Middle East update: November 28 2018


The Russian military says it has intelligence that ISIS is planning a chemical weapons attack against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Ezzor province. Yeah, OK. I mean if ISIS has been sitting on chemical weapons that kind of makes you wonder why it hasn’t used them yet, but I get it, things are down to the wire now. It’s time to pull out all the stops, right? Anyway the attack, according to the Russians, will use mortars that have been, uh, positioned to make it look like the attack is coming from the Syrian army. Huh. So anyway, if there’s a CW attack in eastern Syria soon that really looks like it was carried out by the Syrian army, just remember that it was definitely ISIS, alright? Thanks.

Speaking of the Russians, they’re holding another of their wildly successful Syrian peace conferences in Astana this week, alongside Iran, Turkey, and representatives of both the Syrian government and opposition. The situation in Idlib province was presumably front and center, as the ceasefire there appears to be fraying and Turkey has, as far as anybody can tell, gotten nowhere on efforts to separate the most extreme elements of the Idlib militant collection–Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the like–from more moderate factions. There may also be talks about the United Nations-led effort to draft a new Syrian constitution in order to open up a way out of the civil war.

The UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on Syria is demanding that the Syrian government release details and remains of the potentially tens thousands of people whom it disappeared in the early years of the war and have since died in state custody. Damascus did earlier this year release the names of many people who died in detention between 2011 and 2014, but no remains and nothing about their causes of death apart from vague references to heart attacks and strokes.


UN Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters on Wednesday that, as far as Yemen is concerned, “there is a chance to be able to start effective negotiations in Sweden early in December, but we are not yet there.” That’s a lot of words to say what amounts to “nothing’s happening.” And with the US now opposing a ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council, it may be harder for the UN to create the right conditions for comprehensive peace talks.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged senators not to support a war powers resolution that would force the US to end its support role for the Saudi-led coalition and its various atrocities. Pompeo argued, as the Trump administration has done repeatedly in recent months, that US involvement–which is sustaining the Saudi air campaign–has somehow reduced civilian casualties in Yemen, and said that if the US were to withdraw from the campaign it would embolden the Houthis (and Iran, because these guys can’t talk about anything in the Middle East without waving around their favorite bogeyman) to keep fighting and eschew negotiations. Up is down stuff, basically.

Pompeo delivered his remarks as part of a full Senate briefing alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis that was supposed to encourage enough Republican senators to block a war powers resolution on the US role in Yemen from reaching a vote. They did not accomplish their mission, as the Senate voted 63-37 to advance the measure to a floor vote. It’s likely to pass that vote, but to no real end since the House has already refused to take up the resolution. Any hope of Congress actually blocking the administration from continuing its Yemeni escapades will have to wait until next year and a Democratic-controlled House.

A similar measure failed to pass the 60 vote threshold back in March, but two things have changed since then: one, the Jamal Khashoggi murder has made more Republicans skeptical of aiding the Saudis, and two, the Mattis-Pompeo briefing itself apparently angered several senators. They wanted CIA Director Gina Haspel to attend because they for some reason figured she wouldn’t bullshit them the way Pompeo and Mattis did, and it would appear that the administration’s decision to keep her away from the briefing backfired, big league.

Oh, by the way, a new investigative report finds that Western arms that have been supplied to the Saudi-led coalition are winding up in the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other factions known to be friendly with AQAP and even ISIS. Truly our involvement in Yemen has been a fantastic success in every possible way.


Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sayroon party, the largest single party in the Iraqi parliament, is demanding an investigation into allegations that jobs in the newly forming Iraqi government are being sold to the highest bidder. In the most inflammatory of these claims, parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi is alleged to have paid $30 million for his gig. I was going to suggest we start a GoFundMe to get somebody into the Iraqi cabinet, but at those prices I don’t think we’ll be able to compete.


The families of the thousands of people who are still missing as a result of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War are pushing hard for the creation of a commission to find out what happened to their loved ones. Lebanon’s parliament passed a law authorizing the formation of that commission this month, but the usual Lebanese political dysfunction–the country still doesn’t have a government in the wake of May’s general election–is getting in the way. There are concerns that this kind of effort could stoke bad blood and lead to calls for punishment and/or reprisals, but these families appear insistent that they just want to know what happened and have no desire to do anything about it.


Bahrain’s government, which already can’t keep the country’s political opposition in check without resorting to mass arrests, election-rigging, and various other crimes against humanity, is going to give austerity a try. It has no choice if it wants to receive a desperately-needed economic bailout from its fellow (albeit generally much wealthier) Gulf neighbors. The changes are naturally expected to hit poorer Bahrainis hardest, and since Bahrain’s lower classes also are comprised mostly of the country’s already-suppressed Shiʿa majority, that’s probably not going to go over terribly well.


As the Argentine government decides whether or not to arrest Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on human rights charges when he attends this week’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires, it’s reportedly seeking assistance from the International Criminal Court, as well as the Turkish and Yemeni governments. There is almost no chance the Argentines will actually arrest MBS. Almost. But they are apparently considering it.


The Middle East Institute’s Alex Vatanka argues at Foreign Policy that Iran and the US could forge at least a cordial relationship if Iranians would only drop their “political orthodoxy,” which “has been Americaphobic on a grand scale.” I don’t necessarily recommend you read this piece, but I do think it’s illustrative of the way the Blob has memory-holed most of the post-1979 US-Iran relationship in order to support the narrative that Iran Is The Devil.

Vatanka goes on at length about the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, mostly to illustrate that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that post-revolutionary Iran would have a bad relationship with the US. And it’s true–Ayatollah Khomeini chose to embrace the embassy seizure and hostage taking only after the fact, because he saw it as an opportunity to undermine competing factions that had been involved in ousting the Shah. But Vatanka has no interest in interrogating the US response to the embassy seizure. To this day, a huge chunk of US Middle East policy is dictated by a grudge over a hostage incident that was undeniably condemnable, but during which nine people died, all of them as a result of the botched US rescue attempt. Vatanka apparently thinks that’s perfectly justifiable.

Meanwhile, the Iran-Iraq War gets all of one mention in Vatanka’s piece, and only in the context of complaining about Iran’s “state-sanctioned proclivity for blaming all of the Middle East’s ills on the United States.” Except, you know, the US really did support Saddam Hussein during that war. It provided Iraq with economic aid, military intelligence, and military training, sold dual use technology to Baghdad (including technologies that were used in developing Iraq’s biological warfare program), and arranged for third-party arms sales to Iraq (including spare parts and ammunition for its Soviet-made weapons systems). Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died in that war, and the US capped it off by shooting down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 and killing around 300 Iranians itself (cutting out the Iraqi middle man).

If it’s reasonable for the US to resent Iran over the hostage crisis, then it’s reasonable for the Iranians to resent the US over the Iran-Iraq War. Only a hack in good standing with the anti-Iran echo chamber could pretend otherwise.


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