Middle East update: October 25 2018

SYRIA

The Russian government says that it has evidence that a January drone strike on its Hmeimim air base in Syria was orchestrated by the US. Or at least it was guided by a US “spy plane.” The Russians are apparently “very alarmed” over this.

The Wall Street Journal published a story last week about a group of Syrian-American activists who used some rather, uh, creating means to bring the danger of a battle in Idlib province to Donald Trump’s attention. While they may have helped avoid, or at least temporarily forestall, that battle, which is great, the manner in which they did it raises eyebrows about the Trump administration’s conduct of affairs–ha ha ha, no actually it’s all pretty much exactly how you’d expect this cess pool of a government to operate:

Dr. Albezem’s intervention in Indiana was no coincidence. It was the culmination of a determined campaign by a small group of Syrian-American doctors, businessmen and activists who figured out how to spur Mr. Trump to action.

Their success in influencing Mr. Trump’s foreign policy offers a roadmap for advocacy groups in the Trump era. They put ads on “Fox and Friends,” the show Mr. Trump was most likely to be watching. They hired a man Politico dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.” And, most importantly, they raised tens of thousands of dollars and used the money to repeatedly get into a room with Mr. Trump to personally deliver their pleas.

That’s it, folks. If you want to get Donald Trump to do something just buy some ads on his favorite TV show, hire a good lobbyist, and spend enough money to get face to face with him so you can pitch your idea directly. It probably doesn’t matter what it is you want him to do, as long as you have the money to make sure the idea leaks into whatever’s left of his brain.

YEMEN

Yemen’s Houthi rebels detained 20 journalists in Sanaa on Thursday and then released 18 of them. It’s currently unclear why they did this or what happened with the two who were not freed.

Farmers in northern Yemen are increasingly uprooting their Qat crops in favor of coffee at the behest of an Ismaili religious leader named Muhammad Burhanuddin. Qat is a drug that produced a mild stimulant effect when consumed, whereas coffee is…uh…wait a minute, let me start over here. Seriously though, qat overconsumption is a long-time problem in Yemen and in parts of the Horn of Africa as well for that matter. Qat also requires vastly more water to produce than coffee, which is a pretty important consideration in Yemen, and coffee can be reliably exported anywhere while qat is a controlled substance in many countries. So there is some logic behind the change.

IRAQ

New Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi began his term on Thursday by moving his offices out of Baghdad’s Green Zone, a symbolic attempt to show that Iraq’s government isn’t hiding behind US protection anymore and is closer to the Iraqi people. Likewise, Abdul Mahdi told reporters on Thursday that Iraqi national priorities, not US or Iranian demands, will dictate how his government responds to US sanctions on Iran. Which, to be fair, is pretty much the same thing former PM Haider al-Abadi had said on the subject.

JORDAN

The Jordanian government says it’s not abandoning its 1994 peace treaty with Israel even though it’s refused to extend the parts of that deal that gave Israel land rights to two parcels of Jordanian territory. This particular provision of the treaty was very unpopular in Jordan, and since it had a 25 year time limit on it the Jordanians naturally availed themselves of the opportunity to get rid of it without threatening the entire treaty.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

As you might have anticipated, the Israeli military responded to last night’s rocket fire from Gaza with airstrikes on several Hamas sites. The Israelis say they struck eight Hamas positions across three of the group’s Gaza camps.

EGYPT

The Egyptian government says that three workers on a security wall project in the city of el-Arish in northern Sinai were killed on Thursday by a roadside bomb. Workers on that project have unfortunately become a prime target for ISIS, whose fighters gunned down three of them over the weekend.

SAUDI ARABIA

In what by my count is the third version of their explanation for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder since they began rolling out cover stories on Friday, Saudi authorities on Thursday called the killing “premeditated” for the first time:

According to the statement, a joint Saudi-Turkish investigative team “indicates that the suspects in the incident had committed their act with a premeditated intention.”

The announcement underscored the rapidly mounting pressures on Saudi Arabia to fully illuminate Khashoggi’s killing, after its previous explanations were contradicted by Turkey and met with skepticism by the United States, a close Saudi ally.

Still, neither Trump nor Saudi Arabia has traced the journalist’s killing to an order from the Saudi leadership. U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers as well as the European Union have said that such an operation — targeting a critic of the crown prince in a foreign country — is unlikely to have been ordered without the knowledge of senior Saudi officials.

In six days the Saudi story has gone from a fistfight gone awry to a rendition attempt that went bad to a premeditated execution–from involuntary manslaughter to first degree murder, it would seem (CAVEAT: I am not a lawyer). Who knows where we’ll be in another week. OK, actually I expect things will be in pretty much the same place. This seems like as far as the Saudis can really go without directly implicating Mohammad bin Salman, and it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to do that.

On the plus side, Salah Khashoggi, Jamal’s son, was allowed to leave Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for the first time since his father went into self-imposed exile last year.

The Intercept’s Sarah Aziza looks at the Khashoggi murder from the perspective of journalistic freedoms in the Middle East:

Khashoggi’s last words — published posthumously in the Washington Post — decried this very crisis. He expounded on rising authoritarianism in his native Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East, where most of the region’s 420 million people are deprived of the right to free speech or genuine political expression. Seven years after the bracing but often hopeful upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring, Khashoggi lamented, most of the societies in the region are at least as oppressive as they were before the uprisings. Free speech and political expression in the Middle East are in desperate straits, with autocratic leaders directing brazen crackdowns on dissenters across the region. This phenomenon, of which Khashoggi’s death is a direct result, should be of grave and lasting concern to us all.

Regrettably, Khashoggi’s case, while shocking, was not altogether surprising for dissidents in the region. Not only do journalists and activists in the Middle East face daily peril in their home countries, but many continue to feel the menacing grip of their governments even after seeking refuge abroad. Numerous Saudis living abroad have told me of their experiences of being contacted — and even followed — by government operatives. Others have had their families threatened or arrested as retaliation for their speech or activism. A number of these Saudi citizens have also shared unsettling stories of attempts by government officials to lure them to meetings in their local Saudi consulates and embassies. For them, Khashoggi’s death has only confirmed the state’s ruthless determination to control the narrative of its citizens, wherever they may choose to speak. In recent weeks, many activists and writers have gone silent, shutting down social media accounts and cutting ties with news organization. There is no telling how long this chill will last, but many of the activists have privately spoken of despair.

IRAN

At LobeLog, Benjamin Armbruster writes about the furious spinning DC’s Iran hawks are doing to try to refocus everybody’s attention away from the Khashoggi affair and back on their precious forthcoming war with Iran:

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has exposed the many sinister tentacles of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. It has revealed the American role in perpetuating the war crimes and humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and demonstrated how Saudi money influences Congress, DC think tanks, the U.S. media, and even Donald Trump and his family. These forces in recent weeks have worked hard to muddy the waters and deflect blame for Khashoggi’s murder or to downplay its significance.

But one part of this Saudi support network has largely flown under the radar. Its primary focus isn’t necessarily to promote Saudi Arabia and whitewash its autocracy or human rights abuses. Nor is there much love for Trump personally or any seeming motive to prop up his financial ties to Saudi Arabia. Instead, these DC operators are interested in maintaining the status quo with the Saudi monarchy for one purpose: confronting Iran.

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