Middle East update: May 14 2018

We have another impending thunderstorm situation and a reliably unreliable electricity situation. So I’m posting this early and hoping I’ll get to come back later and update it/do a world update. We’ll see. I’m also posting from my phone so if anything about the formatting is screwy that’s why. I’ll fix it later.


Donald Trump’s other manufactured Middle East crisis kicked up a notch on Monday when the new US embassy in Jerusalem opened for business. Attending the ceremony were US Deputy President and Heir Apparent Ivanka Trump, US Prime Minister Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve “Suicide Squad” Mnuchin, and a pastor who’s fond of pointing out that Jews are all headed to hell one of these days. The White House says it has no idea how that guy, or another pastor who once referred to Adolf Hitler as “God’s instrument,” got invited to the event. Nor does it have any clue why Ivanka and Jared chose to receive a blessing from Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who likes to refer to black people as “monkeys” when he’s not doing whatever else it is that he does.

Not coincidentally, while some of the worst people in the entire history of humankind were celebrating Trump’s decision to lob a proverbial Molotov cocktail into the Israel-Palestine crisis, Israeli soldiers were busy slaughtering dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza. At least 52 55 protesters were killed with another 1700-plus injured. There were also protests in Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah and other West Bank cities.

The Israelis claim that some Gaza protesters were throwing explosives or flying kite bombs over the Gaza fence into Israel proper, and I think we can all agree that the impertinence of these people reacting violently to the fact that they’re being kept in a large open air prison camp is just beyond the pale. If they would just shut the fuck up and learn to love their confinement, the Israelis might even let them have a fifth hour of electricity each day. I mean, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but it’s possible. The side by side scenes of the swanky embassy ceremony and the conditions in Gaza are pretty striking:

The best case scenario for the embassy move is that piling on the Palestinians like this, coupled with the final, undeniable revelation that the United States is completely and utterly in the tank for Israel, will shake the international community into doing something to rebalance the Israel-Palestine relationship. That’s likely a pipe dream, but if you’re desperate for a silver lining in all of this, that’s it.


Iraqi aircraft struck Syria again on Monday, this time striking what they say was “a command and logistics support center” used by ISIS. The Iraqis have bombed ISIS positions across the border several times already this year. It’s worth reiterating that Iraq gets permission from the Syrian government before undertaking these strikes.


Reuters is reporting that the Saudi-led coalition is massing forces for an attack on the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah. The coalition insists it will not attack densely populated areas around Hudaydah, but while kind of them it’s sort of beside the point. A coalition attack on Hudaydah has been the worst case scenario for humanitarian aid groups for months now, because Hudaydah’s port is the largest in Yemen and the only one capable of handling the volume of goods that need to come in to Yemen just to have a chance at fending off mass starvation. If it’s damaged by fighting, and intentionally or not it likely will be, that’s a potential disaster for the Yemeni people.

The Houthis, meanwhile, fired a missile on Monday at an Aramco facility in Jizan province in Saudi Arabia. It appears to have missed the mark. And Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr posted on his Facebook page that the crisis over Socotra island is “over.” The Yemenis had accused the UAE of trying to colonize the island just this past weekend, but apparently the Saudis really were able to broker an agreement between the Yemenis and the Emiratis to return the island to Yemeni control.


In a speech in London on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Donald Trump and the US of leading the world back into the “dark days of pre-World War II.” Erdoğan lit into Trump for violating the Iran nuclear deal and for moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. His government then recalled its ambassadors to both the US and Israel for consultations, which is potentially more serious than anything Erdoğan said.

Meanwhile, the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has aligned with several other, smaller Kurdish parties in an effort to bolster its chances of getting over the 10 percent threshold for winning seats in parliament in June’s general election. The new effort, dubbed the Kurdistan Election Alliance, bills itself as an effort to unite all Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran into one transnational political bloc, overcoming past enmities between the various Kurdish parties in those countries. But its first test will be Turkey. Polling indicates that HDP’s performance could be the different between a majority for Erdoğan’s AKP-MHP coalition or a hung parliament–if HDP (or this new bloc) clears the 10 percent line, then Erdoğan’s chances of hanging on to the majority are substantially diminished.


Everybody’s still trying to piece together exactly what happened in this weekend’s Iraqi election, but at this point it seems pretty clear that Muqtada al-Sadr and his Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform list (a coalition between his Sadrist Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party) carried the day. Sadr himself did not run in the election and so he can’t technically serve as prime minister. Though it’s generally pretty easy to get around that sort of thing by holding a by election, Sadr seems happy to direct the car from the backseat rather than trying to drive it himself.

Sadr tapped into a couple of elements of Iraqi popular opinion to put together this surprising victory. His anti-corruption efforts and his repeated demands for a non-partisan, non-sectarian technocratic government have clearly resonated, but so has his geopolitical stance, which is strict Iraqi nationalism opposed to both US and Iranian meddling. Tehran cannot be happy with this outcome even though its guy, Hadi al-Amiri, and his Popular Mobilization Unit bloc (Fatih) appear to have come in second. His economic populism, based on calls for rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure and increasing aid to the poor, clearly haven’t hurt him either.

Efforts now will turn to coalition building, with Sadr in the strongest position and Amiri likely stuck without enough allies (though the Iranians will surely try to help him maneuver his way into a coalition). In a clever tweet on Monday, Sadr appears to have suggested the formation of a broad coalition of multiple parties including current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance:

“We are Sayirun (Marching) with Hikma (Wisdom) and Watanyah (Patriotism) so that the Iradah (Will) of the people be our aim and to build Jilan Jadidan (a New Generation) and to witness Taghir (Gorran/Change) to the better and for the Al-Qarar (Decision) to be Iraqi,” the tweet on his official account reads.


“So we raise the Bayariq (Banners) of Al-Nasr (Victory), and let Baghdad, the capital, be Hawiyatuna (Baghdad Is Our Identity) and for our Hirakuna (Movement) Democratic (possibly KDP) towards the formation of a paternal government from technocratic Kawadur (Cadres) without partisanship,” the tweet adds.

This leaves open the possibility of Abadi returning as PM despite his disappointing third place finish. But the rest of his cabinet would presumably look much different than it does now if Sadr does most of the picking. You’ll note he excluded both Fatih and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from his list of electoral puns.


James Dorsey sums up the situation with respect to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions:

President Donald J. Trump’s abrogation of the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran is likely to put his America First policy to the test.


Mr. Trump’s decision to walk away from the agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program risks fuelling a nuclear race in the Middle East, particularly if Iran decides that the US withdrawal has rendered the deal unbeneficial.


Competition for a slice of the Middle East’s nuclear pie is already in full swing with Saudi Arabia emerging as one of the world’s largest and most immediate export markets.


To ensure that the United States remains competitive, Mr. Trump is likely to have to compromise on strict US conditions that have governed US nuclear exports until now.


Speaking of the nuclear deal, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hit Moscow on Monday on the second leg of his international “what can you do for us” tour. Though the real heavy discussions will come when Zarif heads to Brussels, since it’s the European Union that’s the real determining factor in whether or not Iran remains party to the agreement, Russia and China will have to play major roles in preserving the deal as well. To that end, Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and International Atomic Energy Agency boss Yukiya Amano in the coming weeks. Whatever else Trump’s decision achieves, it appears it’s brought Putin back in from the diplomatic cold once again.

Zarif isn’t just looking to extract concessions from China, Russia, and Europe during his trip. He wants some proof that the nuclear deal can still benefit Iran without US involvement for domestic political reasons, to blunt the effect of Iranian hardliners shouting “see, we told you not to trust the Americans.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, is apparently still working the phones to get Britain, France, and Germany on board with a “new” Iran deal, one that remedies the main problem Pompeo and John Bolton have with the old Iran deal by not actually involving Iran (nor Russia, nor China) in the negotiations. Sounds like a foolproof plan.

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