Middle East update: October 9 2018


Bashar al-Assad called the Russia-Turkey arrangement in Idlib province “temporary” at a Baath Party function over the weekend, which is probably news to Turkey and its rebel proxies and may even be news to Russia (though probably not). That kind of remark is probably not going to encourage the rebels in Idlib, who have reportedly moved their heavy weaponry away from the province’s new demilitarized zone separating them from the Syrian army, to let down their guard any further, and perhaps that’s Assad’s goal. If he keeps warning the rebels that a fight is coming then it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On Tuesday, Assad announced a general amnesty for army deserters and draft dodgers provided they turn themselves in to his government, which–if he really means it–could help speed up the return of Syrian refugees. Many of those who have fled Syria have done so either after abandoning the army or with the threat of conscription hanging over their heads, so amnesty would remove that major impediment to their return. Again, that assumes Assad means it and isn’t going to immediately conscript these guys whenever they turn themselves over to his forces. He’s been conscripting surrendered former rebels into the army, so the chances that these guys will share the same fate seems pretty high.


I’m not sure there’s a good way to justify a “lighter side” story about the war in Yemen, but the AP says that Yemeni metalworkers have started using missile fragments and other scrap metal created by the fighting to produce traditional ceremonial Yemeni knives, called janbiyah. For the craftsmen, at least, the relatively cheap supply of metal allows them to make a little money and maybe eke out a living at a time when millions of Yemenis are either starving or in danger of starving.


Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adil Abdul-Mahdi has taken to asking people to fill out an online application for a job running one of Iraq’s ministries. This seems to be a fairly risky way to fill one’s cabinet, but on the plus side I really think I have a shot at getting the oil minister gig. Fingers crossed!

The Kurdistan Regional Government says that its security forces broke up a major ISIS “financial network” over the weekend.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said on Tuesday that “all sides” have made concessions and he hopes to be able to form a cabinet when President Michel Aoun returns later this week from a trip abroad. Maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath just yet.


The Jordanian government is continuing to resist Syrian and Lebanese pressure to open its Nassib border crossing, which would reconnect Syria (and Lebanon) overland with Jordan and on to the Persian Gulf. The Jordanians, who say there are still technical details that need to be worked out before the crossing can be reopened, are probably being encouraged to slow things down by the US and the Gulf Arab states, who want to use the crossing as leverage to get Assad to minimize Iran’s presence in Syria.


Israeli authorities are pursuing a man suspected of having shot and killed two Israelis on Sunday in the Barkan industrial zone in the West Bank.

Shipments of Qatari-bought fuel began making their way into Gaza on Tuesday. The Qatari government has agreed to fuel Gaza’s power plants for the next six months in an effort to alleviate the wretched living conditions there and maybe lower tensions with Israel. The fuel is going directly to Hamas, bypassing the Palestinian Authority. This has the PA upset at the snub, with Israeli officials alleging that the PA likes seeing tensions rise in Gaza and is hoping to cause another Gaza war that would batter Hamas and embarrass Israel. PA officials counter that the Israelis want to elevate Hamas at the PA’s expense because Hamas makes for a better enemy.


Egyptian authorities have reportedly sent military personnel to Libya to interrogate Hisham el-Ashmawy, a terrorist leader linked with al-Qaeda who was captured by Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army in Derna in recent days. Ashmawy was an officer in Egypt’s special forces before he deserted and helped found Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai. That group has since pledged itself to ISIS, but Ashmawy left and founded another group, al-Mourabitoun, that is aligned with al-Qaeda and has been most active in Egypt’s western desert. Ashmawy is suspected of masterminding several terrorist attacks all over the country in the past few years.


One of the benefits of taking a few days off is that you’re not always reacting to stories in the heat of the moment, as in the case of missing Saudi journalist and sometimes regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday and appears never to have emerged, at least not alive and under his own power. On Saturday, Turkish authorities began saying off the record that they believe the Saudis murdered Khashoggi in the consulate and then dismembered his body and drove it out of the building in pieces.

The latest reporting around Khashoggi’s disappearance only enhances the circumstantial case that he was the victim of some sort of foul play. The Turks believe that a group of 15 Saudis flew into Turkey on Tuesday to participate in the execution and the subsequent cleanup effort and have gone to some lengths to try to track their movements prior to and immediately after Khashoggi’s entry into the consulate, with attention now also focusing on the Saudi consul-general’s nearby residence. It’s now also being reported that US intelligence intercepted communications around a Saudi plan to capture Khashoggi by luring him back to the kingdom, though not necessarily to kill him. There’s no evidence that the US government ever informed Khashoggi of this, which was awful nice of them.

If Khashoggi was indeed killed it would be a horrific act by a government that has, sadly, shown itself to be fully capable of such a thing. Even if he were abducted alive and carted off to a black hole Saudi prison, it’s still unconscionable.

But is it true? Probably, but those off the record comments from Turkish officials over the weekend haven’t been backed up by much on the record evidence. In fact, Turkish officials have since said that they’re also looking into the possibility that Khashoggi was abducted alive “with the help of another country’s intelligence officers” (they haven’t said which country but I bet its name rhymes with “Fizzrael”). This apparent climbdown means either they’re not as confident that he’s dead as they were a few days ago or they’ve decided to soft-pedal the murder scenario in return for some unspecified compensation from the Saudis. The provenance of those initial statements can’t be discounted either–the incredible irony of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who has imprisoned more journalists than any other world leader, intoning gravely about the wrong the Saudis may have done to Khashoggi is almost too much to handle. And Erdoğan, who is squarely on the Qatari side of the Saudi-Qatari dispute, cannot be considered an impartial observer of events here.

That said, the fact is that something happened to Khashoggi, and the last time anybody saw him he was entering a Saudi diplomatic office. According to the Turks, at least, there’s no video evidence showing that he left that office. If he’s still alive and in Saudi custody, they could end all the speculation by simply letting everybody know that–indeed, it’s possible that the leak of Khashoggi’s “murder” was less an accurate assessment of where the investigation is at than a gambit to try to pressure the Saudis into telling what they know. The Saudis have instead responded with a mixture of unconvincing offhand denials, which have mostly been refuted by evidence, and angry demands for everybody to stay out of their business. You know, the sorts of things that don’t do much to dissuade anybody from feeling like they really did kill Khashoggi or were at least capable of it.

What is the alternative to the theory that the Saudis did something to this man? If Khashoggi is alive and not in Saudi custody then, uh, where is he? If he’s dead by someone else’s hand, whose hand could that possibly be? As circumstantial evidence mounts that Khashoggi was either killed or abducted, the claim that the Saudis weren’t involved grows more and more absurd. Turkish authorities are planning to search the Saudi consulate for clues. They’ve demanded that the Saudis produce proof that Khashoggi left the consulate alive but in what is just such an unfortunate coincidence it seems the consulate’s security cameras were on the fritz the day Khashoggi was there. Turkish officials are claiming that the Saudis removed security camera footage and gave their Turkish consulate staff the day off on the day Khashoggi was there. But at the same time, the Turks have promised video evidence of possibly nefarious activity that they’ve so far failed to produce.

So I’m not ready to say Khashoggi is definitely dead, but neither am I interested in listening to Saudi defenders furrowing their brows and wondering why on earth the gentle Saudis would murder a writer who often criticized Mohammad bin Salman’s excesses. Mohammad bin Salman, in case you haven’t picked up on this by now, doesn’t deal well with critics, and he particularly doesn’t deal well with Saudi critics who live overseas and are therefore harder for him to jail. Why would he have done something like this? To send a very splashy message to other Saudi expats that they’re not safe. Why would he have done it in a Saudi consulate? So there was no ambiguity about who did it. Why in Turkey? Because that’s where Khashoggi had to go, for one thing, but also because, as I noted above, Turkey and the Saudis aren’t on particularly good terms right now. Doing the hit there embarrasses Erdoğan and potentially causes even more discord in the Turkey-US relationship when the US responds to these accusations tepidly.

Which it has. And that’s the most important point here. Why would the Saudis have risked their international standing to kill one critic? Because there wasn’t really much risk to their most important international relationship: the one with Donald Trump. For all the outcry the Khashoggi case has generated in Washington, the Trump administration’s response has been to lamely insist on transparency from the Saudis while suggesting no consequences for Riyadh if the charges turn out to be true. Trump himself actually said, in front of real live people, that he hopes the situation “will sort itself out.” Trump later said that he’ll speak to the Saudis about it “at some point.”

Imagine, for a second, if this were Iran having abducted or potentially murdered one of its critics in Turkey and what the administration’s response would be then. The Saudis know they have nothing to fear from this president so they’re free to act with impunity.


I have to give Donald Trump some credit. Before he came to office it was almost inconceivable to imagine that Europe might one day side with Iran against the United States. And yet, not even two years into the Trump presidency, here we are:

Since earlier this year, when it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal that was a centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s diplomacy, the Trump administration has pressed ahead with punishing sanctions against Tehran.

The leading countries of Europe, meanwhile, trying to preserve the nuclear accord, are looking to set up an alternative payment mechanism that would sidestep the American-dominated banking system, and Washington’s new sanctions.

As they do so, they are pressing Iran to adhere strictly to the terms of the nuclear agreement, to avoid giving the United States and Israel a pretext for starting a war — an increasing concern.

And they are counseling Tehran to keep calm and wait out President Trump’s term, in the hope that he will not be re-elected, senior European diplomats say.

Whether Trump is reelected or not, some of the things he’s set in motion here aren’t going to go back in the bottle so easily. In particular, I remain pretty convinced that the aforementioned “alternative banking system” is the first step in a longer project of divesting the global financial system of US domination. But I guess we’ll see.

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