Middle East update: January 1-2 2018

We’re going to ease back into things after the long holiday break. As usual when I take an extended break I’m not going to even attempt to run down everything that happened while I was gone. We’ll cover what’s happened the past couple of days with a few scattered looks at things that happened prior to that.


Bashar al-Assad made a few changes to his cabinet on Monday:

SANA did not give a reason for the government reshuffle that comes at a time when Assad’s forces have been gaining ground over the past two years under the cover of Russian airstrikes and with the help of Iran-backed fighters.


It said army commander Gen. Ali Ayoub has been named defense minister replacing Fahd Jassem al-Freij who had held the post since 2012. Ayoub had been the army chief of staff since July 2012 until he became defense minister.


The agency added that Imad Sarah has been named information minister while Mohammed Mazen Youssef was chosen as the new minister of industry.

As the AP notes, it’s unclear why he’s decided to shuffle his cabinet around and the answer probably involves some kind of intra-government controversy that might not ever be reported publicly. But these moves do come at a time when the war in western Syria is hotter than it’s been in a while. Fighting between the Syrian army and Islamist rebels with al-Qaeda links has been ongoing both in Damascus’s Ghouta suburb and on the Hama-Idlib provincial border for several days, with dozens killed as a result. Meanwhile, on Tuesday there were reports of cross-border artillery fire between the Turkish military in Hatay province and somebody in Syria (most likely Assad’s forces based on where the exchange of fire took place).

Wednesday morning has brought reports that the Syrian army is gearing up for a major assault on Eastern Ghouta to try to put an end to the rebel (predominantly Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham) resistance there.


Saudi airstrikes on Hudaydah on Monday reportedly killed at least 23 people. The port remains open to humanitarian and commercial traffic, though the Saudis are once again having to deny reports that they’re blocking shipments of vital supplies from entering the country. Which means they probably are blocking them–and, anyway, bombing the city attached to the port isn’t exactly going to encourage ship traffic.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a little pissed that you people won’t get off his back about all those dead and dying Yemenis his military is helping to create:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave a full-throated defense Friday of U.S. efforts to prevent civilian casualties in the conflict in Yemen, making the case that without American involvement, there would be more.


Mattis, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said that “it’s a tragedy every time” a civilian dies, but that the United States is held to a high standard when it comes to preventing civilian fatalities.


“We are being held to a standard – ‘we’ being us and anyone associated with us – that has never been achieved before in warfare,” he said.

My goodness, it’s gotten so that a country can’t even provide unlimited support to a pointless war of destruction without people complaining about the thousands of deaths it causes. Truly there has never been a greater war victim in all of human history than James Mattis–certainly not the Yemeni lucky ducks who’ve been fortunate enough to die before they could be subjected to questions by a reporter.


Here’s something I flagged while we were on break. The New York Times published a Christmas Eve account, based on anonymous sources so take that into account, of the Saad al-Hariri Story–and it’s every bit as wild as you’d expect:

Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, was summoned at 8:30 a.m. to the Saudi royal offices — unseemly early, by the kingdom’s standards — on the second day of a visit that was already far from what he had expected.


Mr. Hariri, long an ally of the Saudis, dressed that morning in jeans and a T-shirt, thinking he was going camping in the desert with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.


But instead he was stripped of his cellphones, separated from all but one of his usual cluster of bodyguards, and shoved and insulted by Saudi security officers. Then came the ultimate indignity: He was handed a prewritten resignation speech and forced to read it on Saudi television.

Actually it’s exactly what you’d expect, since it was pretty clear what happened from the start (though the suggestion that Hariri was tortured is…interesting). But it’s important to get the story in a less speculative form. It seems clear that Mohammad bin Salman didn’t expect the international outrage his treatment of Hariri generated (shocking, I know) and eventually caved while demanding that Hariri return home and Do Something about Hezbollah as a face-saving gesture. That Hariri still hasn’t Done Anything about Hezbollah probably makes MBS mad, but who’s to say?


Speaking of Saudi meddling in the affairs of other Arab countries, it’s possible that MBS made a move on Jordan’s King Abdullah last week. Abdullah “retired” two of his brothers, Prince Faisal and Prince Ali–respectively, head of the royal air force and head of the royal guards–along with a cousin, Prince Talal, who was an officer in the kingdom’s special forces. He insists the moves were part of a broader military reorganization, but unsurprisingly there’s a good deal of speculation out there online that these three were plotting a coup against Abdullah, probably with Saudi support. Abdullah hasn’t exactly been toeing the Saudi line when it comes to regional policy–especially when it comes to Jared Kushner’s “The Palestinians Will Eat Shit and Call It Ice Cream” draft peace plan–so it wouldn’t be that surprising if he were in MBS’s crosshairs. Of course, based on what we’ve learned about MBS, “in his crosshairs” is probably the safest place to be in the entire Middle East.


A pretty reputable Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Jarida, is reporting that the Trump administration has given Israel a “green light” to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force. They claim the Israelis were close to offing Soleimani three years ago but that the Obama administration warned Iran, which I guess could be true but sure sounds a lot like some kind of joint Benjamin Netanyahu-Donald Trump fever dream. I don’t know that it exactly qualifies as BREAKING NEWS that the Trump administration would be cool with Israel assassinating Soleimani, or any other major Iranian figure for that matter, but it’s far from clear that the Israelis can actually pull it off–particularly now that the beans have presumably been spilled.

The Israeli parliament passed a measure on Tuesday that changes the voting requirement for ceding any part of Jerusalem to Palestinian control from a bare 61 vote majority to an 80 vote supermajority. The notion that the Israeli parliament can dictate the status of a city that’s still supposed to be corpus separatum under international law is pretty fascinating. Still, if there ever had been a chance that the Israelis would voluntarily allow East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state (SPOILER: there hadn’t been), that chance is now officially zero. Which is not to say that it won’t happen, just that it won’t happen with Israeli approval. The effort was spearheaded by the radical far-right Jewish Home party, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, might as well replace Netanyahu at this point since there’s virtually no policy daylight between them.

On the plus side, I guess, the Israelis dropped a measure that would have allowed the government to redraw Jerusalem’s boundaries without a parliamentary vote. Had this idea come to fruition it’s likely that Israeli authorities would have just carved off predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods and excluded them from the city as tiny, powerless Bantustans. That’s not going to happen–yet.

Also, fuck off Donald:

You took Jerusalem “off the table” by handing it to the Israelis. Fuck all the way off.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s state of emergency, put in place in April of last year, is due to expire on January 13. On Tuesday, Sisi boldly made the decision to allow it to expire in the name of upholding Egyptian democracy and human rights issued a decree extending it for another three months. I get that there’s a political theater consideration to these short-term extensions, but he might as well extend if for another three millennia at this point.


The party is over: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both introduced a Value Added Tax as of January 1. The Gulf states have had quite a run as tax-free utopias, but the collapse of oil prices has left both states scrambling to find some new revenue sources to go along with their benefit cuts.


I tried to cover most of the details of the ongoing Iranian protests yesterday, but there are a few new developments to report. Another nine people were killed overnight, for one thing, taking the overall death toll since the demonstrations began late last week over 20.  For another thing, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally broke his silence on the protests and, unsurprisingly, tried to blame them on Iran’s “enemies”:

“In the events of the past few days, the enemies of Iran are deploying every means at their disposal including money, arms and political and intelligence support to coordinate making troubles for the Islamic establishment,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his first public remarks since protests began on Thursday.

This is a bad sign because it raises the chances that Iranian security forces will now take the gloves off and crack down harder on the protesters. So far their response has been relatively restrained, those 20+ deaths notwithstanding.

Now, after railing against people in the US who keep trying to explain What The Iranian People Want, I’d like to advance my own pet theory about what might be happening. My wild suspicion is that these protests began–though I think their nature has changed a bit since then–among supporters of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Why do I think that? There are a couple of reasons.

One, what we know about the protesters and their grievances suggests that this is a working class protest motivated by Iran’s ragged and very unequal economy. Ahmadinejad, for whatever else he was, was a populist. Sure, it was a phony “let me and my pals enrich ourselves while pretending to care about the little guy” kind of populism, but the message resonated well enough that he got elected once and at least got close enough to cheat to win reelection (I believe he cheated in 2009, but I’m not convinced he would have lost that election if he hadn’t cheated).

Hassan Rouhani won in 2013 by convincing Iranian voters that their economic problems were because of international sanctions, and that getting a nuclear deal that lifted those sanctions would fix everything. Well, the deal has been done and the sanctions lifted for a couple of years now, give or take, and things still kind of suck. Iran’s economy is growing again but it’s growing in a way that has barely benefited Iran’s working class, and Rouhani’s austerity program–made somewhat necessary by Ahmadinejad’s incompetence and the runaway inflation his administration oversaw–is still squeezing those people pretty hard. It doesn’t take much to imagine that people who were once attracted to Ahmadinejad’s populist message are pissed off and feeling nostalgic.

Second, if these protests are primarily oriented around right-wing former Ahmadinejad voters, that would help explain why (so far, at least) they’ve apparently wanted nothing to do with Iranian reformers–and vice versa.

Third, the Ahmadinejad theory would explain the still-open “why now” question. Because while attwiw was on holiday break, this happened:

In a meeting with members of the Council of Coordination on Islamic Propagation on Dec. 27, Khamenei addressed Ahmadinejad indirectly, saying, “Those who had all the country’s facilities under their control and those who had the countries’ management facilities under their control aren’t entitled to play the role of opposition and talk against the country; rather, they should be responsive [now].”


He added, “Besides their services [to the country], there has been damage [done to the country by them]; [they should be thanked for their] services, and the damages should be criticized fairly, responsibly and wisely. [Although] the criticism shouldn’t be done with cursing and slandering. Criticizing and accepting criticism is necessary, but slandering and [unfair attacks] are forbidden.”


Referring to Ahmadinejad’s recent harsh criticisms against the judiciary and its chief, the Iranian leader continued, “It is not considered an art if a person repeatedly slanders and attacks various entities and organizations, because every child can throw a rock at a window to break it. The art is to take God into account and speak logically, and [to] avoid speaking for personal [interests] and attaining power … because God will question humans for every word [they utter].”


Khamenei continued, “[One who] pretends to be revolutionary is not [necessarily] a revolutionary. Being a revolutionary is hard work, because it requires a man to be committed and pious, and it is not possible that a person [can govern] the country for a decade and in the next decade turn into an opponent of the country.”

Khamenei criticized Ahmadinejad, who has once again been making a public pain in the ass of himself, on December 27. The protests started on December 28. Coincidence? Probably–but then again, maybe not.

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