Middle East update: October 29 2018


The US is reportedly helping the Syrian Democratic Forces regroup and resupply after a bad weekend in and around the eastern Syrian town of Sousa. ISIS was able to retake the town after losing about half of it to the SDF last week, killing dozens of SDF fighters in the process. It doesn’t really change the overall complexion of the campaign to wipe out ISIS’s last pocket of territory around Hattin–ISIS is still surrounded and outgunned–but the SDF doesn’t have the same kind of capacity to absorb major losses that a national military would.

An unnamed “senior Israeli official” told Israeli media on Monday that the IDF has continued to conduct attacks in Syria since last month’s downing of a Russian reconnaissance aircraft near Latakia. That Russian plane was brought down inadvertently by Syrian air defenses that were responding to an Israeli strike. The Israeli official says that the IDF has continued to coordinate its strikes with Russia for deconfliction purposes.


Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project researcher Andrea Carboni told The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn last week that their data suggests that at least 56,000 people have been killed in Yemen since January 2016. That’s almost six times the lame “10,000 killed” figure that the United Nations has been throwing around for almost two years despite knowing that there’s no way the Yemeni death toll has remained that static for that long. Carboni says that ACLED’s research is ongoing and he expects the figure to rise to between 70,000 and 80,000 for the entire period since Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war in March 2015.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan officially opened his swanky new $11.7 billion Istanbul Airport on Monday. The facility, which can be expanded to handle up to 200 million passengers per year, is supposed to relieve pressure on the city’s overtaxed Atatürk Airport and to become a regional hub that can compete with Dubai. It’s also expected to handle more direct intercontinental flights, meaning fewer transatlantic flights into Turkey will need to connect somewhere else in Europe first. And I’m sure Erdoğan wouldn’t object if someday somebody wanted to slap his name on the place. Eventually the plan is for all of Atatürk’s passenger traffic to transfer to the new airport, after which time the older facility will be used for things like cargo, flight training, maintenance, and as a backup facility if needed.


Millions of Shiʿa pilgrims have begun walking toward Karbala for the Arbaeen pilgrimage, the world’s largest annual gathering. Arbaeen is held 40 days after Ashura and commemorates the burial of Imam Husayn, who was killed at the Battle of Karbala on Ashura. Pilgrims visit Husayn’s tomb and that of his half brother Abbas, who was also killed at Karbala. Any large Shiʿa gathering inevitably raises concerns that it might be targeted by ISIS or ISIS-inspired attackers, but Iraq’s security situation is as stable as it’s been since ISIS conquered a third of the country back in 2014 so hopefully there will be no incidents of violence.


Lebanon may actually be on the verge of having a government, no fooling this time. The (Christian) Lebanese Forces party announced on Monday that it will participate in a national unity government despite complaints over what it deems an “unjust” number of cabinet positions. The back-and-forth between LF and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (also Christian) over those positions, after LF did quite well in May’s parliamentary election, has been the biggest hold up in the government formation process, so this is a major development. A big disagreement still exists between Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Hezbollah, which wants one of its Sunni allies to take a cabinet post held by Hariri’s Future Movement party (which did poorly in the election). But that disagreement may not be as hard to overcome as the LF-FPM one has been.


Benjamin Netanyahu sent an interesting subtweet this morning:

Netanyahu is responding to Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau, who does not recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism as actual Judaism and therefore won’t refer to the Conservative Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, site of the weekend shooting wherein 11 people were killed by a domestic right-wing terrorist, as a synagogue.


British academic Matthew Hedges, arrested in Dubai in May and charged with spying, has reportedly been released on bail. He’s been ordered to remain in the UAE until his next hearing with the country’s appellate court on November 21.


Chief Saudi prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb arrived in Turkey on Monday to participate in Turkey’s investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Right now the case appears to have settled into some equilibrium as the Turkish investigators focus on their search for Khashoggi’s remains, and by that I mean the flow of scandalous leaks out of Turkish officials seems to have stopped for the time being.

Donald Trump is reportedly “weighing options” in terms of how to respond to the Khashoggi killing. Presumably he’s looking for something splashy that doesn’t really do anything to inconvenience or embarrass the Saudis.

If you’re worried that international banks are going to turn their backs on the Saudis, worry no more:

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is unlikely to have much impact on trade and foreign investment in Saudi Arabia, according to John Flint, the chief executive of HSBC, Europe’s biggest bank.

“I understand the emotion around the story but it is very difficult to think about disengaging from Saudi Arabia, given its importance to global energy markets,” Flint said.

Flint was one of several banking chief executives who pulled out of an investment conference in Riyadh last week, along with Tidjane Thiam of Credit Suisse, Bill Winters of Standard Chartered and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase. However, Samir Assaf, the head of HSBC’s global banking and markets, attended the event.

Flint said: “My decision [to pull out] was not an easy decision but I felt it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.” He defended the bank’s decision to send Assaf to the conference, saying it had a responsibility to its 4,000 employees and many customers in Saudi Arabia, where HSBC is the biggest foreign bank through its 40% holding in Saudi British Bank.

I mean, if they didn’t abandon the Saudis over all of those dead Yemeni kids, why would they do so now? There’s still money to be made!

The United Nations is calling on the Saudis to halt the planned execution of six men who were involved in the Arab Spring because all six were minors when they were arrested by Saudi authorities, were tortured into confessing, and also didn’t do anything that could objectively be considered criminal (exercising freedom of speech may be a capital offense in Saudi Arabia but that doesn’t make it an actual crime). Saudi officials may actually stay these executions, but it’s far from a sure thing at this point.


At LobeLog, retired foreign service officer John Limbert tries to explain why US and Iranian leader hate each other so much:

There is no reason and there is every reason for this enmity. On the Iranian side, Sariolghalam has well identified the cause. The aging political elite—which has been in power almost 40 years—has decided that anti-Americanism will keep it in its offices and palaces a little longer. It has long exploited Iran’s historical grievances, real and imagined—the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat of 1953, the subsequent support for an autocratic Shah, support for Iraq during the ruinous Iran-Iraq war, the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, and rumors of American support for separatist movements among Iran’s ethnic minorities.

The endless repetition of stale slogans has had unintended consequences among Iran’s young and well-educated population. “Any country our government denounces so adamantly,” goes the reasoning, “can’t be all bad. In fact, it must be pretty good if our regime dislikes it so much.” Long gone are the mass marches and demonstrations of the 1980s when millions would turn out to chant “death to” this or that on instruction.

On the American side, in addition to “pressure from those around us” and the presi­dent’s insecurities and inferiority complex vis-à-vis his predecessor, there is a third factor: Iran humiliated the United States 40 years ago during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Although many anti-Iranian chest-beaters remember little from that time, if they were alive at all, the grievance remains and they want revenge. They are not ready to forgive, forget, or understand. Their basic problem is not that Iranians acted shamefully and refuse to admit it. Their real issue is that the Iranians refused to act as they were expected to—as an inferior species of human being who would accept domination by outside powers. When they insisted, in the words of Arthur Miller’s Linda in Death of a Salesman that “attention must be paid,” they made people angry.

Limbert’s reference to “pressure from those around us” refers to the network of influencers in DC, often working on behalf of Saudi or Israeli interests, who have been steering US Iran policy for 40 years, with the possible exception of Barack Obama’s second term, and have pushed the Trump administration in its anti-Iran direction.

Iranian reformers may be hitching their wagons to conservative parliament speaker Ali Larijani as a potential successor to President Hassan Rouhani when Rouhani’s term ends in 2021:

Mahmoud Sadeghi, a prominent Reformist parliamentarian, praised Larijani’s management of the parliament sessions, saying, “I don’t deny the possibility that the Reformists will unavoidably move to support a figure with the characteristics of Larijani.”

Furthermore, Mohammad Atrianfar, a leading Reformist activist, stated on Oct. 8 that Reformists reaching a consensus over Larijani “is probable. If the Reformist friends reach this consensus, we all have the duty to back Mr. Larijani.”

Larijani’s stature among Iranian conservatives has tumbled since 2005, when he was considered the conservative standard bearer in that year’s presidential election only to lose to populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He later soured on Ahmadinejad, and is increasingly viewed as a moderate by hardline conservatives. His generally good relationship with Rouhani has only cemented that view. Currently Larijani is being savaged in Iran’s hardline press over his efforts to pass the “Combating the Financing of Terrorism” bill, which would bring Iran into compliance with Financial Action Task Force rules, which has caused reformers to rally to his defense.

With Rouhani weakened and reformers who supported him scrambling to regain their political footing, backing someone like Larijani might be a sensible move for 2021. The election is obviously a long way off and the field has yet to take shape but he’s a prominent political figure who isn’t anathema to the reform movement and hasn’t really been tainted by Rouhani’s failures.


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