Middle East update: October 26 2018

SYRIA

An exchange of artillery fire in southeastern Idlib province killed at least seven people on Friday in the biggest single violation of the Russian-Turkish deescalation agreement there since it came into effect in September. Smaller scale violations have occurred here and there with occasional casualties, but Friday was a much bigger event than those previous ones.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government is resisting any substantive United Nations role in drawing up a new constitution. Current arrangements with respect to the constitutional process call for the formation of a committee in which one-third of the members are appointed by Damascus, one-third by rebels, and one-third by the UN, to include activists and communities that won’t be represented by the other two groups. The government seems to feel that the UN’s group won’t be much friendlier toward Bashar al-Assad. There is an interesting dynamic at play here in that there are several communities in Syria that might be represented in the UN’s group that more or less aligned with Assad as the lesser of two evils in the civil war but would likely work against his interests in terms of writing a new constitution. The Kurds, to pick the most obvious example. Damascus wants to fill the third group itself in collaboration with Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which would of course mean a very different kind of group.

YEMEN

I’m skeptical, but there are people in the foreign policy/Middle East community who seem to think that the blowback from Saudi Arabia’s execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi may lead Congress to try to force the Saudis to change their approach toward Yemen:

A convergence of factors, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and growing fears of massive famine in Yemen, could drive Congress to press the Donald Trump administration to force the Saudis to end their war in Yemen, former US officials who work on the region said this week.

“Now is the time for Congress to take the big step and compel an end to this war,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official and columnist for Al-Monitor’s Gulf Pulse, said at a Brookings Institution forum today.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has linked his prestige with the war in Yemen he championed as a new Saudi defense minister in 2015, his reputation has been badly damaged in Washington because of his widely presumed role in authorizing the plot that the Saudis now admit killed Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2.

“There is an opportunity in all this for us,” Riedel said. “Refocus attention on Yemen and on quitting the war as quickly as possible.”

The New York Times has published a deeply disturbing photo essay on the Yemeni children who are starving to death amid the Saudi-led war, along with some background on the economic warfare that’s brought them to the brink of famine:

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies have imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undercutting the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen. But these actions — including periodic blockades, stringent import restrictions and withholding the salaries of about a million civil servants — have landed on the backs of civilians, laying the economy to waste and driving millions deeper into poverty.

Those measures have inflicted a slow-burn toll: infrastructure destroyed, jobs lost, a weakening currency and soaring prices. But in recent weeks the economic collapse has gathered pace at alarming speed, causing top United Nations officials to revise their predictions of famine.

TURKEY

After a midweek lull following his phone conversation with MBS, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ratcheted up his rhetoric over the Khashoggi murder again on Friday. Erdoğan told a Justice and Development Party meeting that Turkish officials know the “perpetrator” of Khashoggi’s killing and that he’s one of the 15 Saudis who flew into and out of Istanbul on October 2. He then demanded that the Saudis reveal who ordered the killing and the location of Khashoggi’s remains. Turkish authorities, meanwhile, are preparing to request the extradition of the 18 Saudis who were arrested by the kingdom for their participation in the murder. It’s unlikely they’ll get it, but this is yet another way for Ankara to apply pressure.

LEBANON

The Miyeh ou Miyeh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon was the scene of serious clashes between two Palestinian paramilitary groups on Friday, Fatah and Ansar Allah. At least three people were killed in the fighting before Lebanese soldiers broke it up. Ansar Allah is supported by Hezbollah, but their relationship has been unsettled since 2012, when the group’s leadership announced it was cutting ties with Hezbollah only to rescind that announcement a short time later. Hezbollah seems to have brokered a ceasefire between the two Palestinian groups.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers killed at least another four Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence line on Friday, while wounding another 50. The Israelis claim the protesters were throwing explosives over the fence. That brings the Palestinian death toll in these Gaza protests to at least 212 since they began in late March.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is having a really normal one:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the Jewish state’s president and a former minister of conspiring to have him toppled, triggering charges of “paranoia” ahead of elections.

“I know that a former Likud minister has been holding discussions with the coalition and concocted a subversive plot, with me winning a large victory at the next elections and him making sure I am not prime minister,” he told a gathering of his right-wing Likud party on Wednesday night celebrating his 69th birthday.

Under the scheme, President Reuven Rivlin would use his prerogative as head of state to name an alternative Likud candidate to head a post-election government.

First of all happy birthday to Netanyhau, that’s very nice. Second of all, both Rivlin and the “former Likud minister” in question, Gideon Saar (Netanyahu didn’t name him but that’s almost certainly who it is) both denied that they have any kind of scheme in place to dethrone him. Of course just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, but if things really turn south for him Netanyahu can just gin up another Gaza massacre to secure his position.

OMAN

Netanyahu made an unpublicized visit to Oman on Friday for discussions with Sultan Qaboos, presumably about regional security matters since he brought the head of Mossad with him. Oman does have fairly good relations with Iran, after all, and if Netanyahu were for some reason looking to reach out to Tehran this would be a good place for him to start. There haven’t been any other details about the trip but I mention it because I like Oman (if you ever have a chance to visit it’s a wonderful place) and also because I guess this counts as proof that Qaboos is still alive, which is no small thing.

SAUDI ARABIA

Jamal Khashoggi’s former fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, told Turkish media on Friday that Khashoggi had concerns about visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 but believed that if he were detained the issue would be “swiftly solved” because he was in Turkey. Cengiz, whose presence outside the consulate is probably the biggest single reason why the Saudis’ initial “uh, he was here but he left” story failed to stick, has reportedly been placed under 24 hour security by Turkish police for reasons that haven’t been explained. Cengiz also said that she’s refused invitations to visit Donald Trump at the White House, which she “perceived” as a way for Trump to “win political favor,” and will continue to refuse them unless the US makes an effort to get to the bottom of Khashoggi’s murder.

She probably shouldn’t go booking a ticket to DC anytime soon. BuzzFeed’s Emily Tamkin does an admirable job here of describing the vast and generally nauseating breadth of mostly financial ties that keeps the US-Saudi relationship chugging along no matter what the Saudis do or how little they really matter in terms of US national interests:

That relationship is on daily display. President Donald Trump has spoken openly of his appreciation for Saudi cash. “They’ve been a great ally to me,” he said just two weeks after Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi consulate, adding, “They’re investing tremendous amounts of money.” Eleven US senators have demanded in a letter to Trump and the Trump Organization a “full accounting” of financial ties between the president and the kingdom, which date back to at least 1991, when Trump sold a yacht to a Saudi prince.

Saudi money can be found throughout Washington. Congressional members and staffers have expressed dismay over the case, but have long participated in the revolving door from the legislature to firms that work on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which pays millions to lobbyists and lawyers to represent the kingdom in the US capital. The sums it’s spent are recorded in Justice Department filings required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Saudi Arabia also contributes millions more to influential think tanks whose researchers provide position papers to journalists and lawmakers alike.

Don’t expect the Saudi-French relationship to change either. French President Emmanuel Macron, and I know I like to joke about this narcissistic asshole around here but he really is a sociopath, told reporters in Slovakia on Friday that demands to cut off arms sales to the Saudis over the Khashoggi killing are “demagoguery”:

“What’s the link between arms sales and Mr Khashoggi’s murder? I understand the connection with what’s happening in Yemen, but there is no link with Mister Khashoggi,” Macron told a news conference in Slovakia.

“That’s pure demagoguery to say ‘we must stop arms sales’. It’s got nothing to do with Mr Khashoggi,” he added.

He’s right, actually. There’s a much stronger argument for cutting off Saudi weapons sales over the war in Yemen than over Khashoggi. But of course he’s not going to cut off Saudi weapons sales over Yemen either. Because he doesn’t give a shit about Khashoggi or Yemen, just about doing deals.

Germany, in case you’re wondering, has cut off arms sales to the Saudis and says they’ll remain cut off until Riyadh provides more clarity about Khashoggi’s murder.

IRAN

There was an incident in the Persian Gulf on Friday in which six of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ fast boats harassed the amphibious assault ship USS Essex. General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, was apparently on the Essex at the time, but there’s no indication the Iranians knew that and their harassment appears to have been relatively minor.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Iranian government is preparing to boost welfare payments to make up for the hardship its people are feeling due to US sanctions:

As Iran braces for U.S. sanctions that target its financial lifeline—oil sales—it is resorting to a series of extraordinary steps to try to insulate the country’s increasingly restive working class from the likely economic fallout.

The Iranian government is moving ahead with plans to provide financial support to 20 million lower-income people, or about a quarter of the population, and extra relief to 11 million of the country’s poorest.

As a second round of U.S. sanctions is set to come into effect on Nov. 5, Iran is standing over a precipice. With an unsteady economy, a sharp drop in the value of the currency and the prospect of more economic pain ahead, the cost of living in Iran has soared.

“Everything is expensive,” said a 68-year-old man selling chewing gum and tissues on the street in Tehran. “At this age, I still have to do something to survive.”

The Iranians are going to have to figure out how to afford the increased transfer payments while stabilizing the value of the rial and keeping inflation as low as possible. Meanwhile people like the guy scraping by selling chewing gum are the ones who are going to pay the hardest for the Trump administration’s obsession with punishing Iran.

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