Middle East update: December 14 2017


United Nations-brokered peace talks in Geneva–stop me if you’ve heard this one before–collapsed on Thursday having made no progress. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura laid the blame squarely on Damascus, saying that its delegates were “not willing to meet anyone who has a different opinion” and had squandered “a golden big opportunity.” That last bit was offered without evidence, because it’s not clear why this particular round of talks was any bigger or more golden an opportunity than any of the others, each of which has been derailed by the same fundamental issue: the rebels want Assad gone, Assad wants to stay. At this point, when the facts on the ground in Syria say that he’s staying, I’m not sure why his representatives should be expected to entertain the notion that he shouldn’t. De Mistura says the rebels “misspoke” when their delegation said something about Assad departing before elections could be held, but there’s genuine misspeaking and then there’s saying the quiet parts out loud and I think it’s pretty clear which this is.

The Syrian delegation naturally blamed everybody but itself for the talks’ failure, but I’m going to maintain that there’s plenty of blame to be shared by everyone here. Assad had the option, for example, not to have his security forces start shooting at protesters back in 2011, and it’s fair to say things would look a bit different today had he gone down that path. His negotiators also had the option of sticking around and talking through some elements of a political settlement even if the Assad question was still festering, but they decided to be performatively angry and walk out instead. Plenty of blame to go around.

The US-backed Maghawir al-Thawra rebel group, based at Tanf in southern Syria, said Thursday that its fighters intercepted a convoy of ISIS fighters and killed 20 of them in the ensuing fight. ISIS fighters retreating from the Deir Ezzor area are finding relatively easy going maneuvering through what should be regime-controlled territory in the southeastern desert, which some are naturally attributing to the old secret blood pact between Assad and ISIS. Not to put a damper on your conspiracy reading, but it’s a lot more likely that those ISIS fighters are moving freely because Assad’s army remains mostly spent and it’s hard to monitor Syria’s southeastern desert under the best of circumstances, let alone in year seven of a civil war.

In really good news, two US F-22s may have had to fire warning flares on Wednesday to alert a pair of Russian Su-25s that had strayed into what has become US airspace east of the Euphrates river. According to the Pentagon planes came close enough that collision was a possibility.


Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, aka the largest of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militias, ordered his fighters on Thursday to pull back from parts of Iraq under their control and put themselves under the authority of the regular Iraqi military. Before you get all weepy at this Cincinnatus-like sacrifice for his country, understand that Amiri wants to run for political office and he’s barred from doing so as long as he’s an active participant in a militia. The infamous Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asaib al-Haq and occasional visitor to Lebanon, took a similar step on Wednesday, and for exactly the same reason.


Nikki Haley made her big case on Thursday that Iran has been arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen:

The US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, has accused Iran of supplying Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement with missiles to attack Saudi Arabia.


She showed reporters the remnants of a ballistic missile that came close to hitting Riyadh’s airport last month.


It “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers” on it, she said, adding that Iran was violating UN resolutions.

Haley’s “made in Iran sticker” amounts to a handful of technical details found in the missile remnants, including valve placement and a lack of stabilizer fins, that suggest Iranian origins, plus what appear to be Iranian corporate logos on a couple of pieces. Her presentation also included a drone and an anti-tank weapon that the US says was supplied by Iran to the Houthis.

The Saudis were reportedly thrilled with Haley’s presentation, so mission accomplished I guess. But she made a very circumstantial case behind a very serious charge–if Iran is providing missiles to the Houthis then it’s violating at least two UN Security Council resolutions. But the US can’t say how the weapons got into Yemen and, in the case of the drone and the anti-tank weapon, can’t say when or where they were used. It’s been provided all of this evidence by Saudi Arabia, obviously an impartial investigative resource, and when put together this is the same body of stuff that has caused the UN to conclude that it can’t say where the missiles came from. You also probably wouldn’t be blamed for wondering why, at a time when millions of Yemenis are barely fighting off starvation because of a Saudi-US air campaign and naval blockade, this is what America’s ambassador to the UN is obsessing about: a  missile that didn’t hit anything and didn’t kill anyone.

On the other hand, if the Iranians want people to stop talking about their alleged military support for the Houthis, then maybe Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers should stop openly bragging about it. Iranian claims that they didn’t supply these particular weapons to the Houthis ring a little hollow when it’s clear they have provided some weapons to the Houthis.


Scenes from the occupation:

Arrests, detentions, and physical assaults of Palestinian minors by Israeli security forces are not unique. An average of 700 Palestinian children are arrested and prosecuted by Israeli forces each year, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine, and around 10,000 Palestinians between the ages of 12 and 17 in the West Bank have been subject to arrest, detention, interrogation, and imprisonment under the in Israeli military courts since 2000.


In July 2013, for example, I reported on the detention of a five-year-old Palestinian boy who allegedly threw stones in Hebron. Five. Years. Old.


Good news everybody! The G5 Sahel Force, which doesn’t really exist yet, is going to get “logistical, intelligence, and training” support from the Saudi-organized Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition! Which, as far as anybody can tell, doesn’t really exist yet either! They’re a perfect fit for one another!

Finally, and I may be biased because I edited it, but at LobeLog Thomas Lippman does a commendable job filling in details surrounding the developing US-Saudi nuclear collaboration story:

Almost a decade has passed since President George W.  Bush promised that the United States would help Saudi Arabia develop commercial nuclear energy plants. When he visited Riyadh in May 2008, he pledged to sign a “memorandum of understanding,” or MOU, committing the United States to “assist the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to develop civilian nuclear power for use in medicine, industry and power generation” and “establish a comprehensive framework for cooperation in the development of environmentally sustainable, safe, and secure nuclear energy.”


In return, Saudi Arabia, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, would also join the worldwide Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-sponsored program to confront the threat of nuclear proliferation.


The text of that MOU has never been made public, and nothing much happened as a result of it until last week. Then, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, after meeting senior officials in the kingdom, urged the Saudis to choose a U.S.-based vendor, Westinghouse Electric Co., to participate in the nuclear energy program to which the Saudis have long been committed.

In addition to concerns about uranium enrichment, which the Saudis continue to insist on doing without the restrictions that, for example, have been put on Iran, Riyadh has a problem in terms of where it builds its power plants. The only reliable source of water for cooling reactors in Saudi Arabia is the ocean, but neither Saudi coast is apparently geologically ideal for siting a nuclear reactor. Situating the plants inland requires running water pipelines from the coast to the facilities, and those pipelines would immediately become massive security vulnerabilities.

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