Middle East update: October 3 2018


Bashar al-Assad told Kuwait’s al-Shahed newspaper on Wednesday that “Arab and Western delegations” have started visiting Damascus to lay the groundwork for resuming normal diplomatic relations with Syria. Presumably he was referring to Gulf Arab delegations. The Gulf states have been opposed to Assad since the early days of the civil war in 2011 but seem to be coming around now that the war (or this phase of it, anyway) is essentially over and Assad has won. The Saudis and company may have decided there’s more to be gained from courting Assad, hoping over time to create some space between Damascus and Iran, than from continuing to shun him.

AFP is reporting that a Turkish military convoy entered Idlib province overnight, probably to reinforce Turkey’s 12 observation posts around the province. Turkey hasn’t confirmed the reinforcements but it makes sense with a deadline coming up soon to implement the Turkey-Russia Idlib agreement and establish a buffer zone in the province. The Turkish parliament on Wednesday extended its military mission in both Syria and Iraq for another year.


Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Wednesday released two sons of the deceased ex-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh into Jordanian custody (briefly). Salah and Medyen Saleh received pardons from Houthi authorities for their work on behalf of their father, who was killed by the Houthis after severing their alliance and attempting to go over to the Saudis back in December. The Saudi-led coalition allowed their flight to take off from Sanaa International Airport, which is otherwise shut down, and it headed to Amman first with plans to continue on to an unnamed third country. The Omani government reportedly negotiated with the Houthis for their release.

Also on Wednesday, the Southern Transitional Council, an umbrella group for southern Yemeni secessionists that is ostensibly but very temporarily allied with the Yemeni government, called for a “popular uprising” in Aden to overthrow that government and re-establish an independent South Yemen. The secessionists have been heavily supported by the United Arab Emirates, which has brought the UAE into conflict with the Yemeni government and even with Saudi Arabia at times. All are purportedly committed to defeating the Houthis before settling their internal beef, but with the Yemeni economy collapsing that internal beef may be coming to the fore.


Somebody apparently tried to bust into Fethullah Gülen’s compound in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, prompting a guard to fire a shot at him or her and call the police. Gülen is wanted by Turkish authorities, or at least they say he is, to stand trial over his alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. You may recall that disgraced ex-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn allegedly negotiated with the Turkish government around a plot to kidnap Gülen and take him to Turkey, back in Flynn’s lobbying days.

Turkey’s inflation numbers for September are out and they’re not good, which is bringing some heat down on Turkish Donald Trump and Turkish Jared Kushner:

The spike was a slap in the face for Turkey’s Economy Minister Berat Albayrak, who is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law and some say heir apparent.

Albayrak had asserted year-end consumer price inflation was expected to be 20.8% under the new economic program that was unveiled only two weeks ago. “The son-in-law’s program collapsed in two weeks,” sneered Garo Paylan, a member of parliament for the opposition Peoples’ Democracy Party, in a tweet.

The cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages rose by 27.7% year on year. Prices for transportation rose by a whopping 36.6%.

The opposition daily Cumhuriyet snidely noted that while Erdogan was calling on the public to curb spending, the daily costs incurred by the gigantic palace that he erected for himself in Ankara stood at 1.8 million Turkish liras in 2017 — when the now battered national currency’s lowest rate was around 3.9 liras to the dollar. It’s currently hovering at six liras to the dollar. The story splashed across Cumhuriyet’s front page was based on the Turkish Court of Accounts’ audit of government spending in 2017.

If you were planning a holiday in Turkey to take advantage of the weak lira, you might want to go back through your old Twitter and Facebook posts first. Turkish authorities reportedly arrested a German citizen in August for “defaming” Erdoğan in social media posts he made in 2014 and 2015. Just a normal sort of thing that happens in open, free democratic countries all the time.


Obviously there are a lot of ripples from yesterday’s big news that Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party figure Barham Salih had been elected Iraq’s new president and had tapped 76 year old former vice president Adil Abdul-Mahdi as the country’s next prime minister.

For one thing, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is apparently not OK with Salih’s election so there clearly was no deal in place with them about Abdul-Mahdi. The KDP is angry because traditionally the Iraqi parliament has allowed the Kurds to coalesce around one presidential candidate before electing that candidate, but this time it just went ahead and elected Salih. Also not OK is the fact that two people were killed overnight in the cities of Sulaimani and Chamchamal by “celebratory gunfire” on the news of Salih’s election. Get ahold of yourselves folks.

Adil Abdul-Mahdi (Wikimedia | LaGrandeOurs)

As for Abdul-Mahdi, it’s still unclear what his appointment means in geopolitical terms. Technically it’s still unclear whether he’ll be able to form a government, so one step at a time I guess. The emerging consensus seems to be that he was a compromise pick between the pro-US and pro-Iran factions among Iraq’s Shiʿa parties. Joel Wing wonders whether he’ll be able to establish himself as a compromise pick who doesn’t have a large party of his own directly supporting him. Juan Cole seems to think he’ll have no trouble putting together a parliamentary majority and argues that while Abdul-Mahdi is a “pragmatist,” his government is likely to lean toward Iran given his party ties (he’s a founding member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution In Iraq, which was created in Iran in the 1980s under Ayatollah Khomeini’s direction) and power base:

Abdul Mahdi will have to get 167 deputies for a simple majority in the 329 seat body. The Sadr/ Communist and pro-Iran Shiite militia blocs who nominated him give him 101. I think his predecessor al-Abadi’s Victory Coalition will back him, so that is 143. Ammar al-Hakim must be an old friend since he headed the Islamic Supreme Council and I’d guess he gets the National Wisdom Movement’s 19, for 162. Then usually the Kurdish parties go in with the Shiite PM, so that puts him well over.

But note that with the exception of the Forward Party (Reform Alliance), the parties that form the backbone of Abdul Mahdi’s prime ministership are strongly pro-Iran (al-Hakim was brought up in Tehran, and even the Kurds have good relations with Tehran). And Muqatada [al-Sadr] once pledged his own militia to defend Iran from any American attack.

Abdul-Mahdi would be well advised to reach out to Sunni Arab parties to try to heal some of the divisions in Iraqi society, but at this point it’s too soon to say if he will.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri told reporters after a meeting on Wednesday with President Michel Aoun that his “very optimistic” about forming a government soon. Hey, it’s only been five months since the election, no rush. Pace yourself dude.


Israeli forces killed one Palestinian teenager in Gaza on Wednesday when they struck him in the head with a tear gas canister. Protesters near the Gaza fence reportedly set tires on fire and threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, who somehow managed to emerge from the crucible without taking any casualties. Elsewhere, Al-Monitor is reporting that for the past month or so there have been small but regular demonstrations breaking out in Gaza refugee camps against Hamas. Protesters are blaming Hamas for perpetuating Gaza’s miserable living conditions and accuse its leaders of corruption and of aiding core Hamas supporters while ignoring the needs of everyone else.


Egyptian police say they killed 15 Sinai militants in a raid on their “hideout” outside of Arish, the capital city of North Sinai province. As usual, the media report about the operation didn’t say when it took place or whether there were any casualties taken by the Egyptian forces.


The disappearance of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi remains a mystery. Well, OK, it’s not much of a mystery. Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul yesterday and disappeared, so there aren’t that many places he could be. Saudi authorities insist that Khashoggi did leave the consulate on Tuesday, but the fact that his companions waiting outside (including his fiancée) never saw him again and that Turkish authorities can find no video evidence of him leaving the building suggests the Saudis are lying here. There have been vehicles coming and going from the consulate, so if Khashoggi did leave the building he must have been taken out in one of them. Which means he’s either still inside the consulate or he’s in (or on his way to) Saudi Arabia.


The International Court of Justice on Wednesday ruled in favor of an Iranian lawsuit and ordered the United States to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods going to Iran, which it defined to include medicine and medical devices, food and agricultural commodities, and airplane parts. The United States responded by having what can best be described as a diplomatic conniption fit.

Here’s the thing about the ICJ’s ruling: it’s meaningless. Humanitarian goods like medicine and food are already exempted from US sanctions across the board, though the court ruled that those exemptions don’t go far enough. But it doesn’t matter, because US banking sanctions mean that nobody in Iran can pay to import those things anyway. It’s not clear to me that the ICJ ruling would do anything about that, but even if it did, this was an “interim” ruling so the US can appeal. And if the US were to lose that appeal, guess what? It can just ignore the ruling! It’s the International Court of Justice, and like any other legal entity with the word “international” in its name, it has no enforcement authority. Sure, the ICJ’s rulings are supposed to be binding on all United Nations members, but lets ask, say, the people of Fallujah or Baghdad whether the United States typically follows inconvenient UN rules.

The ICJ ruling was a victory for Iran only in the symbolic sense. It reinforced that the United States, in abrogating the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance, has isolated itself diplomatically. This, too, is fairly meaningless in the big scheme of things, but when you’re a country that likes to call other countries “pariahs,” it can be hard to realize that you’ve actually become the pariah. You could try to save a little face and say “eh, the court ruling doesn’t matter, let’s just walk this one off and go about our business.”

On the other hand, you could work for the Trump administration and decide that you’re actually cool with being a pariah. In fact, you could even take additional steps to isolate yourself further. Like, say, breaking your 1955 Treaty of Amity with Iran because it was under the terms of that treaty that Iran sued you at the ICJ. Mike Pompeo announced after the ICJ ruling on Wednesday that we’re doing that. Granted the Treaty of Amity hasn’t meant anything since 1979, but all the more reason the decision to break it looks like a petulant tantrum.

Later in the day, John Bolton announced that the Trump administration is reviewing all of its potential exposure to the ICJ, over both the Iran case and a Palestinian case against the US moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Bolton slammed the court as “politicized and ineffective.” Ineffective I’ll grant you (see above), but this perpetual victimhood routine being played out by the government of the most disproportionately powerful country on the planet never ceases to be transparent bullshit. Anyway, that includes withdrawing from the ICJ protocol of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and, well, if you’re still unclear as to who the pariah is in this situation, it ain’t the Palestinians and it ain’t Iran.


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