Middle East update: November 3-4 2018


ISIS detonated a car bomb in Raqqa on Sunday. Reports have been sketchy so far but it appears at least one person was killed in the blast with many more wounded. The attack comes just a couple of days after a prominent Arab tribal leader and member of the Raqqa Civil Council was assassinated by unknown attackers. Also on Sunday, ISIS killed at least 12 Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in eastern Deir Ezzor province with another car bombing followed up by gunfire from ISIS fighters. The attack was able to dislodge the SDF from some of the territory it’s taken from ISIS during its recent offensive around Hajin.

In slightly better news, a joint United Nations-Red Crescent aid convoy was finally able to reach the Rukban displaced persons camp on Saturday. That convoy was supposed to arrive a week earlier but had been blocked from the camp by the Syrian army. Rukban lies within a US-defended buffer zone around its Tanf military base. There are an estimated 50,000 people stranded at Rukban under some of the harshest conditions in Syria.


Fighting around Hudaydah has reached the city’s university for the first time. Which isn’t that important except insofar as the university is only a few kilometers away from the city’s seaport, which is the lifeline for humanitarian aid coming into the country. The Saudi-led coalition is still fighting to take the city’s airport, to enter the city itself, and/or to surround the city. If it surrounds Hudaydah city it will be able to dictate the distribution of humanitarian aid coming out of the seaport just as if it were to take the port itself. The AP is reporting that at least 150 combatants on both sides were killed in and around Hudaydah over the weekend. With the Trump administration apparently pushing for a ceasefire and resumption of peace talks in another 30 days or so, the coalition is pressing to take Hudaydah now in order to improve its negotiation position.

Or maybe, as Bruce Reidel suggests, they’re not actually planning on giving the Trump administration its ceasefire at all:

The administration has promised its support for the UN negotiations with much more coordination and emphasis than ever before. The premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis has put the administration under unprecedented pressure to rein in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reckless and dangerous behavior. The war in Yemen is the crown prince’s signature policy initiative. Congress is ready to take action to curtail America’s involvement in the war after the midterms. A Democratic majority in the House would likely hold hearings on alleged Saudi war crimes and the murder of Khashoggi. The crown prince’s tarnished reputation will be in the docket.

But the Saudis have escalated their airstrikes on Sanaa and Hodeidah instead. The capital and the main port have been heavily pounded by the Saudi coalition since Pompeo and Mattis spoke. For their part, the Iranians have hailed the Houthis’ resistance and trumpeted their enhanced ballistic missiles. As Al-Monitor reported, the Iranians are portraying the new Trump administration line on Yemen as a victory for the rebels.


At least four people were killed in Baghdad on Sunday evening when four small bombs exploded in predominantly Shiʿa areas of the city. ISIS has claimed responsibility.

Elsewhere, a roadside bomb near Khanaqin wounded three people on Saturday evening. Presumably this was ISIS’s doing. The group has lately been targeting mukhtars–village leaders (somewhere between a mayor and a tribal head)–in Kirkuk. It’s killed nine of them over the past seven months, including three last week.


Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar says that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have capitulated on a couple of Hamas demands in order to reach an Egyptian-brokered deal to tamp down recent violence in Gaza:

Another of the obstacles to the arrangement is Hamas’ unwillingness to give up its demonstrations at the border, out of concern that if the arrangement doesn’t work they would be hard to restart. Thus it was agreed (and Israel seems inclined to accept) that the demonstrations near the fence will continue, though nonviolently.

An additional obstacle to an arrangement that seems to have been solved is Israel’s refusal to allow the monthly transfer of $15 million in Qatari funding for the salaries of Hamas administration personnel. Egypt promises that the money will be transferred to the civil administration of Hamas and not its military arm, though it’s unclear how it could be overseen, so Israel seems to be leaning toward withdrawing its objection.

Netanyahu is taking political heat for the deal from his right, which in the long run could be dangerous. While Gaza tensions may be decreasing for now, if there’s a resumption in rocket attacks or if the protests escalate again Netanyahu may decide that his only political recourse is another war.


The Egyptian government says that its security forces have killed 19 militants believed to have been connected to Friday’s attack on a tour bus carrying Copts in Minya. ISIS claime credit for the attack. Egyptian militants reportedly pursued those militants and attacked them in a desert part of wester Minya province, though the Egyptians didn’t specify when their battle took place.


Bahrain’s Court of Appeal has convicted three prominent opposition leaders of spying for Qatar and sentenced them to life in prison. Amnesty International called the convictions of the three men–Sheikh Ali Salman, Hassan Sultan, and Ali al-Aswad–a “travesty of justice,” and calls Salman a “prisoner of conscience.” They’ve all been convicted of “crimes” that go back to Bahrain’s Arab Spring protests in 2011, and Salman was arrested in 2015, while Bahrain only cut ties with Qatar along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE last year. So the chronology of this case doesn’t really make a lot of sense.


Turkish media is now saying that Jamal Khashoggi’s body was taken out of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in five suitcases after his murder and dismemberment on October 2. This would seem to contradict previous Turkish reports that Khashoggi’s remains were dissolved in acid, possibly in the consul-general’s residence. Whatever happened to Khashoggi’s body, Turkish authorities don’t seem much closer to recovering whatever is left of it.

Saudi authorities released Prince Khaled bin Talal, brother of billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, from custody, apparently over the weekend. They gave no explanation for his release, which would be in keeping with having never explained his detention in the first place, but it’s believed they detained him 11 months ago because he criticized last year’s “anti-corruption crackdown”–which famously ensnared his brother along with several other wealthy and/or powerful Saudi princes. The Saudis may have released him as part of an effort to restore some good feelings among the wider royal family amid the Khashoggi scandal. King Salman himself is now planning to do a nationwide tour starting Tuesday, in which he’ll make some appearances and announce some swanky infrastructure spending to try to allay public concerns. Alwaleed bin Talal, perhaps having gotten the message, told Fox News on Sunday that he’s confident the Saudi investigation into Khashoggi’s killing with fully exonerate Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Speaking of the “crackdown,” NBC news has a one-year anniversary retrospective of the whole affair. There’s nothing in there that hasn’t already been reported, but it’s a decent account if you’re needing to refresh your memory or get caught up.

One place King Salman doesn’t have to worry about allaying any concerns is among the DC consulting community. These folks are happy to keep cashing Salman’s checks no matter how many dissidents his son (allegedly) murders:

As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia charmed Goldman Sachs bankers and Silicon Valley executives on an American tour this spring, some of his most trusted lieutenants were taking care of business in Washington.

In a low-key ceremony two blocks from the White House, Saudi officials signed an agreement with Booz Allen Hamilton, the American consulting company, to help train the kingdom’s growing ranks of cyberfighters.

The agreement would “open great horizons” by improving the skills of the kingdom’s cybersecurity experts, Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to the crown prince overseeing the deal, said in Saudi Arabia in a statement to the official press. It did not mention his continuing campaign to silence critics both inside the kingdom and online.

Mr. Qahtani was fired last month after Saudi officials linked him to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying he had contributed to an aggressive environment that helped lead to the killing. But while Mr. Khashoggi’s death prompted investors from around the globe to distance themselves from the Saudi government, Booz Allen and its competitors McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group have stayed close after playing critical roles in Prince Mohammed’s drive to consolidate power.


With oil and banking sanctions kicking back in on Monday, Iranians are bracing for some difficult times ahead. Iran’s last experience under these sanctions showed that they invariably immiserated ordinary Iranians even as they were supposed to target Iranian leaders and spare everyone else. Exemptions for food, medicine, and other humanitarian necessities mattered little when the nature of the banking sanctions made it so that no Iranians could pay to bring those goods into the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Sunday that these sanctions will not hurt the Iranian people, which is almost certainly bullshit. It’s possible that the Trump administration, staffed by a combination of incompetent hacks and war mongering ideologues who would happily carpet bomb downtown Tehran if they could get away with it, has been careful to craft the implementation of these sanctions so as to minimize their humanitarian impact, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

All is not perfect, however. “Military officials” in Washington–though the Washington Post couldn’t find one willing to go on the record–are worried that while we’ve improved our ability to make Iranians die of preventable disease, we’re not doing enough to prepare to kill them militarily:

Military officials are expressing alarm that a shrinking U.S. military presence in the Middle East has undermined their ability to respond to Iranian threats just as the Trump administration’s imposition of oil sanctions increases the potential for confrontation.

Concern about the Pentagon’s decision to move ships, combat aircraft and missile defense systems out of the region has intensified in the run-up to Monday’s deadline for reimposing energy sanctions on Iran, the White House’s latest move to pressure Iran and curtail its support for armed proxy groups.

Although officials don’t think Iran is capable of sustaining a prolonged large-scale attack on U.S. forces in the region, they are worried that it could lash out by employing its robust arsenal of ballistic missiles or using mines to shut down waterways crucial to global commerce.

God, do you really think the Iranians would be so aggressive as to “lash out” with their missiles or mines? Just because we’ve blockaded their country, which is an act of war whenever anybody besides the United States and its allies does it?

Fear not, folks. Maybe it’s the pie-eyed optimist in me, but I’m confident that when the Trump administration decides it’s time for Iran War, we’ll figure out a way to make it happen. We’re pretty ingenious about that sort of thing.


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