Middle East update: October 23 2018


Syrian Democratic Forces fighters now reportedly control about half of the town of Sousa, after making significant headway on Monday and withstanding an ISIS counterattack on Tuesday. Sousa is located in the last pocket of ISIS-held territory east of the Euphrates River, centered around the town of Hajin.


Well Tuesday brought us Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s big speech in which he had promised to reveal the “naked truth” about the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. It was…less than advertised, to be honest. Erdoğan mostly rehashed the same information that Turkish officials have spent the past three weeks leaking to the press, along with the same “trust us, we can’t show you but we’ve seen the evidence” standard of proof. There was no new evidence, no smoking gun, and certainly no “naked truth.”

However, what Erdoğan did make clear is that he’s not letting this scandal die. Whether it’s because he feels deeply that Khashoggi’s true killers must be brought to justice (unlikely), just relishes rubbing the Saudis’ noses in the mess they made (more plausible), or still isn’t happy with whatever the Saudis have offered him in exchange for backing off (probably the winner), he’s going to keep pressuring Riyadh. And reading between the (not terribly subtle) lines in his speech, and the number of times he went out of his way to exonerate King Salman and only King Salman, he’s specifically going to keep pressuring Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.


A car bombing in the town of Qayyarah, about 35 miles south of Mosul, killed at least six people and wounded 30 others on Tuesday. No group has yet claimed the attack but it would be shocking if ISIS weren’t responsible.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 17 year old Palestinian and wounded 7 other people in responding to another protest at the Gaza fence line on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Israeli media is reporting that an October 17 missile launch from Gaza may have been triggered by lightning. Two rockets were fired, one of which hit a house in Beersheba but didn’t cause any casualties. The Israeli response to the incident was relatively contained as Israeli responses go, possibly because they got information that the launch was inadvertent.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has produced a new report accusing the Palestinian Authority of operating “parallel police states” to “crush dissent” in the limited areas under their control:

The 149-page report, “‘Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent:’ Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas,” evaluates patterns of arrest and detention conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 25 years after the Oslo Accords granted Palestinians a degree of self-rule over these areas and more than a decade after Hamas seized effective control over the Gaza Strip. Human Rights Watch detailed more than two dozen cases of people detained for no clear reason beyond writing a critical article or Facebook post or belonging to the wrong student group or political movement.

“Twenty-five years after Oslo, Palestinian authorities have gained only limited power in the West Bank and Gaza, but yet, where they have autonomy, they have developed parallel police states,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Calls by Palestinian officials to safeguard Palestinian rights ring hollow as they crush dissent.”


The Bahraini and Saudi governments both placed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on their terrorism blacklists on Tuesday, along with several senior commanders in its Quds Force. To be honest I was a little surprised that they hadn’t already done this. The Iranians retorted that this was an effort to draw attention away from the Khashoggi story, which isn’t out of the question.


Ryan Grim notes that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba has largely escaped scrutiny in the Khashoggi affair, even though his connections to Mohammad bin Salman are undeniable:

THE MAN IN Washington most responsible for elevating Mohammed bin Salman to the position of crown prince of Saudi Arabia has largely escaped scrutiny in the wake of the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

And on Tuesday, life goes on as normal for United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, the diplomat who lobbied Washington heavily to support the crown prince’s internal efforts to disrupt the line of ascension and put himself next in line for the throne. When MBS — as the crown prince is known — was given his title in June 2017, and as he went on a ruthless power grab in the months that followed, the Washington foreign policy establishment nodded along and touted him as a reformer.


Sky News reported earlier today that Jamal Khashoggi’s remains had been discovered “cut up” in the garden of the Saudi consul-general’s home in Istanbul. I have to say this story seems paper thin and I haven’t seen other outlets rushing to confirm it, so I would argue that some skepticism is in order. On somewhat more solid footing, CNN Türk reported Tuesday that Turkish investigators found items that may have belonged to Khashoggi in a Saudi consular vehicle.

Meanwhile, in Riyadh on Tuesday, this happened:

Khashoggi’s family has been unable to leave the country since Jamal left for self-imposed exile in the US last year. But hey, they got to meet the prince!

MBS also felt good enough to make an impromptu appearance at his Future Investment Initiative conference, diminished though it was with most of its really prominent invitees having decided to stay away amid the Khashoggi uproar. The conference reportedly raised about $50 billion in new investments in Saudi Arabia and earned MBS a standing ovation from the grotesque human simulacra who attended.

Speaking of grotesque human simulacra, Donald Trump had some great words to say about the Khashoggi killing on Tuesday:

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr Trump said: “They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

“Where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint, when they thought about it,” he continued. “Because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble.”

It’s cool that he’s critiquing the operation instead of just, you know, condemning the murder on principle. He’s a really good guy.

The State Department did announce Tuesday that it’s identified several Saudi individuals believed to have been involved in the murder and has revoked their visas as a first step in punishing them:

“We have identified at least some of the individuals responsible” in Khashoggi’s killing, including from Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services, royal court and other government ministries, Pompeo told journalists at the State Department late this afternoon. The administration is moving to revoke their visas and put them on visa watch lists, while it continues to “seek all relevant facts.”

“These penalties will not be the last word,” Pompeo stressed. “Neither the president or I are happy with this situation.”

Twenty-one Saudi suspects in Khashoggi’s death will have their visas revoked or be ineligible for a US visa, a State Department spokesperson later said.


Iranian authorities claimed on Tuesday that they’ve arrested 15 militants who were planning to carry out suicide attacks against pilgrims attending Arbaeen later this month in the Iraqi city of Karbala. Arbaeen is one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world (several times larger than the Hajj, for example) and a prime target for anyone interested in attacking Shiʿa civilians.

Finally, journalist Nick Cunningham argues that Trump is pursuing two mutually exclusive foreign policy goals:

On Nov. 4, U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports will go back into force after they were suspended following the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Less than a month before that deadline, Iran’s oil sales are already tanking. The United States would like to see them fall further. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid down a marker when he spoke at an event for Iranian dissidents. “Our focus is to work with countries importing Iranian crude oil to get imports as close to zero as possible by November 4th,” he said, before repeating “zero” for emphasis.

The problem with the “maximum pressure” campaign is that it is running headlong into another of U.S. President Donald Trump’s objectives: keeping gasoline prices low. After sharp increases in oil prices in May and June, and then again in September, Trump took to Twitter multiple times to shout at OPEC. He repeated the same complaints at the United Nations in New York last month. “OPEC and OPEC nations are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world, and I don’t like it,” he said in his address. “Nobody should like it. We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. Not good.” His remarks came just as Brent crude prices hit a nearly four-year high at more than $80 per barrel.

With the administration already softening its rhetoric about issuing waivers for countries that buy Iranian oil, Cunningham guesses that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign is going to go before his resistance to high oil prices does.


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