Middle East update: November 16-17 2017

SYRIA

At least 20 people were killed Friday in an ISIS car bombing near Deir Ezzor. To the west, continued fighting in Damascus’s Ghouta suburb has killed nearly 30 people this week. Another five civilians were killed on Friday, at least three of them by rebel artillery fire.

The possibility of new fighting in northwestern Syria was increased on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to “cleanse” Afrin of the presence of Kurdish YPG fighters. On Thursday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (of which the YPG is probably the most important component) claimed that their spokesman, Talal Silo, was “kidnapped” by Turkish intelligence. The day before, Syrian media reported that Silo had defected to the Free Syrian Army near Manbij, so the “kidnapping” angle may be a face-saving cover story.

As expected, Russia has vetoed an extension of the UN’s mission to investigate claims of chemical weapons use in Syria. The Russians accused the US of failing to address “flaws” in the investigation, the main one seemingly that it kept accusing the Syrian military of using chemical weapons. UN ambassador Nikki Haley said that the Trump administration is prepared to use force to prevent Bashar al-Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons, which is awesome because it’s been several months since the administration did a splashy bombing job that everybody on TV could agree was kick ass and resolute and made Donald Trump president for real. We’re way past due for one of those.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces officially liberated Rawa on Friday, depriving ISIS of its last town in Iraq. The Iraqis are naturally treating this as ISIS’s final defeat or some such, but it’s likely the group is still operating (and could be said to “control” territory) in the mostly unpopulated parts of far western Anbar province, and it’s almost certainly gone to ground in other parts of Iraq that have been liberated.

YEMEN

The UN is demanding that Saudi Arabia stop blockading ports in rebel-held Yemen, saying that the blockade was “reversing” humanitarian gains that had been made there and put another 3.2 million people in dire risk of starvation, to go along with the 7 million already there. The closure of the port of Hodeida alone has been something of a worst-case scenario from a humanitarian perspective, since it’s really the only port in Yemen large enough to handle the kind of relief effort that’s been needed due to the war and the Saudi intervention.

Meanwhile, a UN panel of experts is taking issue with Saudi claims that the missile strike that led to this escalated blockade was conducted using an Iranian ballistic missile smuggled into Yemen:

“The supporting evidence provided in these briefings is far below that required to attribute this attack to a Qiam-1 SRBM,” wrote the panel. “The Saudi-Arabia led coalition has not yet though attributed the attempted attack against KKIA” — King Khalid International Airport, in the Saudi capital Riyadh — “to any particular type of SRBM.”

 

“The Panel has seen no evidence to support claims of SRBM having been transferred to the Houthi-Saleh alliance from external sources in violation of paragraph 14 of resolution 2216,” the brief went on. “Analysis of the supply route options by land, sea or air identifies that any shipments of the large containers used to ship and protect the missiles in transit would stand a very high chance of being interdicted in transit by the Saudi-Arabia-led [sic] coalition forces or the Combined Maritime Forces naval forces deployed in the region. No such interdictions have been reported to the Committee in accordance with the requirement to report arms or arms related material seizures in accordance with paragraph 17 of resolution 2216.”

The panel’s report goes on to say that the Yemeni rebels could–all together now–have modified some of the country’s pre-war stockpiles of ballistic missiles to produce the variant that was fired on Riyadh. It says that further technical information from the Saudis could help make the case that it was an Iranian missile–but for some reason the Saudis don’t seem to be interested in providing it.

With all that said, you’ll no doubt be pleased to know that the United States has drastically increased its support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen this year as compared to last year. I wonder why we would have–

sword dance trump

Oh, right. That.

TURKEY

Fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK on Thursday resulted in the deaths of two Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq and four PKK fighters in Turkey’s Tunceli province.

Meanwhile, Turkey yanked some 40 of its soldiers out of a NATO training exercise in Norway on Friday, after Erdoğan took offense at…well, to be honest I think he kind of has a point here:

Erdogan said an “enemy poster”, featuring his name on one side and a picture of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, on the other, was unfurled at the training exercise in Norway, prompting a decision by Turkey’s military chief and European Union minister to pull the troops out.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg apologized “for the offense that has been caused,” which isn’t exactly an apology, then blamed the whole thing on a civilian contractor hired by Norway acting on his own initiative.

Speaking of things likely to piss Erdoğan off, there are signs that Turkish-Iranian gold trader and would-be Iran sanctions-buster Reza Zarrab is cooperating with prosecutors in New York, where he’s facing trial in connection with said sanctions-busting. Zarrab might just possibly be able to link his activities back to Erdoğan, or to his fellow sanctions-buster Mehmet Hakan Atilla (who himself might be able to put the whole thing in Erdoğan’s lap), but we’ll have to wait and see exactly what (if any) beans he winds up spilling.

LEBANON

Saad al-Hariri has apparently left Saudi Arabia and is on his way to France. From there it will be on to Lebanon some “other Arab capitals,” I guess, before he maybe finally winds up in Beirut at some point. It remains unclear why he’s not just going back to Beirut, particularly since his resignation won’t become official unless/until he does. Lebanese President Michel Aoun is hopeful that the French leg of the trip will somehow trigger a diplomatic solution to the crisis that leaves Hariri in place, but that’s going to depend on the Saudis rethinking their approach to Lebanon and, again, it’s unclear what role France can really play in that apart from trying to nudge Riyadh in a different direction.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the parliamentary leader of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party, continues to blame the Saudis for causing this situation. He told Russian media that Hariri’s resignation represented an “attempt to create chaos in the region.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, says that Israel is not planning to attack Hezbollah but that it is “ready to share information” with Saudi Arabia “if necessary.” The latter is no surprise, and I wouldn’t read too much into the former. For the Israelis to say they’re proactively getting ready to attack Lebanon would mean they’d be giving up the ability to claim self-defense if/when they actually do it. I do think any Israeli military action against Hezbollah will come on their timeline, and it’s become pretty clear over the past week or so that the Saudis did not work out some kind of master plan with Israel before they forced Hariri to resign.

EGYPT

Egyptian forces were able to kill three “high-level” militants and arrest 74 others on Thursday during a series of actions in Sinai.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi Purge is mostly about gilding Mohammad bin Salman’s path to the throne. But it’s also about corruption, or so we’re constantly being told, something that is apparently supposed to make foreign businessmen happy because those guys love the arbitrary and unpredictable use of absolute royal authority to serve the whims of one guy who frankly doesn’t seem all that bright. And yet maybe it’s not really that much about corruption, because, it’s actually starting to look an awful lot like a good old fashioned shakedown:

Authorities in Saudi Arabia are offering businessmen and members of the royal family detained on allegations of corruption an opportunity to pay for their freedom, according to media reports.

 

Around 200 princes, ministers, senior military officers and wealthy businessmen have been held in five-star hotels across the country since last week, many of them at the opulent Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

 

Quoting “people briefed on the discussions”, the Financial Times reported that the Saudi government was demanding up to 70% of the individuals’ wealth in return for their freedom.

Yeah, so this is actually as corrupt as whatever those guys allegedly did to begin with. Arbitrarily arresting people and offering them the chance to buy their freedom (with money that’s presumably already tainted by their corruption) is basically the kind of thing the mafia does. Though admittedly, when the Saudi crown prince does it it’s nominally legal because pretty much anything the Saudi crown prince does is legal under whatever passes for the rule of law in Saudi Arabia.

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