Middle East update: December 8-9 2018

SYRIA

Syrian state media reported Sunday that Syrian air defenses had intercepted “enemy targets” near Damascus airport. Wow, this is a big stor–I’m sorry, what’s that? They retracted the report? Oh, well, never mind then.

The Trump administration has reportedly come to believe that it has enough leverage to force Russia and Iran to in turn force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to engage in good faith with international peace efforts. Apparently this has to do with reports of a collapsing economy in the parts of Syria controlled by Assad, potentially forcing Russia to commit additional resources to stabilize Assad in the absence of a peace deal that brings Syria back into the global economy and opens up access to international aid. At this point US Syria envoy James Jeffrey appears to be focused on undermining the parallel Russia-Iran-Turkey peace track so as to bring everybody back to the United Nations-led peace process.

YEMEN

Sunday brought the first direct talks between Houthi and Yemeni government representatives in the ongoing round of peace talks in Sweden. At the very least this gives the UN team a break from shuttling between the two sides. So far the talks are still focusing on hammering out the details around the prisoner swap to which they agreed on the first day of the talks on Thursday. Probably because that’s safer than trying to broach any new topics. The issue of reopening Sanaa airport has already proven to be thorny, and the goal here is to bank small victories in order to build some confidence and momentum before tackling bigger issues. The Houthis are proposing to make Hudaydah’s seaport a neutral site and calling for a transitional Yemeni government. The UN would like to achieve the former before this round of talks ends, but the latter is a topic for later time.

Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi called on Sunday for an investigation into allegations of torture in Houthi-run prisons. An AP investigative report on Friday revealed widespread mistreatment of prisoners in the Houthi facilities.

Speaking of investigative journalism, The Atlantic has learned that much of the mid-air refueling the US has been doing for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been free of charge to the coalition:

Since the start of the Saudi-led intervention, in March 2015, and up until last month, the United States provided mid-air refueling for Saudi-led coalition aircraft that then flew missions related to the Yemen campaign. Getting heavy U.S. tankers into the air and carrying out this job is enormously expensive. The recipient country is required by law to pay the costs, but that isn’t what happened here. In a mea culpa of sorts, the Pentagon’s November 27 letter states that while the Defense Department “believed” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “had been charged for the fuel and refueling services, they in fact had not been charged adequately.” How inadequately, the Pentagon will not yet say; it is “currently calculating the correct charges,” the letter states.

On Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed the letter’s contents to The Atlantic. “Although DoD has received some reimbursement for inflight refueling assistance provided to the Saudi-led coalition (SLC), U.S. Central Command recently reviewed its records and found errors in accounting where DoD failed to charge the SLC adequately for fuel and refueling services,” Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told The Atlantic.

That was awfully nice of us, don’t you think?

TURKEY

If for some reason you really thought there was a chance that the Saudis might extradite Saud al-Qahtani or Ahmad al-Assiri to Turkey to face charges over the Jamal Khashoggi murder, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Seriously, though, I can’t imagine this would come as a surprise to anybody. Even if the Saudis weren’t trying to manipulate any investigation into the murder in order to protect Mohammad bin Salman, it would still have been exceedingly unlikely that they’d have agreed to extradite anybody to stand trial in Turkey.

LEBANON

Israeli soldiers fired warning shots at a group of what it claims were Hezbollah operatives on the Lebanese side of the border on Saturday. But the Lebanese government says it was a regular Lebanese army patrol and that the Israelis were disoriented by “thick fog.” With the Israelis still warning that they might begin undertaking strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon, whether to destroy the group’s alleged tunnel network into northern Israel or its alleged Iranian-assisted precision missile manufacturing facilities, Saturday’s incident is precisely the kind of thing that could get out of hand very quickly.

Lebanese reporter Hisham Melhem says that, on top of everything else he’s been doing to destabilize the Middle East, MBS has been trying to restart the Lebanese Civil War:

In a meeting with current and former U.S officials in Washington during his last visit in the Spring, crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman said that he was interested in spending up to a hundred million dollars to arm the “Lebanese Forces”, the civil war Christian militia turned political party to transform it from a political adversary of Hezbollah into a lethal enemy. According to a participant in the meeting, the crown prince found no interest in this scheme either in Washington or in Beirut. Contrary to its name, this political party does not have an armed wing and its leadership has disavowed publicly the use of force.

Last year Mohammed Bin Salman sought to recruit The Palestinians residing in refugee camps in Lebanon in his efforts to check Hezbollah, arguably the most effective non-state actor in the world and Iran premier Satrapy in the region. Reasoning that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would join the informal regional anti-Iranian alliance of Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies, Egypt and Israel, now that the Hamas movement, his rival in Gaza has moved to restore its military and financial relations with Tehran. In a hastily arranged meeting with Mr. Abbas in the kingdom last year the crown prince broached his scheme. Unconfirmed reports say that the Palestinian leader demurred, and then politely rejected the proposal. An Israeli article claimed that confronting Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon were the main reasons for the meeting, adding “Playing on these sectarian tensions, the Saudi leadership is looking to recruit the more than 300,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon refugee camps to take part in any future conflict with Hezbollah there.” These wild schemes are consistent with the crown prince’s anger at his Lebanese ally Prime Minister Saad Hariri, because of his supposed failure to take a strong stand against Iran and Hezbollah, which led him to force Hariri’s resignation.

Melhem’s story isn’t confirmed, so take it with a grain of salt. But does it really seem out of character for MBS?

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

At least seven Israeli settlers were wounded on Sunday in what appears to have been a drive-by shooting outside the Ofra settlement in the northern West Bank. Israeli authorities are searching for the suspected Palestinian attacker.

The Israeli military meanwhile has announced that it’s opening an investigation into the shooting of a Palestinian man in Tulkarem earlier this week. Video of the incident appears to show the man being shot from behind, and though no Israeli soldiers appear in the video the Israelis have been conducting operations in that area.

EGYPT

Egyptian police announced on Saturday they killed two militants in a shootout in Assiut province. They’re believed to be the militants responsible for last month’s terrorist attack on a bus full of Christians near Minya. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack but it’s unclear if these guys were ISIS–Egyptian authorities are notoriously light on the details in these cases.

QATAR

The 2018 Gulf Cooperation Council meeting isn’t looking so cooperative, after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did in fact turn down King Salman’s personal invitation to attend and totally not be imprisoned or disappeared or waterboarded or anything, promise. He did send representatives, though, which is something. Now that we’re 20 months in to the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar and the Qataris are, on the whole, doing pretty well, Tamim is ironically in a stronger position than he was before the boycott to basically tell the Saudis to go f themselves. His decisions to skip the GCC summit and to pull Qatar out of OPEC can both be viewed in those terms.

SAUDI ARABIA

The New York Times describes how hard the Saudis have worked to get their hooks into Jared Kushner:

A delegation of Saudis close to the prince visited the United States as early as the month Mr. Trump was elected, the documents show, and brought back a report identifying Mr. Kushner as a crucial focal point in the courtship of the new administration. He brought to the job scant knowledge about the region, a transactional mind-set and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel’s demands, the delegation noted.

Even then, before the inauguration, the Saudis were trying to position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump administration fulfill its campaign pledges. In addition to offering to help resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the Saudis offered hundreds of billions of dollars in deals to buy American weapons and invest in American infrastructure. Mr. Trump later announced versions of some of these items with great fanfare when he made his first foreign trip: to an Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudis had extended that invitation during the delegation’s November 2016 visit.

“The inner circle is predominantly deal makers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner,” the Saudi delegation wrote of the incoming administration in a slide presentation obtained by the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which provided it to The Times. Several Americans who spoke with the delegation confirmed the slide presentation’s accounts of the discussions.

The courtship of Mr. Kushner appears to have worked.

Yeah, no shit. Kushner has apparently still been advising MBS on how to “weather the storm” caused by the Khashoggi murder. If you’ve never read a news article in which nearly every single individual mentioned should probably be doing time at The Hague, I would urge you to check this one out. It’s really something.

IRAN

Iranian authorities reportedly detained Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a population researcher with the University of Melbourne, as she attempted to leave Iran at some point over the past week, give or take. Details are naturally sketchy, but Hosseini-Chavoshi appears to have been arrested on charges that she attempted to “infiltrate” Iranian “state bodies,” perhaps to undermine Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s call for a population increase. Undoubtedly the charges are bullshit, just like the charges against the estimated 30 or so other dual nationals the Iranians have arrested over the past few years.

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