Middle East update: November 1 2018

SYRIA

US and Turkish forces finally began their joint patrols north of Manbij on Thursday. Reuters reported that at least one joint patrol was sighted about 20 kilometers outside the town. It’s unclear whether the Turks are going to push to extend these patrols into Manbij itself, but the Kurdish council running the town has said it will bar Turkish soldiers from entering. While the start of these joint patrols was a positive sign for the US-Turkish relationship, the ongoing Turkish assault on Kurdish positions further east is not. The Turkish military has been shelling Kurds east of the Euphrates in preparation for another Turkish invasion of northern Syria, and in response the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces has suspended its offensive to finally clear ISIS out of Deir Ezzor province.

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly discussed northern Syria by phone on Thursday, so that’s nice. But ultimately Washington and Ankara are still on opposite sides when it comes to the YPG, and now the Turks are negatively impacting the anti-ISIS war effort. Their shelling is the prelude to an invasion but it also seems to be Erdoğan’s attempt to give the US one last chance to Do Something about the YPG that could forestall the invasion (it’s not clear what that would be):

The shelling was “a friendly message to the US,” according to Erdogan’s adviser Ilnur Cevik. “Turkey gave these messages in Afrin too and went on to do what it had to. Now eyes are on Manbij and east of the Euphrates,” Cevik wrote in a commentary for the news portal Yeni Birlik.

During an address to provincial leaders from his Justice and Development Party on Oct. 26 — two days before the YPG was shelled — Erdogan accused the United States of using the Manbij road map to waste Turkey’s time and issued a “final warning” to Washington. “We are resolved to turn our attention to the east of the Euphrates, from where Turkey is being threatened, rather than seeing our time wasted in Manbij,” he said.

“It defies logic that a country like Turkey should be sacrificed for a bloody group whose past is dark and whose members are suspect,” Erdogan added, referring to US support for the YPG. “These remarks of ours should be taken as our final warning,” he cautioned.

Ankara says that some 260,000 Syrian refugees have returned to the parts of Syria under Turkey’s control as a result of its Operation Euphrates Shield. Which sounds laudable, but it’s not clear if they were originally from that area or if they have in turn displaced other Syrians by “returning” there.

In Idlib, meanwhile, Russian officials say that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters, or “Nusra militants” as they put it, are shelling Syrian government forces in southern Idlib and in Hama province in an effort to wreck the Russian-Turkish deescalation deal in that province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that HTS fighters attacked a “pro-regime” position in eastern Idlib on Thursday, killing at least four fighters.

YEMEN

First of all, it doesn’t get said nearly often enough but every single person responsible for the atrocity of the Yemen war should be tried for crimes against humanity:

A haunted look in the eyes of Amal Hussain, an emaciated 7-year-old lying silently on a hospital bed in northern Yemen, seemed to sum up the dire circumstances of her war-torn country.

A searing portrait of the starving girl published in The New York Times last week drew an impassioned response from readers. They expressed heartbreak. They offered money for her family. They wrote in to ask if she was getting better.

On Thursday, Amal’s family said she had died at a ragged refugee camp four miles from the hospital.

“My heart is broken,” said her mother, Mariam Ali, who wept during a phone interview. “Amal was always smiling. Now I’m worried for my other children.”

https://twitter.com/meslackman/status/1058113202570100736

We did that. We’re still doing it.

Saudi officials say their forces attacked Sanaa airport and an adjoining military air base on Friday morning. The Saudis say that the Houthi rebels have been using the facility to launch drone and missile attacks against both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Yemeni government, whatever is left of it, says it’s on board with US calls for a ceasefire and renewed peace talks in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition that’s supposed to be supporting the Yemeni government, but in reality is fighting the war on its own initiative, has so far had nothing to say on the subject. Maybe they need to starve another couple dozen seven year olds to death before they’ll be ready to take a break.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Right-wing Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro says he wants to move Brazil’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Because of course he does.

The Israeli government’s focus in the aftermath of last weekend’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh seems to be to circle its wagons not around the US Jewish community, but around Donald Trump:

Trump visited Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Tuesday to pay his respects to the 11 dead worshippers, despite requests from Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto and at least one victim’s family that he not attend. Republican and Democratic leaders turned down Trump’s invitation to join and instead the president was greeted by protesters.

And the first person to greet Trump at the synagogue was not a grieving Pittsburgher. Instead it was Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

“The fact that the person who officially greeted the president of the United States at an American city at an American synagogue was the ambassador of another country was stunning,” Lara Friedman, the president of the liberal Foundation for Middle East Peace, told Al-Monitor.

In the days since Saturday’s massacre, Dermer and Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister for diaspora affairs, have gone into overdrive to defend Trump, despite his violent rhetoric and significant support among anti-Semites. The Tree of Life shooting was at least the third instance of violence by white supremacists in a week, including the mailing of pipe bombs to Democrats and the media by an avowed Trump supporter.

SAUDI ARABIA

The latest Turkish leak related to the Jamal Khashoggi murder is perhaps the most gruesome one yet:

A senior Turkish official said in an interview that Turkish authorities are pursuing a theory that Khashoggi’s dismembered body was destroyed in acid on the grounds of the Saudi Consulate or at the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general. Biological evidence discovered in the consulate garden supports the theory that Khashoggi’s body was disposed of close to where he was killed and dismembered, the official said.

“Khashoggi’s body was not in need of burying,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive investigation.

Well, that would certainly explain why the Turks haven’t been able to find Khashoggi’s body, intact or otherwise.

Several days before the Saudis finally admitted murdering Khashoggi, Mohammad bin Salman was reportedly on the phone with John Bolton and Jared Kushner trying to convince them that Khashoggi had it coming because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s no hard evidence that Khashoggi was in the Brotherhood, but that’s sort of beside the point. If these reports are true then they suggest that MBS, public comments to the contrary, wasn’t exactly broken up about the killing. As you’d expect if he was the one who ordered it in the first place.

In Saudi Arabia, the consensus seems to be MBS INNOCENT, if only because Saudis both in big cities like Riyadh and small towns like Dilam say they’ve benefited from his reforms:

In interviews in the past two weeks, Riyadh residents cited Mohammed’s dramatic steps legalizing cinemas and other entertainment venues, providing more jobs for women and allowing them to drive, and stripping power from the religious police and removing them from shopping malls, which they once patrolled.

But those interviewed in ad-Dilam highlighted more quotidian benefits: better roads, a new college campus, a new shopping center, and an administrative restructuring that has provided bigger budgets and more government attention to a town that long felt left behind. They said those improvements feel more immediate to their lives than the killing of a journalist in Turkey — which they insisted had nothing to do with Mohammed.

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