Middle East update: December 7 2018


Both the US State Department and the British Foreign Office are now accusing the Syrian government and Russia of carrying out last month’s apparent chlorine gas attack in western Aleppo in order to frame rebels. The goal, according to this scenario, was to undermine the Idlib ceasefire agreement. The one that, uh, Russia negotiated with Turkey. The US says it has “credible information” that the Syrians and Russians used tear gas to mimic a more serious chemical weapons strike, and is (naturally) warning that they’ve tampered with the site to fabricate evidence of a chlorine attack (so if the investigation doesn’t support this conclusion they already have their excuse in place). I won’t attempt to sort this out except to say that this is exactly the kind of stuff the Syrian government does when it’s accused of using chemical weapons, right down to trying to pre-undermine the investigation.

US and Turkish representatives met on Friday to discuss Syria, and came away agreeing to speed up the process of getting the YPG militia out of Manbij. Turkey says it still hasn’t withdrawn even though that’s a key part of the agreement Washington and Ankara reached to prevent a potential fight over the town earlier this year. Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, also tried to talk US Syria envoy James Jeffrey out of the US plan to establish a series of observation posts along the Turkey-Syria border to deter confrontation between the Turks and the YPG there.


The second day of Yemen peace talks in Sweden didn’t go as well as the first. After agreeing on Thursday to a confidence-building prisoner swap with the Yemeni government, on Friday the Houthis rejected a Yemeni proposal to reopen Sanaa’s airport under the condition that it operate as a domestic facility only. That would mean all flights into and out of Sanaa would first have to go through airports at either Aden or Sayun, cities that are under government control, before continuing on either to Sanaa or to their foreign destinations. Which would, naturally, allow the Yemeni government an opportunity to inspect those flights. Reopening Sanaa airport is one of the United Nations’ main goals in this round of talks, so the issue will remain on the table until the talks end next week.

The AP has conducted an investigation into prison facilities run by the Houthis, similar to the work it did last year uncovering a network of black site prisons run by the United Arab Emirates in government-controlled parts of the country. The findings are, perhaps unsurprisingly, horrifying:

[Former Houthi prisoner Farouk] Baakar and his patient are among thousands of people who have been imprisoned by the Houthi militia during the four years of Yemen’s grinding civil war. Many of them, an Associated Press investigation has found, have suffered extreme torture — being smashed in their faces with batons, hung from chains by their wrists or genitals for weeks at a time, and scorched with acid.

The AP spoke with 23 people who said they survived or witnessed torture in Houthi detention sites, as well as with eight relatives of detainees, five lawyers and rights activists, and three security officers involved in prisoner swaps who said they saw marks of torture on inmates.

These accounts underscore the significance of a prisoner-swap agreement reached Thursday at the start of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Sweden between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States.


Researcher Hassan Hassan has found new evidence that might rewrite ISIS’s origin story. While the consensus has long been that former al-Qaeda in Iraq boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the one who formulated the group’s ultra-violent, ultra-intolerant worldview, Hassan believes it was actually one of his deputies who set the tone:

Narratives about the origins of Islamic State ideology often focus on the fact that Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden, both Sunni extremists, diverged on the idea of fighting Shiites and on questions of takfir, or excommunication. Such differences, the story goes, were reinforced in Iraq and eventually led to the split between isis and al-Qaeda. Based on this set of assumptions, many conclude that Zarqawi must have provided the intellectual framework for ISIS.

Recently, I came to question the conventional wisdom. The groundwork for ISIS was arguably laid long before the invasion, and if there was one person responsible for the group’s modus operandi, it was Abdulrahman al-Qaduli, an Iraqi from Nineveh better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Ali al-Anbari—not Zarqawi. It was Anbari, Zarqawi’s No. 2 in his al-Qaeda years, who defined the Islamic State’s radical approach more than any other person; his influence was more systematic, longer lasting, and deeper than that of Zarqawi.

Anbari remained a top lieutenant in the organization under Zarqawi’s successors, eventually serving as ISIS’s governor in Syria under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, until he was killed outside of Raqqa in March 2016.


Israeli officials are still hinting that they might expand their operation to destroy a series of tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah from northern Israel into southern Lebanon. This seems unlikely. Israel stands to lose quite a bit if it starts a new war in southern Lebanon, and as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has generally been reluctant to engage in full scale hostilities except when it comes to pounding the essentially defenseless Gaza. The threat to cross the border, I would suggest, is probably meant to prod the Lebanese government into destroying these alleged tunnels on its side of the border so as to avoid a conflict. And that’s more about pitting the Lebanese army and political establishment against Hezbollah than it is about actually closing the tunnels.


A visit by a Jordanian parliamentary delegation to Damascus last month suggests that the Jordanian government is warming to the idea of restoring relations with the Syrian government. The two sides already agreed to reopen their main land border at Nassib in October. Jordan came out in opposition to Bashar al-Assad at the start of Syria’s civil war, but as the conflict has dragged on and Assad’s position has gotten stronger, Amman seems to have resigned itself to the inevitable and, moreover, has decided that it doesn’t really care who wins the war just so long as they’re able to stabilize the border and reduce the threat of militants crossing the border to carry out attacks inside Jordan.


Joining other paragons of human virtue like Viktor Orbán, Sebastian Kurz, and Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu announced last month that Israel will not sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration either. These guys are going to be able to start holding their own global fascist conferences pretty soon, there are so many of them these days.

Some 30,000 Gazan civil servants got paid on Friday for the first time in quite a while, courtesy of the Qatari government. Qatar has pledged $90 million toward paying Gazan salaries, and Friday’s outlay was estimated to cost around $15 million in total. The cash infusion might help to alleviate some of the tension in Gaza, but weekly protests at the fence line are continuing–at least 37 more protesters were reportedly wounded by Israeli soldiers on Friday.


If you’ve been worried that term limits might end the glorious presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi–and, I mean, who hasn’t been–then you’ll be pleased to know that an Egyptian court is about to hear a petition demanding that the Egyptian parliament amend the constitution to remove presidential term limits altogether. The amended constitution would allow presidents to stand for reelection beyond two terms provided they’re able to win a national referendum allowing them to do so beforehand. And since Sisi has gotten pretty good at rigging elections, that shouldn’t be a problem.


Although Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been cordially invited to attend this month’s Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that the Gulf states are going to take this opportunity to repair their collective relationship:

Earlier this month, shortly after Qatar announced its decision to exit OPEC effective Jan. 1, 2019, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa called the Qatar crisis “unprecedented and very deep.” He accused Doha of eliminating any hope of Qatar returning to the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc’s fold. Regarding the summit, he said the “dispute can’t be solved by just a hug. There must be a new agreement and new regime, and Doha should be placed under scrutiny.” Despite Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud inviting the emir of Qatar to the summit earlier this month, Manama’s chief diplomat affirmed that Qatar had burned its bridges with the GCC’s blockading states and Doha sending Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani or a low-level representative would make no difference.


Finally, James Dorsey is much more optimistic than I am that the US Senate will take meaningful action against the Saudis over the Jamal Khashoggi murder:

A draft US Senate resolution describing Saudi policy in the Middle East as a “wrecking ball” and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “complicit” in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if adopted and implemented, potentially could change the dynamics of the region’s politics and create an initial exit from almost a decade of mayhem, conflict and bloodshed.

The six-page draft also holds Prince Mohammed accountable for the devastating war in Yemen that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the failure to end the 17-month-old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, and the jailing and torture of Saudi dissidents and activists.

In doing so, the resolution confronts not only Prince Mohammed’s policies but also by implication those of his closest ally, UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The UAE was the first country that Saudi leader visited after the Khashoggi killing.

By in effect challenging the position of king-in-waiting Prince Mohammed, the resolution raises the question whether some of his closest allies, including the UAE crown prince, will in future want to be identified that closely with him.

Eh, I’ll believe it when I see it. As Dorsey writes, the ultimate impact of whatever the Senate does will depend on Donald Trump. And he’s shown no inclination toward holding his buddy the crown prince to account for anything.


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