Middle East update: October 24 2018


Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights both say that a US airstrike in the vicinity of the town of Sousa on Wednesday killed multiple civilians. The SOHR cited a death toll of 16 while Syrian media didn’t get into specifics. The US has been pummeling civilians in Sousa for days now–last week a strike on a mosque in the town reportedly killed more than 40 civilians plus 20 or more ISIS fighters.

Physician Annie Sparrow accuses the Syrian government of waging biological warfare, in a sense, by crippling public health infrastructure in rebel-held parts of Syria and denying international aid workers access to rebuild it:

His strategy is complex, but its impact is devastatingly simple. For example, the maintenance of water treatment and sanitation stations ceased after the Assad regime arrested engineers and maintenance staff and stopped paying their salaries. The Syrian military deliberately bombed water and power plants. Waste disposal stopped, encouraging vectors of infectious diseases such as rats and sandflies to breed. As untreated sewage built, the government withheld chlorine, a prerequisite for clean water.

Beyond bombing hospitals, primary health clinics, laboratories, and blood banks, Assad’s forces went after doctors, criminalizing those who treated civilians and arresting, torturing, and executing any health care worker who defied government policy. After eight years, these efforts have killed more than 800 medics and driven an estimated 15,000 doctors out of the country.

Assad withheld vaccinations against polio, measles, and all other vaccine-preventable diseases from populations deemed politically unsympathetic. In 2012, the Ministry of Health excluded Deir Ezzor, a northeastern governorate, from a nationwide polio campaign.

Through its control of humanitarian convoys, the government blocked all surgical items from areas it was besieging, claiming that anyone with war trauma must be a terrorist, even though indiscriminate military airstrikes on residential areas meant most victims were women and children. This deliberate deprivation had the clear intent of undermining infection control. Plastic bags for hospital waste were also withheld, as were sterile gloves and antibiotics designed to prevent intra-operative and post-operative infections.


A coalition airstrike hit a vegetable packing factory in Hudaydah province on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people. The Saudi-led coalition of course takes this report very seriously and has pledged to investigate fully, or at least until the next time it bombs a playground or whatever and has to switch over to investigating that.

The strike was part of the opening salvo of a “fresh” coalition offensive to take the port city of Hudaydah itself. The city’s seaport, Yemen’s largest and the only one capable of handling humanitarian aid shipments in the kind of volume required in Yemen, will of course be at grave risk again, and along with it the Yemeni people. The United Nations said on Wednesday that half of the country’s population–14 million people–already faces “pre-famine conditions,” meaning they live in parts of the country that meet two of the three criteria for famine. And that’s with the port still operating.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke by phone on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing investigation/coverup into the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month. Apparently they talked about “working together to bring clarity” on Khashoggi’s killing, which is nice. MBS later told the audience at his Future Investment Initiative forum that some unnamed “they” who are apparently “trying to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey…will not be able to do it.” This must come as a surprise to Saudi leaders like [checks notes] Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who back in March referred to Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” alongside Iran and extremist groups.

It’s unclear what the Saudis have been offering Erdoğan but it seems pretty clear that they are negotiating on a price to get the Turkish president to drop it. Erdoğan has seemed at times like nothing less than MBS bring stripped of his position would do, but that’s most likely not on the table. The Saudis sent Khaled bin Faisal to Ankara earlier this week and he reportedly offered financial aid and an end to the Saudi embargo on Qatar but was told to cram it.

Erdoğan might be looking for Saudi cooperation against Syrian Kurds, but it also should be noted–and I admit I’ve done a lousy job of noting it–that this isn’t all geopolitics from Erdoğan’s perspective. He and Khashoggi were by all accounts friends, which makes his murder personal, and the Saudis killed him in Turkey, which on top of everything else is an insult. Oh, and he still thinks MBS’s pals in the UAE–and maybe MBS himself–helped arrange that attempted coup against him in 2016. Add that stuff to the Turkey-Saudi rivalry for influence in the Arab/Muslim world, and their very different views on what that world should look like (especially around the Muslim Brotherhood), and you get a pretty good sense of why Erdoğan has handled this situation the way he has.


After a fair amount of chaos earlier in the day injected some uncertainty into the mix, the Iraqi parliament on Wednesday voted to approve Prime Minister-designate Adel Abdul Mahdi’s new cabinet and agenda. Sort of. They approved 14 of Abdul Mahdi’s 22 ministers, enough for him to form a government but obviously leaving important posts unfilled. Parliament will vote on the other eight posts at a time TBD.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man on Wednesday during a raid in the West Bank village of Taamun.

Meanwhile, somebody fired another rocket out of Gaza on Wednesday night. This is very much a developing story but presumably you can expect Israeli retaliation.


Egyptian security forces say they killed 11 militants in a Wednesday morning raid on a hideout in the Western Desert near the city of Assiut. As usual the Egyptians did not say whether their own forces had suffered any casualties.


Turkish authorities seem to be on two tracks in the search for Khashoggi’s remains, which by the way were apparently not found in the Saudi consul-general’s garden yesterday, as Sky News had reported. They leaked information about a BMW linked to the Saudi mission whose GPS shows it curiously perusing the Belgrad forest outside of Istanbul, but they’re also still interested in searching the consul-general’s home, in particular a well in said garden.

In the US, meanwhile, Donald Trump made his strongest comments yet regarding Mohammad bin Salman’s possible culpability in Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, though to be fair they weren’t all that strong. Trump apparently wants to believe the Saudi cover story, and actually said so, out loud, in front of reporters, but the story is too big a pile of bullshit even for him. Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel, reportedly listened to the almost-mythical Turkish audio tape of Khashoggi’s murder during a low-key visit to Turkey this week, which may explain why Trump’s tone has shifted a bit in recent days and may lead to her getting called to testify before the Congressional intelligence committees.

MBS’s speech to the bankers and assorted other human barnacles at his FII conference was notable insofar as he directly mentioned the Khashoggi murder when many attendees expected him to ignore it:

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has broken a three-week public silence over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, describing the journalist’s murder as a “heinous crime that cannot be justified”.

Speaking in Riyadh at the Future Investment Initiative conference, nicknamed “Davos in the desert”, the prince said all culprits would be punished, and that “justice would prevail”.

Stay tuned for announcements about the crown prince’s new book, If I Did It Too, with a foreword from OJ Simpson himself. The prince, bless his heart, also found a way to bring some levity to the situation, I guess:

He’s a real witty guy when he’s not ordering his subordinates to drop cluster bombs on Yemen day care centers or dismember wayward Saudi journalists.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet on Wednesday that he believes the Saudis had “the support” of the US in carrying out the Khashoggi murder and called for Turkey to conduct a “precise and impartial” investigation. Interestingly, some hardline Iranian media outlets appear to have seen through Erdoğan’s act and are criticizing him for trying to milk some goodies out of the Saudis over the affair instead of just releasing all the gory details.

The European Union says that its “Special Purchase Vehicle,” intended to allow European countries to continue buying Iranian oil while being protected from US sanctions, should be ready to put in place legally by the time US oil sanctions against Iran resume early next month. But in a practical sense it won’t be ready to conduct any commerce until next year sometime.


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