Middle East update: November 14 2018


At least seven civilians were killed late Tuesday by a coalition airstrike in Hudaydah. There has reportedly been an “informal truce” in place in Hudaydah since late Monday, explaining the lull in fighting there, but clearly it’s not a total ceasefire. And any hope you might have had that Congress would force a ceasefire drowned in parliamentary tricks on Wednesday when Republicans stripped a War Powers resolution of its preferred status so that they could bury it without a floor vote. Had the resolution passed it would have forced the Trump administration to end all US support for the Saudi war effort, not just the cosmetic stuff that the Saudis don’t really need anymore.

The AP has done an investigation into the civilian toll of the now 16 year long US drone war in Yemen. This is unfortunately not as straightforward as it should be. The understandable lack of record-keeping in Yemen, the fluid nature of Yemeni political and paramilitary relationships, and the fact that neither the US nor the Yemeni governments have ever tried honestly to assess civilian casualties in these strikes all combine to make it so that anyone looking at this question is doing little more than educated guessing. The AP report says that at least 30 of the estimated 88 Yemeni deaths in drone strikes this year were either civilians or fighters in pro-government militias, a rate that, if it holds for past years, would put the civilian death toll in the hundreds for the Yemeni drone war overall.


Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told the Turkish parliament on Wednesday that an “international investigation is absolutely necessary” into the Jamal Khashoggi murder. Turkish officials say they may take their case to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and/or the United Nations. Doing either would have no tangible effect but would further embarrass Riyadh.


Lebanon may still not have a government, but the news isn’t all bad. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Marada Party boss Sleiman Frangieh, two bitter enemies within Lebanon’s Christian community since the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, apparently buried the hatchet on Wednesday at the urging of Maronite Cardinal Bechara al-Rai. Now they can stop feuding over what happened in the war and start feuding over the fact that both of them would like to be president someday.


The Iraqi government is trying to get US approval for a food-for-energy program with Iran. Under the program, Iraq would send food products to Iran in exchange primarily for Iranian natural gas. The US has given Iraq a waiver to keep importing Iranian gas despite the reimposition of sanctions, but that waiver only lasts 45 days and is unlikely to be renewed. Iraq depends on Iranian gas and sees the food exchange program as a way to continue importing it indefinitely.


Upset over Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas rather than kill a few dozen more Palestinians while he had the chance, Israeli (ex-)Defense Minister and right-wing psychopath Avigdor Lieberman quit his cabinet gig on Wednesday, a move that will almost certainly force Netanyahu and his now razor-thin majority coalition (he has 61 votes in the 120 seat Knesset) to call for a new election.

The next campaign, assuming it happens soon, may not go so smoothly for Netanyahu. He’s embroiled in a couple of ongoing corruption cases, and after appearing to back down in Gaza he’s going to be pummeled from the right by Lieberman and other leaders of the “kill them all” caucus like Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu has based his entire career on never being outflanked to the right on the killing Palestinians national security issue. Netanyahu might be able to hold out, but Bennett is now demanding the defense ministry. If he doesn’t get it–and Netanyahu reportedly really doesn’t want to give it to him–he may walk as well, and then Netanyahu will have no choice but to call a new election. Netanyahu himself could take over the ministry, and why not? He’s already PM, foreign minister, and health minister. What’s one more cabinet job for the megalomaniac?


The New York Times profiles Mohammad bin Salman’s two closest accomplices advisers and how they’re faring in post-Khashoggi Saudi politics:

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia convened an outdoor banquet this spring for his fellow Arab rulers, seated among the kings, princes and presidents were two friends with few qualifications other than their closeness to the young prince himself: a poet who has become known for orchestrating ferocious social media campaigns, and a former security guard who runs the Saudi sports commission.

The two men had each played pivotal roles in many of the brazen power plays that have marked Prince Mohammed’s sprint to dominance of the kingdom — the ouster of the previous crown prince, the detentions of royals and businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, and the kingdom’s diplomatic spats with Qatarand Canada. Even Saudi royals have come to fear the prince’s two friends — Saud el-Qahtani, 40, and Turki al-Sheikh, 37 — and the Arab potentates around the table could scarcely object to their presence.

Now the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents has focused attention on their roles as enablers of the crown prince’s impulsiveness and aggression, and Saudi watchers consider the men’s fate a bellwether of the royal court’s direction as it grapples with the international outrage over the killing.


Iranian academic Mohsen Shariatinia writes that the reimposition of US sanctions has forced Hassan Rouhani to drop his preferred neoliberal economics in favor of more robust government intervention in the economy:

With Washington pulling out of the JCPOA in early May, the debates over Iran’s political economy changed focus from gradual structural reform centered on market forces to crisis management and preserving economic security under sanctions. Iran’s economy experienced an unexpected shock in the initial months following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, sparking intense debates within Iranian society and among political elites about the government’s policies and whether cabinet ministers would be able to deal with the crisis at hand. These debates centered on the need for change in the Ministry of Industry, Mine and Trade, the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Economy as well as the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development — four entities that make up the government’s economic core and are quickly affected by sanctions. Agreeing that the situation was critical, the Rouhani administration supported the need for cabinet reforms and tried to cooperate with its critics, especially in parliament, to achieve this goal.

However, it took more than three months to instigate changes in the cabinet as a result of negotiations between the relevant parties, difficulties in finding suitable managers who were in tune with the administration while at the same time capable of dealing with a multilayer economic crisis, as well as the government’s reluctance to replace some ministers. In the end, two of the four key ministers mentioned above were impeached and the two others stepped down as they were about to be. Meanwhile, the parliamentary votes of confidence in the new ministers indicated that parliament was ready to compromise with the government following this period of tension and pressure.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is under fire with hardliners at home for pointing out that there’s gambling going on in this casino Iranian banks have a problem with money laundering–specifically with doing it despite all the international problems it causes for Iran and its economy. Quite a few of those hardliners benefit directly from the money laundering so it’s not surprising they’d slam Zarif for his remarks. But thanks to the Trump administration and the restoration of US sanctions they can argue that, by telling the truth about Iranian corruption, Zarif is basically giving aid and comfort to Iran’s enemy.


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