Middle East update: October 27-28 2018

SYRIA

ISIS killed more than 40 Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, captured several more, and retook the town of Sousa in a battle that began late Friday and continued into Saturday morning. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is citing a higher casualty figure of more than 60. The SDF had taken about half of Sousa before the battle Friday night, which apparently went ISIS’s way due in part to a sandstorm that limited the SDF’s coalition air support.

The Turkish military shelled YPG positions in the village of Zor Moghar in northern Syria on Sunday. There have been no reports of casualties.

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Turkey met in Istanbul on Saturday for a four-way summit that promises to do as much to achieve peace in Syria as all those three-way Iran-Russia-Turkey summits and multi-party United Nations-led summits have achieved. They called for a general Syrian ceasefire and expressed support for the UN-led process of writing a new Syrian constitution.

The Syrian government reopened the country’s national museum on Sunday, as it adopts a “fake it till you make it” approach to ending the way.

YEMEN

The top drug enforcement officer in Aden was killed by gunmen on Sunday along with two of his guards. Security in Aden continues to decline while the narcotics trade is on the rise.

IRAQ

In a sign that it’s going to comply at least somewhat with US sanctions, the Iraqi government announced on Friday that it will stop shipping oil the 30,000 barrels per day it currently trucks from Kirkuk to Iran when US oil sanctions return next month. The Iraqis may pipe more oil north to Turkey to make up for the lost revenue. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Malik says he will determine Iraq’s compliance with US sanctions on the basis of Iraq’s national interest, but presumably he’s going to be careful about picking his battles with Washington.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Three teenage Palestinian boys were killed on Sunday in an Israeli airstrike after they reportedly approached the Gaza fence and, according to the Israelis, “were apparently involved in placing” a bomb there. This strike comes a day after a heavy exchange of fire, including 40 rockets fired off by Islamic Jihad and Israeli airstrikes targeting 80 sites in Gaza, that ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Israeli officials claim that Iran’s Quds Force ordered the rocket attack, though Islamic Jihad says it was a retaliation for the four Palestinians who were killed by the Israelis during Friday’s Gaza protest.

OMAN

Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is heading to Oman for a regional transportation conference next week. Big deal, I know. But Katz also happens to have the intelligence affairs portfolio, and he’ll be visiting Oman just days after Benjamin Netanyahu made his own (unpublicized) visit there along with the head of Mossad (which itself came days after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stopped by), and no Israeli minister has ever been invited to a conference in Oman, so those are all interesting bits of context.

Oman’s foreign minister, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, told a regional security conference in Bahrain over the weekend that Oman is willing to offer assistance to the Israel-Palestine peace process but is not acting as mediator. He described Israel as “a state present in the region” and argued that “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same” as other countries in the region, which is a concession of sorts coming from an Arab foreign minister. But he also suggested that Israel should “bear the same obligations” for security as other countries in the region, which I’m not sure was meant to be as generous toward the Israelis as US and Israeli officials have portrayed it.

SAUDI ARABIA

Meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on the sidelines of the same conference, Defense Secretary James Mattis says he urged the Saudis to conduct a full, transparent investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Yeah, good luck with that. Jubeir apparently promised that they would, so that was nice of him. Then he blamed the controversy over Khashoggi’s killing on “media hysteria.” Clearly the Saudis get it.

Mattis’s concern, the entire Trump administration’s concern, isn’t really about transparency or thoroughness. It’s certainly now about seeing that justice is done in memory of Jamal Khashoggi. It’s about “regional stability”:

In his remarks at a Manama security conference, Mattis said: “With our collective interests in peace and unwavering respect for human rights in mind, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a diplomatic facility must concern us all greatly. Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most.”

IRAN

And “regional stability” in this case is defined as “fucking up Iran by any means necessary.” The Khashoggi killing has undermined the Trump administration’s regime change project and that’s really why they’re upset:

U.S. and other government’s officials said the uproar over a Saudi journalist’s grisly death has put Saudi Arabia’s ability to rally others against Iran at risk, posing a challenge for the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis highlighted those worries this weekend with rare public criticism of an ally, telling a security conference here that Saudi Arabia’s actions were destabilizing for the entire region “at a time when it needs it most.”

Mr. Mattis stopped short of blaming the Saudi leadership for writer Jamal Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 death, but his comments drew attention to how the gruesome murder—and the kingdom’s handling of it—has strained the Saudi leadership’s close ties with President Donald Trump. The Trump administration has put the kingdom at the center of a Middle East policy largely defined by efforts to contain Iranian influence.

In Bahrain, Jubeir tried to get Riyadh’s mojo back by portraying its rivalry with Iran as literally a war between light and dark:

After more than two weeks of international outrage over the journalist and dissident’s death, Adel al-Jubeir sought to portray the country as the moral beacon of the Middle East, in stark opposition to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival.

“We are now dealing with two visions in the Middle East,” Jubeir told a security summit in Bahrain on Saturday. “One is a [Saudi] vision of light … One is [an Iranian] vision of darkness which seeks to spread sectarianism throughout the region. History tells us that light always wins out against the dark.”

Somebody should really ask the Shiʿa activists currently sitting on Saudi Arabia’s version of death row how “light” they find the Saudi vision for the Middle East. Or maybe check in with one of those emaciated kids starving to death in northern Yemen and see how optimistic they’re feeling about Riyadh’s worldview. Or just look at Jubeir’s face, which is definitely the face of a happy, healthy guy and not somebody whose soul is desperately trying to claw its way out of his body:

Meanwhile, in Iran, Hassan Rouhani told parliament on Saturday that the United States has isolated itself in withdrawing from the nuclear deal and trying to punish Iran. He then asked parliament to vote on a major shakeup of his economic team, replacing his economics and finance, labor, industry, and roads ministers. Because it doesn’t really matter if the United States isolates itself, it still controls enough of the global economy that it can cripple Iran anyway. This is a battle of David and Goliath, but despite the constant fear mongering out of the Trump administration the US is Goliath. Unfortunately for Iran and in particular for the Iranian people, real life David vs. Goliath conflict are usually won by the Goliath.

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