It’s a bit of an odd day for the blog in that there was huge news from Africa and comparatively not so much news from the Middle East, so I’ve rejiggered our regular format to try to keep everything at a reasonable length.
There’s been considerable fighting over the past two days in Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburb. On Tuesday, rebels attacked a government outpost in the town of Harasta. They failed to take it, but in response the Syrian government and Russia have increased their already intense aerial and artillery bombardment of the rebel-held enclave. At least eight civilians have been killed over the past day according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Leaders of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) say they would welcome an extended American deployment in northern Syria. No shit. The issue came up because earlier this week, Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested the US might remain in Syria long-term because
this bloated, gargantuan military Frankenstein’s monster we’ve created ain’t gonna pay for itself of the possibility of an ISIS revival in eastern Syria. Obviously Syrian Kurds will be better off if America sticks around, at least until Washington decides to sell them up the river to fulfill some other objective.
Human Rights Watch’s Kristine Beckerle explains why the magnanimous Saudi decision to reopen (some of) Yemen’s ports was basically meaningless and why their war effort continues to violate international law:
The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said the coalition would allow ports in allied government-controlled territory to open—in Aden, the country’s second largest city, for example—but all ports in the Houthi-Saleh controlled north—like Hodeida port and Sanaa airport—were to remain closed until the coalition decided sufficient steps had been taken to prevent weapons from entering the country.
Under the laws of war, the coalition can block weapons from going to its adversary, the Houthi-Saleh forces, but it also must allow humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and not use starvation as a weapon of war. The full blockade violated these legal obligations, but so does the ostensibly scaled-down version: the Saudi government seems to be seeking global praise for ending the blockade on its own allies.
Things continue to escalate here in very odd ways. First of all, Lebanese President Michel Aoun publicly accused Saudi Arabia of detaining former (?) Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Wednesday. Thats not odd but it is the first time that accusation has come from the Lebanese government itself. Aoun also brought up the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic relations, which is fairly heavy. Hariri jumped on Twitter and reiterated that he’ll be back in Lebanon soon. Except…apparently he’s heading to France first?
French President Emmanuel Macron has invited Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad Hariri and his family to France, the Élysée Palace said in a statement on Wednesday. Hariri has been in Saudi Arabia since he resigned unexpectedly on November 4.
France’s Élysée presidential palace said the invitation was made after Macron spoke by telephone with both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Hariri.
Lebanon’s erstwhile leader will arrive in France “in the coming days”, a source at the French presidency told AFP.
When? How? Why? Your guess is as good as mine. He’s definitely not going into exile, so I guess this would be a…vacation? Kind of a strange time for a family trip to Paris. Like I said, very odd.
The AP scored a statement from Bahaa al-Hariri, Saad’s older brother and, if you believe what you read on the internet, the guy Riyadh would like to see take over as Lebanese PM. Bahaa said he respected his brother’s decision to resign over Hezbollah and thanked the Saudis for their “decades of support” for Lebanon. So he clearly wants the job.
Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit says that while Saudi Arabia is trying to push Israel into a war with Hezbollah, the Israelis aren’t keen on going to war at Riyadh’s behest. Certainly they’re preparing for a conflict with Hezbollah, but within the Israeli military there seems to be a growing belief that a new Hezbollah war is going to be much more difficult for them than previous efforts.
Bahraini authorities are blaming a bombing last month on a terrorist cell that received training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Which could very well be the case. But the IRGC could go out of business tomorrow and Bahrain is still going to have an insurgency/terrorism problem unless and until the monarchy stops treating its Shiʿa majority subjects like unwelcome invaders.
The headline on this New York Times profile of Mohammad bin Salman–“The Upstart Saudi Prince Who’s Throwing Caution to the Winds”–literally made me throw up a little bit in my mouth, but if you can get through the disgusting fawning sludge you get to an interesting tidbit:
The former Egyptian security chief, Habib el-Adli, said by one of his advisers and a former Egyptian interior minister to be advising Prince Mohammed, earned a reputation for brutality and torture under President Hosni Mubarak. His lawyers say he plans to appeal his recent sentence in absentia in Egypt to seven years in prison on charges of corruption.
Those reports of MBS torturing his wayward cousins for their bank account details take on a whole new level of credibility if Adly is advising him.
Iranians impacted by Sunday’s earthquake are outraged that apparently shoddy state construction work resulted in so many buildings collapsing in the quake zone. The cause, of course, is corruption–bribes buy building contracts, lax safety regulations, and/or cooperation from safety inspectors. Meanwhile, unless Washington takes some kind of action, US sanctions will prevent aid money raised from people in the US from reaching quake survivors who need all the help they can get.
The House of Representatives is preparing to consider a bill that will pretty unambiguously violate the Iran nuclear deal. The “Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act” will make the requirements for selling commercial aviation equipment to Iran so onerous that it’s likely both Boeing and Airbus will have to back out on their deals to sell new aircraft to Iran Air. The two companies could challenge the bill in court on the principle that it’s trying to legislate their deals with Iran retroactively, which is generally frowned upon, but even if they won the measure would still ban future aviation deals, thereby undercutting the nuclear deal’s sanctions relief.
The Russian defense ministry accused the United States earlier this week of giving safe passage to a convoy of ISIS trucks fleeing al-Bukamal. They produced satellite images and everything, it was an airtight case. Or it would have been, had one of the “satellite images” not clearly been taken from a video game. Others now seem to have been taken from a 2016 Russian airstrike. Oops.
The Macedonian parliament voted 66-41 on Wednesday to make Albania the country’s second official language. The opposition may use this vote to try to make some political hay, but with as many Albanian speakers as there are in Macedonia this decision seems pretty sensible.
Angela Merkel wants coalition negotiations to be concluded by tomorrow, and, well, good luck with that. The Greens and the Free Democrats don’t seem close on some pretty fundamental issues like immigration and eurozone governance.
Hey, you know how the British government has started kind of blaming Russian meddling for the results of last year’s Brexit referendum? Well, Madrid is doing the same thing with respect to this year’s Catalan independence referendum:
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Tuesday that an “avalanche” of bots spread “fake news” about Spain during Catalonia’s independence referendum last month and that Spanish authorities think that more than half of the originating accounts are in Russian territory.
This seems even more far-fetched than the Brexit claims, given that Catalan independence has been polling in the 40s pretty consistently and if you factor in the 43 percent turnout (presumably most of the non-voters opposed secession) the 92 percent “yes” vote reflects those poll numbers pretty closely. But hopefully somebody gets to the bottom of this stuff soon. Either Russia is fucking around with everybody’s elections, or shitty Western governments are planning to start using phantom Russian meddling to explain every shitty thing they do from now on. Both of those scenarios are intolerable.
If I get into this at all we’ll be here for another thousand words, but you should know that people like this exist and are absolutely taken seriously by the foreign policy establishment:
The news that Venezuela has started defaulting on its debts raises an important question: Can the current regime survive the likely economic fallout? Over the past few years, Venezuela has effectively become an authoritarian country. During his term in office, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has cracked down on dissidents by force and run roughshod over the country’s democratic institutions. Maduro has handpicked cronies to head a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, disabled the opposition-controlled parliament, and made it prohibitively difficult to unseat him.
In such circumstances, as I argue in my new book, “The Democratic Coup d’État”, the domestic military plays a key role in determining whether a country will move to real democracy. Where the military sides with the regime, as large factions of the military did in Syria in 2011, the dictatorship often reigns supreme. But where the military sides with the people, democracy becomes a real possibility. Here’s how that may work out in Venezuela.
The Good Military Coup is a bit like El Dorado, in that there’s a group of people who are absolutely convinced it exists and will keep believing it no matter how many times they’re proven wrong or how many people have to get killed or disappeared in the process of proving them wrong. It’s good to have faith, I guess, but I really wish we could consign them to the same bin as, I don’t know, flat earthers or something.
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