Middle East update: October 12 2018


The Israeli and Syrian governments, plus the United Nations, agreed on Friday to reopen the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan. This should allow UN peacekeepers back into the area to hopefully, you know, keep Israel and Syria from going to war with one another.

Amnesty International on Friday heavily criticized the joint US-Syrian Democratic Forces offensive in Raqqa and their collective failure to properly investigate civilian deaths after the fact. The rights organization says it expects to find at least 6500 dead civilians in Raqqa once its recovery operations are complete, the majority of them killed by anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes. The coalition only acknowledges an absurd 77 civilian deaths caused by airstrikes. In other news that’s sure to be bad for civilians, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday that the Turkish military could make additional incursions into Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Erdoğan also said that the Kurdish YPG militia hasn’t left Manbij as it was supposed to do under an agreement Ankara reached with the US back in June. Essentially he’s warning the US to dislodge the YPG from northern Syria peacefully or else he’ll do it himself, violently. Whether the US has the influence or inclination to do so is an open question, though another event on Friday (see below) may improve communication between Washington and Ankara on this and a host of other issues.


As NBC reported yesterday, on Friday a Turkish court convicted US pastor Andrew Brunson of “aiding terrorism” for allegedly participating in the failed 2016 coup against Erdoğan, but then sentenced him to time served and ordered his release from custody. Brunson will, presumably, be heading back to the US as soon as he’s able to make the trip (UPDATE: aaaand he’s already left Turkey, not that you could blame him), and what had been a major sore point in US-Turkish relations will be cleared up. Brunson’s sentence is the product of negotiations between the US and Turkey last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, despite whatever carping the Turks are doing now about their allegedly independent judiciary.

Unfortunately, while Brunson has been released, another Turkish court on Friday ruled that former US consulate worker Hamza Uluçay must remain in custody while awaiting trial on charges also related to the 2016 coup attempt. Uluçay worked at the US consulate in Adana for 36 years but something tells me the Trump administration isn’t going to be as concerned with his fate as it has been with Brunson’s. And there’s still the case of former NASA contractor and naturalized US citizen Serkan Golge, who is serving a five year prison sentence in Turkey also related to the coup attempt. Golge’s case hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention from the administration as Brunson’s, and while I hate to suggest that’s because Golge is Muslim, you know it is.


Presumably this doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody, but ISIS appears, so far at least, to have managed the transition from wanna-be empire back to terrorist organization reasonably well. It’s smaller, weaker, and poorer than it was a year ago, or two years ago, but it can be just as deadly and is harder to find and attack now than it was before. But that’s sort of beside the point, because physically attacking what’s left of ISIS is far less important than fixing the problems that gave rise to ISIS in the first place:

Many are concerned that while the United States, working with local allies, was able to destroy the physical caliphate relatively quickly, it did not fix governing problems that originally created the opportunity for IS to emerge, including frustrations among the Sunni populations of both countries.

“ISIS is waging an effective campaign to re-establish durable support zones while raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control over its remnant forces,” said a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War, using an alternative acronym for IS. “ISIS could regain sufficient strength to mount a renewed insurgency that once again threatens to overmatch local security forces in both Iraq and Syria.”

ISIS didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It emerged amid the collapse of the Syrian state and a serious breakdown in the Iraqi state. And it didn’t attract followers just because. It attracted followers because in some combination of ways it met people’s needs–whether in terms of ideology, law and order, economics, as a vehicle to resist the state, or something else entirely. It won’t ever really go away as long as the underlying grievances and failures of governance exist.


Israeli security forces killed at least seven more protesters in Gaza on Friday, including one group the Israelis allege breached the Gaza fence and attacked an Israeli military position. The Israelis have killed around 200 Gazans since these weekly protests began back in March. The protesters have been demanding an end to Israel’s decade-plus long blockade of Gaza, which has thoroughly immiserated the population there.


So the latest news in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance/probable murder is, as they say, big if true:

I say “if true” because this is still information offered on background by Turkish officials, who are not reliable, and relayed by Turkish media, which also has reliability issues. This could explain why the Turks have sounded so certain (again, always on background) that Khashoggi was killed. But in particular the claim that Khashoggi recorded his own interrogation and was able to upload it to iCloud seems far fetched. The Turks could be rolling that story out to try and cover for their own eavesdropping on the Saudi consulate, but I’m just speculating there.

A Saudi team has reportedly arrived in Turkey to participate in a joint investigation of the Khashoggi case. It’s unclear what exactly they plan to do there or how this joint investigation is supposed to work, especially given that the Turks have been telling people that they have audio and video evidence that Khashoggi was killed last week in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudis of course deny this and sending this investigative team is meant to show that they really are concerned about whatever might have happened to Khashoggi, even though they spent a week seeming as though they really didn’t want to be bothered with his case.

There were several developments on Thursday night/Friday around various governmental and private sector big shots trying to decide if they should still be in cahoots with a country that probably just carried out the murder of one of its own nationals. All the other stuff the Saudis have done over the years, most of it as bad or even worse than what they appear to have done to Khashoggi, doesn’t matter because it only affected Saudi dissidents and Yemeni school kids, people who don’t really matter in elite business, media, and political circles in the West. Nor do all the previous times the Saudis have done precisely the same thing they did to Khashoggi, because Khashoggi was in The Club and the Saudis’ past victims generally weren’t:

SAUDI ARABIA’S ATTEMPTS to silence exiled activists and others abroad goes back decades. One such early example is the still-unresolved case of Naser al-Sa’id, an activist who became one of the earliest opposition figures against the crown in the 1950s. In 1979, he praised a fringe Muslim group that stormed and took over the grand mosque in Mecca. Later that year, Sa’id disappeared while in Lebanon — and the Saudi state is widely believed to be behind it.

Since then, the government has continued to exert its control on dissenting voices beyond its borders — including those from within the ranks of the royal family. Since 2015, three princes have vanished while abroad after publicizing views critical of the Saudi government. In March 2017, prominent human rights activist Loujan al-Hathloul was arrested in the United Arab Emirates, where she was studying for her master’s degree. She was forced onto a private plane, flown back to Saudi Arabia, and jailed briefly, then placed under a travel ban. (Her husband, Fahad al-Butairi, was also removed from Jordan and flown back to the kingdom.) Later, in May 2018, Saudi security again arrested al-Hathloul at her home amid a wider crackdown on activists. She has not been heard from since.

Congress got the ball rolling earlier this week when most of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee triggered a Global Magnitsky Act investigation into potential Saudi human rights abuses. Now, you can’t set foot in Saudi Arabia without tripping over a human rights abuse, but because the investigation has to be conducted by the Trump administration the likelihood is they’ll come away with nothing to show for whatever work they put into it. Donald Trump is still not quite sure how to handle this whole situation. On the one hand, the Saudis probably killed a guy in cold blood. On the other hand, they have a lot of money. It’s quite a dilemma! And as you might expect he’s got a lot of defense contractors in his ear begging him not to let Congress stop them from selling more weapons to Riyadh. Won’t somebody please think of the poor arms dealers here?

The private sector may be another story. At least one of the kingdom’s ten DC lobbying firms has already severed its ties to Riyadh and more may follow suit, which is quite a statement considering the kind of clients DC lobbying firms handle and considering how much money and effort the Saudis have put into burnishing their public image here in the US. Several media outlets have pulled out of participating in Mohammad bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative conference (also known as “Davos in the Desert” in case you’re wondering just how wretched it is) later this month in Riyadh. But the conference is still on, and most of the banks and tech companies that were planning to attend the FII are still planning to attend, such is their strong devotion to Saudi Arabia’s money future. Also still attending: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, whose ethical standards are…well, when we find any we’ll be able to get a better idea as to what they comprise.


Two Iranian Kurdish fighters from the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, three Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers, and one civilian were all killed on Friday in a clash outside the city of Paveh.

It’s hard to believe that oil prices were pushing $30/barrel just a couple of years ago, because when oil sanctions on Iran kick in next month there’s some reason to believe they (along with ongoing tensions over Venezuela) will push that price back over $100, a level it hasn’t reached since 2014. Even if it doesn’t get over that bar right away, it’s very doable by, say early next year. Expensive oil suck at the gas pump but it discourages driving and encourages renewable energy and, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed lately, but that would probably be a good thing.


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