Middle East update: April 10 2018

I’m posting a little earlier than usual this evening because I’ve decided to give this whole “sleep” thing another look. In fact if I can manage it this might become the norm going forward.


If you believe in fate, and also that we already live in a kind of eternal damnation, then the fact that John Bolton’s first week as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor coincides with new allegations of a mass casualty chemical weapons attack in Syria is good evidence that you’re on to something. Bolton is of course likely to encourage a muscular US response to the allegations stemming from Saturday’s incident in Douma, and if it feels like we’re all in a holding pattern until the strikes begin, that’s because we probably are. Trump has already canceled his plans to attend the Summit of the Americas later this week–he’s sending Mike Pence instead–so he can be in Washington to Do Something about Syria, so the chances he decides not to do anything seem pretty slim. The US already has a warship parked in the eastern Mediterranean, the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, so assets are already in place for some kind of strike. It’s been joined by a French frigate which, reportedly, is already being buzzed by Russian aircraft.

In Syria, meanwhile, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are already heading for Douma to assess the site of the alleged incident. OPCW can investigate what happened on Saturday but it cannot by rule try to attribute responsibility. That would require the involvement of the UN Security Council, which clearly isn’t going to be getting involved thanks to Russia’s veto. The evacuation of Jaysh al-Islam fighters and their families from Douma, by the way, has resumed, with some 40,000 people eventually expected to be evacuated in total.

As to what form the eventual US response could take, I went over some possibilities at Patreon for those who are interested. I would note only that I think Max Fisher makes a good point here:

What Americans may be confronting — whether they want to or not — is the reality that some problems can’t be fixed by the sort of low-cost, low-risk solutions to which they grew accustomed in the brief moment of American global hegemony after the Cold War. It feels impossible that something could be beyond easy American resolution, so the problem must be that the president lacks proper will or resolve to see that resolution through.

If last year’s strike on the Shayrat airbase is the model for this response, then we should be honest about what resulted from that strike. It didn’t lead to an escalation, which is great, but it also didn’t lead to anything else.


The Legal Center for Rights and Development, a Yemeni human rights organization, has filed suit in French court against Mohammad bin Salman, alleging that his forces have knowingly targeted Yemeni civilians and that he’s been complicit in acts of torture carried out by elements of his coalition. France does assert “universal jurisdiction” over cases like this, in particular because MBS is actually in Paris right now for meetings with Emmanuel Macron. But there’s nothing French authorities could actually do to him even if they were inclined to do something.


Speaking of MBS’s visit to France, you know who else is there? And appears to be having a real nice time?

That’s right, it’s MBS’s traveling secretary the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri. His selfies here (the first one includes King Mohammed VI of Morocco) are both captioned “no comment,” and, well, you probably wouldn’t want to comment either, in his position. Best of luck to him actually getting back to Lebanon.


Although the Israelis took surprisingly heavy criticism from Russia over Monday’s strike against the T4 military base in Syria, the view from inside Israel is that you can expect more of these kinds of strikes moving forward:

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that security officials are increasingly pushing for a more determined effort to stop Iran from expanding in Syria. Military chief Gadi Eisenkot told reporters recently that “the final and desired situation is the removal of all Iranian-Shi’ite forces from Syria,” the paper reported. “We won’t let them get near the borders.”

Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, said that if Iran continued to extend its influence, this would lead to a direct confrontation.

“Israel’s policy is clear; it will not allow the Iranians to build military facilities in Syria,” Amidror said in an interview.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman now says that Yaser Murtaja, the journalist his soldiers gunned down on Friday in Gaza, was a Hamas agent. Interestingly the IDF hasn’t said Murtaja was deliberately targeted, so this must have just been a lucky coincidence. It comes as a surprise to…well, pretty much everybody, including the US government, which recently vetted Murtaja for a USAID grant and approved him. But I’m sure Lieberman has information the US didn’t have, and isn’t just yanking this story out of his hefty ass.


President Trump met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani at the White House on Tuesday and, why, you’d never know that this was the same president who just a few months ago was excoriating the Qataris on the White House lawn for supporting terrorism:

“We’re making sure that terrorism funding is stopped in the countries that we are really related to, because I feel related,” Mr. Trump said as he hosted Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar. “But those countries are stopping the funding of terrorism, and that includes U.A.E. and it includes Saudi Arabia, it includes Qatar and others. A lot of countries were funding terrorism and we’re stopping it.”

Turning to the emir, Mr. Trump added, “You’ve now become a very big advocate, and we appreciate that.”

Tamim gently repudiated the notion that Qatar had only just come around on the issue of supporting terrorists, and the truth is that for better or worse the only thing that’s really changed since last summer is that the Qataris have invested heavily in employing some serious US PR and lobbying firms that have friendly ties with Trump.


There’s a lot of anticipation that Trump will scrap the Iran nuclear deal next month, but the truth is that his administration has already repeatedly violated the deal by encouraging US and European companies not to do business with Iran. In fact the administration is still at it:

Speaking in London at the start of a tour of European signatories to that deal, Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said sanctions were an important part of a comprehensive effort to counter Iran’s “malign activity” in the region.

Mandelker said Iran was using money to support Hezbollah, Hamas and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and that those attempting to do business with Iran despite the sanctions risked indirectly funding those groups’ activities in the Middle East.

“We say any company thinking about doing business in Iran or with Iranian companies face serious risks that they will be doing business with those, like the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), supporting terrorism and instability throughout the world,” she said.

The other signatories to the nuclear deal (aside from Iran) are supposed to ensure that Iran gets the full economic benefits of sanctions relief. Those are the terms of the deal the United States made. This kind of talk obviously violates those terms.


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