cut into some of Erdoğan’s base. The two men clearly don’t get along anymore (Erdoğan had Gül more or less purged from the party after taking over as president), but Gül has been pretty reluctant to get back into the political fray. A single tweet doesn’t exactly mean He’s Running, but it’s something to watch.

Turkey’s increasing investment in Sudan now includes a lease on Suakin Island in the Red Sea, once home to an important Ottoman military base. Though Ankara insists its interest in the island is non-military, the lease is raising some concerns in the Middle East, where even though the Ottoman Empire has been defunct for almost a century, any whiff of Turkish expansionism can dredge up discomfort. This move, coming at this time, is of particular concern for the Saudis, given Turkey’s support for Qatar in the ongoing GCC crisis.


Donald Trump’s threat yesterday to cut off US aid to the Palestinians, if they don’t knuckle under to whatever bullshit “peace” deal his idiot son in-law offers them, was received about as well as you would have anticipated:

Palestinian officials have dismissed as “blackmail” Donald Trump’s threat to cut US aid over what he called their unwillingness to negotiate with Israel.


A spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas insisted Jerusalem was “not for sale” – a reference to Mr Trump’s recognition of the city as the capital of Israel.


Mr Abbas was not against negotiations, he said, but they had to be based on “international laws and resolutions”.

If Trump follows through on his threat to cut aid–and he’ll look like a chump if he doesn’t now–most of the cuts are likely to come at the expense of the United Nations Relief Works Agency, which is responsible for dealing with Palestinian refugees. What a shock, Donald Trump might beat up on some more refugees. Who could have seen this coming?

On top of the attempted strong-arming, Trump’s angry tweets suggested that the Kushner Accords will probably not make any allowances for East Jerusalem to be the capital of an independent Palestine:

“Off the table” seems pretty clear–there won’t be any negotiations about dividing the city between two states.

The news around Jerusalem may not be so great, but people in Gaza got a welcome development on Wednesday when the Palestinian Authority announced that it will resume paying Gaza’s electric bill with Israel. If Israel turns the juice back on it will take Gaza from around 3 hours of electricity per day to around six, which might not seem like much until you’re the one trying to live–or operate a hospital–on only 3 hours of electricity per day. The PA concession might help shake loose its frozen talks with Hamas about a Palestinian unity arrangement–of course, Trump’s Jerusalem move probably helped in that regard too.


The UAE may have new reason to start looking for a way out of the Yemen war, because they’re starting to lose weapons suppliers. Norway announced Wednesday that it’s suspending arms sales to the Emiratis on the chance that their weapons might be used in Yemen. Now if the UK and US would only follow suit.


Protests are continuing across Iran in what looks increasingly like an economically-motivated movement of people angry about high unemployment and increasing prices on basic goods. The past couple of days have brought counter-protests in support of the Iranian government, though it’s unclear whether they’ve been spontaneous or organized by said government (or both). The counter-protests prompted General Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to declare the “sedition” over, and there’s a fair amount to unpack there. The protests certainly don’t appear to be over, but Jafari’s use of “sedition,” and the mobilization of his IRGC, suggests the government is planning to escalate the violence of its response to the protesters. It also suggests it’s planning to charge protesters who have been arrested with treason, which is a death penalty offense under Iranian law.

Jafari also made reference to a “former official” who may have been involved somehow in kicking off the initial protest in Mashhad. Speculation is rife that he was talking about former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence (so far) that this “former official” was directly involved in organizing the protest, but rather that a website closely affiliated with this person was directly involved.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, says he supports the Iranian people. Is he going to, say, lift his ban on Iranian citizens entering the United States, to show how much he cares? LOL no. Instead, he might scrap the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, which would materially harm the Iranian people Trump says he supports and give the Iranian government, which Trump says he does not support, an easy excuse–a justification, really, since it’s quite valid–for Iran’s crummy economy. Sounds like a genius idea.

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