Middle East update: November 27 2018


Washington is warning the Russian government not to “tamper” with the site of Saturday’s alleged rebel chlorine gas attack in Aleppo before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a chance to examine it. It’s also suggesting that the Syrian government may have staged the attack in order to undermine the deescalation agreement covering Idlib province, which sounds like the beginnings of an effort to discredit whatever the OPCW finds. Or, in other words, exactly what Russia has done every time there’s been an accusation of chemical weapons use by the Syrian military. Funny how that works.


CNN reported overnight that the Trump administration “has slammed the brakes” on any effort to draw up a Yemen ceasefire at the United Nations Security Council. This comes less than a month after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both demanded a ceasefire, with Mattis even putting a 30 day timetable on it. Why the sudden change of heart? To appease the Saudis, naturally. Mohammad bin Salman reportedly “threw a fit” over a draft ceasefire resolution earlier this month, and, well, that’s that I guess. Apparently he’s just totally running the administration’s Middle East policy now, or at least the parts of it that Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t running.

The draft resolution that the administration is now blocking has already been rewritten to the point of absurdity to try to protect the crown prince’s precious feelings. It praises Saudi Arabia for its role in the Yemen conflict, blaming the entire affair on the Houthis, and calls for a ceasefire only in Hudaydah (where the UN says recent violence has reduced shipments by half), not across Yemen. Nevertheless, the resolution’s call for even a limited ceasefire and its call for increasing humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people are perceived by the boy king as criticism of the Saudi war effort.


Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi says his government is working on ways to reduce water pollution. Mostly this seems to involve talking to “experts” about the problem, but he also says there are sanitation projects in the works that could alleviate the critical water crisis in Basra.


Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, says that the Trump administration will unveil its Final Solution for the Palestinians Israel-Palestine peace plan early next year so as to have it out there before Israeli elections, which are likely going to happen either in May or June. I’m sure we’re all on pins and needles.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is apparently headed to Chad in the near future to restore diplomatic relations with a country that cut ties with Israel back in 1972. This comes after Chadian President Idriss Déby made an “unscheduled” (i.e., unpublicized) visit to Jerusalem this week. Netanyahu is working on a major diplomatic project to improve Israeli relations across Africa and in the Arab world (to wit, his recent back-and-forth with Oman).


The Trump administration is sending Pompeo and Mattis to brief the entire US Senate on Wednesday in an attempt to convince senators to block a possible War Powers vote later this week on ending US involvement in Yemen. CIA Director Gina Haspel will not be briefing the Senate, and not because she’s already scheduled to do a waterboarding that day. No, presumably she’s being excluded because she’s the one person in the administration who’s heard the audio of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and because somebody in her agency has leaked its finding that MBS ordered the killing, undermining the administration’s intense desire to exonerate the Saudi prince.

Speaking of which, somebody–and I’m not saying they’re definitely CIA but come on–has now fed the Washington Post’s David Ignatius a real ripping story about the internal power struggle within the Saudi royal family that may have contributed to Khashoggi’s murder. You can read all the details for yourselves, but the upshot is that MBS has, if this story is to be believed, completely lost his shit over a not-entirely-unjustifiable fear that the sons of former Saudi King Abdullah are working to undermine him internationally and usurp his power domestically. The tension between MBS and Abdullah’s branch of the family goes back to what was apparently a very impromptu and ham-fisted effort by Abdullah’s chief of the royal court to block now-King Salman from succeeding to the throne when Abdullah died in 2015. MBS’s paranoia led him to order (allegedly) an operation eerily similar to the Khashoggi hit against Tarek Obaid, a business adviser to Prince Turki bin Abdullah, in 2016.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, those weapons deals the Trump administration so proudly negotiated with the Saudis last year, the ones Trump continues to flog to justify his obsequiousness toward MBS, are still mostly fake. Apparently Jared Kushner, who knows a thing or two about faking paperwork, was particularly invested in overhyping these Saudi arms deals.


A prominent Iranian Sunni religious leader, Abdolghafour Jamalzai, was shot and killed on Tuesday in the town of Gorgan, northeast of Tehran. Jamalzai reportedly focused his religious activity around reconciling Iran’s Sunni and Shiʿa communities. Nobody has claimed credit for the attack.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization boss, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Reuters on Tuesday that Tehran is losing “patience” with European efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal and said that Iran could return to enriching uranium up to 20 percent (much higher than required for civilian power generation and well on the way to weapons grade in terms of the amount of time and effort needed to get there) if the situation doesn’t improve soon. Salehi is bluffing, probably. It’s not in Iran’s interest to completely scrap the nuclear deal yet, not while Europe still appears to be working in good faith to try to find a way to work around US sanctions. For now threatening to up their enrichment program is more useful to the Iranians than actually doing it.

It’s still early, but one area in which US sanctions appear to be having no effect is on Iran Air’s workload:

While the overall level of international compliance with U.S. sanctions may take time to gauge, the flight data, provided by plane tracking website Flightradar24, offers an early indication: Few countries, if any, appear to be heeding the effort to effectively ground Iran Air, including Washington’s allies across the Atlantic.

The European Union, which regulates flights to member nations, said neither its members nor the United Nations had imposed renewed sanctions against Iran Air or its planes. “Therefore we do not see any legal obstacles to Iran Air flights to the EU,” said a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

The previous sanctions regime worked because nearly all the rest of the world was on board. That’s not the case this time around. And while in many areas US sanctions carry international weight whether or not the rest of the world goes along with them, this time around the Trump administration can expect that wherever Europe (or Russia, China, etc.) can simply ignore those sanctions, it will. The administration may decide to make an example of a European company or two to really lock the sanctions in, but that’s likely to make the US-Europe relationship even worse than it already is.


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