Middle East update: October 16 2018


The Syrian Democratic Forces say they’re having a tough time defeating ISIS in Hajin and that their operation there “will take much longer than expected.” Meanwhile, the United Nations says the operation is having a “devastating” impact on civilians in Deir Ezzor province, displacing at least 7000 of them and leaving thousands more at risk.


A BuzzFeed investigation finds that the United Arab Emirates–almost certainly with US knowledge–have been hiring American mercenaries to assassinate leaders of Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, the Islah party:

The operation against Mayo — which was reported at the time but until now was not known to have been carried out by American mercenaries — marked a pivot point in the war in Yemen, a brutal conflict that has seen children starved, villages bombed, and epidemics of cholera roll through the civilian population. The bombing was the first salvo in a string of unsolved assassinations that killed more than two dozen of the group’s leaders.

The company that hired the soldiers and carried out the attack is Spear Operations Group, incorporated in Delaware and founded by Abraham Golan, a charismatic Hungarian Israeli security contractor who lives outside of Pittsburgh. He led the team’s strike against Mayo.

“There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition.”

It’s a remarkable story that illustrates both the rise of private military contractors and the extent to which the war on terror has legitimized political assassination–excuse me, “targeted killing”–as a tactic.


As the Jamal Khashoggi affair cruises toward a coverup (see below), James Dorsey argues that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has positioned himself to benefit as the guy who can make the Saudis’ story stand up regardless of the facts:

Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.

As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.

It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.

Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.


Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says its “revolutionary forces” killed an ISIS operative named Abu Zaha along with four other ISIS fighters in Diyala province on Tuesday. Rudaw reported that it was the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, that did the deed, so the IRGC’s claim would seem to reflect a view that Iraqi militias belong to Iran in some fashion. Abu Zaha is believed to have masterminded the September 22 terrorist attack in Ahvaz.


Dozens of Palestinian protesters were injured on Monday in clashes with Israeli soldiers over the planned closure of a high school south of the West Bank city of Nablus, but the demonstration ultimately forced the Israeli army to back down (at least for now) from their plan to shutter the school. The army wanted to shut the school down because it claims students there threw rocks at Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman says that Israel needs to strike a “heavy blow” against Hamas, calling it “the only way to lower the level of violence to zero or close to zero.” Yes, after three wars in Gaza over the last 10 years I think we can definitely say that more violence is the only way to end the violence.

The UN General Assembly voted on Tuesday to elect the Palestinians to chair the body’s group of 77 developing nations next year, a move that enhances the Palestinian position at the UN. The US naturally voted against the appointment. I mean, if you let the Palestinians act like human beings at the UN pretty soon they might start trying to act like human beings elsewhere, and that’s entirely counter to US policy at this point.


Cairo says its security forces have killed 450 militants in Sinai since beginning a major operation there in February. The Egyptians have dismissed humanitarian concerns about their operation, saying they conduct airstrikes away from populated areas and have compensated families displaced by the fighting. It’s hard to track these sorts of things when you’re relying on information from a tightly-controlled autocracy like the Egyptian government, but it does seem like northern Sinai has stabilized somewhat over the past couple of months.


Emirati authorities have charged a British national, Matthew Hedges, with spying on behalf of the UK government. Hedges, a graduate student who was in the UAE on a research trip, was arrested in early May at Dubai airport and the BBC says he’s been in solitary confinement ever since with only two consular visits.


Where to even begin, really.

I guess we’ll start with the latest news, which is that according to the Daily Beast the Saudis are ginning up a story that will pin Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on a rogue general. This person will, in this version of events, have been ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to interrogate Khashoggi in Istanbul on suspicion that Khashoggi was in the Muslim Brotherhood and taking money from Qatar. Khashoggi had expressed sympathies toward the Brotherhood but there’s no evidence he was taking money from Qatar, though that’s beside the point. Anyway, we’re supposed to believe that this general decided to go beyond his orders and rendition Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia–here the Saudis will say they learned by watching us–but he botched the operation and oops Khashoggi died. Then I guess he panicked and had Khashoggi’s body dismembered to cover up the murder. Which still doesn’t explain why they brought a bone saw with them, although I guess it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Nobody is actually meant to believe this, and very few people will. The presence of said bone saw is one problem with this scenario. Another is the 15 man squad that the Saudis sent to Turkey, which I guess we’re supposed to think either went just to interrogate Khashoggi or was assembled by the rogue general, even though at least five members of the team can either be connected directly to MBS or were high ranking enough that MBS would have overseen them. But it doesn’t matter. The purpose of floating this nonsense is just to give Donald Trump and like-minded Western leaders plausible deniability. We can’t be sure it wasn’t a rogue hack general who did this on his own, ergo we can’t really take any serious action against the Saudis.

Trump, as I wrote yesterday and as Robin Wright notes today, is desperate to grab on to anything that will allow him to justify doing nothing here, and why not? His entire Middle East foreign policy is tied to the Saudis. The Saudis, whose entire political system is oriented around a bunch of sycophants constantly flattering a geriatric dimbulb, know exactly how to charm Trump. Let’s not underestimate the fact that Trump has made a ton of money from the Saudis. And there’s also the relationship between MBS and Prime Minister Kushner to consider, while we’re on the subject of corruption. That’s how you get this:

Oh, MBS denies any knowledge? Well that settles it then. There’s also this:

President Donald Trump Tuesday criticized rapidly mounting global condemnation of Saudi Arabia over the mystery of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning of a rush to judgment and echoing the Saudis’ request for patience.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi, who Turkish officials have said was murdered in the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate, to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”

To be fair, I do agree with him that the Saudis are just as innocent of these charges as Kavanaugh was of the charges leveled against him.

Mike Pompeo was in Riyadh on Tuesday to personally let MBS piss in his ear and call it rain, as the two men and King Salman smiled and shook hands like they didn’t have a care in the world.

Pompeo then headed off to Turkey to check in on the investigation, which was able to poke around the Saudi consulate on Tuesday. Turkish officials told reporters on background that they found “evidence” that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate, though there were also signs that the Saudis had tried to paint over some evidence. The Turks also gave the Washington Post passport scans for seven of the 15 members of the team that flew in to interrogate/abduct/murder Khashoggi on October 2, and they reiterated that Khashoggi’s body was cut into pieces by the Saudis. I’ve seen one less-than-reliable report that Khashoggi was still alive and unsedated when they began cutting him up, but I’ve also seen reports that he was killed right after he entered the consulate–which would of course argue against the whole “botched abduction” scenario.

Saudi consul-general Mohammad al-Otaibi left Turkey on Tuesday to return to Saudi Arabia, just before Turkish investigators were supposed to enter his residence though it appears that they did not conduct that search after all. There have been reports that Otaibi was present for the murder so he may have been spirited out of Turkey for that reason.

None of the previous paragraph really matters if the Saudis are preparing to go with this rogue general story. If the Saudis are prepared to admit that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate then proving he was doesn’t really amount to much.


Militants reportedly abducted 14 Iranian border guards on Tuesday along the Pakistani border. Included in that group were two IRGC intelligence officers and seven members of the IRGC-allied Basij militia. Jaish ul-Adl, a Sunni Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the abduction. It has abducted Iranian personnel before and taken them into Pakistan.

One reason the Trump administration is being so solicitous toward the Saudis in the Khashoggi situation is that, as I noted above, so much of its Middle East policy depends on Riyadh. Take, for example, its effort to zero out Iranian oil exports, which relies on the Saudis to make up the difference:

White House officials are worried that the apparent killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Saudi Arabia’s changing account of his fate, could derail a major showdown with Iran and jeopardize plans to enlist Saudi help to avoid disrupting the oil market.

Officials said the dilemma comes at a terrible moment for the Trump administration, which will reimpose harsh sanctions against Tehran on Nov. 4, with the intent of cutting off all Iranian oil exports.

But to make the strategy work, the administration is counting on its relationship with the Saudis to keep oil flowing, and to work together on a new policy to contain Iran in the Gulf. If it moves forward, the Saudis would probably see a significant increase in oil revenues at exactly the moment Congress is talking about sanctioning the kingdom.

The Treasury Department issued new sanctions against more than 20 Iranian entities it’s connected to the Basij financial network. Among these is the Parisan Bank, one of the few major banks in Iran that met Financial Action Task Force standards for anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering operations and was therefore able to conduct banking on behalf of foreign clients. As Esfandyar Batmanghelidj writes, this could have major implications on a humanitarian level, where US sanctions are already running afoul of international law:

The day before the new designation was issued, Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook was in Luxembourg, meeting with European foreign ministers. On his agenda was a structured dialogue about humanitarian trade. Cognizant of the risks posed by returning US sanctions to their effort to keep Iran in the nuclear deal, European leaders have been seeking clarity on humanitarian trade since June. No concrete assurances have been issued to date. The issue has also caught the attention of the International Court of Justice, which recently ruled that unless the United States lifts restrictions on humanitarian trade with Iran, it will find itself in violation of international law.

While the State Department has given lip service to the issue of humanitarian trade, with Secretary of State Pompeo offering assurances that “sanctions and economic pressure are directed at the regime and its malign proxies, not at the Iranian people,” the designation of Parsian suggests that the Treasury Department is not on the same page. Not only is the Parsian designation peripheral to the action against Bonyad Taavon Basij, but the eliminating the ability of the bank to engage in humanitarian trade surely outweighs the value of its designation from the standpoint of minimizing terrorist finance threats. Iranians are already suffering in the face of shortages of medicine, an area of trade in which Parsian was highly active.


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