Middle East update: December 1-2 2018

Happy Hanukkah to those readers who are celebrating!


A US airstrike in southeastern Syria on Sunday reportedly killed Abu al-Umarayn, an ISIS leader who was involved in the execution of US citizen and former Army ranger medic Peter Kassig in 2014. Meanwhile, Syrian state media says that US aircraft bombed Syrian army positions south of Sukhnah, in central Syria, on Sunday evening. There’s been no confirmation of that report and it’s unclear why the US would have been conducting strikes in that part of the country.

Refugees of Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Afrin told the “International Forum on Ethnic Cleansing and Demographic Change in Afrin” on Sunday that Turkey is engineering a demographic makeover in the once-Kurdish region. Over 100,000 Afrin residents were displaced by the initial Turkish invasion, and more have been forced out since then through a campaign of looting and harassment. Turkish authorities have given their homes to predominantly Arab Syrian refugees, partly to relieve the pressure on refugee camps in Turkey but mostly to drive the Kurds away from the border.


The Saudi-led coalition says it will allow 50 wounded Houthi fighters to be evacuated to Oman on Monday on a United Nations flight. This is potentially a major step toward arranging peace talks, since evacuating their wounded has been one of the Houthis’ demands for participating in negotiations.

Houthi authorities have begun sterilizing water at wells and other distribution points in Sanaa in an attempt to halt the spread of cholera. Yemen has seen an estimated 1.2 million cases of the disease since 2017, most in Houthi-controlled areas and all thanks to the Saudi-led war effort, which has consistently used food and disease as weapons.


A petty Lebanese political feud got someone killed on Saturday. Druze politician Wiam Wahhab was filmed earlier in the week making “obscene personal insults” that were probably directed at Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his family. So Hariri, as one does, sent police after him, allegedly for “stirring strife and risking civil peace.” While making fun of the PM probably doesn’t actually risk civil peace, sending the police out to arrest people for making fun of the PM can, and did, when some sort of gun battle broke out as police attempted (unsuccessfully) to take Wahhab in for questioning. One of Wahhab’s aides was shot and killed by somebody–Wahhab’s supporters are blaming the police while the police say they never fired a shot and the aide was killed by one of Wahhab’s people. Wahhab responded provocatively to the incident on Saturday but by Sunday appeared to be trying to calm things down.


Israeli police recommended for the third time that state prosecutors indict Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges:

In a statement, police said that Netanyahu is suspected of taking bribes and of conduct involving a conflict of interest when he made decisions that benefited Elovitch, who controlled Israel’s largest telecommunications firm, Bezeq, and the Walla News website, one of two leading news sites in the country.

Case 4000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu, in his role as communications minister from 2014 to 2017 (while he was also prime minister), intervened with regulators to help Bezeq with a deal worth to Elovitch some 1 billion shekels. In exchange, Elovitch, a long-time friend of Netanyahu’s, allegedly ordered Walla to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife, Sara.

The alleged quid pro quo between the Netanyahus and Elovitches was first revealed by Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz in November 2015, in an expose titled “The Israeli News Site in Netanyahu’s Pocket.”

As I say, this is the third time police have made this recommendation and so far there’s been nothing but crickets from prosecutors. I wouldn’t expect this time around to be any different.


Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Mauritania on Sunday to continue his Money Can Buy Me Love 2018 tour. He later popped over to Algeria, presumably to visit with the corpse of Abdelaziz Bouteflika before returning home. MBS is skipping Morocco, either because Morocco isn’t really in his pocket or because Moroccan King Mohammed VI refused to meet with him. There are rumors of the latter but nothing confirmed.

The crown prince’s visit to the G20 this week was supposed to convey the message that everything is getting back to normal despite the Jamal Khashoggi murder. As James Dorsey writes, the results were mixed:

THERE WAS A high-five from Vladimir Putin. And for Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi it was business as usual.

At home, Saudi Arabia’s media trumpeted Mohammed bin Salman’s meetings with world leaders, tweeting pictures of his encounters, which also included the presidents of South Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

However, Western leaders appeared to avoid the crown prince during the family photo at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires – after almost two months of global outrage at the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The only Arab leader there, the prince stood rather isolated at the end of the line, at times looking uncertain and nervous.

No Western leader other than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actually brought up the K-word, though, so that at least suggests they’re mostly as eager to put it behind them as MBS is.

Unfortunately for them, somebody at the CIA isn’t ready to let this scandal die just yet. The Wall Street Journal on Saturday was able to lay out why the agency has concluded that MBS most likely ordered Khashoggi’s murder:

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least 11 messages to his closest adviser, who oversaw the team that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the hours before and after the journalist’s death in October, according to a highly classified CIA assessment.

The Saudi leader also in August 2017 had told associates that if his efforts to persuade Mr. Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia weren’t successful, “we could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements,” according to the assessment, a communication that it states “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi.”

Mr. Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s leadership who lived in Virginia and wrote columns for the Washington Post, was killed by Saudi operatives on Oct. 2 shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he sought papers needed to marry his Turkish fiancée.

Excerpts of the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment, which cites electronic intercepts and other clandestine information, were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, et al, have been insisting that there’s no definitive proof that MBS was behind the murder, and to be fair there’s nothing definitive in what the CIA has leaked. No pictures of MBS posing with Khashoggi’s body or anything like that. But we’re not in a court of law, and the Trump administration’s insistence on iron clad proof beyond a reasonable doubt as the standard here is both absurd and pathetic. These are the same people who insist they know Iran is arming the Houthis in Yemen because they found a couple of Houthi missile fragments with some Persian writing on them. The evidentiary standard here seems a bit unequal.


In a fairly amazing display of hypocrisy even for the US, Pompeo on Saturday accused Iran of violating the same 2017 United Nations Security Council resolution on the Iran nuclear deal that he and his boss have already tried to run through a shredder. Pompeo said that the Iranians are violating UN Resolution 2231 by testing ballistic missiles, and I probably don’t even have to say at this point that he’s lying but he is:

Even if you argue that Iran is violating the spirit of 2231, an ambiguous standard, there is no ambiguity about the fact that the US has already violated the letter of the resolution by breaking the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran. “International law for thee but not for me,” I guess. Needless to say the Iranians are not planning to pack up their missile program to appease Pompeo.

According to Iranian state media, Tehran has struck a barter agreement with South Korea that will allow it to continue shipping oil to Seoul in spite of the sanctions. Iran has reportedly been working on a barter arrangement with Iraq, and the “special purpose vehicle” European leaders are trying to create to facilitate transactions with Iran would operate on a similar principle, which lets Iran continue “selling” oil without having to go through the international banking system or the dollar.


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