Middle East update: October 31 2018

Happy Halloween to those celebrating!


The Carnegie Endowment has produced a several-part series on the “hybridization” of national security in several Arab countries: Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. What they’re talking about is the increasing reliance these states have on non-state militias to backstop their national militaries. These countries have played around with relying on non-state forces for a long time now, but in recent years the nature of this phenomenon seems to have fundamentally changed:

The trend is anchored in developments well before the 21st century. In Iraq under internationals sanctions in 1990-2003, the regime of Saddam Hussein devolved responsibility for security to clans and other social forces, while that of Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi responded to the jihadist challenge of the 1990s and later U.S.-led sanctions by sidelining the army and privileging a parallel structure of “security battalions” and other agencies. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad moved resolutely in the 1980s to disband the regime maintenance forces that his brother Rifaat had set up – the “Defense Companies” and “Struggle Companies” – only a few years after crushing the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt at armed insurrection, but the entrenched corruption and growing rapaciousness. This entangled the armed forces and security agencies with criminal economic actors embedded in cross-border black markets, undermining security governance and setting the stage for its subsequent acute hybridization. Weaker states and more pluralist, quota-based political systems in Yemen and Lebanon adopted a different approach typical of “limited access orders,” tolerating and at times delegating security responsibility in ways that diluted the very notion of the state; this went through different phases, with the transmutation of Lebanon’s civil war militias into post-1989 government actors and periodic realignments with and against northern, southern, tribal, and jihadist armed forces and non-state armed groups under Yemen’s Ali Abdullah al-Saleh from 1990 onwards.

However, security hybridization has undergone a turning point as the accentuation of state fracture in the early 21st century – and accompanying shifts in power relations between domestic political and social forces – converged with the intensification of geopolitical struggles between regional and international actors. Every one of the Arab countries mentioned here has experienced inter-state as well as intra-state armed conflict, fusing both forms and confusing roles and distinctions between the provision of external defense and of internal security and domestic public order. And in each case, the national armed forces – or their fragments and remnants – as well as their non-state counterparts – whether those of many years standing or new ones – have become even more significant vectors of foreign influence.

It’s not a great situation–without casting aspersions on any of these non-state groups in particular, when a state has to turn to what are basically private militias for its defense, and then begins to lose control of those militias, it creates a lot of potential for political upheaval and internal violence.


Speaking of non-state actors, Syrian Kurds took another round of artillery fire from the Turkish military on Wednesday. At least four Kurdish fighters were killed by Turkish shelling in the Kobane region, and the Syrian Democratic Forces responded by destroying a Turkish military truck. They also, and this is the key bit from the US perspective, called a halt to offensive operations against ISIS in the Hajin area. So…mission accomplished, I guess? The Turks presumably chose now to start their east-of-the-Euphrates offensive because the SDF was tied up in Hajin, and they had to know that this is how the SDF would respond. While it might be going too far to suggest the Turks are deliberately saving ISIS’s hide in eastern Syria, there’s no question that they must be OK with saving it.

Meanwhile, a group called the Syrian Archive, based in Berlin, has released a database of videos cataloging more than 1400 incidents of what it calls deliberate Russian attacks against civilians in Syria. Russia of course denies targeting civilians, just like everybody else in Syria, which is really weird because a whole lot of them keep dying violently anyway. The database could be used as evidence in international criminal prosecutions were such a thing even remotely likely to happen.


To build on a story from yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis both called for a full ceasefire in Yemen and a resumption of United Nations-led peace talks, with Mattis even seeming to put a 30 day deadline for such a thing. It is interesting that both of them did this yesterday and maybe the Trump administration thinks it already has some kind of agreement from the Saudis to stop fighting in another month, but we’ll see. If the Saudis don’t agree to stop fighting will the administration do anything about it? Again, we’ll have to see. I have my doubts, needless to say.

On the ground, the Saudi-led coalition looks like it’s actually preparing to ramp up the fight, moving around 30,000 fighters to the vicinity of Hudaydah in what looks like the beginning of a serious push to take the city and its seaport. Which could correspond with the ceasefire push. Mattis did signal that they can have another 30 days of fighting, so why not use that to try one all-out blitz to take Hudaydah? The downside of course is that thousands of civilians and Yemen’s humanitarian lifeline will be put in dire jeopardy in the process, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, am I right?


The Turkish military had a busy day on Wednesday. It apparently also killed at least 23 PKK fighters in airstrikes in northern Iraq.


Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units say they’ve deployed 20,000 fighters to the Iraq-Syria border to support the SDF’s battle against ISIS in Hajin. Presumably they did this before the SDF suspended that battle (see above). The SDF had run into some heavy ISIS resistance in recent days and the gains ISIS has made have brought it closer to the Iraqi border. On Wednesday, PMU officials said their forces killed two ISIS “commanders” who have been leading the group’s counteroffensive in Syria against the SDF.

Inside Iraq, meanwhile, the US-led coalition in Iraq says that the Iraqi military uncovered and destroyed four tunnels and four caves used by ISIS forces in Saladin province, killing four of the group’s remaining fighters in the process. It’s unclear when exactly this activity took place though the coalition said earlier on Wednesday that operations have been ongoing “in the last 72 hours.”

New Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is reportedly having a hard time filling his remaining cabinet posts. He’s been unable to fill powerful ministries like defense and interior because those offices are almost always the subject of squabbling by the major Iraqi parties over who gets to control what. Additionally, despite calls from Sairoon party boss Muqtada al-Sadr to depoliticize the cabinet selection process and eliminate Iraq’s patronage-laced quote system, it appears Sairoon has been demanding its piece of the pie just like everyone else. On top of that, a handful of Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet picks are suspected of having ties to the old Baath Party, a common accusation that especially dogs prominent Sunni Arab politicians.


At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick says that, when it come to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Benjamin Netanyahu has privileged his alliance with Donald Trump over the fears of the US Jewish community:

Although he had the good sense to rebuke Israel’s chief rabbi, who refused to agree with the obvious fact that the Tree of Life synagogue where the attack occurred was a “real synagogue,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately praised Trump for “unequivocally condemning this heinous crime.” Education minister and far-right leader Naftali Bennett, who also serves as the minister for diaspora affairs, quickly flew to Pittsburgh to falsely state that “From Sderot to Pittsburgh, the hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshippers.”

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer made the lie even more blatant, stating, “… those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis, on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left.” Like Bennett and Netanyahu, Dermer has long since abandoned any pretense of bipartisanship in the United States and has thrown in his lot with the Republican party and, these days, with Trump. It’s hardly news that the Netanyahu government warmly embraces anti-Semites. Netanyahu had already courted controversy by supporting the far-right Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, even while Orban waged a blatantly anti-Semitic electoral campaign back home.

But that was Hungary. This is the United States, the home of the Jewish community that has given so much money and political support to Israel for so long. And this wasn’t just about where words like Orban’s could lead. Squirrel Hill was the result of month after month of Trump’s barely concealed shout-outs to the anti-Semitic right.


The Egyptian government will be hosting war games starting this weekend involving a collection of countries that looks suspiciously like a potential nucleus for that “Arab NATO” Washington has been trying to establish. Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are participating, while Lebanon and Morocco have sent observers. Lebanon’s involvement in what is obviously meant to be an anti-Iran alliance would be complicated given its (and Hezbollah’s) close ties with Tehran, but the other countries are all prime candidates for membership. Morocco has tried to set itself apart from the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but its relationship with Iran is fraught due to Western Sahara issues, so that may explain why they’ve only sent observers.


Also at LobeLog, Gulf analyst Sigurd Neubauer tries to explain the thinking behind Oman’s recent diplomatic exchange with Netanyahu:

Muscat believes that Israel is a stabilizing force in the Middle East, particularly now amid Saudi Turkish tensions, and thus seeks to strengthen regional stability by supporting the U.S.-led peace process by publicly engaging Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Oman also recognizes that the Arab public opinion is squarely in favor of the Palestinian cause, which explains why Qaboos sent a personal letter to Abbas immediately after meeting with Netanyahu in which he expressed his support for a Palestinian state. The letter sought to signal to Abbas that Oman has not abandoned the Palestinian cause as Arab and Palestinian criticism of Netanyahu’s high-profile visit was inevitable. Qaboos also hosted Abbas two days before Netanyahu’s arrival.

Following Netanyahu’s visit, Foreign Minister Alawi stressed that Oman does not seek to “mediate” between Israel and Palestine but seeks to bring the parties together. He added, “Our major role in the peace process between Israel and Palestine complies with the U.S. administration. Establishing a Palestinian state is a strategic necessity and without it there will be no stability in the region.”


Istanbul’s chief prosecutor, İrfan Fidan, issued a statement on Wednesday in which he criticized Saudi officials for their lack of cooperation in the Jamal Khashoggi investigation and confirmed a few of the details that Turkish officials leaked days ago–specifically, that Khashoggi was strangled immediately after entering the Saudi consulate on October 2 and was then dismembered. The confirmation isn’t as shocking as the initial leaks were because in the interim the Saudis have finally conceded that Khashoggi’s murder was “premeditated,” even as they’ve continued to insist that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wasn’t involved. Clearly the Saudis haven’t been very helpful in terms of finding Khashoggi’s remains, which is one of the main goals of the Turkish investigation at this point.

There are signs that the Khashoggi murder may have put an end to any plans the Trump administration has had about reaching a nuclear power agreement with Riyadh:

Five Republican senators have asked President Donald Trump to end talks with Saudi Arabia over a deal that would allow Riyadh to develop a civilian nuclear program using US technology. The quintet sent a letter to Trump today threatening to block any such deal with the Saudis, citing the Khashoggi affair, the Yemen war and last year’s bizarre alleged detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Congress can block an agreement. Some legislators had already expressed reservations due to proliferation concerns about the Saudi insistence on developing a domestic uranium enrichment capability. But this is much stronger language coming from five members of Trump’s own party. Nevertheless, Washington hosted the annual National Council on US-Arab Relations policymakers conference on Wednesday and the consensus seemed to be that no silly murder is going to derail the US-Saudi relationship:

“Subjecting the future of the relationship on this issue is not healthy at all,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, a one-time Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States.

Promising the Khashoggi probe would move forward, Prince Turki expressed confidence US-Saudi ties would endure. “I believe it will survive this crisis,” he said, describing the friendship as “thicker than water” — making a sly reference to oil. Turki also compared the writer’s death to Israeli killings of Gazans before calling for a moment of silence for Saturday’s shooting victims at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

For reference, Khashoggi used to be an aide to Turki back in Turki’s days running Saudi intelligence. Which shows that some friendships are not, in fact, thicker than water. Anyway I think we can all be grateful that the US is likely to continue actively supporting and tacitly condoning things like this:

Indonesia has responded with outrage after Saudi Arabia executed an Indonesian domestic worker who was convicted of killing her Saudi employer – even though the maid said she had been defending herself from being raped.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Wednesday that he had called the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, to file a complaint and demand to know why Indonesia had not been notified that Tuti Tursilawati was to be executed Monday.

What a classy country. We should definitely keep being friends with them.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on Wednesday that “it’s possible that the next few months will be difficult” for Iranians due to the reimposition of US sanctions. But he pledged that “the government will use all its power to reduce these problems.” Oil sanctions are due to resume on Monday and will be a major blow to the Iranian economy even as some of Iran’s customers have said they intend to keep buying Iranian oil (though at a much reduced level in most cases).

US National Security Advisor John Bolton says the Trump administration isn’t looking to “harm countries that are friends and allies that depend on” Iranian oil, so it may issue some waivers to those sanctions. But they’ll presumably be pretty limited both in quantity and in terms of duration. Of course the administration says it’s not looking to hurt ordinary Iranians either, and yet these sanctions will absolutely do just that:

European countries seeking to preserve the Iran nuclear deal in the face of resumed US sanctions are urging the Donald Trump administration to clarify how they can continue to legally provide food, medicine and medical devices to Iran.

Humanitarian trade is supposed to be exempt from the sanctions, which go back into full effect on Nov. 5. But with European banks reluctant to finance any transactions with Iran for fear of jeopardizing their much more lucrative US business, it remains unclear how crucial items will continue to flow to the Iranian people.

Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, did an interview with Laura Ingraham on Wednesday and pretended that harming Iranians isn’t the point:

We will substantially drop the amount of crude oil, their primary revenue source, that they can ship around the world. Treasury will put back in place sanctions on financial institutions there. And we hope that the sanctions we put on individuals and in other places will convince the leadership. We want the Iranian people to be successful. We want this to be a successful country. We want to restore democracy there. We think the Iranian people want that same thing. And so our aim is not to harm the Iranian people, but to change the behavior, the malign activity of this regime.

As Daniel Larison notes, this is all bullshit. The administration is not working with the Iranian people, it’s going out of its way to immiserate the Iranian people. In the space of two sentences Pompeo goes from “we want regime change” to “we want to change the regime’s behavior,” which it goes without saying are contradictory positions. And he wants to “restore democracy”? Really? Hey, Mike, I know you were only CIA director for about a year there so maybe you didn’t get a chance to dig into the archives, but boy do I have a story to tell you about the United States and Iranian democracy.

Rouhani, under increasing political pressure, apparently reached out to Reformists earlier this month and got an earful from them:

The Reformists’ disagreements with Rouhani reached a new climax after his re-election last year, when the moderate president began to blatantly ignore his promises. Rouhani was accused of siding with the conservatives on a number of issues and turning a deaf ear to his Reformist backers. This gap is believed to be rooted in Rouhani’s inner circle’s positions on the Reformist camp. Many Reformists have blamed the president’s apparent turn to the right on Mahmoud Vaezi, who was appointed as his chief of staff after the 2017 election. A number of Reformists have claimed that Vaezi has been acting as a firewall, preventing any engagement between the two sides.

On Oct. 3, this wall appeared to have collapsed when the president met with a number of Reformist figures, saying that he has “always considered Reformists friends” and describing them as a “partner” of his administration.

However, the Reformists — who were meeting Rouhani for the first time in over a year — used the meeting as an opportunity to speak out and express their disapproval of the president’s positions and their possible impact on the Reformists’ future role in Iranian politics.


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