Middle East update: November 10-11 2018

SYRIA

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Sunday that, thanks to a reduction in Turkish artillery attacks in northern Syria, they will be resuming their ground offensive against ISIS in Hajin. It’s unclear what’s happened behind the scenes here but presumably some negotiations between the US and Turkish governments. This is good news if you’re a fan of the war against ISIS, potentially bad news if you’re a civilian in the Hajin area. Though, to be fair, if you’re a civilian around Hajin you’re already in danger from US airstrikes. The Syrian government said on Saturday that it will file a protest at the United Nations over a US airstrike that reportedly killed 26 people in Hajin on Friday. The US heavily bombed both Hajin and the nearby village of Shafa on Friday, killing at least 41 civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago that Hezbollah is allegedly paying rebel groups that have lost US financial support to switch sides. It may have recruited as many as 2000 new fighters this way, all from among rebel factions that the US supported and then cut off when it became politically expedient, as the US frequently does with proxies. Mostly Hezbollah is paying these groups to fight ISIS, who I think everybody agrees is bad, but the danger is that in doing so it’s expanding its presence in southern Syria and thereby giving Israel more targets to bomb there. One would think the solution to this problem would be for Israel to, you know, stop regularly bombing another sovereign nation, but since it’s Hezbollah clearly the problem is that they’re doing nefarious things like paying soldiers to fight their enemies.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition has reportedly seized Hudaydah’s largest medical facility, the May 22 hospital, along with a major grain mill on the Red Sea coast just south of Hudaydah’s seaport. Coalition and Houthi forces are engaged in street-to-street fighting that has left at least 43 Houthi fighters dead over the past 24 hours along with an unknown number of civilians. Houthi fighters were squatting in the hospital, which is a no-no under international law, but then so is using food as a weapon and the coalition is now in a stronger position to do that with control over the mill. It’s not clear what they plan on doing with that facility, which has been providing much of Yemen’s available flour.

The information minister in the Houthi rebel government in Sanaa, Abdul-Salam Ali Gaber, has defected and fled to Saudi Arabia. It’s unclear what prompted his decision, but whatever it was he’s not exactly been well received. A Yemeni journalist reportedly threw a shoe at the ex-minister at a press conference in Riyadh on Sunday. In this case, unlike the case of the Iraqi reporter who famously threw his shoes at George W. Bush in Baghdad in 2008, the footwear apparently hit its target.

The consensus around the US-Saudi decision to end US refueling operations in support of the Saudi air campaign in Yemen is that it’s nice, symbolically, but insufficient to undermine the Saudi war effort. The incoming Democratic House may actually take a hard look at US support for Saudi war crimes, and this move was obviously made to try to blunt their criticisms without doing something that might really make a difference.

One recent positive development in terms of the coverage of the Yemen war has been that journalists are finally starting to dump the lame “10,000 dead” figure that the United Nations has been citing for almost two years now. The real death toll in Yemen is likely well over ten times that figure:

The database gives an indication of the scope of the disaster wreaked in Yemen by nearly four years of civil war. At least 57,538 people — civilians and combatants — have been killed since the beginning of 2016, according to the data assembled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED.

That doesn’t include the first nine months of the war, in 2015, which the group is still analyzing. Those data are likely to raise the figure to 70,000 or 80,000, ACLED’s Yemen researcher Andrea Carboni told The Associated Press. The organization’s count is considered by many international agencies to be one of the most credible, although all caution it is likely an underestimate because of the difficulties in tracking deaths.

The numbers don’t include those who have died in the humanitarian disaster caused by the war, particularly starvation. Though there are no firm figures, the aid group Save the Children estimated hunger may have killed 50,000 children in 2017. That was based on a calculation that around 30 percent of severely malnourished children who didn’t receive proper treatment likely died.

TURKEY

Turkey’s air force apparently had a busy weekend, “neutralizing” (which could mean killing or wounding) 15 PKK fighters in northern Iraq on Saturday and 14 more PKK fighters, also in northern Iraq, on Sunday.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A group of Israeli soldiers reportedly entered Gaza on Sunday and carried out what was basically a drive-by shooting of a group of Hamas fighters. At least eight people were killed between the shooting and its aftermath, in which Israeli aircraft fired at least 40 missiles into the area where the shooting took place, according to witnesses, while Hamas or some other group in Gaza fired rockets toward Israeli targets. The Israeli military later characterized its incursion as a special forces operation. Two of the dead were senior Hamas commanders and one was an Israeli soldier, but it’s unclear whether any or all of the other five were civilians. This should definitely ease tensions around Gaza.

The first batch of people to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump–and what an honor that must be–includes Elvis, Babe Ruth, and Miriam Adelson. In announcing the awards, the White House mentioned Miriam Adelson’s medical research on substance abuse. It didn’t mention the thing for which she’s really being honored, which is having married Sheldon Adelson and jointly given tens of millions of dollars to Donald Trump and various other Republicans so long as they promise a) to support ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and b) to nuke Iran at their earliest possible opportunity. If Trump has indeed drained the swamp, it’s only so that he could replace it with a septic tank.

EGYPT

An Egyptian court has added el-Gamaʿa el-Islamiyya to the country’s list of terrorist organizations. Which is fascinating, because while it used to legitimately be a terrorist organization, el-Gamaʿa el-Islamiyya officially renounced violence in 2003 and was partially rehabilitated by the Hosni Mubarak government, then formed a political party after the Arab Spring and has been considered a relatively benign if extremely Islamist political organization ever since. It’s unclear what the group did to merit being recategorized as a terrorist organization, though the court ruling made some vague statements about how members of the group have renounced their renouncement of violence. It’s not like the current Egyptian government requires a high burden of proof for suppressing political opponents anyway.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Turkish government has finally officially acknowledged that it has an audio recording of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. In fact, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters on Saturday that he’s shared it widely, with the Saudis, US, Britain, France, Germany, and more. He may have put it on a mixtape for his girlfriend, I don’t know. The recording reportedly makes it clear that Khashoggi did not die quickly or easily and may increase the pressure on Western governments to punish the Saudis for carrying out the murder. On the other hand, the existence of the recording pretty much confirms that Turkey was bugging the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which is a pretty big no-no in international affairs.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that Mohammad bin Salman put out feelers with regard to creating an assassination squad to kill his enemies last year. In that case he was talking about Iranians like Qasem Soleimani, but the principle is the same and people who have been implicated in the Khashoggi killing, like Ahmed al-Assiri, were also reportedly involved in these discussions. These meetings seem to have been arranged by a group of security businessmen who were pitching a plan to destabilize Iran’s economy to the then-deputy crown prince. The introductions were made by George Nader, who has since been implicated in the Mueller investigation. The businessmen reportedly balked when MBS brought up the idea of targeted killings. Nader then may have tried to steer MBS toward another security firm more amenable to his interests.

The Saudis may cut oil production by 500,000 barrels per day in December in an effort to keep prices up in the $80+/barrel range. The Saudis had boosted production by 1 million bpd in advance of the resumption of US oil sanctions on Iran, but the US issued so many waivers on those sanctions that the effect has been to drive oil back down closer to $70/barrel. It’s unclear whether any other major oil producers plan on following the Saudis’ lead.

IRAN

According to Pakistani officials, Iranian border guards on Sunday killed two Pakistanis and wounded three more who were attempting to illegally cross the border into Iran.

Whatever empty assurances the Trump administration has been making about exempting humanitarian goods from US sanctions on Iran, the facts on the ground say that Iranians are already struggling to obtain critical medicines:

One pharmaceutical importer in Iran, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by the authorities, said the banking sanctions had unnerved many of his European and American clients, who are looking for signals from the Treasury about what banks they can work with without risking penalties.

“It creates a problem where even when you have a European company that wants to sell to Iran, due to the absence of banks being there, payments can’t regularly and reliably be made into Europe,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an expert in sanctions and humanitarian trade with Bourse and Bazaar in London.

Mr. Batmanghelidj added that the Treasury had been slow or even unwilling to issue licenses authorized by Congress for humanitarian reasons. The licenses allow companies to do business with Iran and other countries that the United States has blacklisted as sponsors of terrorism.

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