Middle East update: October 10 2018

ISIS

RAND political scientist Colin Clarke argues that despite losing most of its territory, plus the natural resources and tax base that went with it, ISIS is doing OK financially. Its leaders allegedly smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars out of Syria and Iraq before the hammer really came down, its expenses are now pretty low (the flip side of losing all that territory), and it participates in a wide array of criminal activities to keep the money coming in:

The Islamic State has also buttressed financial holdings with a diversified funding portfolio. It has developed a knack for raising money through a range of new criminal activities, including but not limited to extortion, kidnapping for ransom, robbery and theft, drug smuggling, and trafficking in antiquities. These activities do not require holding territory, but there are risks involved for individual insurgents, who could, at least in theory, be caught. However, the chances of being arrested are minimal, as even at this late date, there are still no security services or police forces in Iraq or Syria capable of conducting the type of policing activities that would deter widespread criminality. In the near future, the group can also reinvigorate revenue streams that have become dormant by extorting populations living on the periphery of where government control extends. During the years they were in control, Islamic State members meticulously collected personal data from the population that includes detailed information on assets and income, as well as the addresses of extended family members. This critical intelligence on the population provides the group with more leverage in intimidating and extorting civilians, allowing it to replenish cash reserves in the process.

Clarke warns that international reconstruction funds could be extorted or otherwise diverted from projects in Iraq and Syria to ISIS unless both of those countries are able to reestablish some sort of policing in areas that were hit hardest by their respective wars (Mosul, Raqqa, and so on).

SYRIA

Agence France Presse is reporting that ISIS made a “deadly counter-offensive” against the Syrian Democratic Forces outside of Hajin–ISIS’s last major pocket of Syrian territory. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that ISIS fighter captured “dozens” of SDF fighters, a claim the SDF denies.

Under the terms of the agreement Russia and Turkey reached over Idlib province, Wednesday was the deadline for the establishment of a demilitarized zone in the province separating rebel from government forces. And as luck would have it the Turks just finished setting up that DMZ on Wednesday. What a coincidence. What this means is that the rebels in Idlib have evacuated all of their heavy weapons from the DMZ and have begun or will soon begin the process of physically evacuating the area, which has to be done by early next week, give or take. It very much remains to be seen whether Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will agree to evacuate, but right now signs seem to point toward their compliance.

The Syrian government’s decision to offer amnesty to army deserters and draft dodgers seems to be part of a larger effort to increase military “recruitment” leading up what still seems like an inevitable offensive in Idlib. That’s included changing the grading standards for the standard Syrian university exams–students were apparently failing them on purpose so as to have to redo the year in school, but now they’re finding themselves eligible for military service anyway. It would seem anybody taking the government up on its amnesty offer will be “volunteering” for active duty in Syria’s still-depleted army.

IRAQ

The Turkish government, which is pretty busy of late between northern Syria and the Jamal Khashoggi situation (see below), announced on Wednesday that it will release some of the water it’s currently holding up in order to form a reservoir behind its Ilisu dam on the Tigris River. This will be a major boon to Iraq, which is suffering through a massive water shortage caused in part by Turkish and Iranian dams on both the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. Basra in particular is struggling to find drinkable water, which has fueled large public protests there in recent weeks.

LEBANON

Hezbollah leaders are apparently looking to control Lebanon’s Health Ministry in the next cabinet, adding a potential complication to what has already been a lengthy government formation process. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who is hoping to finally put together his cabinet by the end of the week, isn’t objecting to the idea, at least not publicly, but given Hezbollah’s international status as a terrorist group such a move could lead other countries and international organizations to cut off aid to the ministry.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Nikki Haley announced her resignation as US ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday, and Israeli officials are making a funny about it:

The cartoon in Israel’s popular daily Yedioth Ahronoth probably sums up the view of most Israelis since Nikki Haley’s announcement Tuesday that she is leaving her position as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Taking up a third of the page, the cartoon by artist Yotam Fiszbein depicts Haley preparing to depart her U.N. office carting a cardboard box of her belongings. A handyman holds up an Israeli flag and says to her, “Don’t forget your second flag.”

See, it’s funny because Haley’s tenure at the UN was marked by an absurdly, even by typical US standards, pro-Israel stance that included zeroing out US aid to Palestinian refugees because fuck those people, am I right? This guy knows what I mean:

Rock solid support! You can’t get any more solid than that! And all for a good cause–the eventual ethnic cleansing of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. She’s the best, really.

I’ll say more about Haley later, but Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen notes that, from a Middle East perspective, whoever replaces her is likely to have a much less prominent role in the administration, taking a backseat to Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Prime Minister Kushner, and so on. Part of the reason Haley made as big a mark as she did is that for a while there she effectively took over former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job as Donald Trump’s chief diplomat. The next UN ambassador probably won’t get the same opportunity to make his or her mark.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed’s Miriam Berger says that Palestinian leaders are trying to use the Trump administration’s ultra pro-Israel views as a way to create more support for the Palestinians in Washington among those opposed to Trump:

Over the years, various attempts at creating a Palestinian-style AIPAC have proven ineffective, largely due to divisions and infighting among the still-stateless Palestinians and, compared to Israel, Palestine’s second-tier status and financial weight in Washington. The lack of leadership at the top and the Trump administration’s clear preference for the Israelis have led to a surge in attempts to drive change at a lower-level, away from K Street and Capitol Hill — and the hope that creating new constituencies and allies now will pay off in the long run.

“People who are looking for a Palestine lobby would miss what’s been happening on a civil society level,” said Nadia Hijab, co-founder and former director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of hundreds of advocacy groups and one of the main players in the US conversation. “A lot of [human rights and advocacy] groups have contributed quite strongly in the shift we are seeing in the Democratic Party and Congress and American public.”

For now, activists told BuzzFeed News, the final outcome of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is not their concern: they’re just looking to change the rules of the game.

SAUDI ARABIA

The news about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance continues to emerge in mostly anonymously sourced bits and pieces, and none of it is very good if you’re still hoping that he’s alive. On Tuesday the New York Times reported that “top Turkish security officials” now believe Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul “on orders from the highest levels of the [Saudi] royal court,” as opposed to, say, in a botched abduction. One anonymous Turkish source even told the NYT that Turkish authorities have obtained video of Khashoggi’s murder, filmed by the Saudis.

Turkish authorities have released the names of the 15 Saudi nationals who flew into Turkey last Tuesday, the day Khashoggi entered the consulate and disappeared, allegedly to participate in his killing/detention. They appear to be a mix of intelligence operatives and military guys. One, ominously, has been identified as “chief of forensic evidence at Saudi Arabia’s internal security agency”–the kind of guy you might include in an operation to, hypothetically speaking, clean up a crime scene.

The Turks have also released CCTV video of the alleged hit squad members arriving in Turkey and making their way to the consulate, Khashoggi entering the consulate (but never leaving), and two cars leaving the building some time after his arrival. Additionally, they’re reportedly using Khashoggi’s Apple Watch to try to piece together his whereabouts after he entered the consulate. That Reuters story there includes a British intelligence theory that Khashoggi was accidentally overdosed in an attempt to drug and abduct him, but that theory would seem to run counter to the Turkish argument that his killing was ordered directly from Riyadh.

The Turkish case–that Khashoggi was killed and, now, that his killing was a deliberate act ordered by, presumably, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and/or his father, King Salman–still rests mostly on circumstantial evidence backed up with a lot of “we know things but can’t share them, just trust us”-style comments from anonymous Turkish officials. So it’s not airtight, and the Turkish government doesn’t have a lot of credibility on this sort of thing so it’s hard for me, at least, to just rely on their word. On the other hand, the Saudis have continued to offer nothing more than angry, unconvincing denials, and certainly they don’t have much credibility here either. As evidence has mounted around the 15 Saudis who (allegedly) flew into Turkey to take part in the Khashoggi operation are all linked to the Saudi government, those denials have become increasingly farcical–so much so that one begins to wonder if the Saudis really cared about covering their tracks at all.

But these latest Turkish claims are serious enough that their sheer weight makes them more believable. In accusing the “highest levels” of the Saudi royal family of ordering the hit, and in tracing the alleged hit squad directly back to the Saudi government, they’ve pinned Kashoggi’s murder (assuming he was murdered) squarely on Mohammad bin Salman. It’s going to be exceedingly difficult for them to walk these charges back now, to suggest that Khashoggi may not be dead, or that his killing might have been carried out by a rogue Saudi operative or accidentally, or by a third party altogether. As much as Turkish-Saudi relations have soured in recent years, it’s hard to imagine Turkish officials going this far unless they’re pretty sure about what happened.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is totally on the case, trying find out what happened to Khashoggi by, you know, politely asking the Saudis what they think might have happened. Donald Trump says it’s “a bad situation”! Apparently “we’re going to take a serious look at it”! Mike Pence says we’re “ready to assist” with the investigation! Somehow this weak display is being categorized by the media as “raising pressure” on the Saudis. Just to be clear, the Trump administration reportedly had intel that the Saudis might be trying to abduct Khashoggi, a US resident, and apparently didn’t bother letting him know. They’re definitely going to pressure the Saudis and crack the case.

A group of US Senators on Wednesday triggered a Magnitsky Act investigation into possible  Saudi human rights violations around Khashoggi’s disappearance, but as that investigation has to be undertaken by the administration it’s still ultimately up to Trump and company whether or not to really weigh in on this matter. Here’s betting they won’t.

Author: DWD

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