Middle East update: October 20-21 2018


Both the Syrian Observatory and the White Helmets reported that an explosion in Idlib province killed at least three people on Sunday. Presumably this was a little rebel-on-rebel violence though at this point there aren’t any details beyond the death toll.

The US has acknowledged conducting airstrikes in and around the town of Sousa in eastern Syria on Thursday and Friday but insists it was targeting a mosque being used as a command and control facility by ISIS. Independent observers say that over 40 civilians were killed in those strikes along with at least 22 ISIS fighters.

The Syrian Observatory is also reporting that ISIS has released six of the 29 hostages it’s still holding after a late-July rampage around Suwayda. The group has already executed one of the hostages it took, most or all of whom are Druze.

Meanwhile, US Central Command boss Joseph Votel says that joint US-Turkish patrols might finally begin around Manbij after “several more days” of training. Turkish officials have been getting antsy about whether these patrols, which are a key component of the “roadmap” that Turkey and the US reached to fend off a Turkish assault on Manbij earlier this year, were ever going to get going.


If Saudi authorities were hoping that their weekend explanation (or explanations, see below) for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder would put an end to the controversy, they apparently weren’t reading the room very well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told an AKP meeting on Sunday that he plans to reveal the truth about the Khashoggi killing “in all its naked truth” in a speech on Tuesday. Presumably that truth is considerably different from the bullshit yarns the Saudis have been spinning, but its reliability is going to suffer from the fact that Erdoğan is, you know, a serial liar. The Saudis, in refusing to acknowledge the obvious for two and a half weeks and then offering a lame cover story that nobody is buying, have ceded a tremendous amount of leverage to Erdoğan, a geopolitical rival. He could use it to force some kind of new regional status quo on the Saudis, or to simply humiliate them, or a bit of both. It seems like option C is where he’s at right now.


The Kurdistan Democratic Party won 45 of the 111 seats in the Kurdistan regional assembly in last month’s election, far outstripping the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which took 21 seats. All of the smaller Kurdish parties have alleged that the KDP and PUK engaged in vote fraud and tampering, and four of the nine regional elections commissioners refused to certify the vote count over those charges. But the other five, which just so happen to be the KDP and PUK members of the commission, voted the other way.


According to “Western intelligence agencies” and Fox News (I know), Iran has been stepping up its weapons shipments to Hezbollah, including GPS units that can turn “dumb” rockets into guided missiles. This is of course The Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened and should immediately demand your full attention. In fact I ORDER YOU TO STOP PAYING ATTENTION TO SAUDI ARABIA THIS IS MUCH MORE IMPORTANT.


The Jordanian government announced on Sunday that it is canceling part of their 1994 peace treaty with Israel, specifically the part that gave Israeli farmers and tourists access to two plots of land that technically lie within Jordan’s borders. The treaty stipulated a review of the term after 25 years, and Jordan’s deadline for canceling it was coming up this week. The Israeli government says it intends to renegotiate access with Amman, but the measure has always been unpopular with the Jordanian public and it’s unclear that the Jordanians are going to be willing to entertain new talks.


The Israeli government reopened its main checkpoints into Gaza on Sunday, four days after it had closed them amid yet another flare up in violence there. It has not yet decided whether to allow a resumption of Qatari-financed fuel deliveries into Gaza, which it also shut down.

The Israelis also announced on Sunday that they’re delaying the demolition of the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the delay would be short. The Israelis want to give the Palestinians living in Khan al-Ahmar more time to voluntarily evacuate so that they don’t incur any more international opprobrium than they already have over this situation, but the Bedouin so far are refusing to comply. The Israelis say the village needs to be demolished because it was built without a permit, though of course it’s nearly impossible for Palestinians to get permits to build in the West Bank.


Suspected Sinai militants shot and killed three Egyptian workers in el-Arish on Saturday. Egyptian authorities say they killed six militants in two raids in northern Sinai, also on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Egyptian parliament on Sunday renewed the country’s state of emergency, which has been in place since April 2017, for another three months.


The Saudis quickly moved on to their second cover story over the weekend to explain how journalist Jamal Khashoggi wound up dead in their Istanbul consulate on October 2. In this version of the tale, Khashoggi did not walk into the consulate and pick a fight with 15 guys. Instead, those 15 guys attempted to rendition him back to Saudi Arabia, and in the course of subduing him via chokehold they killed him. They then handed his body off to a “local collaborator” for disposal. The important thing that the Saudis want everybody to understand is that this rendition business was a “rogue operation” that definitely was not known to anybody in the upper echelons of Saudi leadership, like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The Saudis had to move quickly on from the story they floated Friday evening/Saturday morning because, well, nobody who isn’t on the Saudi payroll actually believed it. Even Donald Trump, who kind of is on the Saudi payroll, wasn’t buying it. Neither were investors, who sold off a net of a bit over $1 billion in Saudi stocks last week.

The hamfisted Saudi response to Khashoggi’s murder, and really the hamfisted way they went about killing him, speaks to the fact that MBS, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, is a very dangerous mix of supremely arrogant, violently tyrannical, and completely incompetent. As this Wall Street Journal account of events would indicate:

In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, there was little sign of alarm in the royal court. “They were relaxed,” said a person close to the royal family. “Then it snowballed. When things started heating up in the States, everybody started getting worried.”

As the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi escalated into a diplomatic crisis, Prince Mohammed was shocked by the backlash. He couldn’t understand why Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance was such a big deal, according to people who recently interacted with the prince.

On Oct. 10, eight days after Mr. Khashoggi went missing, Prince Mohammed called Jared Kushner, the adviser and son-in-law to President Trump, according to people briefed on the phone conversation.

Why the outrage, Prince Mohammed asked in English. Government officials and business leaders had turned from lavishing praise on the prince to criticizing him.

Two people familiar with the call said Mr. Kushner, along with national security adviser John Bolton, delivered a tough message that Prince Mohammed needed to get to the bottom of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance fast.

If this is accurate, then it means the Saudi crown prince is dumb enough that he needed to be schooled by Jared Kushner. That’s encouraging.

According to Bruce Reidel, the coverup and the supposed reorganization of the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency that MBS is now leading have more to do with protecting his succession than with getting to the bottom of the Khashoggi case:

King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has removed two crown princes from the line of succession in three years. Many in the family are quietly whispering in his ears to do the same to Mohammed. It was Salman who made possible his son’s accumulation of unprecedented power, however, and the release of an incoherent cover-up story suggests that the king stands by his son. Without the king’s involvement there is no process for deposing the crown prince. Mohammed may be a pariah for the rest of his life, deservedly, but one who is in power.

This leaves his opponents at home only one alternative. Senior officials have told me that they are concerned about plotting to remove the prince by force. King Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by a disaffected prince.

The crown prince is shaking up the General Intelligence Directorate now. The shake-up is more about using the organization to spy on Saudi dissidents at home and abroad than finding the killers of Khashoggi. It’s another sign of the deep anxieties in the royal palace about conspiracies.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has more on the inner workings of the Saudi online troll army, including the kingdom’s apparent effort to flip an employee at Twitter:

Mr. Khashoggi’s online attackers were part of a broad effort dictated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. Hundreds of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership.

The killing by Saudi agents of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s intimidation campaign against influential voices raising questions about the darker side of the crown prince. The young royal has tightened his grip on the kingdom while presenting himself in Western capitals as the man to reform the hidebound Saudi state.

This portrait of the kingdom’s image management crusade is based on interviews with seven people involved in those efforts or briefed on them; activists and experts who have studied them; and American and Saudi officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that described the inner workings of the troll farm.


The Financial Action Task Force has given Iran another extension to clean up its financial system to root out money laundering and terrorism financing in order to stay off of the FATF blacklist. This is the latest in a string of extensions Iran has received, most recently in June, since the FATF started giving Tehran a chance to comply with international regulations back in 2016. This is in a sense a victory for the Iranians, because a FATF blacklist would have greatly enhanced the economic pain caused by the reimposition of US sanctions, but it’s also a sign that they haven’t made much progress on fixing the problem and certainly won’t convince anybody who isn’t already doing business in Iran that it’s safe to start doing so.


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