Middle East update: October 18 2018


Russia and Turkey have reportedly agreed to extend their deadline for meeting the terms of their deescalation agreement in Idlib, which is good because we’re already three days past the old deadline and those terms still haven’t been met. Anything that delays fighting in Idlib is good, but obviously this only kicks the can down the road and does nothing to address the real problem, which is that many rebel groups in the province simply aren’t abiding by the deal (which, of course, they had no role in negotiating).

The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to rescind a property law that would have allowed the government to take property from refugees, which should help alleviate the refugee problem long-term since they’ll still have homes.

Vladimir Putin and Russian state media are reporting that ISIS took 700 hostages when it raided a displaced persons camp in eastern Syria over the weekend and has started to execute them, ten per day unless its “ultimatums” are met. The US government disputes those figures.


Lebanese President Michel Aoun told reporters on Thursday that Lebanon will have a new government “very soon or sooner.” Ah, cool. Don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here holding my breath.


The Israeli army massed tanks and personnel carriers near the Gaza fence line on Thursday as a show of force following Tuesday night’s rocket attack and subsequent Israeli bombardment. This does not bode well for Friday’s regularly scheduled Gaza protest, in case you’re wondering.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that US student Lara Alqasem must be allowed into Israel. Israeli authorities had denied Alqasem entry into the country over her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which the court found to be an illegitimate attack on her political views. Right wing Israeli politicians heavily criticized the ruling, as expected, but it seems the government will either appeal or comply.

The Trump administration announced on Thursday that it will fold its Jerusalem consulate into its new embassy in Jerusalem, probably ending any semblance of US consular support for Palestinians. The Jerusalem consulate had been one of the few US consulates not to report to the local embassy but rather directly back to the State Department, making it a de facto embassy for Palestinians. Its work will now be done by a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” in the embassy, subject to the dictates of US ambassador David Friedman, who among other things likes to fund Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. So you can definitely be sure he’ll handle Palestinian issues impartially.


Turkish authorities have begun searching for Jamal Khashoggi’s remains in two places: the Belgrad Forest outside of Istanbul and a spot outside the city of Yalova on the Sea of Marmara. It’s unclear what evidence they’ve found, presumably in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul or the consul-general’s residence, that’s led them to those locations. The Turks also leaked a surveillance photo showing Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a man who is known to travel in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s entourage, entering the consulate shortly after Khashoggi on October 2. Mutreb was one of the 15 Saudis who flew into and out of Turkey on the day Khashoggi disappeared, and his alleged involvement in this incident is going to make it harder for the Saudis to distance MBS from it as they’re clearing trying to do.

Indeed, the Saudis haven’t even officially released their cover story exonerating the prince and already any evidence supporting it is falling apart. The Saudis may have to acknowledge that MBS ordered or at least knew about an operation to do something to Khashoggi–interrogate him, perhaps, or rendition him–because it defies belief that he was completely in the dark even though people in his inner circle were apparently involved. At this point it looks like the Saudis are preparing to scapegoat Ahmed al-Assiri, one of MBS’s closest advisers, for the Khashoggi operation. This could keep the affair from sticking to MBS directly, but Assiri is so close to the crown prince that MBS will still take a hit if this is how the Saudis decide to handle things. The possibility that this situation will bring MBS down is slim, but not out of the question either. The Saudi move this week to recall their ambassador to the US–who just so happens to be MBS’s younger brother Khalid–can’t help but raise some eyebrows about a potential succession shakeup.

The New York Times , speaking of which, tracks the, uh, “evolution” of Saudi Arabia’s story regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance:

The Washington Post, meanwhile, has some dirt on other Saudi efforts to lure expat critics back to the kingdom:

Omar Abdulaziz hit record on his phone and slipped it into the breast pocket of his jacket, he recalled, taking a seat in a Montreal cafe to wait for two men who said they were carrying a personal message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

When they arrived, Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old Saudi opposition activist, asked why they had come all the way to Canada to see him.

“There are two scenarios,” one of the emissaries said, speaking of Abdulaziz in the third person. In the first, he can go back home to Saudi Arabia, to his friends and family. In the second: “Omar goes to prison.”

Which will Omar choose? they asked.

To drive home what was at stake, the visitors brought one of Abdulaziz’s younger brothers from Saudi Arabia to the meeting. Abdulaziz appealed to his brother to keep calm.

The clandestine recordings — more than 10 hours of conversation — were provided to The Washington Post by Abdulaziz, a close associate of the missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They offer a chilling depiction of how Saudi Arabia tries to lure opposition figures back to the kingdom with promises of money and safety. These efforts have sharply escalated since Mohammed became crown prince last year, rights groups say.

An interesting sidelight to this story is that Twitter announced on Thursday that it shut down a number of Saudi bots that were particularly active around the Khashoggi story. This is something I talked about on my podcast today with LikeWar co-author Emerson Brooking, though at the time neither of us knew about the NBC story.

Meanwhile, even the Trump administration seems to have soured on the Saudis a bit on Thursday. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that he’s going to skip next week’s Future Investment Initiative in the kingdom after all. His boss, meanwhile, told reporters that “it certainly looks like” Khashoggi is dead and that “it’s very sad.” Trump promised “very severe” consequences…if it’s proven that Saudi leaders were behind Khashoggi’s killing. Yeah, he’s still not prepared to actually do anything. Even if he wanted to do something, the Saudis are still reportedly prepared to threaten the over $400 billion in deals they’ve cut (at least in principle) with US firms, including the $110 billion in arms deals Trump keeps bringing up. Of course the $110 billion figure is still mostly hypothetical, and the Saudis, who are still at war in Yemen and are constantly threatening a wider military confrontation with Iran, aren’t exactly in a position to scrap the US as their main arms supplier and shift over to Russia or China. So they’re bluffing, to the extent it matters.

Finally, the Post published Jamal Khashoggi’s final piece on Thursday, which ironically enough is a call for protecting freedom of expression in the Middle East:

I was recently online looking at the 2018 “Freedom in the World” report published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.


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