Middle East update: November 10 2017

Best wishes to any readers who are commemorating Arbaʿeen. and/or Veteran’s Day (which is actually tomorrow, I know, but Saturday is typically attwiw’s rest day so I most likely won’t be here).

SYRIA

Well, it’s happening. With al-Bukamal now in Syrian hands, Bashar al-Assad’s army and its allies have turned their attention toward the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, a move that could potentially put the US and Russia in conflict with one anothe–I’m sorry, I’m being told that the Syrian army no longer controls al-Bukamal. Oh well, they had it for, like, almost two days before they stopped paying attention and let ISIS move back in, so that’s not a total loss. Granted, they’ve let this same thing happen multiple times over the past few years, most famously at Palmyra when they were too busy destroying Aleppo to guard the highway to Damascus. But when you’re only grudgingly fighting ISIS and you’re desperate to fight pretty much anybody else, this kind of thing can happen.

In the hours before they let ISIS have it back, Hezbollah had its media arm report that there is evidence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in the town during the Syrian operation to capture it. Whether that’s true or not is obviously open to interpretation, as are Baghdadi’s whereabouts now. I guess if Baghdadi was in al-Bukamal recently, that would mean he definitely wasn’t killed by a Russian airstrike several months ago. Also open to interpretation is whether it even really matters. Baghdadi may have styled himself caliph, but events over the past couple of weeks have made it abundantly clear that even six years after his death, Osama bin Laden is infinitely more relevant to the state of the Middle East and the War on Terror than Baghdadi is. Hell, even Ayman al-Zawahiri pops his head up more frequently than Baghdadi, and he’s become more or less an afterthought.

A “Western intelligence source” has told the BBC that Iran is building a permanent military base just south of Damascus. Photographs of the site show that, well, somebody is certainly building something there, and it could definitely be a military base. It’s not clear that Iran is building it, but they’d certainly be on the short list of candidates, and it’s also not clear what kind of force, if any, would be stationed there once it’s completed. There doesn’t seem to be an attached airstrip so you can probably rule out planes, at least for now. The risk of an Iranian military base only about 50 miles away from the Golan, and thus Israel, shouldn’t need much explanation. Even if it’s not intended as an offensive move against Israel, the Israelis have no reason not to treat it as such.

IRAQ

Al Jazeera reporter Imran Khan finds that normal life is starting to return to Baghdad. The city definitely isn’t free from the threat of an ISIS terrorist strike, but those incidents are considerably rarer than they’ve been probably at any time since 2014. If Arbaʿeen passes without a terrorist incident of some kind that’s probably a good sign that Iraq has turned a corner.

YEMEN

Jeffrey Harrigian, the southwest Asia commander for CENTCOM’s air arm, says that he’s seen proof that Iran provided the missile that the Yemen rebels fired on Riyadh on Saturday. According to Harrigian, the missile had “Iranian markings” on it, whatever those might be. Take his word for it, I guess. I know I’ve been more strident than usual about this story but the bottom line is this: while it is definitely within the realm of possibility that Iran built this missile, without any evidence of that there’s no reason to simply assume that it did when the rebels have other, easier ways to develop their own missiles by modifying (maybe with Iranian technical help!) Yemen’s pre-war stockpile of Scuds. And since Saudi accusations against Iran take us all a bit further down the road to war, it’s incredibly important to treat those accusations very skeptically.

Now we have an American general telling us that he’s definitely seen “Iranian markings” on the remnants of the missile. Those remnants were presumably provided to him by the Saudis, who have every reason to lie here, to mock up something that looks credible, to fuel their ongoing rivalry with Iran. The bar would be pretty low, because as an American military officer it’s in Harrigian’s interest to believe that this was Iran’s doing. Or maybe the Saudis didn’t provide him with anything–does anybody think the Pentagon is above just plain lying to support Saudi accusations against Iran? Because I don’t.

The Saudis reopened the Wadea border crossing into eastern Yemen on Friday, which will allow more humanitarian aid into the country but is still far less than what the Yemeni people need.

LEBANON

Hezbollah on Friday resumed dunking on the Saudis for allegedly holding former (?) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri captive in Riyadh. Hassan Nasrallah offered a counter to the Saudi claim that Lebanon and Hezbollah have declared war on it by saying that, no, actually Saudi Arabia has declared war on Lebanon. And hey, arresting Lebanon’s head of government, if that’s what the Saudis have done, certainly wouldn’t be an act of peace.

At one point it appeared France was also on the FREE HARIRI train–after Emmanuel Macron’s emergency visit to the Gulf on Thursday, the French government said that it wants Hariri to have “all his freedom of movement,” which certainly implies that he doesn’t have it right now–but Paris also said that it sees no evidence that Hariri’s movements are being restricted. The German government echoed that last bit, saying that it’s also seen no evidence Hariri is being detained. Likewise the US State Department. Also chiming in was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who said via Twitter that it’s “time” for Hariri to return.

Amid growing calls for Syrian refugees to go back to Syria in general, a number of small Lebanese principalities seem to be evicting Syrians who have settled in those locations. The evictions are relatively small scale at this point, as local officials try to use every regulation they can to justify evictions on a case-by-case basis, but in aggregate that still means potentially thousands of refugees being removed.

BAHRAIN

An oil pipeline apparently exploded overnight. No word as to cause or casualties but Bahraini authorities are investigating.

SAUDI ARABIA

Reuters says it has the inside scoop about the Saudi anti-corruption purge, and surprise! It’s not really about corruption:

Prince Mohammed decided to move on his family, the person familiar with events said, when he realized more relatives opposed him becoming king than he had thought.

“The signal was that anyone wavering in their support should watch out,” said the person familiar with the events. “The whole idea of the anti-corruption campaign was targeted toward the family. The rest is window dressing.”

Tying the purge to corruption was, and I can’t believe I’m about to type this, a smart decision by Mohammad bin Salman. Not only can you make corruption charges stick against pretty much any member of the royal family (especially when the opaque Saudi justice system doesn’t have to define exactly what it considers “corrupt”), but it is a cause with genuine populist appeal:

“People are so much in support of what’s happening,” said Ahmed Saadeldin, an advertising executive in Jeddah. “These corrupt individuals were in the way of the people’s aspirations. The general public are happy, to tell you the truth. If it’s anything it is a reverse coup.”

Bin Salman’s strike against his country’s elite has earned him wide plaudits, from both international investors who do business in the kingdom and have long complained about corruption, and ordinary Saudis struggling to get by amid rising prices and what they perceive as a rigged economic playing field. One thing that irks many Saudis is that royals have made a racket of buying land on the cheap and sitting on it, pushing up housing prices and making homeownership an increasingly unattainable goal for the middle class.

With a lot of once-powerful royals now arrested, impoverished, and humiliated in a way that carries substantial weight with the Saudi public, and with MBS now in control of all three of the kingdom’s armed services, it’s not clear how any serious opposition against him could gain any traction.

Former State Department types Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolowsky make the case that it’s Donald Trump’s indulgence that has unleashed MBS’s worst impulses. While I agree that’s a contributing factor, it’s not like the Obama administration didn’t enable this stuff when it went along with Yemen for no reason other than to keep the Saudis happy.

IRAN

Yesterday we talked about Iran’s penchant for arresting dual nationals to then use them as bargaining material in dealing with Western countries. Western governments generally like to keep these situations quiet because it facilitates negotiation. Another reason why it’s good for Western governments to keep these things quiet is because some Western governments are run by total fucking morons:

The Foreign Office is studying a package of measures to ease relations with Iran before a visit to Tehran by Boris Johnson that has been billed as the foreign secretary’s chance to win the release of the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

On Friday, the FCO was playing down the chances of a breakthrough in the visit later this year, and stressed that any measures to ease Anglo-Iranian relations had already been under consideration before Johnson said incorrectly that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “teaching people journalism” in Tehran. Her family and employer have always said she was on holiday at the time she was arrested.

The Iranian government and media seized on Johnson’s remarks, made at a foreign affairs select committee hearing last week, to claim that he had revealed the truth about her activities in Iran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been sentenced to five years in prison, and that’s bullshit regardless of whether she was on vacation or teaching journalism (the official line is that what Johnson said was “incorrect,” but that could just be an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle). But Johnson has made it harder for the UK to negotiate her release by undermining everything her family and his own government had been telling the Iranians to that point. What a putz. Theresa May made him foreign secretary to allow him plenty of opportunity to beclown himself, but unfortunately he’s doing harm to a lot more than just his future career prospects.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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