Middle East update: January 15 2019


A cold winter is making life hell for displaced Syrians in camps in Lebanon and inside Syria:

At least 15 children have died in Syria because of a lack of medical care and inadequate living conditions for displaced people amid freezing temperatures, the UN has said, warning that more deaths are likely to follow.

Eight babies in the Rukban camp on the Jordanian border had died from hypothermia in the last month, a statement from the UN children’s fund said on Tuesday. A further seven children, mostly under one year old, had died from the cold in recent weeks as their families fled the battle for Hajin, one of the last areas held by Islamic State in eastern Syria.

“Extreme cold and the lack of medical care, for mothers before and during birth and for new infants, have exacerbated already dire conditions for children and their families,” said Geert Cappelaere, Unicef’s regional director.


The United Nations Security Council will vote on deploying ceasefire monitors to Hudaydah on Wednesday. Assuming the deployment is approved, and at this point there’s no reason to think it won’t be, up to 75 monitors will be sent to the city for the next six months.

Congress is expected to take up its War Powers challenge to the US role in Yemen soon, for whatever that’s worth. The Senate passed a resolution last year that would have required the US to stop supporting the Saudi war effort, but the House refused to hold a vote on the measure. Now, with the House under Democratic control, the resolution stands a decent chance of passing that chamber. But with the Senate more Republican than it was last session, the resolution will have a tougher time there than it did last year. And regardless, neither chamber will pass the measure by the 2/3 margin required to override a likely veto from Donald Trump.


Palestinian leaders say they plan to begin lobbying Security Council members to make Palestine a full UN member over the next few weeks. The Palestinians, who already enjoy non-member observer state status, are not going to succeed here because they face a guaranteed US veto. But a major push for membership could isolate and embarrass the US and Israel, which is in a sense its own reward.

+972 Magazine’s Michael Omer-Man says that the Israeli government is spraying carcinogenic herbicide on Gazan farms:

The latest instance of spraying herbicides, using a reportedly carcinogenic chemical, took place in early December. A variety of crops inside Gaza were damaged as a result, according to the rights groups.

“The farmers have sustained massive losses in the past as a result of spraying, and been exposed to the health risks associated with the chemical agents used in the spraying,” Al Mezan, Gisha, and Adalah wrote in their letter to Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with the country’s attorney general and military advocate general.

“The spraying is a highly destructive measure, infringing on fundamental human rights and violating both Israeli and international law,” the rights groups added in a joint statement Wednesday.

This is chemical warfare happening in plain sight with nary a peep from the international community. The herbicide in question is Roundup, which is not approved for aerial spraying because of its cancer risk, but the Israelis are spraying it and apparently doing so on days when the prevailing winds will carry the stuff deeper into Gaza. Those who don’t starve as their crops are eradicated can, I guess, expect to get cancer in a place where the Israelis have managed to excise all semblance of modern health care.


Hey, you know how Saud al-Qahtani, the ex-aide to Mohammad bin Salman who’s believed to have masterminded the Jamal Khashoggi murder, and supposedly fired because of fallout over that little caper? Well, funny story about that:

A senior Saudi official at the time called his removal “a political decision … based on dereliction of duty and participation in the sequence of events” that led to the murder. Weeks later, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Qahtani for his role.

But six sources told Reuters that Qahtani remains active on behalf of the royal court. Two of them said he has kept in touch with the crown prince while three others said he has continued to instruct a small group of Saudi journalists on what to write about the kingdom’s policies.

Apparently he still shows up at court on the regular! And MBS still describes him as an “adviser” to others! Good for him! Nobody should have to suffer like this just because they happened to be the ringleader over one single murder (that we know of), and it’s great to see Qahtani bounce back like this. Kind of awkward in light of all those Saudi promises to hold everybody accountable or whatever, but why should we all waste our beautiful minds on something like that? Anyway I guess this clears up any questions about whether or not Qahtani was among those the Saudis charged in the murder.


Despite US warnings about repercussions, Iran went ahead on Tuesday with the first of two planned rocket launches to put satellites in orbit. It, uh, failed. So no harm, no foul, I guess? The Trump administration opposes these launches because space rocket and ballistic missile technology are so closely related that development in the former can mean development in the latter. The Iranians insist they have the same right to a space program as any other country. They’re planning a second launch but it’s not clear when it’s supposed to occur.

Whether deliberately or not, Al-Monitor’s Mohammad Ali Shabani says that Western media outlets are misinterpreting recent comments by Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi about Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched reactor fuel:

Some media outlets promptly mischaracterized the claimed Iranian advance, with the Associated Press notably describing it as “a modern process for 20-percent uranium enrichment for its 50-year-old research reactor … signaling new danger for the nuclear deal.” That reporting appears to confuse uranium enrichment with nuclear fuel fabrication — the second of which is allowed under the nuclear deal.

Indeed, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) restricts the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil to 3.67%, the level needed for the production of electricity, such as at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant. Not so when it comes to fuel fabrication, the process of turning the enriched uranium into fuel plates.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former acting deputy assistant secretary for nonproliferation at the US State Department, tweeted Monday that fuel fabrication “is not prohibited” by the nuclear deal. “It’s important to see what Salehi actually said,” he added. Paragraph 7 of the accord, Fitzpatrick pointed out, stipulates that “all remaining uranium oxide enriched to between 5% and 20% will be fabricated into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.”

The JCPOA doesn’t say anything about fabricated reactor fuel because once the enriched uranium has been converted that way it can’t be converted back to something that could be enriched up to weapons grade material. So Salehi’s remarks really don’t mean Iran is about to violate the nuclear accord. Nevertheless, he gave another interview to Iranian media on Tuesday in which he definitely talked about Iran’s advancements in uranium enrichment technology, probably as a display of defiance to the rest of the world and a bone to Iranian hardliners who love to see that sort of thing.

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