Middle East update: December 18 2018

Tonight’s updates will unfortunately have to be our last of 2018. I had hoped to continue for a couple more days before breaking for the holidays but between holiday plans, travel plans, and other commitments my attention and stress levels have reached the breaking point. Owing in part to a strange winter break schedule for my daughter’s school, regular blogging will resume on January 7. attwiw is not going dark over the break and I’ll be back with Christmas and New Year’s wishes when appropriate, but let me nevertheless take this opportunity to thank you for reading the blog this year and to wish you and yours Happy Holidays.


Representatives of the governments of Iran, Russia, and Turkey failed on Tuesday to agree on who should serve on the “independent” third of the Syrian constitutional committee, and then called for the committee to meet as soon as possible in the new year. Only in international diplomacy could this possibly make sense. Presumably the committee will meet just as soon as there actually is a committee, which is what the Syrian triumvirs were supposed to accomplish during their meeting with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva.


The good news is that Hudaydah’s ceasefire is holding, as long as you don’t count all the explosions and other evidence that it’s not. The city had reportedly been calm most of the day on Tuesday before residents began reporting sounds of fighting in the evening. Additionally, there are concerns because the Houthis have not given the pro-government coalition a map of Hudaydah city showing the various traps, mines, etc. that they set throughout. They apparently agreed to fork over such a map during the recent peace talks in Sweden. The United Nations says it plans to FaceTime the parties on Wednesday to discuss plans for withdrawing combatants from Hudaydah. Hopefully the ceasefire will still be in place by then.


The Trump administration now says that President Trump merely told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that he “would take a look at” extraditing Fethullah Gülen, but didn’t promise to extradite him or even commit to pursuing extradition. Yeah, I’m not buying it either. The chances that Trump even knew what Erdoğan was talking about are slim to none.


There’s more good news: Lebanon will likely have a new national unity government before Christmas. Or not. Several Lebanese politicians, including a spokesperson for Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, sounded optimistic tones on Tuesday, but I have no idea why anybody would believe them at this point. I’m not predicting anything here, but if we’re back here in January and Lebanon still doesn’t have a government I won’t be surprised. This is a country that went over two years without a president between 2014 and 2016. It’s not a well-functioning political entity.


Speaking of things that aren’t well-functioning political entities, the Iraqi government added three new ministers on Tuesday, as parliament voted to fill the planning, higher education and culture ministry vacancies. They did not, however, manage to agree on new ministers of defense or the interior, since those are the two most powerful offices with the most important security functions and are therefore the most contentious, and voted down nominees for minister of education and minister of displacement and migration. So those jobs are still open if you want to throw your resume into the mix.


Israeli authorities have so far arrested more than 130 Palestinians over the past several days in their search for the man who shot several Israeli settlers in the northern West Bank earlier this month. Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated story I can assure you, a new opinion poll shows that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would defeat Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 49-42, if an election were held today. Presumably that’s why Abbas won’t hold an election today, or at any time over the past 13+ years for that matter.


The World Trade Organization has said it will hear a case brought by Qatar over charges that Saudi Arabia has been pirating Al Jazeera’s beIN sports network–which is officially blocked in Saudi Arabia along with everything else Qatari–and rebroadcasting it as the “beoutQ” network. The Saudis have been arguing that the WTO has no standing to hear the case and anyway it has no idea who’s pirating the broadcast and this whole thing is a giant threat to Saudi national security so just get off their back about it OK?


If it’s our last update before 2019 then I think we have to make time for one last check on the liberal bastion that is Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia:

A human-rights commission reporting to Saudi King Salman is investigating the alleged torture of detained women’s rights activists, including accusations of waterboarding and electrocution, according to government officials and other people familiar with the activists’ situation.

A top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, allegedly oversaw some aspects of the torture and threatened at least one jailed woman with rape and death, according to testimony before the commission, those officials and others said.

One activist told the commission that security officials electrocuted her hands. “My fingers resembled barbecued meat, swollen and blue,” the woman told Saudi investigators, according to a person familiar with her statement.

The alleged treatment of the activists, along with the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, are part of what critics of the Saudi government say is a broad effort to quash dissent and limit freedom of speech.

What? No, don’t be silly. The Saudi government is a compassionate human rights champion. It must be. Otherwise I’m certain the current US government would say something.

Anyway, even if this stuff is true the Saudis are on it. The kingdom’s 2019 budget shows that the Saudis are taking their new “money can buy us love” foreign policy tactic and applying it to domestic policy as well. They’re stuffing in an extra seven percent in goodies for Saudi subjects, boosting the budget to an unprecedented $295 billion. The only drag here is that with oil prices being what they are, the Saudis aren’t going to bring in anywhere near that much in revenue. But fear not! The last group of folks the Saudis hooked up to car batteries–all those rich as hell dudes back in 2017–continue to shower the kingdom with their mostly ill-gotten riches, to the tune of an extra $13 billion and change in 2018 alone. That’ll help close some budget gaps.

On the downside, it turns out that this whole Jamal Khashoggi murder flap just won’t go away, and it’s really crimping MBS’s plans to make nice with Israeli Prime Minister and fellow “Vlad the Impaler Appreciation Society” member Benjamin Netanyahu. It turns out that Qahtani and Ahmed al-Assiri, the other guy responsible for Khashoggi’s murder–aside from MBS himself, I mean–were also spearheading this effort to get all of the world’s biggest sociopaths on the same page. And now that the Saudis have to pretend to be punishing those guys, they can’t very well let them continue with the Israeli outreach. There’s also the little matter of King Salman. The technical ruler of Saudi Arabia may not know where he is most of the time, but he does know that he doesn’t like Israel, and as he’s trying to rein in his big round lad MBS he’s not inclined to pursue closer relations with a country he doesn’t like.


The Atlantic Council’s Sina Azodi delves back into history to explain why Iran views its missile program as a fundamental element of its national defense strategy. Basically, repeated 20th century invasions and foreign interventions, culminating with the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s in which the international community did nothing while Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against them, convinced the Iranians that they can’t rely on the rest of the world to protect them:

These experiences created intense distrust among Iranians that international institutions would stand up for their rights. As former BritishPrime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1935 – 1937) noted: “Will any form of prohibition of bombing whether by convention, treaty, agreement . . . Be effective in war? Frankly, I doubt it.” This was echoed by Iran’s late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani when he complained that “the moral teachings of the world are not effective when war reaches a serious state and closes its eyes to the violations which are committed in the battlefield.”

While Iran contends that it is abiding by UN Security Council Resolution 2231—which “calls upon” but does not require Iran to halt development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads—Iranians have learned not to rely on international law and institutions to deter potential aggressor. This has played a critical role in Iran’s sense of strategic loneliness.


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