Middle East update: October 15 2018


Well, as we noted last night, the deadline for Idlib’s rebels to have evacuated the demilitarized zone negotiated by Russia and Turkey arrived on Monday, and nobody really seems to have moved. The Syrian government says it’s ready for a fight in Idlib but seems to be leaving the decision about what to do next up to Russia, and Russia apparently has a more relaxed view of things:

Russian officials have indicated that they view the deadline as flexible, with the militants’ failure to withdraw unlikely to meet with immediate violence. “The quality of that work is far more important. We strongly support our Turkish partners’ efforts,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.

For now, at least, it seems Moscow is more interested in process than results. But even for the Russians, who would probably like this whole Syrian war to be over now, at some point the process is going to have to produce results. So the burden for keeping the peace in Idlib remain on Turkey to try to bring the rebels into compliance.

The BBC has produced a new investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria that concludes with confidence that 106 of the reported 164 CW incidents that have taken place in Syria were legitimate CW attacks. Of those, five clearly can be attributed to ISIS, 51 were carried out by air and thus likely by the Syrian government, and the remainder are still up in the air, so to speak. Chlorine was used in 79 of the 106 attacks, with mustard gas and sarin definitely used in some. In a sizable number of the cases the weapon used still can’t be determined. Ideally these incidents would all be investigated for war crimes after the conflict ends, but that assumes a world wherein international law is actually enforced, which is not the world in which we live.


Speaking of war crimes that will never be punished, The United Nations is now warning that Yemen stands on the brink of the worst famine in a century, with up to 13 million people now at risk of starvation. The Saudi-led coalition continues to press its attack on Hudaydah, which still threatens to tip the country past the point of no return.

Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi made a proof of life gesture on Monday by firing his prime minister, Ahmed bin Dagher. He’s appointed Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed as his new PM and says that bin Dagher will be investigated for negligence over the country’s current economic crisis.


It’s no secret that Basra’s protests this summer were over electricity and clean water, but a contributing factor was demographic change wrought by the war against ISIS:

There were also a series of larger issues with water that contributed to Basra’s problems. One was water contamination from oil companies in the northern section of the province. Another is growing salination as sea water is moving inland in the south. Together with the drop in the Tigris due to Turkey this created a huge water crisis. The situation got so bad that tap water could not be used for cleaning or farming, and over 17,000 people were hospitalized due to bad water. The government was rightly blamed for this situation. For instance, it knew for years about the Turkish dam, but made no preparations. Likewise, salinity has been a growing dilemma that Baghdad has not dealt with. Instead, Premier Abadi promised a new desalination plant, but that would take months to complete.

There has been increasing demographic pressures upon Basra’s cities as well. The declining water levels and official neglect of farming has led to a steady migration of rural inhabitants to urban areas. Since 2014, around 10,000 displaced also arrived in the governorate fleeing the war with the Islamic State. Finally, a large number of Hashd fighters have returned home. This has increased demand for services and jobs, which are both in short supply.

Some of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militias are reportedly recruiting ex-ISIS fighters in an effort to expand their reach into predominantly Sunni parts of the country. For the former ISIS fighters the militias may be a way to return to Iraqi society. For the militias it’s less clear what the benefit here is and part of me suspects that they’re simply interested in recruiting Sunnis and some ex-ISIS fighters are getting through the screening process. On the other hand I suppose if they’re having trouble recruiting Sunnis then these ex-ISIS guys, who could really be ostracized otherwise, are desperate enough to sign up.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man who attacked one of them with a knife near the Jewish settlement of Ariel on Monday. In related news, the Knesset voted on Monday to approve funds for the expansion of an Israeli settlement in Hebron, one of the most contested cities in the West Bank. Apart from being one of the territory’s largest cities it’s also home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is a holy site for all Abrahamic religions and thus claimed by both Jews and Muslims.

Hebron is kind of like East Jerusalem in that regard. On Monday, far right Israeli lawmaker Yehuda Glick led a group of West Bank settlers onto the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound in East Jerusalem. These occasional pop-ins by Israeli provocateurs are intended to assert Israeli rights to the site and provoke a Palestinian response, but so far it seems the response has been muted.

The Australian government says it might move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. I’m not sure why Scott Morrison thinks kissing Donald Trump’s ass will help him politically, but then I can also understand why he’s desperate enough to try it and see what happens.


Egyptian security forces reportedly killed nine militants who were plotting terrorist attacks in an early morning raid along the Nile River in central Egypt on Monday. Authorities didn’t offer any other details as to affiliation, whether they took any prisoners, or whether there were any casualties on the Egyptian side.


While I usually put the most recent developing news at the top of these updates, I’d like to run through the day’s events in the Jamal Khashoggi case more or less chronologically, so bear with me for a minute.

The joint Turkish-Saudi investigative team has reportedly entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as part of its investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance/probable murder. The investigation continues to be hampered by leaks from the Turkish side that are unverifiable and don’t entirely seem to be on the up and up. They’re still talking about an “audio recording” of Khashoggi’s death, but they seem to have dropped the bit about said recording having been taken from his own Apple watch and also seem to have stopped talking about the “video recording” of the murder that they’ve also been claiming to have. These discrepancies could be innocent, but it’s not like the Turkish government has built up much credibility over the past few years.

Then there’s Donald Trump, who has been forced to stay at least 1000 yards away from “credibility” at all times stemming from a restraining order issued sometime in the early 1980s. It’s obvious that Trump has been straining away, working whatever semi-functional synapses his prion-decimated brain still has left, to figure out how to make this all go away. Despite his talk about “punishment” for the Saudis on Sunday’s 60 Minutes, he’s looking for a way to sweep this whole affair under the rug. His pattern of behavior in previous uncomfortable international scenarios (chiefly the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign) would suggest that he’s going to hope the evidence remains inconclusive and then take the Saudis’ word for it when they say they had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance. And that brings us to Monday morning’s events:

President Trump said on Monday that he spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia and that the ruler denied any knowledge of what happened to a missing Saudi dissident journalist. After the call, Mr. Trump said it was possible that “rogue killers” were behind the disappearance of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Yep, there it is. Rogue killers. Mike Pompeo left for Riyadh on Monday to get the shit right from the bull hear directly from King Salman, and once that’s done the narrative may well have shifted from “Who else could possibly have done this?” to “OK smart guy, can you prove that random rogue killers didn’t burst into the consulate, murder Khashoggi, and escape without leaving a trace? I didn’t think so.”

Anyway, that was earlier in the day and now it looks like it might all be beside the point because, at least according to CNN, the Saudis are about to admit that they did, in fact, kill Khashoggi. They’ll frame it as an accident, a variation on the “rogue killer” wherein the rogue was an overeager but lethally incompetent intelligence operative. They’ll say that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had only ordered that Khashoggi be renditioned back to Saudi Arabia, but things just went terribly wrong.

If this were true it would be horrifying enough, but it’s pretty clearly another lie. There are so many problems with this scenario that it’s hard to count them all. Just off the top there’s the fact that the Saudis have been lying for two weeks about what happened to Khashoggi. Just a few hours ago the king of Saudi Arabia managed to convince one of the few people in the world who is sundowning harder than he is that “rogue killers” must have been to blame, which certainly sounds a lot more nefarious than “we just wanted to arrest him but oops we accidentally killed him instead, aw shucks!”

Then there’s the 15 man hit squad the Saudis flew into Istanbul that we’re now meant to believe showed up to abduct Khashoggi but made an oopsie. They flew 15 intelligence and special forces operatives into and out of Turkey in the same day and, like, nobody high up in the Saudi government knew about it? Really? Included in that group was an expert in forensics and autopsies, and among the gear they brought with them to the consulate was a bone saw. Was that just in case? Were they planning to do a little light surgery on Khashoggi and things got out of hand?

This explanation is obviously bullshit, and yet this is probably where the story ends, at least from Trump’s perspective. And maybe from Europe’s as well–I mean, it’s not like European leaders have been much harder on the Saudis here than Trump has. They’re too afraid to lose one of their biggest arms clients, and maybe they really believe the Saudis will collapse the global economy if they’re punished, as they threatened over the weekend. The Saudis certainly could do some damage if they wanted simply by cutting oil production, but not as much as they want the rest of the world to think they can, and they’d be crippling their own economy in the process, so they’re almost certainly bluffing.

What will probably happen now, if anything, is–as Paul Pillar suggests–the administration will single out a handful of scapegoats within the Saudi government for targeted sanctions. And hey, apparently the Saudis are about name some names for the US to sanction. How convenient. There will be no wider rethinking of the self-defeating US policy of maximum deference to the Saudis, let alone of Trump’s broader policy of cultivating and kowtowing to Middle Eastern autocrats.


The Trump administration seems to think that reducing Iranian oil exports to zero when oil sanctions come back into effect next month is both a) possible and b) achievable without raising global oil prices, which are already hovering around $80/barrel. The former may be true but it’s still very unclear, while the latter seems kind of absurd. I guess they’re counting on the Saudis producing additional oil to make up for Iran’s production, but even if they have the capacity they haven’t indicated publicly that they have any interest in doing so.


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