Middle East update: October 19 2018


Syrian media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are both reporting that multiple civilians (the SOHR says at least 46) have been killed in US airstrikes on the town of Sousa over the past two days. Sousa is in the pocket of territory still controlled by ISIS around the town of Hajin, where the Syrian Democratic Forces have been trying and mostly failing to advance for a few weeks now.


The weakest aspect of the case that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis in their consulate in Istanbul 17 days ago (which is nearing an end, see below) is and has been the fact that most of the evidence has been anonymously and in many cases unverifiably leaked to the press by Turkish officials. Some of that reflects Turkey’s desire not to divulge any state secrets (if they’ve been bugging the consulate, for example, they’d rather not have to admit it) but the main reason they’re doing things this way is because it’s been very effective in advancing Turkish national interests:

Since the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared over two weeks ago, details from the police investigation, including gory descriptions of audio recordings that reveal he was killed in Tarantino-like fashion, have been leaked, drip by drip, to keep the world suspended as the mystery unfolds.

The calculated media strategy has proved remarkably effective for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ensuring that the case remains front-page news around the world.

But it has also served a deeper agenda — to push the United States to pressure Saudi Arabia — while shielding the government behind the news media to avoid an open and potentially damaging diplomatic rupture with the Saudis.

The Turkish leaks conveniently died down when it looked like the Saudis were about to name a fall guy, but picked back up again this week when the Saudis held off doing so and Donald Trump started defending them.


The Iraqi government is reviving its National Oil Company, which has been defunct since it merged with the country’s oil ministry in 1987. The ministry will, if this plan comes to fruition, focus on long-term planning while the INOC will serve as the umbrella for nine state-owned oil companies and handle the day-to-day responsibility for operating Iraq’s oil industry.


Jordanian journalist Tareq Alnaimat looks at the state of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, which has apparently seen better days:

In recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Jordan has experienced worsening internal conflicts that have strained its relationship with the state. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, which listed the MB as a terrorist organization in March 2014, Jordan pursues a less aggressive stance that appeased its Gulf allies by weakening the Brotherhood gradually without banning it entirely. Although a ban on the core MB has been in place since 2015, Jordan kept the Islamic Action Front, its political arm, legal—and has also legalized Zamzam and other splinter organizations that have been expelled from the core organization. Even as Amman faces pressure to ban the group fully, these internal disputes further hinder the MB’s prospects of pursuing either advocacy or political reform.

Internal disputes within the Muslim Brotherhood have escalated since 2008, when it dissolved its Shura Council and elected a new inspector-general, Salim al-Falahat. Two main factions, referred to as the Doves and Hawks, favor different strategies and directions for the group. The more “pragmatic” Doves—which include prominent figures such as Ishaq al-Farhan, Abdul Latif Arabiyat, Salim al-Falahat, and Rahil Gharaibeh—call for political cooperation with other parties and with the regime and emphasize domestic public work to balance the organization’s traditional focus on the Palestinian cause. The Hawks—including Mohammed Abu Fares, Hamam Said, Murad al-Adayla, and Zaki Bani Irsheid—share the Doves’ views on the importance of political participation in elections but are less flexible when it comes to cooperation with the regime and political parties. They prefer to focus instead on recruitment and education.


So far there haven’t been any reported deaths, but Israeli forces shot and wounded at least 130 Palestinians during this week’s Gaza fence line protest. Friday’s protest was smaller and quieter than previous weeks’ demonstrations, and apparently there’s been some behind the scenes work done by the Egyptians, Israelis, and Hamas to try to ratchet tensions down yet again.


The ongoing Saudi-Qatar dispute and growing Kuwaiti concerns about Mohammad bin Salman have apparently given Turkey another inroad to the Persian Gulf:

According to the agreement signed by deputy chiefs of staff of the two countries during the Turkey-Kuwait Military Cooperation Committee meeting, the two nations are planning to share their military experiences and coordinate their activities beginning in 2019.

The agreement occurs amid the backdrop of Turkey’s close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkish moves to become a shield for Qatar against the Saudi-United Arab Emirates alliance, the decision by Riyadh to assist Kurds in Syria and the tensions that erupted with this month’s disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Kuwait became concerned about the intentions of Mohammed bin Salman after he was named Saudi Arabia’s crown prince last year. Moreover, the decision by the Trump administration to support Riyadh took away some of Kuwait’s defenses.

Mohammed’s visit to Kuwait on Sept. 30 to discuss the recurring problems between the two countries and the Qatar issue did not go well. The meeting, designated to last some two hours, was cut short.

The Kuwaitis, who fear that they’ll be next on MBS’s list if Qatar falls, are looking to Turkey to protect them against the possibility of future Saudi aggression.


Increasingly the line from the Trump administration and Saudi defenders in the media and think tank communities is that we mustn’t do anything regarding the Khashoggi case that might risk destabilizing Saudi Arabia. Which of course means we mustn’t do anything regarding the Khashoggi case, period. The UAE got in on this talking point on Friday:

Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted that Abu Dhabi was “firmly” opposed to “politicisation (of the case) and efforts to destabilise Saudi Arabia”, its close ally.

“From [the UAE’s] perspective, the security, stability and role of the region in the international environment depends on Saudi Arabia with all the political, economic and religious burdens it carries,” a tweet from Gargash read.

“In this sense, it is necessary to distinguish between the search for truth and its importance.”


In an epic case study in making a Friday news dump, the Saudi government late Friday finally pulled the trigger on the cover story it’s been concocting to exonerate Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. In this version of events, Khashoggi arrived at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and got into a fight with the people who met him there for some unexplained reason, and in the course of that fight he tragically died. It was all very simple and believable. The important takeaway here is that his death was mostly an accident and really if you think about it he was probably to blame because maybe he started the fight, you know? We just can’t be sure!

According to this story the Saudis who flew into Istanbul and met Khashoggi at the consulate reportedly brought a bone saw with them just in case they, you know, found some bones that they wanted to saw through. Or maybe in case one of them was suddenly trapped in some sort of bone mishap. You can’t be too careful about this stuff, people’s lives could be at stake! And luckily they had it because really it’s kind of like they had to dismember Khashoggi’s body in self defense, you know? At least that’s how I see it. Also, that Saudi team included a guy who specializes in forensic medicine just in case they happened, in the course of their travels, to come across any random dead bodies that looked like they needed to be autopsied. As one does under normal circumstances. I always travel with a coroner for this reason.

Despite the fact that this was all a terrible snafu and if anything Khashoggi is at fault, the Saudis have magnanimously identified several individuals who must be scapegoated punished for what they’ve done. Some 18 people, we’re not sure who they are yet but presumably this includes the 15 man Saudi hit squad accidental fight club that flew into Istanbul, have been arrested. Several other senior Saudi intelligence officials have reportedly been sacked, including close MBS advisers/pals Saud al-Qahtani and General Ahmed al-Assiri, who just so happen to have been the two most frequently floated potential fall guys in the Western media over the past several days so it sure is quite a lucky coincidence that they were both responsible here.

As to the question of any bigger fallout, consider this:

More or less this translates to “Now, from the Saudi News Agency: The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [King Salman] orders the formation of a ministerial committee headed by the Crown Prince to restructure the General Intelligence Presidency, modernize its organization and regulations, and accurately define its powers.” Which I guess, for now at least, means that rumors of MBS’s pending demise at court have been exaggerated. Anyway I’m sure the guy who probably ordered Khashoggi’s murder will get to the bottom of who murdered Khashoggi and why. Maybe he and OJ Simpson can compare notes. MBS’s mouthpieces are already out there talking about The Real Killer: Qatar (?):

I would assume the Trump administration will try to make a hard pivot back to business as usual (it’s already started, in fact) and say the Saudis have now cleared everything up, but we’ll see if they’re able to pull that off. Most people who don’t have a vested interest in credulously buying this entirely bullshit story probably won’t buy it, so that could make things difficult for the administration.

In the longer-term, however, I think there is a chance that this affair may have had serious repercussions for Saudi succession. Where even a year ago there was a real possibility that Salman might abdicate in favor of MBS, who was running the kingdom anyway, now it might be in MBS’s best interest to keep Salman alive and in power as long as humanly possible to avoid a succession controversy. On the other hand, if even Salman (who’s 82, has probably had a stroke, and may have Alzheimer’s) is starting to recognize his dictatorial, thin skinned failson for who and what he is, then the prince’s time might be running out no matter what. Right now MBS controls most of the levers of power in the kingdom via his proxies at the national guard and interior ministry, and his own direct control of the defense ministry. If you’re looking for a sign that he’s falling out of favor it will be if the leadership posts in those institutions start changing hands. It will mean either that his guys are being moved out or that he’s worried that his guys aren’t his guys anymore.


At LobeLog, Tyler Cullis argues that if European leaders really want to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, they’re going to have to do more to protect it, even if it means seriously challenging the US:

It is one thing, for instance, to threaten European home companies with penalties for compliance with re-imposed U.S. sanctions. It is quite another to penalize American companies for the sins of their home government. Likewise, it is one thing to propose the creation of alternative payment mechanisms to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran. It is altogether another to send a clear signal to the Trump administration that the enforcement of sanctions against European home companies—including the SPV itself—for engaging in legitimate trade with Iran will invite a robust political response directed at the United States.

Europe, in other words, must make a high-level political statement establishing a clear red line for the Trump administration and specifying the consequences to the United States from failing to observe this red line. Right now, the Trump administration is winning the battle over Iran. It is creating just enough risk to foment an ongoing exodus of international companies from Iran and rendering the country a commercial pariah. But a clear statement of intent from Europe could help move the needle, particularly if the Trump administration appears to accede to Europe’s line in the sand.


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