Middle East update: February 19 2019


The Syrian Democratic Forces, with US air support, are making what appears to be their final push to take ISIS’s last Syrian enclave. Earlier in the day they sent trucks into the town of Baghouz, intending to evacuate the last remaining civilians there before the final assault. But according to Reuters, at least, those trucks do not appear to have left the town, and airstrikes began anyway on Tuesday evening. ISIS has reportedly been undertaking guerrilla-style attacks against SDF targets elsewhere in Deir Ezzor province, but this tactic most likely isn’t going to delay the Baghouz operation.


Now that the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have agreed on the first phase of their mutual withdrawal from Hudaydah, the United Nations says the pullout could be a huge boost to the distribution of humanitarian aid around the country. The movement of goods into Hudaydah, Yemen’s largest seaport, has been severely curtailed by the fighting there. Getting combatants out of the city should pay immediate dividends in terms of the ability to unload and distribute aid, to say nothing of the hopeful long-term benefit with respect to building momentum toward a comprehensive settlement to the war.


With the end apparently night for ISIS in Syria, the Iraqi military is engaged in an active operation to keep ISIS fighters from fleeing across the border:

During a visit to the border on Feb. 7, an officer from the Iraqi army’s 8th division who asked to be identified as Maj. Ibrahim told Al-Monitor that about 10 airstrikes from the international anti-IS coalition had been conducted over the past 24 hours.

IS fighters “are trying to cross this border,” he said, “but we are hitting back at them and the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] are doing the same on the other side.”

“We have thermal cameras,” the officer added, “and we are targeting them every night with artillery between around 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.”


The United States will be closing its Jerusalem consulate and folding its responsibilities into the new US embassy in Jerusalem in March. This is a move that’s been coming for some time now. In normal circumstances it would be redundant to operate a consulate and an embassy in the same city, and when the US decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv it rendered the consulate seemingly redundant. Except this isn’t a normal circumstance. The Jerusalem consulate has operated essentially as the US embassy to Palestine, handling consular services for Palestinians and operating somewhat independently of the US embassy in Israel. Although the Trump administration insists that it will continue to provide the same services in the embassy that it did in the consulate, the decision to close the latter will likely make it difficult if not impossible for Palestinians to obtain consular services from the US government. That’s the point.


Egyptian security forces say they killed 16 militants in northern Sinai in two separate raids on Tuesday. There’s no word on whether the Egyptians suffered any casualties.


So, easily today’s biggest Middle East story is that the Trump administration has been pushing hard to sell nuclear plants to Saudi Arabia despite the strong objections of its own national security team:

The officials who objected included White House lawyers and H.R. McMaster, then the chief of the National Security Council, according to the report, which cited documents obtained by the committee and accounts of unnamed whistleblowers. The officials called for a halt in the nuclear sales discussions in 2017, citing potential conflicts of interest, national security risks and legal hurdles.

But the effort to promote nuclear sales persisted, led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served briefly as President Trump’s national security adviser, and more recently by Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The possible nuclear power sale was discussed in the Oval Office as recently as last week.

Details about these internal White House battles are contained in a 24-page report released Tuesday morning by House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). It said the unnamed whistleblowers inside the White House came forward because they were distressed at the continued effort to sell the power plants.

Michael Flynn, currently awaiting sentencing after lying to the FBI in the Mueller investigation, just refuses to go quietly. He’s like Jason Voorhees except actually frightening. Anyway, the documents even suggest that the administration was preparing to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis without Congressional oversight, which is a major no-no. They certainly do not seem to have planned on abiding by the conditions of the Atomic Energy Act, designed to safeguard US nuclear sales against potential weaponization, which would be illegal. The effort, hilariously entitled the “Marshall Plan for the Middle East,” was backed by a shady company called “IP3 International,” run by several ex-military officers and natsec goons. Cartoon super-villain Jared Kushner was also involved, because of course he was.

The whole case is now being investigated by the House Oversight Committee. On the merits, your opinion about selling civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia should roughly reflect your views on nuclear power. A carefully-crafted, well-regulated nuclear sale should carry virtually zero risk of proliferation. The problem is that the Saudis don’t want to be bound by non-proliferation rules because they would like to have a nuclear weapon, or at least the possibility of making a nuclear weapon, as a threat to dangle around in front of the Iranians. Although the Iranians accepted firm restrictions on their nuclear plan when they signed the 2015 nuclear deal, the Saudis pretend those restrictions aren’t really there in order to better hype the supposed Iranian menace. So if the Trump administration is going to sell nuclear tech to the Saudis, it has to find a way around those restrictions. Hence this half-baked plan to go rogue.

Elsewhere, the German government’s decision to suspend arms sales to the Saudis after the Jamal Khashoggi murder is having some not-fully-appreciated-at-the-time knock-on effects on Saudi weapons purchases in general:

When the Merkel government banned sales to the kingdom last year, it not only barred fully assembled products such as ships, but also high-tech components used by companies across Europe. Germany may have recently reduced its overall arms exports, but it remains a European hub for such high-tech components.

The supply chain disruptions triggered a scathing response from Airbus chief executive Thomas Enders, who told Reuters last week: “It has been driving us crazy at Airbus for years that when there is even just a tiny German part involved in, for example, helicopters, the German side gives itself the right to, for example, block the sale of a French helicopter.”

To human rights critics, that’s exactly the point, however, as there isn’t an easy way out for the Saudis. When the Saudis agreed to purchase more than 70 European fighter jets about a decade ago, they not only bought the planes but also an entire package that includes training for pilots and long-term maintenance. To maintain the planes, BAE Systems has to replace components it now no longer has easy access to.

“We’ll soon get to the point where the Saudis can’t fly their planes anymore,” the London-based Financial Times quoted an unnamed individual as saying Monday.

My God, what a tragedy that would be.

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