Middle East update: October 11 2018


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters earlier this week that the US-Turkish agreement over the Syrian town of Manbij is “not completely dead,” which is good news, I guess? The agreement calls for joint Turkish-US military patrols around Manbij but those haven’t started yet. The Turks also seem to think it calls for joint patrols inside Manbij but Kurdish authorities there have said they will not allow Turkish soldiers into the town.


The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Thursday for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners to stop bombing Yemen. The committee’s latest report finds that “at least 1248 children” have been killed in Yemen since the Saudis intervened in the civil war in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Arabia Foundation’s Gregory Johnsen says that concerns over the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reflect a misunderstanding of how AQAP operates:

At issue is what I call the two faces of AQAP: the domestic insurgency and the international terrorist organization. These two strands have always coexisted in AQAP, as they have for most terrorist groups. But the two are often conflated into one overall picture of the group. We hear AQAP and think of international terrorism, not the domestic insurgency. This failure by journalists, analysts, and officialsto distinguish between AQAP’s two sides leads to a mistaken impression of the threat the group represents to the West.

This is why numbers don’t tell the whole story. AQAP’s domestic reach and recruits have grown significantly in recent years, but the international terrorist side has withered. The group might look and sound more dangerous than ever, but it is actually a much different organization today than it was a decade ago. Like most terrorist groups, AQAP is a complex organization doing multiple things at once, laying sewer pipes and building bombs. When we only look at one aspect of the organization we risk misunderstanding who they are, how they operate, and what they can accomplish.

I want to be a little careful here, because the AP has reported that the Saudis and Emiratis have been cutting deals with groups of AQAP fighters on the sly while claiming to fight al-Qaeda. Johnsen addresses and justifies this policy, arguing that paying local fighters to go home or fight alongside the coalition is different from supporting AQAP’s broader organization and may actually weaken AQAP in the long run. I’ve found Johnsen’s work on Yemen to be sound for several years now and his reasoning here makes sense, but the Arabia Foundation is pretty apparently a Saudi mouthpiece as an organization. I personally don’t believe Johnsen’s work is compromised by that but I figure you should be aware of his connections.


In what would be a major development if it turns out to be true, NBC News is reporting that the US and Turkish governments have reached a deal to secure the release of imprisoned US pastor Andrew Brunson:

The White House expects North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the U.S. in the coming days, two years after he was detained, according to two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter.

Under an agreement senior Trump administration officials recently reached with Turkey, Brunson is supposed to be released after certain charges against him are dropped at his next court hearing, currently scheduled for Friday, the senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said.

The details of the deal are unclear, but those familiar with the discussions said it includes a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey.

Turkey has allegedly come close to releasing Brunson before only to back off at the last minute, so this should be treated as a “believe it when you see it” kind of thing. Brunson has been accused of participating in the coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016, a charge he denies.


Militants, probably ISIS, attacked an Iraqi military unit in the town of Akaz Wednesday night, killing one soldier and capturing three others. On the plus side, a joint US-Iraqi task force arrested ten members of what they’re calling a “financial facilitation group” for ISIS in a series of raids earlier this week in Baghdad and Erbil. The network directed money to ISIS fighters to fund their operations.

Speaking of funds, Iraq pulled in more oil revenue last month, $7.912 billion, than it has in any month since the middle of 2014. Oil exports actually declined slightly from August but higher worldwide oil prices more than made up the difference. Needless to say the Iraqi government needs all the money it can get right now.


The major Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar published a blank issue on Thursday in a pointed criticism at the country’s political leaders for their failure to form a government five months after holding an election. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said earlier this week that he’s hoping to wrap up the formation of a cabinet within days but there’s been no outward sign that he’s actually close to doing so.


Some activists believe the general Palestinian strike over Israel’s nationality law earlier this month, which included Arabs in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, could be an important step toward Palestinian unity:

Asaad Abdel Rahman, a former member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called the event “historic,” noting how rare it is that all three communities protest on the same day on the same issue. He said, “The strike, which was very well observed in the 1948 areas, in the West Bank and Gaza reminds us of past historic events carried out by Palestinians.”

Abdel Rahman told Al-Monitor that if such an event became a trend, it could be of extreme importance. “If this unity of purpose and serious cooperation for a common national goal continues, this would be a good thing,” he said.

Anis F. Kassim, editor of the Palestine Yearbook of International Law, told Al-Monitor, “This protest reflects a high level of maturity and an awareness of the dangers posed by the new Jewish Nationality Law. Arab unity in the protests is of extreme importance in standing up to this discriminatory law.”

Kassim said he believes the unity of Palestinians reflects a shift in priorities toward the one-state solution. “I think the next slogan we will be hearing more of is that of ‘A state for everybody.’”


The Jamal Khashoggi story is developing so fast I’m having a hard time keeping up. Now the Washington Post is reporting that Turkish officials have both video and audio evidence confirming that Khashoggi was murdered (after being interrogated and tortured) in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Once again this is information the Turks are revealing on background, and they don’t want to release it ostensibly because it would also divulge details about their own spying operations. Obviously it sounds conclusive except insofar as we’re having to take what the Turks are saying on faith.

EARLIER: I’m pleased to let you all know that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have formed a joint investigative unit to try to get to the bottom of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. In similar news, I’ve decided to team up with my dog to see if we can figure out who knocked over the trash can in the kitchen and ate the garbage from last night’s dinner. It’s a mystery, but I’m hopeful between the two of us we’ll be able to crack the case. The Turks on Wednesday had accused the Saudis of obstructing their investigation by refusing to give them access to their Istanbul consulate, where Turkish officials believe they killed Khashoggi, as well as their consul-general’s residence, where the men who (allegedly) killed Khashoggi went after (allegedly) killing him. It’s unclear whether the Saudis now plan to give Turkey access to those facilities–they’d already promised access to the consulate but seem not to have actually followed through.

Despite their new cooperation, Erdoğan criticized the Saudis on Thursday for trying to pretend as though they don’t have a functioning security system in the consulate:

“Is it possible not to have camera systems at the consulate or an embassy? Is it possible that camera systems didn’t exist at the Saudi Consulate, where the incident took place?” Erdogan said to reporters accompanying him on a trip to Hungary, according to Sabah.

The Saudis could “catch a bird or a mosquito with the advanced systems they have,” Erdogan added.

I mean, he does have a point here. Even though it’s coming from Erdoğan, a habitual liar who opposes press freedom and has an axe to grind with the Saudis. Those details are, justifiably I would argue, giving some US officials pause as this story unfolds. Most of the information we’re getting is coming (unofficially) from the Turkish government, which isn’t reliable and isn’t impartial, so the information can’t necessarily be taken at face value. It’s apparently part of the reason–though Donald Trump’s slobbering devotion to the Saudis is a much bigger part–why the US hasn’t taken a stronger position in this case. Officially, as James Dorsey notes, Ankara has stuck to demanding that the Saudis do more than lamely insist that their security cameras don’t record things.

This situation has the potential to spin up into a full on regional crisis, exacerbating tensions that already exist between the Saudis and their allies (the UAE, Egypt, etc.) on one hand and Turkey and its allies (Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) on the other. One thing it does not seem likely to do is to negatively impact the US-Saudi relationship, at least in the short term. Why? Because Donald Trump won’t let it. He told reporters on Wednesday that he’d “reluctant” even to cut off arms sales to the Saudis if it’s proven that they killed Khashoggi, and hey, if thousands of dead Yemenis didn’t do the trick then I guess one dead Saudi reporter shouldn’t either. Trump did say Thursday morning that US investigators are in Turkey right now assisting with the–oh, they’re not, I see.

In Trump’s defense, it’s probably hard for the administration to keep track of what’s happening in Turkey, seeing as how we’re almost two years in and we still don’t have an ambassador to Turkey. Or to Saudi Arabia. The administration is naturally blaming Senate Democrats for holding up what I’m sure is a slate of wildly qualified nominees for dozens of senior diplomatic posts. Meanwhile, there appears to be new wind behind Congressional efforts to block arms sales to the Saudis. Congress does have some ability to suspend arms sales, but absent a president willing to actually end those sales anything Congress does is temporary.

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