Middle East update: December 4 2018


US Syria envoy James Jeffrey told reporters in DC on Tuesday that the US wouldn’t mind seeing the United Nations impose a no-fly zone over Syria similar to the one the US imposed over parts of Iraq after the Gulf War. He did not explain how on earth he would expect that to happen. There is virtually no chance that Russia would support such a thing, and since Russia has a UN Security Council veto, that would seem to be that. And anyway nobody is going to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria that might mean having to threaten Russian aircraft.


Houthi representatives departed Sanaa for Sweden on Tuesday after they were joined by UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths. The Houthis have been insisting, justifiably, that they wanted guaranteed safe passage to peace talks before they would send a delegation, and Griffiths’ presence on their flight was meant to provide that. Meanwhile, the UN is calling for a massive influx of aid to the country in 2019, arguing that Yemen will need at least $4 billion in humanitarian aid as well as substantial ongoing support to keep its rial and economy from crashing.


Iraqi parliamentarians, most of them from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sayroon party, shut down a vote on the remaining open positions in Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet on Tuesday by banging on tables and chanting that the vote was illegitimate. Abdul Mahdi later told state TV that he would not propose an alternative slate of candidates for the cabinet posts, leaving it up to parliament to either vote for his list or create its own. At the core of the dispute is a growing rift between Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Iran-aligned Fatah alliance. Sadr and Amiri formed a coalition in October to facilitate the creation of a new government, but they haven’t seen eye to eye since. Sadr wants a “non-political” appointee to head the powerful Interior Ministry, while Amiri wants to put his guy in the job. If the dispute continues much longer it could cost Abdul Mahdi his job.


The Israeli military began an operation on Monday to destroy what it says are tunnels dug by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. The plan is to destroy the tunnels on the Israeli side of the border so as not to provoke a Lebanese military response, but nevertheless tensions along that border are likely to be high as long as the operation is ongoing.


Israeli forces shot and killed one Palestinian man in an early morning raid in the West Bank town of Tulkarem on Tuesday. At least 24 Palestinians were arrested in a series of similar raids overnight across the West Bank.

At LobeLog, Paul Pillar argues that the time has come to dissolve the Palestinian Authority:

[Dissolving the PA] would remove a false façade of the Israeli occupation and one of the bases for pretending it is not an occupation. In areas in which the PA supposedly is the principal local authority, it does not exercise the full functions of a sovereign. Even those areas are limited in size. In Oslo’s threefold division of the West Bank, Area A, which is supposed to be under PA administration, constitutes 18 percent of the West Bank. Area B, designated for joint Israel-Palestinian administration, is another 22 percent. In the remaining 60 percent, labeled Area C, Palestinians have no governing role at all.

Dissolution would distinguish what is temporary from what is justifiably permanent. It would give Palestinians an opportunity to retire old leadership. It would eliminate the technique—useful to the Israeli government and its supporters in kicking the can of Palestinian self-determination down the road indefinitely—of demanding “performance” from the Palestinians as a precondition for any progress toward statehood.

Most important, dissolving the Palestinian Authority would make Israelis feel more fully the costs of continued occupation. Such feeling is probably necessary for any breakthroughs toward peace. To the extent the PA performs real administration, it functions as an auxiliary to the occupation. If the full burden of occupation were instead to fall on Israel, indefinite occupation would no longer seem as comfortable and sustainable as it evidently seems to many Israelis now.


Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has reportedly received his formal invitation to attend Sunday’s meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh. So that’s something. It’s unclear whether Tamim will attend, but my wild guess would be that he sends a representative in his place. With all the global outcry about the Jamal Khashoggi murder it’s unlikely the Saudis would try any funny business with the emir of Qatar right now, but you never know.


Matthew Hedges, the British graduate student who was imprisoned for seven months by Emirati authorities on “spying” charges before being released last month, says that while the Emiratis were torturing him in custody, they offered to lighten up if he would spy on the UK for them. Classy. It’s still unclear why the Emiratis thought Hedges was a spy, assuming they genuinely did think so, except inasmuch as Hedges’ research was on the UAE’s national security posture. Which is a pretty normal research topic.


CIA Director Gina Haspel’s Senate briefing on the Khashoggi case appears to have convinced her audience:

Senators have emerged from a classified briefing by the CIA director, Gina Haspel, saying they are certain that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“If the crown prince went in front of a jury he would be convicted in 30 minutes,” Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee told journalists immediately after the Haspel meeting.

A handful of leading senators from both parties attended the secure briefing from Haspel, who flew to Turkey to hear tapes of the 2 October killing from Turkish intelligence intercepts.

The senators were not allowed to disclose details of what they were told, but their reaction reinforced reports that the CIA had accumulated substantial evidence that the crown prince (widely known by his initials MBS) was behind the murder.

The Trump administration, in which Haspel works, is still insisting that there’s no definitive proof that MBS was behind the murder. It is now facing calls to make Haspel available to brief the entire Senate rather than just Senate national security leadership, and with another symbolically important vote on the Yemen war coming up soon it may want to comply rather than engender more bad blood, especially with Senate Republicans. But judging by the reception the Saudi prince received at the G20, it seems most of the rest of the world is aligned with the CIA on this one. Though for MBS it may not matter. Trump is still firmly in the prince’s corner, and the G20 showed that the governments of Russia and China are, also. He’s probably satisfied with that.


The UN Security Council met on Tuesday to discuss Iran’s ballistic missile tests and whether they violate UNSC Resolution 2231, the 2015 measure that ratified the Iran nuclear deal and “called on” Iran not to test ballistic missiles but didn’t outright bar it from doing so. Which has forced European countries trying to walk a very fine line between the US and Iran to use words like “inconsistent” when describing the missile tests. They clearly don’t violate the letter of the resolution, but there is a case to be made that they violate its spirit, assuming you care about such things. The Iranian government insists that its ballistic missiles are purely for defensive purposes and says that it has no intention of cutting back on testing.


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