Middle East update: October 22 2018


This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but Al-Monitor’s Bryant Harris writes that Donald Trump’s “pro-Christian” Middle East policies are more about delighting his evangelical base in the US than about supporting Christians in the region. Trump has, for example, made Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a close ally even though Sisi is increasingly opposed by Egyptian Copts, because evangelicals like the fact that he outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. Trump has cut US support for United Nations programs that aid Palestinians (evangelicals love this) and promised direct aid to Iraqi Christians, but Iraqi Christian leaders say the promised aid hasn’t shown up. And then of course there’s Jerusalem:

Many American evangelicals believe that modern Israel must expand its territory into its biblical-era boundaries, including the West Bank and Jordan, in order for Jesus Christ to return to Earth. As such, advocacy groups like Christians United for Israel have long pushed Washington to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem.

This belief is not shared by most of their Middle Eastern counterparts.

“Jerusalem will only have peace when it is a capital for two states — West Jerusalem as a capital for the state of Israel and East Jerusalem as a capital for the state of Palestine,” Munib Younan, a bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, told Al-Monitor in an interview during a visit to Washington last month.


Somewhat forgotten amid the other excitement of the Syrian war is the US-backed rebel base at Tanf, controlling the main highway from Syria to Iraq–and via Iraq to Iran. What was once supposed to be a forward operating position for US proxies fighting ISIS has now become key to the US plan to squat on strategically important parts of Syria and hold its breath until Iran leaves the country:

The garrison, manned by several hundred foreign troops and a similarly sized force of Syrian fighters, illustrates how the United States has sought lower-risk means to counter Iran on the ground even as senior officials escalate a war of words and intensify economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

The high stakes involved in the U.S. presence in southern Syria were apparent last year when American forces fired on Iranian-linked elements that approached within a 30-mile air and ground exclusion zone around the base. They also shot down two Iranian drones near the base, together marking U.S. forces’ most serious confrontation with Iranian-linked elements since they arrived in Syria in 2014.

The US still insists that Tanf is important to its counter-ISIS mission, which is horse shit but serves as a convenient public excuse to continue squatting there.


See below for updates on the Khashoggi affair, but I wanted to highlight Joshua Keating’s piece for Slate today where he highlights just how thoroughly Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, obviously with a big assist from the Saudis themselves, managed to turn Khashoggi’s murder to his benefit:

Ever since Khashoggi disappeared into the consulate on Oct. 2, Turkish government sources been steadily dripping out the grisly details of what happened inside. This strategy has worked brilliantly to keep the anger over the story boiling and overwhelm the efforts of the Saudi regime and its enablers in Washington to contain the scandal. Now, Erdogan has promised that in a televised speech on Tuesday, he will reveal the complete Turkish account of what happened to Khashoggi “in full nakedness.” There have also been reports that Turkish authorities possess recordings of Khashoggi’s killing, which would presumably contradict the shifting Saudi accounts of how he died.

It’s telling that the Turks have not yet released this evidence and appear to be giving the Saudis an opportunity to make it worth their while not to release it. But Turkish officials have so raised expectations for what they’re going to a reveal that it’s hard to imagine they can simply brush it all under the table to give the Saudis an out.

It remains to be seen whether Erdoğan is really going to drop the hammer on the Saudis and release something huge on Tuesday. As Keating says, he’s raised expectations to the point where something major is expected but he’s also clearly left the door open for the Saudis to entice him to keep the juiciest details under wraps.


Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luabi has canceled the decision he made last week to bring nine state-owned oil companies under the control of a newly reformed Iraqi National Oil Company that he would head. Luabi’s move now seems like a way to grab power as he was on his way out along with the rest of Haider al-Abadi’s cabinet, and when incoming Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi expressed displeasure over the move Luabi backed off. Abdul Mahdi may still put those oil companies under the new INOC’s control, but if he does it will be on his terms.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri says talks over forming a new government, a scant five months after the country’s parliamentary election in May, are “on their way to a solution.” Last week President Michel Aoun said Lebanon would have a government “very soon,” so if you’re starting to feel like these guys are bullshitting everybody you’re probably right.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man in Hebron on Monday after he allegedly attacked one of them with a knife of some sort.


Glenn Greenwald highlights a perpetual problem with media outlets failing to disclose the ties of their contributors:

ON THURSDAY, the Daily Beast published an article about the Saudi/US relationship by David Rothkopf, a long-time member in good standing of the U.S. Foreign Policy elite. Until last year, he was the editor-in-chief of the establishment journal Foreign Policy, named to that position in 2012 when it was owned by the Washington Post. He’s also a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. He was previously deputy undersecretary of commerce for international trade policy in the Clinton administration and managing director of Kissinger Associates, the advisory firm founded by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

But, unbeknownst to Daily Beast readers consuming his commentary about Saudi Arabia, Rothkopf is something else: a paid lobbyist for the Saudi regime’s close ally, the equally despotic regime of the United Arab Emirates. Last month, Rothkopf formally registered as a foreign agent for the Emiratis.

What makes Rothkopf’s case (which also includes frequent appearances on MSNBC) a good one for this discussion is that he hasn’t been flagrantly pushing the UAE’s pro-Saudi position when it comes to the Khashoggi story. That Daily Beast piece is actually critical of Saudi leadership and the current state of the US-Saudi relationship. But it doesn’t matter. Readers and viewers ought to know when they’re hearing the analysis of somebody who has business ties with important actors in news stories. They ought to know when a cable channel brings on a think tank expert whose think tank is funded by a country or business that’s directly impacted by whatever story on which they’re supposed to be commenting.


The latest Turkish leak in the Khashoggi case has to do with Saud al-Qahtani, the adviser to Mohammad bin Salman who was supposedly sacked by the Saudi government for his role in the operation (fun fact: he was actually just transferred to a different job). The Turks allegedly have a recording of Qahtani quite literally directing Khashoggi’s murder as it happened, via Skype. This could be the almost mythical audio recording the Turks have been talking about, the one that proves how the killing took place and undermines the various Saudi cover stories. Qahtani has been so close to MBS for so long–he once tweeted that he was “an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince” to suggest he never does anything without their say-so–that for him to have been involved in Khashoggi’s murder at that level shows that it was not, in fact, a “rogue operation” as the Saudis are claiming.

The Turks released a few other pieces of evidence on Monday, including CCTV footage of a guy dressed up as Khashoggi–fake beard and all–very conspicuously tooling around Istanbul after the killing so as to bolster Saudi claims that Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed. The Saudis clearly did not think Khashoggi would show up at the consulate with his fiancee, who could verify that he hadn’t left the building, and if they noticed that she was there they clearly didn’t have the wherewithal to change their plan. The presence of the body double doesn’t prove that they intended to kill Khashoggi–a body double would have been useful in an abduction scenario as well–but it does prove that Khashoggi’s death wasn’t just a tragic spur of the moment accident, that it was the product of a planned operation. The Turks also have footage of Saudi consulate personnel burning documents the day after Khashoggi was killed, which I’m sure is just a routine thing that the Saudis do whenever they, uh, murder somebody in cold blood in one of their diplomatic facilities.

It’s all OK though, because King Salman and MBS both expressed their condolences to Khashoggi’s son over the weekend:

Wow, I bet he was really touched. This by the way is a real thing that the Saudi Foreign Ministry really tweeted, not a ClickHole parody. They might want to put a couple more of them together for Riyadh’s European pals. The Germany government on Monday announced that it’s putting the kibosh on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which could just be the first of many. And the British government says the Saudis’ Khashoggi cover stories aren’t cutting it. The good news is that the US seems to be getting back on board–Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin flew to Riyadh on Monday for a nice chat session with MBS that seemed like a nice way to keep the ever-important US-Saudi alliance on firm ground. So that’s nice.


Barbara Slavin points out that the Khashoggi killing, among many other things, is a blow to the Trump administration’s plans for regime change in Iran:

As revelations about Khashoggi’s brutal murder dribbled out in the US and international press, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published an op-ed in Foreign Affairs Magazine titled “Confronting Iran.” It branded Iran as an “outlaw regime” for its “malign activity” and added “substantial improvements on human rights” to Pompeo’s previous list of 12 demands for Iran to satisfy as apparent preconditions for negotiations on a new and improved nuclear agreement.

The article trumpeted the power of “moral clarity” to inflict pressure on US adversaries, as occurred when the Reagan administration declared the old Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Trump administration suggested that publicizing Iran’s abuses, along with economic sanctions, could force it to return to the negotiating table and reach a “better deal” for US interests than the JCPOA.

However, the Trump administration’s ambivalent initial reaction to the brutal Khashoggi murder underlines the administration’s double standards when it comes to crimes committed by friends and allies. Meanwhile, stories and social media posts about the slain journalist are crowding out the anti-Iran campaign. Anguished tweets and articles by supporters of a tougher line against Tehran trying to“explain” Khashoggi’s execution suggest concerns that the United States’ Iran strategy is being eclipsed by anti-Saudi fervor.

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