Middle East update: October 17 2018


United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is leaving his post for, uh, “personal reasons” at the end of November. I don’t use those quotes to make fun of de Mistura, who has failed but in a job at which there never was much chance for success. On his way out de Mistura says he wants to conclude an agreement to form a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution, which probably won’t happen. The agreement is being held up by the Syrian government. The committee is supposed to include three 50 person blocks–one picked by the rebels, one by the government, and a third made up of ostensibly neutral people chosen by the UN (women, activists, tribal leaders, Syria “experts,” and so on). Damascus fears that third block will be almost as anti-Bashar al-Assad as the rebel block, and that fear may be justifiable even though there are clearly ways to balance it (by including leaders of Syrian minority groups that back Assad, for example).

NBC News says that the Trump administration is planning to leverage Iran out of Syria via reconstruction aid:

The plan would emphasize political and diplomatic efforts to force Iran out of Syria by squeezing it financially. It would withhold reconstruction aid from areas where Iranian and Russian forces are present, according to three people familiar with the plan. The U.S. would also impose sanctions on Russian and Iranian companies working on reconstruction in Syria.

“There’s a real opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to make the Iranian regime pay for its continued occupation of Syria,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank strongly opposed to the Iranian regime.

Driving Iran out of Syria would be one prong in an approach that would also involve continuing to destroy remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters and finding a political transition after the exit of both ISIS and Iran that does not call for Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step aside.

The FDD crowd has been pushing this idea for a while now. I tend to think it gets Assad’s priorities wrong, but it seems the hope is that between sanctions on Iran and the refusal to aid Syrian recovery, the US can make staying in Syria so costly for Iran that it has no choice but to withdraw.


Despite Turkey’s release of US pastor Andrew Brunson last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Trump administration hasn’t yet decided if it will lift the sanctions it imposed on Ankara over Brunson’s case. Pompeo, who was in Turkey on Wednesday over the Jamal Khashoggi affair, told reporters that they’ll “have a decision on that shortly.” I don’t think you can read too much into the situation yet, though it’s a little weird that they’re hedging on it at all.


The Treasury Department on Wednesday sanctioned Afaq Dubai, a financial services company headquartered in Iraq, for allegedly providing support to ISIS. Apparently the group is run by two ISIS financiers and is not run out of Dubai despite its name.

One major casualty of Iraq’s massive water pollution problem is the country’s small Mandaean community. Mandaeans claim to follow the teachings of John the Baptist, and their religious practice includes immersive baptisms in running water–i.e., rivers. But the water used in Mandaean baptism is supposed to be pure, and the Tigris and Euphrates are increasingly putrid. Pressures in Iraq have caused thousands of Mandaeans to leave the country over the past several years, which is an existential threat to a community that was small to begin with and doesn’t admit converts.


The Israeli military struck more than 20 targets in Gaza on Wednesday after a rocket fired from the city hit a house in the Israeli city of Beersheba overnight and a second rocket struck out to sea in central Israel. There were no casualties in the rocket strike though the residents of the house apparently needed to be treated for shock. One Palestinian militant was reportedly killed though I would expect additional reports of casualties once the smoke clears. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad denied responsibility, though it’s unclear who else in Gaza would have projectiles capable of reaching central Israel and anyway Israel regards Hamas as responsible for any attack out of Gaza regardless of who specifically carried it out.

In related news, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman halted Qatari fuel shipments into Gaza over the weekend, just days after they began, over the weekly protests at the Gaza fence line. After all, what better way to tamp down protests over the subhuman living conditions in Gaza than by stifling efforts to make them a little less subhuman? Lieberman may have political reasons for taking this step. His Yisrael Beitenu party is sagging in the polls, and he’s lurching right to try to get its mojo back. In addition to Gaza, Lieberman is leading the charge to expand Israeli settlements around Hebron, a holy city to both Jews and Muslims where the settlements are a particular source of conflict in the West Bank.

972 Magazine has a primer on Khan al-Ahmar, the Bedouin settlement in the West Bank that the Israeli military will likely tear down any day now to appease nearby Israeli settlers. International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has called the pending Khan al-Ahmar demolition a “war crime” and is threatening to take action at the ICC if it’s carried out.

US student Lara Alqasem has been detained in Israel since October 2 after attempting to enter the country. The Israelis have ordered her expulsion due to her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. She’s now appealing her expulsion to the Israeli Supreme Court, which tends to be more liberal on these kinds of things than the Israeli government, though I grant you that’s not saying much. If the court overturns her expulsion it will be interesting to see if Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has been increasingly frustrated by the court, will abide by the ruling.


Turkish investigators handling the Jamal Khashoggi disappearance/murder entered the Saudi consul-general’s residence in Istanbul on Wednesday and also poked around in the consulate for the second day. Meanwhile, Turkish officials released the goriest (alleged) details of Khashoggi’s (alleged) murder yet:

His killers were waiting when Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. They severed his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him, according to details from audio recordings published in the Turkish news media on Wednesday.

It was all over within a few minutes, the recordings suggested.

A senior Turkish official confirmed the details that were published in the pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Safak.

Despite all the rumors, the Saudis have yet to officially unveil the “botched abduction” cover story they’ve reportedly been developing–a cover story that’s completely contradicted by these Turkish reports, which are supposedly backed up by an audio recording. Their decision to float that story may have prompted these new Turkish leaks, and there’s some speculation that Ankara is trying to back the Saudis into a corner to force them into a deal whereby the Turks would agree to back up the Saudis’ version of events provided Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is stripped of much of his power. I’m not sure the Turks have enough leverage to make that happen but I suppose we’ll see. Pompeo, in Ankara, laughably insisted to reporters that the Trump administration isn’t bending over backwards to swallow whatever horse shit the Saudis offer up on Khashoggi, and then proceeded to do just that:

Pompeo has focused on the need to investigate and has generally avoided trying to determine what actually happened to Khashoggi on Oct. 2.

Before leaving Riyadh, Pompeo told reporters that Saudi officials pledged they would hold any wrongdoers accountable, no matter how high their positions.

“They promised accountability for each of those persons whom they determine as a result of their investigation deserves accountability,” he said. Asked whether that includes members of the royal family, Pompeo added, “They made no exceptions to who they would hold accountable.”

See? Horse shit. At one point Pompeo actually responded to a question about Khashoggi with “I don’t want to talk about any of the fact,” which sounds about right, and he made sure to stress what “great partners” the Saudis have been to the US on so many things, like booking rooms at the Trump hotel in DC uhhhhh, counter-terrorism? Sure, let’s go with that. Oh by the way, the Saudis just forked over $100 million to the US for “stabilization efforts” in Syria, money that I’m sure they were totally going to send to Washington anyway and that has nothing to do with the Khashoggi situation.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly massing forces in the mountainous region on Iran’s western border in an effort to deal with Kurdish militants operating there:

The IRGC mobilized thousands of troops, including Special Forces, and on Oct. 3, launched Muharram, a multi-front operation across Iran’s Kurdish region, employing helicopter gunships, heavy artillery and drones. While the operation was officially described as a drill, IRGC commanders acknowledged that the aim was also to showcase Iran’s latest sophisticated technology and to reclaim control over several strategic mountain ranges across the Kurdish region. Mohammad Taghi Oslanlou, the IRGC commander in charge of the western Kurdish areas, threatened during the operation to attack any country that supports the armed Kurdish opposition groups, which are based in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is the first time since 1979 that Iran has attempted to fully bring the mountain ranges under its full control.

“This is a real theater. Today we carry out a drill, but also we will clear these areas completely,” an unnamed IRGC second brigadier general shouted into a microphone to some dozen senior IRGC officials watching with binoculars as the second stage of the operation unfolded on Oct. 7.

The Trump administration’s decision to sanction institutions connected to the Basij militia’s financial network on Tuesday wasn’t just about the Basij. In including three very large Iranian banks in the list, even though their links to the Basij are convoluted and go through many layers, the administration is sending a broader message about its Iran sanctions. Namely: even if you think you’ve found a safe entity in Iran with which to do business, don’t risk it. Iran is so murky that even institutions that appear not to be connected to US sanctions targets may be connected in some way–or, at least, the US government might be able to make a case that they are.


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