Middle East update: November 15 2018


The Russian government on Thursday expressed some dismay that Turkey has not yet managed to separate extremist and moderate rebels in Idlib province. That process is key to the Idlib ceasefire agreement those two countries are maintaining, though the chances of it actually succeeding have always been an extremely long shot given how strong Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s position is in Idlib.


The Saudi-led coalition acknowledged on Thursday that it has paused its offensive activities in Hudaydah, raising hopes that the lull might turn into a real ceasefire and a return to negotiations. The coalition says it is prepared to resume the offensive if the push for peace talks breaks down, and the whole situation may seriously test just how much control the Saudis and Emiratis have over their Yemeni proxies, who still seem eager to take Hudaydah from the Houthis. But even if all that comes out of this is a brief respite from the fighting and a chance for aid agencies to get to civilians who have been trapped in Hudaydah, that’s still something. Credit for the breakthrough seems to belong to UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, who was been heavily engaged in talks with both the Saudis and the Houthis in recent days perhaps as a kind of vacation from his boss’s Brexit shitshow.


The Trump administration wouldn’t entertain the idea of expelling controversial Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen from the US in order to free Andrew Brunson from Turkish prison. It won’t entertain the idea of expelling Gülen in order to free the several US citizens and consular employees Turkey is still imprisoning. It wouldn’t entertain the idea of expelling Gülen even to get some kind of operational concessions from Turkey to help the anti-ISIS effort in Syria. But it will consider expelling Gülen in order to get Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to LEAVE MOHAMMAD BIN SALMAN ALONE:

The White House is looking for ways to remove an enemy of Turkish President Recep Erdogan from the U.S. in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to two senior U.S. officials and two other people briefed on the requests.

Trump administration officials last month asked federal law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways of removing exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in an attempt to persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on the Saudi government, the four sources said.

The effort includes directives to the Justice Department and FBI that officials reopen Turkey’s case for his extradition, as well as a request to the Homeland Security Department for information about his legal status, the four people said.

NBC says that “career officials” at both Justice and the DHS are “furious” over the administration’s requests, which is presumably because there is no legal basis for doing any of this. Gülen is a permanent US resident and as such he can’t just be put on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a note pinned to his chest or driven out into the Sahara and dropped off with a bottle of water and a compass or whatever. Unless he does something to put his immigration status in jeopardy, and there’s no evidence he has (or at least none that’s been made public), he’s supposed to be protected. He could in theory be extradited to Turkey, but extradition is supposed to be a legal process first and a political process second, meaning his case would have to get to the point where a judge allows his extradition based on whatever evidence the Turkish government has to show that he committed a crime there.

I say “supposed to be” because of course there’s probably nothing to stop the administration from just extraditing him anyway and daring the courts to stop them. Or they could just ask Mike Flynn to revive his old kidnapping idea. But of all the things for which they could have broken the law and deported Gülen, things that would actually have been in the US national interest, they’re considering doing it to protect the image of the mass murdering boy king of Saudi Arabia. The US has a knack for backing awful people around the world so I wouldn’t go so far as to single out the Trump administration here, but that doesn’t make it any less nauseating to watch.


Turkish airstrikes overnight reportedly killed at least three Kurds in Iraq’s Duhok province. The Kurdistan Democratic Party says that two of them were Peshmerga fighters, i.e. not PKK, which kind of makes you wonder whether all those Turkish claims about killing dozens of PKK fighters in northern Iraq are really all that accurate.


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has now managed to make up $382 million of its $446 million 2018 budget shortfall, leaving it within shouting distance of breaking even for the year. That shortfall was of course greatly exacerbated by the Trump administration’s decision to stop funding the agency due to how it has the gall to keep reminding everybody that there are still Palestinian refugees in the world.

At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick argues that Hamas emerged as the “winner” of its latest round of heavy clashes with Israel, but it didn’t emerge unscathed:

On many occasions, Hamas has crowed about victories that were pyrrhic at best, non-existent at worst. This time is different. Israel insists that it has thoroughly abandoned Gaza to Hamas, yet it infiltrates the territory with regularity and impunity. This time, the Israeli operation was exposed, and Hamas retaliated. When the smoke cleared, both sides had taken hits—Gaza getting the worst of it from the vastly superior Israeli military—but it was the Israeli government that fell as a result, not Hamas. The victory is real, although it doesn’t promise anything in the way of tangible gains. Hamas has scored a moral victory, and that’s one of the reasons Netanyahu emerges from this as the biggest loser. Perhaps Hamas is the “biggest winner,” but it, too, suffered a setback. Hamas chose to escalate the confrontation when the Israeli operation was exposed, and, at the very least, that will delay any other concessions Netanyahu might have been prepared to make to his Qatari and Egyptian interlocutors on Hamas’s behalf. As usual when guns are fired and mortars launched, there are really no winners.


In a development that nobody could have foreseen, Saudi Arabia’s chief prosecutor has announced that the investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s murder reveals that Mohammad bin Salman had nothing to do with it. Shocking, and definitely a legitimate finding I’m sure. Instead, the prosecutor is blaming former deputy head of Saudi intelligence Ahmed al-Assiri for sending a “negotiations team” (commence wanking motion) to Istanbul to, I guess, negotiate with Khashoggi over something (how he wanted his remains to be handled?), and the leader of that team for just up and deciding to kill the guy. Eleven people have formally been charged in the case with another ten still being investigated, and the Saudis say they will pursue the death penalty for the five suspects deemed most likely to talk responsible.

The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Thursday against 17 Saudis implicated in Khashoggi’s killing, though thankfully nobody important. Coincidentally all 17 appear to be on the list of sacrificial lambs the Saudis have already put forward. It’s highly unlikely that any of them had any assets in the US, nor is there any reason to expect that any of them would have tried to travel to the US in the future anyway, making this the absolute hollowest of gestures. Many Democrats in Congress seem to be dissatisfied with the sanctions and are demanding more penalties, but with the Senate remaining in Republican hands and MBS’s surrogate family still in the White House, there’s no reason to expect they’ll be able to really do very much to inconvenience Riyadh.

Saudi women have apparently begun wearing their abayas inside-out to protest the social pressure on them to wear the garment at all. There’s nothing in Saudi law that forces women to wear the abaya and in fact our friend MBS has said they don’t have to do it, but Saudi authorities, in particular the mutawwiyun or religious police, and the patriarchal society in general have effectively forced women to wear it.


Iranian officials say that five of their border guards who were abducted by militants and taken into Pakistan last month have been released to the Pakistani government. They offered no further details and the Pakistani government so far hasn’t said anything. There are at least six and possibly more guards who were also abducted but there’s been no word on what’s happened to them.

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