Middle East update: November 16 2018


Jihadist fighters reportedly killed at least 22 pro-government fighters in a battle in Hama province near the Idlib demilitarized zone on Friday. The main jihadist group involved appears to have been Hurras al-Din, which is a group founded by a former senior Jabhat al-Nusra figure, Abu Humam al-Shami, who quit that organization when it cut ties with al-Qaeda. This is the bloodiest clash in terms of pro-government casualties since Russia and Turkey reached their agreement on the ceasefire back in September. It comes at a time when Russia has started complaining about a lack of Turkish progress in dealing with Idlib province’s extremist groups.

Meanwhile, there were some fireworks at the United Nations on Friday between the Israeli and Syrian delegations as the General Assembly considered a resolution condemning Israel’s occupation of the Golan. This resolution comes up every year as one of the UNGA’s many annual exercises in futility, and as usual the resolution passed overwhelmingly and will have absolutely no real world impact. The only change this year was that the US opted to vote against the resolution instead of abstaining, as it usually does. Israel insists it will never quit the Golan and has been prodding the Trump administration to formally recognize its claim on the occupied territory, though so far the administration hasn’t signaled that it will do so.


UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths says that the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have agreed to a new round of peace talks that will take place in Sweden “soon.” Sounds…vague.


Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s funeral service was held in Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque on Friday. Funerary prayers were offered in absentia, as Khashoggi’s remains have not been found and at this point it seems unlikely they ever will be found. Turkish officials, meanwhile, leaked photos of what they claim is the Saudi hit squad dismembering Khashoggi’s body. Don’t click on that link unless you want to see something pretty disturbing.

The US Department of Justice is denying NBC’s report from Thursday that it’s exploring the possibility of deporting or extraditing Turkish cleric and permanent US resident Fethullah Gülen so as to get Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop bullying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Erdoğan is of course harassing poor MBS over the prince’s decision (see below) to murder Khashoggi, another permanent US resident.

Turkey, by the way, says it’s not going to let up on the little prince in return for Gülen anyway. Though that could just be public posturing. It also arrested at least 12 people on Friday for participating in the 2013 Taksim Square protests in Istanbul, as if to drive home just how performative Turkey’s “outrage” over Khashoggi’s murder really is.


Public opinion polling suggests that Iraqis are really souring on Iran:

The findings from recent surveys reveal genuinely striking changes. The percentage of Iraqi Shiites who have favorable attitudes toward Iran decreased from 88 percent in 2015 to 47 percent in the fall of 2018. During the same period, those who have unfavorable attitudes toward Iran increased from 6 percent to 51 percent. This means that the majority of Iraqi Shiites currently have negative attitudes toward Iran.

At the same time, the percentage of Shiites who believe that Iran is a reliable partner in Iraq has decreased sharply, from 76 percent to 43 percent, over the same period. Those who believe that Iran is not a reliable partner increased from 24 percent to 55 percent. There is a significant increase in the percentage of Iraqi Shiites who believe that Iran is a real threat to Iraqi sovereignty. This number has jumped from 25 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2018.

The reason is simple: Iraqi Shia are increasingly fed up with their own government, and they blame Iranian meddling for producing that government. They also believe that Iran has been dumping its cheapest manufactured goods into Iraq and thereby crippling Iraqi businesses, and (in Basra at least) they blame Iranian energy and water policies for leaving Iraq without enough clean water. It’s a pretty potent mix of grievances.


Benjamin Netanyahu has in fact decided to add Israel’s defense ministry to his portfolios as prime minister and foreign minister, following the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman. This denies the post to Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, which risks Bennett quitting the government too and costing Netanyahu his Knesset majority.

While there is an argument to be made that Lieberman’s resignation has provided Netanyahu with an opportunity to disenthrall himself from the unhinged Israeli far right and form a broader coalition with more flexibility on dealing with the Palestinians, that analysis ignores the fact that Netanyahu is part of that unhinged Israeli far right–indeed, you could argue that he’s been its most indispensable member since the 1990s. So he’s not going to do that. And his decision to take on the defense ministry on what has to be only a temporary basis suggests strongly that he’s preparing to call for a new election.

At 972 Magazine, Meron Rapoport explains why Netanyahu ultimately, for all his talk to the contrary, wants Hamas to remain in power in Gaza:

There is also a deeper issue at hand. Although Netanyahu “inherited” the political divide between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank when he became prime minister again in 2009, in his eyes, this chasm is a major asset. Since the early 90s, Israel sought to split Gaza from the West Bank by denying entry permits, imposing a closure, and then besieging the Gaza Strip.

The idea was that, in separating the two Palestinian entities, Israel could curtail the PLO’s claim for statehood. The fact that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are run by two different Palestinian governments is a political gold mine for those who want to prevent the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu, as we have seen, stands firmly behind this plan.

In his eyes, maintaining the Hamas regime in Gaza is a strategic priority, and any development that could lead to an independent state in Gaza, cut off from the West Bank, is a positive one. If Gaza turns into an independent “emirate,” as some right-wing politicians imagine, it will be the final blow to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — or anyone who succeeds him in representing the Palestinian people.


With the Saudis reeling amid the Khashoggi affair, the Trump administration is reportedly trying to use this moment to prod Riyadh into deescalating in Yemen and reaching an accord with Qatar. There seems to have been some progress on the former, but as to the latter it appears the Saudis still aren’t ready to budge.


The Trump administration may be looking for any reason to exonerate MBS in the Khashoggi killing, but according to the Washington Post Trump’s own CIA isn’t buying it:

The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter.

The CIA’s assessment, in which officials have said they have high confidence, is the most definitive to date linking Mohammed to the operation and complicates the Trump administration’s efforts to preserve its relationship with a close ally. A team of 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul on government aircraft in October and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate, where he had come to pick up documents that he needed for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.

In reaching its conclusions, the CIA examined multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence. Khalid told Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, that he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents and gave him assurances that it would be safe to do so.

It was, apparently, Mohammad’s idea for his brother to make that call, though Khalid denies making it. The agency doesn’t think MBS is in any danger of losing his shot at the throne, so I suppose we can all be grateful for that.

It is unclear who at the CIA has decided to leak this now despite the president’s insistence that MBS is innocent, or what their goal might be in leaking it.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are reportedly pissed at the Trump administration for tricking them into lowering oil prices. The administration urged the Saudis to drastically increase their oil output to ensure that oil prices wouldn’t spike when the US reimposed oil sanctions against Iran earlier this month. But then the administration issued so many waivers to those reimposed sanctions that the extra Saudi production created a relative glut and dropped oil prices from the mid-$80s/barrel into the low $70s. The Saudis would like to keep prices in the $80s, and lan to cut production next month to do so, but because the details of the waivers are being kept secret they don’t know how much production to cut to hit their ideal price range.


According to the AP, next week the Trump administration will accuse Iran of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bars countries from manufacturing and using chemical munitions. According to “recent intelligence,” which naturally nobody will be allowed to see, the Iranians are maintaining facilities that could be used to produce chemical weapons. It’s unclear what the administration plans to do with this, oh, let’s say “information.” It could file a complaint with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but then it would have to actually show its work.


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