Middle East update: October 30 2018


At least one Syrian Kurdish fighter was reportedly killed late Tuesday when Turkish forces fired on Tal Abyad. Rudaw reports that the attack is ongoing so that casualty count may increase. Perhaps not coincidentally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a group of AKP legislators on Tuesday that the Turkish military has begun “active intervention operations” against the YPG east of the Euphrates River. This is the sort of thing that’s going to risk tanking the Turkey-US relationship again, particularly when the US wants the YPG (as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces) to be concentrating on eliminating ISIS around the town of Hajin.

Also on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu denied that Turkey is failing to carry out its obligations under the deescalation agreement in Idlib province. Çavuşoğlu was responding to accusations from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem that Turkey has been “unwilling” to disarm extremist groups in the province. Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov chimed in to say that Turkey is doing the best it can but that “not everything was going as it was planned.” The Idlib agreement isn’t in danger of coming apart yet but it may already be fraying.

To the south, a United Nations aid convoy bound for the Rukban displaced persons camp along the Jordanian border has been indefinitely delayed due to security concerns. There are an estimated 50,000 civilians at Rukban who desperately need assistance, but the Syrian government has blocked roads into the area in an effort to force US-aligned rebels in the nearby Tanf base to agree to a reconciliation/surrender deal.

In other UN news, it looks like Norwegian diplomat Geir Pederson, currently serving as Norway’s ambassador to China, is going to replace Staffan de Mistura as UN envoy for Syria. He’s either very self-confident or very self-hating, it’s unclear which.


Mike Pompeo issued a statement on Tuesday calling for a “cessation of hostilities” in Yemen. Which is nice. Consider this your periodic reminder that US could cease most of the hostilities in Yemen tomorrow if it wanted, but it really doesn’t care.

An “internal UN document” reveals that the Saudis have been demanding that the UN give them lots of good press in return for whatever spare change they’ve been sending to Yemen in the form of humanitarian aid:

Future grants distributed by Ocha to agencies should be tied to the amount of beneficial publicity given to Saudi Arabia, the documents advises. It also calls for Ocha to seek favourable publicity for the Saudi humanitarian effort in Yemen in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Guardian.

The document also sets out how all agencies receiving Saudi aid must share a summary of their publicity around the funding. The agreement adds: “We consider it very important to ensure that our dear fellow Yemenis are all aware of our donations. More emphasis should be placed on strengthening the local visibility plan by engaging local media … so that donors get deserved recognition and not to be overshadowed by the recipient’s agencies’ visibility.”



The Turkish military says that it killed seven Kurdish militants in northern Iraq on Tuesday who were planning to launch attacks against Turkish military bases.


An estimated 13 million pilgrims attended the Arbaeen commemoration in Karbala on Tuesday. Best regards to any readers who are commemorating the day. Things seem to have been calm for the most part, except for a roadside bombing that killed three Shiʿa pilgrims near Khanaqin. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.


Hey stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Lebanon still doesn’t have a government. The problem now, as I noted yesterday, is that Hezbollah wants a cabinet office to go to one of its Sunni allies in parliament, but Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is refusing to give it up despite the fact that his Future Movement party lost a significant amount of support in the May parliamentary election.


Apparently there’s some thinking out there among analyst types that King Salman could appoint a minder for Mohammad bin Salman over the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi murder:

One scenario to control damage from the Khashoggi affair, two former Western officials suggested, could include Mohammed agreeing to accept temporary power-sharing with a trusted relative. That would work, the former officials said, only if Mohammed were given assurances that he was still first in line to succeed his father on the throne.

The most “plausible” person, they said, is Khalid bin Faisal, a senior royal widely seen as trusted by the king. The 78-year-old son of the late King Faisal, Khalid is governor of Mecca and was recently dispatched by King Salman to Turkey as his personal emissary to the Khashoggi investigation there.

Another name that has surfaced is that of Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, a brother of King Salman who served briefly as interior minister in 2012. The possibility that Ahmed could play some role in diluting Mohammed’s power — perhaps as a caretaker crown prince — has been discussed by senior royal family members who have met several times in secret in the past few months, during meetings at private houses in Riyadh and outside the capital, according to a person who said he attended three of the meetings.

This all seems exceedingly unlikely. The rest of the Saudi family has been well and truly stripped of power and nerve by MBS over the past couple of years. And yet…Ahmed bin Abdulaziz up and returned to Riyadh on Tuesday after spending most of the past six years living in London. Ahmed had been refusing to even visit Riyadh of late due to comments he made last month about Yemen that seemed critical of MBS, and his fear that those comments might land him in hot water. But he’s King Salman’s full brother, the only other of Ibn Saud’s seven sons with favorite wife Hussa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi who is still alive. So he’s got some stature within the Saudi family. It’s unclear why he’s returned now or whether it means something is afoot inside the family.

The new question that people are starting to ask in the wake of the Khashoggi murder is whether MBS is beginning to look like the new Saddam Hussein. There have been two pieces to that effect this week, one by Emile Nakhleh in LobeLog on Tuesday and another by Ryan Costello and Sina Toossi in Foreign Policy on Monday:

Years before Saddam became Washington’s chief foe, he enjoyed significant support from the United States and other Western countries. This ended after he decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. However, the lead-up to that conflict and Washington’s earlier patronage of Saddam provide instructive lessons for U.S. regional policy today and the major risks of not responding forcefully to the assassination of Khashoggi.

Mohammed bin Salman’s gradual and brutal consolidation of power, marked by the detention and torture of his domestic rivals, evokes the “nation-changing assault on dissent within Iraq’s ruling party in 1979 by a young President Saddam Hussein,” Toby Dodge, a consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Bloomberg last year. “The concentration of power in one youthful, ambitious and unpredictable pair of hands is worrying now as it was then.” Washington’s steadfast support of Saddam during the 1980s not only enabled his rampage against his own people and neighboring countries, but also eventually threatened U.S. security interests.


The Danish intelligence service says it believes the Iranian government attempted to assassinate “the leader of the Danish branch of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz.” Iran denies the charge, but he wouldn’t be the first European leader of ASMLA to be attacked in recent years and an Iranian-born Norwegian citizen has reportedly been arrested in connection with the alleged plot. The Danish government will push for stronger European Union sanctions against Iran as a result of these charges, which conveniently works out nicely for the Trump administration.

According to Al-Monitor’s Iranian correspondent, there’s a bit of a political scandal brewing within Iran’s clerical elite:

The normally closed world of Iran’s Shiite seminary has been stunned by a scandal after a grand ayatollah was threatened about his personal meetings with those deemed not supportive of the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, current chairman of the Assembly of Experts and former head of the judiciary for 10 years, wrote a public letter to Grand Ayatollah Mousa Shubairi Zanjani on Oct. 27 about “pictures of meetings with problematic individuals who do not have respect for the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].” Yazdi did not mention names, but the incident he was referencing was a meeting Zanjani had with former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha.

Yazdi, who is also head of the conservative Society of the Seminary Teachers of Qom, wrote that he had spoken to Zanjani twice before about other issues but had not “received a satisfactory response” and therefore “had no choice but to present this letter publicly.” Yazdi accused Zanjani of snubbing meetings with conservative groups in Qom, where he is based, but making time to meet with these “problematic” individuals in Tehran. The most shocking aspect of the letter, which caught many Iran observers by surprise, was Yazdi’s warning to “not let it happen again.”

Yazdi, as a mere ayatollah, really doesn’t have the standing to criticize Zanjani or to try to order him around like this. The Qom seminary released a letter signed by 84 clerics accusing Yazdi of “slandering a grand ayatollah for a personal action” and warning that “no government which insults its figures and threatens them is sustainable.”


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