Middle East update: December 21 2017

While I never say never around here, I feel pretty strongly that tonight’s updates will be attwiw’s final ones for 2017. We’re hosting Christmas here and then traveling to visit family, so I need a bit of time to prepare and then most of next week will just be logistically impossible. The blog won’t go dark, but let me take this opportunity to say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and bring on 2018.


United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura says he will participate in Friday’s new round of Syrian peace talks in Astana. The UN has typically stayed out of the Astana talks, which have focused on ceasefire agreements while the UN-led talks in Geneva have focused on a political settlement to the war. But he’s hoping to accomplish something by way of an agreement to allow humanitarian aid into still besieged parts of the country (the UN earlier this week extended its cross-border aid mission, but more cooperation from the Syrian government would help speed up aid delivery). De Mistura also announced a new round of talks in Geneva next month, though given how badly the last round went one wonders why anybody should care.


The White House praised Saudi Arabia on Thursday for its decision to temporarily open Hudaydah port to humanitarian and commercial shipping, which was inevitable but is nevertheless grating. Hudaydah never should have been closed in the first place, and it should have been reopened months ago when the humanitarian situation in Yemen was merely horrifying and not outright catastrophic. Patting the Saudis on the head for doing the literal least they could do, long after they should have done it, is ridiculous.

ADDING: I’m coming back well after this went live to add this piece from analyst James Dorsey, because I think it’s worth reading and yet I’m not going to be posting another update until next year so I figure I should probably stick this on the blog now. Anyway, while I’m not sure I agree with everything Dorsey writes here, I think he does a commendable job of situating Yemen within the broader Saudi-Iran feud that’s enveloping the region, so I do think it’s worth your time:

More immediately, two recent factors stick out that potentially have significant geopolitical consequences. First, the recent meeting between the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, with leaders of Yemen’s Islamist Islah party in the wake of the killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.  The presence of Mohammed bin Salman at the meeting was far less remarkable than that of Mohammed bin Zayed and it is not clear what it means. It is Mohammed bin Zayed rather than Mohammed bin Salman who is truly uncomfortable with any expression of political Islam and certainly with any link to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah remains an Islamist party even if it announced in 2013 that it had cut its ties to the Brotherhood.


The question is whether Mohammed bin Zayed, who for the almost three years of the Yemen war opposed Saudi cooperation with Islah, sees an alliance with the party as an opportunistic one-off move or whether it signals a shift in policy that could be repeated elsewhere in the Middle East. If so, that would have consequences for the dispute with Qatar and there is no sign of that. In fact, Saudi Arabia signalled days after the meeting that there was likely to be no quick end to the dispute with Qatar by declaring its closed border crossing with the Gulf state permanently shut. Similarly, recent satellite pictures show that the UAE air force is gearing up for greater military engagement against Islamists in Libya. As a result, the significance of the meeting is likely to be limited to Yemen.


Nonetheless, the way the meeting was arranged is significant and tells a story that goes far beyond Yemen. The crown princes sent a private plane to Istanbul to pick up the Islah party representatives from an Islamic summit called to discuss US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was a summit the two men decided not to attend and at which they were represented by lower officials. The message was: Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not their priority and their opposition to Mr. Trump’s move was skin deep. Their priority was the war in Yemen and the larger regional battle with Iran for dominance of the region.


I want to offer this as a late contender for the single dumbest news story of 2017:

Turkey has summoned a United Arab Emirates diplomat over a recent social media post insulting an Ottoman-era governor that was shared by the UAE’s foreign minister.


Acting UAE ambassador Hawla Ali al-Shamsi was summoned to the Turkish foreign ministry, sources from the ministry told Anadolu news agency on condition of anonymity because of restrictions on speaking to the media.


The diplomat was informed of Turkey’s concern over the post retweeted by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The tweet was aimed at Fahreddin Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Medina, now in Saudi Arabia, from 1916-1919.


It suggested the Ottoman governor had committed abuses against the local population and pilfered property.

It’s so dumb that I’ve repeatedly passed on mentioning it even though it’s been in the news all week. It’s a scandal brought on by a retweet of a random post about an Ottoman governor. Actually, “dumb” doesn’t do it justice. But here we are, and true to form Sultan Recep I just can’t let it go without having a three week long temper tantrum over a minor slight toward an empire that ceased to exist more than 30 years before he was born.

That said, if you’re interested in learning more about Fahreddin Pasha, I’m going to make a pitch here for my podcast, available on Patreon for subscribers at the $3/month level and up. I’m going to record an episode on Fahreddin and the defense of Medina either tonight or tomorrow (which one depends on how late I finish writing).


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri told a business conference in Beirut on Thursday that there will be no Gulf state economic sanctions against Lebanon over Hezbollah. Hariri had warned of just such a possibility back when the Saudis made him quit his job last month, so presumably he’s now walked that threat back.


Donald Trump’s threats of foreign aid cuts over Jerusalem really had an impact at the UN on Thursday:

The UN General Assembly has decisively backed a resolution effectively calling on the US to withdraw its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.


The text says that any decisions regarding the status of the city are “null and void” and must be cancelled.


The non-binding resolution was approved by 128 states, with 35 abstaining and nine others voting against.

I hope Nikki Haley took all 128 of those names.

Included in the 35 abstentions was Canada, and there’s a funny story about that:

See? I told you Trump’s threats had an effect–they encouraged countries to turn against the US. Nice going everybody. The seven no votes apart from the US and Israel, if you’re wondering, were Guatemala, Togo, the Pacific island states of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Palau, and Honduras. I guess Juan Orlando Hernández knows how to show his gratitude.

Palestinian leadership is happy about the vote, but Palestinian activists are rightly calling it “pointless,” as that whole “non-binding” bit up there should tell you–apart from the embarrassment to the US, which is real, the resolution itself really is pointless. But what’s also pointless is Trump’s threat. If you exclude Afghanistan and Iraq (where the US is still in combat mode), then after Israel, the two countries that receive the most US foreign aid are Egypt and Jordan. Both of them voted in favor of the resolution, or against the US in other words. If the US were to cut aid to either country, you know who would complain to Trump first? Israel, which needs both of those governments to remain in place and stable. You know who would complain second? Defense contractors, since most of Egypt’s aid (at least) comes in the form of pass-throughs that finance the purchase of US military hardware. That aid ain’t getting cut.

The administration could try to cut US support for the UN, which I’m sure Trump would love to do anyway, but Congress gets a say there and, anyway, once you start down this road there’s a chance you’ll learn quickly that the money was the only thing still propping up American influence around the world. That’s a wakeup call I’m not sure we’re ready to receive.

Ultimately the bluster was for Trump’s dipshit devotees, who love to see him talk shit about furriners but understand international affairs about as well as their Dear Leader does, which is to say not at all. Hopefully the international shunning the US just received is worth the extra mash notes Trump will now get from his fans.

Meanwhile, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s boss in Gaza, says the Hamas-Fatah rapprochement is in danger of collapsing. Fatah claims that Hamas hasn’t turned over funds it agreed to turn over, while Hamas says that Fatah is still refusing to pay Gaza civil servants despite promising that it would. At the root of the problem, based on a fairly cryptic remakr from Sinwar, seems to be Fatah’s desire that Hamas should disarm, which was not supposed to be part of this deal.


Speaking of Jerusalem, here’s Bahrain’s foreign minister referring to the Palestinians as a “side issue” compared with the pressing issue of Doing War On Iran:

Somehow I don’t think the Palestinians would agree with this interpretation of things. But kudos to the Bahrainis for making their priorities clear.


That big POLITICO Hezbollah investigative piece from earlier this week has continued to generate pushback from former Obama administration officials and other ex-government types. Many of them spoke with Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who also notes areas where reporter Josh Meyer had to hedge on some of his most inflammatory claims:

There are other moments in the story that fall far short of conclusive. For example: “One former senior Justice Department official confirmed to POLITICO that some adverse decisions might have been influenced by an informal multi-agency Iran working group that ‘assessed the potential impact’ of criminal investigations and prosecutions on the nuclear negotiations.” Bolding added to highlight another possibility: that those decisions might not have been influenced by the working group.


Also: Meyer notes that agents had worked hard to gather evidence against an Iranian Quds Force network operating in the United States. Asher, who was sent to the project from the Defense Department, tells Meyer that they’d “crashed” to indict the malefactors. “While some operatives were eventually prosecuted, other critically important indictments ‘were rejected despite the fact that we had excellent evidence and testifying witnesses,’ said Asher, who helped lead the investigation.” Bolding added to raise a question: If there was really a soft-pedal policy toward Iran, why prosecute anyone?

Meyer, on Twitter at least, seems to be reveling in all the attention his piece has gotten from the Bomb Bomb Iran crowd, Drudge, et al, which doesn’t exactly make him seem like an objective reporter chasing a story, but to each his own I guess.

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