Middle East update: December 16-17 2017


The Syrian Salvation Government, which is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s political arm, appears to be consolidating political control in Idlib province. Last week they gave the rival Syrian Interim Government a deadline to cease operations, and a couple of days later they decreed that all widows in Idlib must move in with a “sharia-compliant” male family member. Remember, these are the people we’re hoping Bashar al-Assad doesn’t defeat. The moderate (at least relatively) SIG has been the main civilian governance institution in Idlib for some time now, but HTS is so militarily dominant in the province at this point that it’s hard to see how the SIG could resist the order to cease and desist.


Saudi aircraft struck a key Houthi military target vehicle carrying a group of women home from a wedding late Saturday night. Ten women were killed in the strike. Houthi spokesperson Mohammad Abdel Salam accused the Saudis of killing at least 70 people in separate incidents over the weekend, but as far as I can tell most of those are unconfirmed.

UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said on Sunday that the Saudis have “no excuse” for continuing to block humanitarian aid from reaching Yemen. Then the British government sold the Saudis a bunch more weapons and everybody had a good laugh about the whole thing, the end.


POLITICO published a real ripper of a story on Sunday about the Obama administration killing an operation to take down Hezbollah:

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.


The campaign, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed evidence that Hezbollah had transformed itself from a Middle East-focused military and political organization into an international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities.

Assuming this report is accurate, and that’s no small thing (particularly when two of its major sources work for prominent “Bomb Bomb Iran”-centric DC think tanks), the scandal is that the Obama administration blocked a drug enforcement operation in order to secure a significant nuclear proliferation agreement that had the potential–barring some unforeseen outcome like the election of a reality TV sexual deviant with severe narcissistic personality disorder as president–to reshape the Middle East or at the very least to take America off of the path toward another massively counterproductive Middle Eastern war. Hezbollah is a problematic actor in many ways, but the best–only, really–way that the United States can hope to change that is by improving relations with Iran.

Throwing some mid-level Hezbollah operatives in prison and sanctioning an organization that is already as blacklisted as it can possibly get would have achieved little, if anything. It wouldn’t even have reduced the amount of cocaine coming into the US, because somebody else would just have stepped into the vacuum. It might have destabilized Lebanon, which would have made things worse in the Middle East. It might also have disrupted other intelligence operations against Hezbollah. And by the way, this whole drug and organized crime case against Hezbollah was so strong that the Trump administration, which talks about Hezbollah like it’s the reincarnation of the SA (actually, the Trump administration would probably be more conciliatory toward the actual SA), hasn’t really ever mentioned it.


There will be a vote at the United Nations Security Council on Monday to try to annul the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (technically it says that no unilateral action to change Jerusalem’s status can be considered valid under international law). Since the US has a veto on the UNSC, you can imagine that the chances of this measure passing are on the “none” side of the phrase “slim to none.” The only suspense here will be if the UK is prepared to debase itself by joining the US veto, but I doubt it.

The backlash to the Jerusalem decision has continued apace this weekend. Palestinian leaders appear to have completely broken off contact with the United States in the context of the peace process. Turkey is considering a move to open a Palestinian embassy in East Jerusalem, a move that would turn this already tense situation all the way up to 11. Some 80,000 people protested against the decision in Jakarta on Sunday, the largest Jerusalem-related international protest yet. Everything is going great!

Thousands of Israeli citizens protested again in Tel Aviv on Saturday, but about Benjamin Netanyahu’s (alleged) corruption, not Jerusalem.


Palestinian billionaire Sabih al-Masri was the latest wealthy person to be shaken down for protection money detained by Saudi authorities over alleged corruption issues. He was nabbed last week in Riyadh and held until his release on Sunday. Masri is the chairman of Arab Bank, based in Jordan, so there may very well have been a financial component to his detention. However, it’s also possible that he was picked up to send a message to Amman to stop making waves over the Jerusalem issue and to toe the line over Donald Trump’s hypothetical Israel-Palestine deal framework, which is likely to be massively unfair to the Palestinians if/when it’s released. Masri by himself is a huge pillar of the Jordanian economy, and any move against him could lead to massive problems for the Jordanian government.

Anyway, speaking of the Saudi anti-corruption crusade, here’s a heartwarming story about Mohammad bin Salman’s modest, I dare say almost austere, lifestyle:

When the Chateau Louis XIV sold for over $300 million two years ago, Fortune magazine called it “the world’s most expensive home,” and Town & Country swooned over its gold-leafed fountain, marble statues and hedged labyrinth set in a 57-acre landscaped park. But for all the lavish details, one fact was missing: the identity of the buyer.


Now, it turns out that the paper trail leads to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the Saudi throne and the driving force behind a series of bold policies transforming Saudi Arabia and shaking up the Middle East.


The 2015 purchase appears to be one of several extravagant acquisitions — including a $500 million yacht and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting — by a prince who is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the Saudi elite and preaching fiscal austerity at home.

It’s not like the Saudis have ever been shy about hiding their massive wealth, but it’s pretty wild that MBS’s efforts to hide his have failed spectacularly, just like, well, pretty much everything else he’s done over the past couple of years.

The prince’s modest backyard (Wikimedia | Patrice Diaz)


Benjamin Netanyahu’s new talking point is that Iran will definitely abide by the nuclear deal, because as soon as its terms sunset the Iranians will quickly be able to build 100 or more nuclear weapons. While scaremongering about illicit nukes is definitely rich coming from the right-wing leader of illicit nuclear power Israel, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that this claim is bullshit:

Netanyahu’s is a misguided thesis, not founded in fact, and most likely the result of questionable strategic counseling. Whether it is shared by Israel’s military intelligence — responsible for the National Intelligence Estimate — is unclear. Israeli think tanks, whose job is to challenge establishment thinking and present the prime minister with reports based on facts, seem inclined to fuel and exacerbate Netanyahu’s pessimistic approach and worldview. Thus, the public debate in Israel is exposed to a vicious circle of threats and fear-mongering. The argument voiced in Israel that Iran has not changed and remains a serial violator of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) does nothing to help the debate.


In this article, we will show where Netanyahu is wrong. The nuclear deal is not a fast track to an Iranian bomb.

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