Middle East update: April 27 2018


New US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already started his first overseas trip with a stop in Brussels for meetings with his fellow NATO foreign ministers. Whatever else he did there, Pompeo seems to have made a good impression on Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who told Turkish media on Friday that the US and Turkey will work together to assuage Turkey’s concerns in Manbij. It’s not clear what that means, of course.


Saudi state media reported Saturday morning that a coalition airstrike on Sanaa killed two Houthi leaders.

For about a week now, the Saudis have been pushing a story that the Houthis are holding 19 (!) oil tankers “hostage” in the port of Hudaydah. Those despicable bastards, treating the poor oil that way. Well, to my surprise and I’m sure yours, it turns out the Saudis have been lying:

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for a Greek shipping company whose tankers are on the Saudi list expressed surprise about the Saudi accusations. “Up to now there is not any issue reported by vessels,” wrote Capt. Minas Papadakis of the Athens-based company, Eurotank, which manages four of the ships. “There is congestion at port, but waiting time is normal for Hodeidah.”


Papadakis said the Delia I had successfully offloaded its cargo of fuel at Hodeidah and that Eurotank’s other ships were in line to do the same.


Ariana, Selene and Liana are at [Hodeidah] anchorage waiting orders by port control for discharging their cargo,” he said. “We confirm that all are in order.”

Yes, it seems they’re completely full of shit. In fact, more oil tankers keep sailing for Hudaydah every day, despite the apparently terrible risk the Saudis claim they’re running:

A new tanker from the UAE? But they’re actually at war with the Houthis! If anybody should be aware of the terrible misdeeds the Houthis are committing at Hudaydah, surely it should be the Emiratis!

It also turns out that the Houthis aren’t blocking aid shipments coming into Hudaydah either, another claim the Saudis have floated recently. Look, Riyadh is tired of everybody getting up in its grill about starvation this, and you just triple-tapped another preschool that, so they want to highlight the ways in which the Houthis are Bad so that people will cut them some slack and maybe stop voting on uncomfortable pieces of legislation in the US Congress. But I have to say I think their case would be stronger if they stuck to atrocities that the Houthis have actually committed rather than just inventing fake ones.


Good Party leader Meral Akşener may be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most formidable challenger in June’s Turkish election, but she seems to be obstructing the opposition’s best chance at defeating Erdoğan and his AKP-MHP parliamentary coalition:

The CHP’s plan B is what it calls a “zero-threshold alliance.” Under Turkish law, a party must collect at least 10% of the national vote to enter parliament. Thus, votes for parties that fail to pass the threshold are effectively wasted. The seats they are able to secure in individual constituencies are taken over by those who overcome the barrier. Hence, to make sure the opposition performs at full strength, the CHP is proposing an alliance between all opposition parties that would effectively remove the threshold for the smaller ones.


Such an alliance could win more parliamentary seats than the total of what the parties could win individually. Moreover, the argument goes, such an alliance would boost the opposition in the second round of the presidential race scheduled for July 8 if no candidate manages to get more than 50% in the first round. The idea here is that opposition voters, driven by the spirit of unity in the parliamentary polls, would support whoever makes it to the second round against Erdogan.


Aksener has remained indifferent to this proposal, even though the other opposition parties appear willing. The reason for her reluctance is that the proposed alliance includes the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which she accuses of links to Kurdish militants considered terrorists by Ankara.


The CHP is working on one last formula to convince Aksener to join up: an opposition alliance without the HDP. However, Aksener is reportedly reluctant on this formula as well.

It’s not surprising that Akşener, a hardline nationalist with a history of anti-Kurdish views dating back to her 1996-1997 stint as interior minister, would have a problem aligning with the HDP. But if defeating Erdoğan is her priority she may have no choice.


ISIS released a video on Friday purporting to show the execution of two people working as “advocators” (presumably canvassers) in a town north of Baghdad. Obviously this is part of their previously announced effort to undermine the election.


Israeli security forces killed at least three more Palestinian protesters and wounded at least 955 more on Friday along the Gaza fence line. This makes 45 protesters killed and more than 6000 wounded since the demonstrations began on March 30. A crowd of protesters reportedly ran at the fence on Friday, which prompted a heavy Israeli response featuring live ammunition.

Pompeo will be visiting Israel next week and has requested a meeting with somebody in the Palestinian government to try to reduce tensions over the upcoming move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. At the urging of Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj it appears likely that the Palestinians will meet with him, though they haven’t taken a final decision yet. They may meet with Pompeo in order to lodge a formal diplomatic complaint over the Jerusalem move and the absurdly pro-Israel US ambassador David Friedman.


The killing of Houthi leader Saleh al-Sammad (which now seems to have happened this past Sunday, rather than last week) was reportedly carried out by the UAE via a Chinese-made drone. Which, OK, these things happen I guess. But it points to a serious problem in Yemen, which is that the Emiratis appear to be using the Yemeni war as a training camp for their military and a public showcase for their military capabilities:

The strike, which is the first successful assassination of a senior figure in the Houthi rebellion, highlights the growing military assertiveness of the UAE. Since 2016, the Gulf nation has been trying to establish itself as the West’s primary counterterrorism partner in the region while simultaneously bolstering its military capabilities through arms deals with Beijing.


“They are working incredibly hard to be the new entrepreneurial contractor in the region, both politically and militarily,” says Farea al-Muslimi, an associate fellow at Chatham House. “They no longer want to remain on the sidelines. Yemen is one of the battles where they think they can improve both their credentials and capabilities.”

Call me a wimp, but training and showing off seem like a pretty shitty reasons to kill people. Sammad, by the way, was most likely targeted to try to increase tensions within the Houthi leadership–he was apparently something of a unifying force within the rebellion.


WWE held a pay-per view in Saudi Arabia on Friday, the first event in a ten year deal the pro-wrestling company signed with the kingdom last month. Obviously professional wrestling is not exactly our area around here, but this is another piece of Mohammad bin Salman’s effort to cosmetically open up Saudi society. Pro wrestling is extremely popular in the Middle East so I’m sure this will boost the prince’s already high popularity among young Saudis.


It seems pretty clear where the Trump administration is taking the Iran nuclear deal, as Paul Pillar notes:

An interview on NPR with State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook—who has been discussing these issues with European counterparts—shows where the administration is going better than Trump’s blustery and fickle language. Hook made clear that the administration does not have in mind new negotiations with the Iranians, or even with the Russians and Chinese. Rather, it seeks an agreement with the European parties to the JCPOA to pressure Iran in additional ways separate from, and possibly in violation of, the JCPOA. The prospects for any success in this approach of pressure-without-negotiations would be no better than it was during the years in which ever-increasing sanctions on Iran over nuclear issues were met by Iran spinning ever more centrifuges and enriching more and more uranium. That cycle was broken only when the Obama administration sat down to negotiate with Tehran.


If the new forms of pressure violate the JCPOA—for instance, by re-imposing under a different label what had been nuclear sanctions—then there would be no progress on whatever is the issue on the new label, such as ballistic missiles or activity in Syria or whatever. Moreover, abrogation of the JCPOA through such a U.S. violation would relieve Iran of its obligations under the agreement. That means going back to additional centrifuges spinning and more uranium getting enriched, and without the intrusive international inspections. In any event, there would be no “fix” of the agreement and no “better deal,” because there would be no new deal with Iran at all.


But even that wasn’t the most extraordinary thing Hook said in the interview. When the interviewer referred to the existing agreement, Hook interjected, “It’s not a treaty. It’s not an executive agreement. It has no signatures. It has no legal status. It is a political commitment by an administration that is no longer in office.” In short, the Trump administration feels no obligation to abide by the JCPOA at all, no matter how diligently Iran observes its obligations, merely because the United States has had an election in the interim.

On this latter point, the Obama administration bears some responsibility. They were insistent that the JCPOA was not a treaty because they wouldn’t have had the votes in the Senate to ratify it had they approached it as a treaty. Of course, they figured the next president would be Hillary Clinton or, at least, not Donald Trump, so they presumably didn’t think about the worst-case ramifications of their approach.

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