Middle East update: November 7 2018

Happy Diwali to those who are celebrating!


Turkish officials say their forces killed one YPG militia fighter on Wednesday after that fighter fired into Turkey from across the border in Syria’s Hasakah province. Ankara says it will not stop killing YPG fighters no matter how cooperative the Trump administration decides to be on the PKK front.

Meanwhile, in Hajin, a stepped up US air campaign this week has reportedly taken its toll on ISIS. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 65 ISIS fighters have been killed in US strikes so far this week. The Syrian Democratic Forces have suspended their ground offensive around Hajin because of repeated Turkish artillery strikes on YPG positions further north.

The US, meanwhile, via Syria envoy James Jeffrey, says it hopes that Russia will continue to allow Israel to strike Iranian targets in Syria. The fact that I could actually write that sentence tells you how unbelievably messed up this conflict has gotten. Jeffrey told reporters on Wednesday that it’s the administration’s hope to establish a stable ceasefire leading to the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, apart from Russia’s since they were already in Syria before the war.


A pro-government Yemeni force captured a neighborhood in Hudaydah about five kilometers away from the city’s seaport on Wednesday, with helicopter air support courtesy of the Saudi-led coalition. There’s been no casualty count, but estimates suggest that at least 150 people have been killed in Hudaydah since fighting there resumed last week, and airstrikes–hundreds of them–are reportedly threatening the city’s remaining medical facilities.

At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero wonders if the results of Tuesday’s midterm election, which put the House of Representatives under Democratic control, might impact the US role in sustaining the Yemeni conflict:

In March, lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide worked together to force the U.S. government to halt major cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Although that effort failed, 44 senators voted to essentially end military aid to the Arab coalition in Yemen, suggesting that the Saudi and UAE narratives about the conflict do not enjoy a consensus of support among America’s elected officials.

Given the anger in Washington over the Jamal Khashoggi murder case, there is a real possibility that the Democrat-controlled House will be able to garner the votes to achieve what scores of lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to accomplish in March. The stakes are high regarding weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Any effort to cancel, delay, or freeze arms deals could undermine the White House’s “special relationships” with Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto rulers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi who are at the helm of Saudi and Emirati foreign policy. At risk are pending Saudi and UAE purchases of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system, the F-35 fifth generation fighter jets, and precision guided munitions.

Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) is driving efforts among House Democrats to push a War Powers Resolution that would require the U.S. military to cut off support to Riyadh’s coalition in Yemen. With Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives, Khanna and his congressional allies may well force a vote on the resolution next year.

With the Senate more firmly under Republican control than it was before Tuesday, it is unlikely that a War Powers resolution will be able to pass both houses of Congress. But at the very least a Democratic-controlled House might force senators to vote on whether or not to keep enabling this atrocity.


Hezbollah reportedly has no interest in relenting on its demand that one of its Sunni allies be given a cabinet ministry before it’s willing to sign off on Lebanon’s next government. Lebanon has been without a government since May’s parliamentary election, and this demand from Hezbollah, which is being rejected by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his Future Movement party, appears to be the last hold up. The disagreement may have to be mediated by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is also politically allied with Hezbollah but has seemed in public comments to be pretty irritated by their demands here.


Hamas officials say an Egyptian naval vessel fired on a fishing boat off the coast of Gaza on Wednesday, killing one Palestinian man. The Egyptians are denying the claim. Gaza’s fishing waters are tightly confined and controlled by both Egypt and Israel, so it’s entirely possible that a boat could have drifted into Egyptian waters and provoked a response.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided for some reason earlier this week to belittle the fact that his austerity economics have left Egyptians struggling to buy food. It didn’t go over very well:

“Do you want to build your country and become a worthy state, or are you going to look for potatoes?” Sisi asked, after hinting that Egyptian civil servants would go without an annual wage increase this year due to increased government costs.

Sisi was referring to a sharp increase in the price of the staple vegetable over the past two weeks from around 6 Egyptian pounds ($0.3346) per kilo to as much as 14 pounds, widely dubbed a “potato crisis” by local newspapers and which has become a hot topic of conversation on the street.

The remarks hit a nerve with Egyptians battered by years of IMF-backed austerity measures and rising food prices, prompting a wave of criticism and jokes on social media.

Sisi has an iron-clad grip on Egyptian politics so he’s in no real danger from something like this…unless (until?) he pushes people too far and they decide to do something more than post about it.


Steven Cook thinks that Omani Sultan Qaboos has been making nice with the Israeli government of late in order to buy himself some latitude in Washington:

Ismail Sabri Abdullah, the minister of planning under former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, once neatly, if crudely, articulated the logic behind the Egyptian outreach to Israel in the late 1970s, remarking, “If we wanted a good relationship with Washington, we needed to spend the night in Tel Aviv.” Abdullah, an unreconstructed leftist and anti-Zionist, was either reflecting a boorish and anti-Semitic view that Jews control U.S. foreign policy or was expressing a cleareyed calculation that because of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, Egyptians stood to benefit from coming to terms with the Israelis. Something similar—without the boorishness—is at play behind the Israeli leader’s open visit to Muscat. Even though Oman has been a trusted interlocutor in the past, there are new political and diplomatic pressures on the country that a very public visit with the Israelis can help mitigate or relieve.

The 77-year-old sultan, who took power in a British-backed coup in 1970, does not look well. He is said to be suffering from cancer and looked quite frail sitting next to the robust Netanyahu. Everyone knows he is at the end of his reign, and with no heir, succession is not entirely clear. Oman’s new leader—whoever that may be—will need U.S. political and diplomatic backing when Qaboos dies to bolster the country’s stability at a critical moment. Under ordinary circumstances that support would be forthcoming, but given the conflicts and forces—both internal and external—buffeting the Gulf, there are no guarantees. Oman’s role in the region as discreet interlocutor and broker of deals makes Muscat important beyond its size and resources, but it is also vulnerable. The Omanis sit between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. If the sultan or his successor cannot maintain the balance among these countries, Oman may well get sucked into conflicts its leadership has sought to avoid.


That’s a tweet from young Saudi prince Nawaf bin Faisal, purporting to show recent photographs of his uncles, Muhammad bin Fahd, Sulayman bin Fahd, and Abdulaziz bin Fahd. There’s only one curiosity here, which is that Abdulaziz bin Fahd is supposed to be dead. There were copious rumors during Mohammad bin Salman’s “anti-corruption crackdown” last year that Abdulaziz was killed in a confrontation with Saudi police. The Saudis denied this, but he seemed conspicuously to have disappeared from public view. These photos would seem to suggest that he was detained rather than killed, and that the Saudis, in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi murder, very much want everybody out there to know that he’s alive and (more or less) well.

Unfortunately, 12 Saudi Shiʿa activists who were sentenced to death in 2016 on espionage charges (in a sham trial, naturally) are unlikely to be as fortunate as Abdulaziz bin Fahd. Amnesty International says that they’ve been transferred into the custody of the Saudi Presidency of State Security and their executions could be “imminent.”


Some Iranians are apparently taking their frustrations over the country’s cratering economy to social media, with some harsh criticisms of Iran’s socioeconomic elite. The criticisms have even been directed at wealthy clerics, which is certainly out of the ordinary for Iran. Popular anger has forced the Iranian government to take a stronger line against corruption, but inequality is still rampant and clearly a source of frustration.

State Department Iran envoy Brian Hook explained the Trump administration’s decision to issue multiple oil sanctions waivers on Monday as borne out of a desire to gradually reduce Iran’s oil sales to zero so as not to cause a spike in the price of oil. Oil prices have dropped a bit from the ~$85/barrel level they hit in October, mostly due to increased US production.

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