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Turmoil in Yemen: Implications for Regional security of Middle East

Mehwish Akram

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Background

The recent unrest in Yemen is not a new phenomenon it has deep roots in its history. Initially, it was divided into North and South Yemen both these parts got unified in 1990. Yemen since its inception has faced small scale conflicts among the Sunni and Shia. Yemen is one of the poorest countries of Middle East having lowest GDP in the region.  If we go deep into the history one easily identify the causes of division and fault lines of the brewing conflict since the independence of Yemen. It is one of the artificially created states by the colonial powers in order to indirectly rule them by giving legitimacy to tribesmen who have no experience of ruling a country. The incompetence of tribal lords promoted weak and self-serving ruling elite that deepens the roots of conflict in Yemen. In the same manner, a role of external powers cannot be overlooked as they try to take advantage of fragile government to achieve their ulterior motives rather than resolving their domestic issues.

Introduction

Yemen has a history of sectarian issues since its independence due to the Sunni-Shia rift. But the situation got worst in 2011 especially after the Arab Spring when locals mainly Shia community starts to protest against the Sunni government. The instigation sparked in the country, as a result, of the oppressive rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and low economic indicators that further aggravated the domestic issues within Yemen. Yemen is mostly dependent on foreign assistance for its economy. Saudi Arabia is backing and providing financial assistance along with international donor agencies. Moreover, the sectarian divide within a country is another major cause of conflict.  The power rivalry between the Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony has complicated the situation by creating division in Yemen. The Sunni government supports Saudi Arabia whereas Shia Mehdi’s are covertly backed by Iran.

Yemen is strategically significant as Bab-ul-Mandab is located here in Arabian Peninsula that is a vital route for transport of oil to the rest of the world. It has close ties with Saudi Arabia as they are helping them to cope with the poor economy. Similarly, GCC countries are also facilitating them to stand on their feet. In the same manner, Iran is providing aid but it is often criticized for promoting ethnic rivalry to challenge the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern region. Yemen predominantly remains under the influence of Saudi Arabia because of ideological affinity with Wahabi school of thought of ruling elite. Similarly, one cannot ignore the significance of Yemen for Saudi Government since Saudi Arabia will have more room to maneuver in Arabian Peninsula to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is well aware of the Iranian role in the region. The regional rivalry between these two states is not something new it is deeply rooted in their historical legacy of their relations with each other.

Rationale of study 

Yemen is ethnically divided between Sunni and Shia since the independence. Furthermore, this ethnic rivalry is exploited by two major players Saudi Arabia and Iran to increase their area of the influence in the region. According to the experts, the card of ethnicity is played in case of Yemen. The internal situation of Yemen was gotten worse after the Arab Spring in addition, to suppression of minorities including the Shia community under the Ali Abdullah Saleh government in the center. As he himself belongs from the Sunni community and has a soft corner for Saudi government and American influence in their country. At the same time, one cannot undermine the role of Iran in the region and their growing influence in the internal politics of the Middle Eastern region. The main aim of this paper is to analyze the repercussions of the unrest in Yemen on the whole region in terms of its security and stability is concerned. It can be assessed in three contexts that are domestic, regional and international context. In order to critically evaluate the present situation of Yemen, one cannot do it without taking all aspects into account including the domestic, regional and global level of analysis to understand its implications for the security of Middle East in coming few years.

One cannot neglect the role of external powers as far as Yemen is concerned because the role of US is an open secret as they have close ties with the Saudi Arabia as its regional ally. Many experts of Middle Eastern affairs are of the view that the US has apprehensions regarding the increasing influence of the Iran in the region particularly ousting the Sunni government in Yemen by supporting Zaydi’s Shia militias in Yemen. Since Iran also have aspirations to become a regional hegemon by challenging both Saudi Arabia and their allies in the region. On the other hand, GCC countries also are significant in determining the future of Yemen in changing regional dynamics in the context of Iran-US nuclear deal which is considered to be the victory of Iran on the diplomatic front in a global arena.

Domestic context

It is essential to look deep into the internal dynamics of the Yemen before going for regional and international factors responsible for the turmoil in the country. (Bookings, 2015) Every country has unique domestic issues that they had to deal it. Yemen can be called as least developed states within the Middle East. It is dependent on Saudi Arabia and foreign assistance for running the economy. Another aspect that can be considered as a root cause of domestic rivalry is a divide between Sunni and Shia that has affected the peace of the country. Moreover, the weak government of Yemen is unable to eradicate the differences between two groups to bring stability in the country.  The conflict in Yemen was ignited with start of Arab Spring within the Middle East along the prevailing conditions within the Yemen most of the people living there are not satisfied the ruling elite of the country. The lack of leadership at domestic is another reason for masses that led to violence in the country. The ruling elite is not doing enough to address the issues of people rather than protecting their regime interests. The lack of unity is also a major factor for the disorder as they divided into Sunni and Shia which is exploited by the regional players for serving their interests.

Reasons for unrest

Sunni versus Shia

The major cause of conflict in case of Yemen is a Sunni and Shia divide that has created many problems. Firstly, it has created internal division within the country which is manipulated by different interest groups in the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, when a nation is not united at the domestic level then one cannot have coherent policies at the national level. The lack of uniform policy at national level makes the country internally weak and fragile. Yemen due to its divisions within is suffering from the setbacks in framing national coalitions to deal with their issues at home.

Moreover, the past legacy of both Yemen North and South has a dominant role as both represent each sect which is Sunni and Shia. After the unification in 1990, this problem remains there as there was no substantial effort was done by the ruling elite of the country to resolve this contentious concern inside Yemen. The internal division further got complicated when central government detaches itself from the masses who were not satisfied with the government. The failure of a government to address the grievances of masses has played a major role in further cleavage in Yemen. The people at the national level are fighting for their basic rights including food and shelter unsuitable economic conditions and heavy dependence on the foreign aid for running the country. Furthermore, the growing differences between Sunni and Shia community considered being the core problem of Yemen. Many experts believe that it is a cause of rift among the ruling elite locals are usually use as a tool to serve their purpose most of them don’t give much thought to the so-called divide between Sunni and Shia. One cannot completely negate this analysis of experts because masses are usually exploited in the name of religion by ruling elite.

Role of Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula

Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula is another major threat that is posing a serious threat to the peace of Yemen. The role of Al-Qaeda is vital in terms security of the region is concerned because the growing influence is posing a threat to its internal security. Consequently, the unrest in Yemen is becoming a breeding ground for terrorists that can have dangerous consequences for its internal security. In addition, if they tend to get a stronghold in Yemen it can further disrupt the existing security situation in the Middle Eastern region. Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula is the offshoot of Afghani Al-Qaeda which is active and has a capability to even take over Yemen under weak government control in the country (Neubauer, 2015).

The role of AQAP cannot be underestimated provided current security situation in the Middle East. One of the key factors that they can exploit to serve their interest is of Sunni- Shia conflict within the Yemen. The proponents of Wahabi school of thought that is closer to Sunni ideology if the Sunni of Yemen started joining this organization it can adversely impact the security of the Middle East. Many experts consider AQAP as a potential threat to the not only for Yemen but also for the Arabian Peninsula in coming few years. They are against foreign intervention of the western countries especially the role of the US in the Middle East due to ideological differences and suspicious of the external powers involvement in the region. The current scenario in the Middle East is depicting an uncertainty in terms of peace and stability in the region due to the presence of Isis and their increasing violent activities.

Grievances of people

Another factor that is not addressed by the ruling elite of Yemen is grievances of local people since they are deprived of basic necessities and famine like situation due to ongoing tug of war between Houthis and Mehdi’s of Yemen. Most of the people living in the country are living under the poverty line which is alarming for international donor agencies of human relief. Yemen is not self-sufficient in terms of food to meet the needs of its population mostly relying on other neighboring countries for fulfilling needs of local population. Moreover, illiteracy is one of major reason behind the back forwardness of the Yemen. The masses, in general, are not enlightened about their potential abilities and rights being the citizen of the Yemen. It is one of poorest countries in the oil-rich region of Middle East and relatively weak internally. Despite the efforts of regional countries and international organizations, it is struggling with a shortage of food and chaos in the Yemen. The internal insecurity is widening mainly people are not happy with their government. The malfunctioning of government can be seen in its leadership that is incompetent to handle the internal situation on their own and often exploited in hands of external and regional powers.

On the other hand, due to the ongoing war between two groups in a country, most of the people are forced to leave their home to other countries. They are living in refugees camps and facing an uncertain future for them and their young generation. According to the Experts of Middle East, it is very difficult to bring stability in Yemen in coming few years. The intense fighting between government forces and rebels will not let any force to bring peace in the country by bringing both parties to the negotiation table to resolve it in an effective way.

Regional context

At the regional level, one assesses the regional dynamics by giving the example of two major players in the Middle East that is Iran and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between them is based on their historical legacy. Iran has a strong sense of nationalism that has prevented them from assimilating into the Arab identity. Whereas Saudi Arabia on the other hand, called them as advocates of the Arab unity that they are promoted at the regional level. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaidi, 2015) But Iran always opposes any such attempts that would affect the nationalism as they called them as Persians, not Arabs due to the unique identity. Iran being part of Persian Empire glorifies them as Persians rather than associating them with the Arab nation. The distinct identities of Iran and Saudi Arabia are one of the reasons that have widened their differences with each other. The distrust is another factor that is not letting them forget their bitter experiences with each other. Iran is suspicious of Saudi intentions because of their close relations with the US. Iran since its revolution has contentious relations with the US they have apprehensions regarding their influence in the Middle East. The US also developed conflictual relations with supreme leader on the issue of backing Israel against Muslim countries.

Saudi Arabia being a major state and ally of US in the region due to its oil production and export to the rest of the world makes its distinct position in a global arena. Saudi Arabia has close ties with the US since the inception. Saudi Arabia has greater regional influence due to their stature within the region and outside the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has an international standing due to its closer ties with the almost all major states of the world. Despite being major state of Middle East they have an ideological rift between their regional rival Iran. They are in conflict with each other due to Sunni-Shia rivalry. According to the experts, it not just their religious rivalry instead it is political tactics to expand their areas of influence inside the region and beyond it. The analogy of Arab and Persian was used to increase the economic and political hegemony by both the parties. The differences between the Saudi’s with the Iranian government is based upon the potential capability of the Iran and Saudi Arabia to rule the Gulf region. Many experts are of the view that the major cause of conflict is misunderstanding between them.

International context

At the global level, one cannot ignore the role of the US and its ally’s role in the Middle East. Historically, one cannot deny the US involvement in the region after the Second World War especially having strategic relations with Israel. The interest of US has increased after the discovery of oil in this part of the world.  The energy security in the contemporary world is core national interest of the US and other western countries. (Swift, 2012) The growing dependence of industries of the world on hydrocarbons has enhanced the vitality of the oil-rich region which is known as the Middle East. One of the major turning points was 1979 revolution of Iran before that Shah of Iran has friendly relations with the US. Since the revolution, the relations of US were never smooth with Iran due to differences with the supreme leader of Iran who labeled the US as Great Satan. Whereas in Iraq although they installed pro-Hashemite government but when they were replaced by the Saddam Hussein of Baathist party the relations become strained due to his aggressive posture towards other Gulf states. Before that, Saddam Hussein used to have good relations with the US as they help them to build a strong Iraq.

Currently, the alliance of US with Saudi-led coalitions against rebels in Yemen has complicated the situation. As the US initially avoided getting into confrontation directly but recently they have started using their major power status to suppress the rebels inside the Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia is an open secret but the overt participation of US forces has raised a number of questions about the future of conflict within the Yemen. Despite the claims of US to stay out of the Yemen crisis particularly after the invasion of 2003 in Iraq by other means has increased the apprehensions about their potential role in Yemen unrest. According to the analysts, the recent activities of the US are not welcome by Yemen and Iran.  The backing of US for Saudi coalition’s air strikes has earned a bad name for the US across the globe due to the casualties of the civilians in Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia can have negative repercussions as far as the stability of Yemen is concerned because by supporting Saudi against rebels can affect their relations with Iran. Iran is often blamed for supporting the rebel groups to counter the Saudi influence in the Middle East.

The role of UN is very minimal as it has failed to bring peace in the country. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaydi, 2015) Although UN did pass a resolution for devising a way to stop the fighting within in Yemen but still no results are so far achieved. United Nations lacks the ability to solve the domestic issues of Yemen as it has no authority to intervene in the internal matters of any country. Similarly, UN is an inactive institution in terms of resolving issues particularly in Middle East region mainly because of interests of major players in the international arena. UN as an institution is weak for implementing its decisions at international level.

Why is it posing a serious threat to Middle East?

The Distrust of Regional players within the Middle East against the external powers can amplify the instability by deepening the misunderstanding making it more volatile in coming few years. If the regional countries are suspicious of the Western powers role in domestic issues of the region then any minor incident can initiate a major conflict that will further deteriorate the situation of the worn prone region. The external power is crucial for making the Middle East peaceful which can be attained by building the trust of the major players of the Arabian Peninsula for achieving relative stability. Moreover, the trust deficit between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another major concern for growing instability in the Middle East. There is a need that both states try to resolve their ideological differences by removing the misunderstanding for the greater goal that is to ensure peace of the Middle Eastern region for them. According to experts the distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be removed by developing a middle way or consent of leadership on both sides to let go their conflictual past for secure future for them rather than fighting with each other over regional hegemony.

The Spread of Extremism mainly after the proclamation of Daesh and growing of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East will increase the terrorism and extremism. The militant elements are using the uncertain situation of the region for serving their purpose by making it brewing ground for more lethal conflicts in near future. Furthermore, the effective leadership is required to foresee their minor issues for ensuring peace in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia can play a significant role by not letting extremist element to take refuge in their areas in the name of Sunni-Shia divide for promoting violent activities in any of Middle Eastern country. But it is difficult to attain as the ideological rivalries are deeply rooted in their mindset. In order to change the mindset deliberate efforts are needed for the considerable period of time to change the perception of Iran and Saudi leadership mindset for saving their region from the terrorists. On the hand, both countries should not fund any group for advocating sectarian divide which is becoming a hurdle in a way of the Middle East.  The mutual efforts by the Saudi and Iranian government are required for bringing prosperity of the whole region instead of working for narrow national interest.

Increase rivalry between Iran-Saudi Arabia

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is deeply rooted but the recent involvement by both states in Yemen will increase their animosity to the larger extent. As we know both Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon particularly after a conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with the US. Saudi Arabia has expressed their apprehensions with the US. Saudi Arabia is the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iranian role in the regional politics as the nuclear deal will disturb the balance of power in the region. The Saudi government is of the view that this deal will bring instability in the region as Iran will try to reassert its power by supporting regional proxies, for example, Hamas and Hezbollah. Moreover, Iran, on the other hand, has its hesitation regarding the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment. In a case of Yemen, one would say both states have their interests as they want to increase their sphere of influence in the region. Iran is blamed for covertly supporting Zaydi’s Shia living inside the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale in revolt the government.( Masood, 2016,) Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen.

Challenges

Firstly, the weak leadership is one of the major issues in a context of Yemen. It is the inability of local leadership which is causing unrest in Yemen. The ruling elite is not trying to resolve their issues internally which is complicated the situation in the country. The role of regional players is increasing in case of Yemen due to the links of ruling elites with the Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to experts on the Middle East, the current situation in Yemen is becoming worse due to incompetence on the part of the leadership of Yemen who are relying on regional players to resolve their internal issues. Yemen is largely dependent on aid and assistance provided by GCC and Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, the role of external powers mainly of US is dominant after the failure of peace talks between Saleh regime and Houthis rebels (Future Directions International, 2014). Initially, US forces avoided directly involving them in Yemen. But end up indulging them in direct confrontation by supporting Saudi-backed forces by assisting them in airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US has also used drone strikes to target rebels for supporting Saleh regime in Yemen. The growing involvement of US in internal politics has transformed the internal rift within Yemen into an international conflict. The role of UN is not significant because it has failed to get desired results to maintain peace within the Yemen.

Another major threat that Yemen is facing is the threat of terrorism in form of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula (NATO Foundation Defence College, 2016,). The significance of the AQAP has increased inside Yemen due to ongoing rift between Saleh regime and Houthi rebels. The power vacuum has been created which is exploited by the Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula.  The sympathies of masses for Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula can further complicate the situation in Yemen consequently increased militancy in the country. The people are frustrated if they start joining terror organization it would disrupt the stability of Yemen in long run and security of the whole region.

Analysis

One can say the unity within Yemen is required for bringing stability in the country and saving Middle East region in larger extent from future conflicts. There is a need for internal cohesion among the internal players that can only be achieved by building consensus between them. The ruling elite should take steps to address the grievances of the people by sharing power with other major groups that are significant in politics of Yemen. The Shia community should be taken on board by giving then their due share in internal dynamics of the country. They should be consulted while making important policy decisions of the country to ensure the stability of Yemen.  Moreover,   the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia was ignited in case of Yemen that will increase their hostility with each other. According to experts, Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon especially after the normalization of the relation between Iran and US with the nuclear deal. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is also expressing their reservations regarding deal of Iran with the US. Saudi Arabia being the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iran’s role in the regional politics.  It will disturb the balance of power in the region as the nuclear deal will bring instability in the region.  According to Saudi government Iran will try to increase its power by actively backing regional proxies in form of the Hamas and Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Iran has apprehensions about the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment in Middle East region. In a context of Yemen, one can say that Iran and Saudi Arabia have their interests as both wants to increase their area of influence in the region. Iran is often blamed for clandestinely supporting Zaydi’s Shia of the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale. Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen by supporting them through aid and military assistance. The growing role of two major rival states is increasing instability of Middle East on one hand and on the hand becoming a cause of unrest in a case of Yemen.

Yemen should become self-sufficient in order to stop the intervention of external and regional players in its internal politics. It can only be possible if the leadership take the responsibility rather than serving their interests they should solve their internal issues by mutual consent. The fighting among various groups will increase the instability of their country.  There is the need to on part of ruling elite is to share their power for bringing internal cohesion with the groups who deprived of becoming major getting their due share in the context of domestic politics of Yemen. For instance, Shia community Zaydi’s which constitute majority at the domestic level within Yemen.

Conclusion

To conclude, one can say that role of leadership of Yemen should be pragmatic in order to resolve the internal issues by taking all stakeholders on board. Currently, the reliance of ruling elite on regional and international actors is causing more chaos. The leadership of Yemen should try to resolve their issues by building the consensus of domestic actors for bringing peace and stability in their country. The future of Yemen is largely dependent upon the decisions of the ruling elite who is running the country. The masses of Yemen want stability of their country which is disrupted by the involvement of regional and international players into the domestic politics of Yemen.

Way forward

The role of leadership should be pragmatic for addressing domestic issues.

The consensus building is required for ensuring the stability of Yemen.

Yemen needs to become self-sufficient for resolving their issues themselves.

Mehwish Akram holds masters degree in International Relations and currently doing M Phil in Political Science. Her areas of interest are Democracy, Political theory and Environmental politics .

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Middle East

Why US not trustworthy ally for Turkey

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Just weeks after failure of the ISIL terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, the United States announced that it is going to create a security belt from Erbil to Mediterranean Sea under the pretext of avoiding ISIL return.

To this end, Washington announced the US-led coalition is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 personnel, a move that has added to Turkish anger over US support for Kurdish-dominated forces in Syria.

More than 50 percent of the mentioned forces would be Syrian Kurd militia which Turkey says they are offshoot of PKK terrorist group and considers them a major threat to its security, while Washington considers them the most effective ally on the ground in Syria.

Supporting Kurdish separatist forces in Northern Syria, the US is after its own geopolitical goals in the country and the region which some of them are:

-To prolong the conflicts and crises in Syria in order to pave the way for breaking and disintegration of the country which can be a beginning of more breakings in the regional countries, while the US hypocritically defends territorial integrity of the Syria and other regional countries like Iraq.

-To boost its military presence in Syria by building military bases in order to decrease its dependence on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

– Playing with Kurdish card, the US intends to pressure and contain Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

-To provide  Security for Tel Aviv by destabilizing the security of the region.

-Dominating the energy rich region and the future energy routes.

Turkey began its military operation in Afrin to thwart some parts of the US organized plots against itself.

Facing obstacles on the way of its goals in the region due to cooperation between Russia and regional countries including Iran and Turkey, the US state secretary Rex Tillerson arrived in Turkey with new promises couple of days ago.

The regional countries should learn lessons from the past that the US is not a trustworthy ally and it is just following up its own geopolitical ambitions by empty promises and instrumental use from allies.

Turkish President in April 2017 in an interview with Aljazeera said, “With President Obama, we had a mutual agreement about the PKK – but Obama deceived us. I don’t believe the Trump administration will do the same.” But during Trump administration not only the US didn’t remove Turkey’s concerns but also intensified its support to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The only way to foil the US separatist plan in the region which is a direct threat to the all regional countries is close cooperation between Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with the help of Russia. We have been witnessing the fruits of this cooperation over the past several months including in foiling Erbil independence referendum and creating de-escalation zones in Syria.

It is noteworthy that the US in line with Samuel Huntington’s advice is cooperating with some grade 2 regional powers like Saudi Arabia to confront and weaken regional grade 1 powers like Iran and Turkey.

First published in our partner Mehr News Agency

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The war in the Golan Heights and in the Lebanon

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The framework of the clash on the borders between Israel, the Lebanon and Syria is currently much more complicated than it appears.

Recently, namely in mid-January, a senior officer of the Israeli Defence Forces has publicly announced that Iran is organizing a peripheral command in the Lebanon, precisely in the Southern area – a region traditionally controlled by Hezbollah and now by most of the Lebanese regular army, which is traditionally funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The Lebanese Armed Forces are backed by the United States to the tune of over 1.5 billion dollars, but also by  Saudi Arabia (3.5 billion US dollars), which operates also with funding for security, intelligence andterritorial police.

Iran will grant additional funds to the Lebanese forces with a view to creating a stable link between Iran and the Mediterranean coast, which is also one of the grand strategy targets of the Shiite leadership in the Syrian war.

This will certainly change the Saudi and US attitude towards the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The Iranian strategic goals are designed to avoid being conditioned by Hezbollah’s tactical interests.

Said interests are not only against Israel. The excess of Iranian efforts and resources for the Lebanon and the clash with the “Zionist entity” – as they call Israel – does not absorb all Iranian strategic goals.

Iran wants to gain hegemony in a region stretching from the Lebanese Mediterranean coast to the Shiite areas of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless Iran’s operations in Syria are designed to  creating the conditions for a simultaneous dual attack on  Israel, starting from the Golan Heights and the Litani area, with or even without the “Party of God”of the Lebanese Shiites.

Suffice they avoid the anti-Iranian actions within the Lebanese State.

Hence the air clash, which occurred in Syria and in Israel on February 10, resulted in the loss of an Israeli F-16C aircraft belonging to the 110th Squadron,  which had taken off from the Ramat David base. It also led to the loss of an F-15I aircraft hit, but not destroyed, by Bashar al-Assad’s air defence and damaged some jets hit by the Syrian anti-aircraft, as well as an Israeli helicopter hit in the skies of the Shebaa Farms. Finally an Iranian-made attack drone was shot down.

Obviously the Israeli pilots had received the explicit order of avoiding any Russian jetsand the Israeli government is extremely careful not to hurt the feelings and undermine the strategic sensitivity of Russia, the new global leader in the Middle East.

Israel’s aircrafts were aSufaF-16I and aBaaz F-15I.

The air defences of Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have also the Russian long-range S-125 and S-200 systems available.

The S-125 (NATO reporting name SA-3 GOA) is an old design missile with a range of 25 kilometres which, when  modified – as happened during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s – can hit aircraft capable of reaching very high speed at various altitudes.

Conversely, the S-200 (NATO reporting name SA-5 Gammon) is a long-range missile (200-350 kilometres), but both types of Russian surface-to-air missiles are semi-automatically driven. Currently most batteries are equipped with systems for Airborne Early Warning and Control Defence (AEW).

The speed of both surface-to-air systems is still considerable.

It is therefore evident that, since the Russian Intelligence Services control both the single launching batteries of surface-to-air missiles and all the e-control networks of the Syrian, South Turkish, Lebanese and North Israeli space,  Russia has given the green light for actions against the Israeli aircrafts and helicopters.

Hence it has decided – or possibly accepted others’  decision – to hit the Jewish aircrafts.

What is Israel’s and the other regional and global players’  strategic rationale in Syria?

The shooting down of the Israeli aircraft is a factor not to be neglected both tactically and geopolitically.

Two aircrafts lost are certainly a problem, but not an unresolvable one.

This is an operational and strategic factor to be studied carefully, a probable game-changer in the whole Syrian-Lebanese system.

Based on an initial assessment of facts, Israel lost air superiority in the Lebanese-Syrian region just when the Russian Federation sold or transferred to Bashar al-Assad’Syria a system of S-400 surface-to-air missiles at the end of November 2015.

The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler), with a maximum range of 400 kilometres, can launch its missiles at a speed of 4.8 kilometres per second and can detect up to 36 or even 80 targets simultaneously – hence it is hard to be saturated.

It is also a weapon system that has already been sold to China in 2014 and to Saudi Arabia in October 2017.

Hence considering its full and unrestricted control over the Syrian airspace and Syria’s broad strategic region, evidently Russia has de factoendorsed the Israeli raids on targets located both in Syrian areas and in the Lebanon.

The Israeli raids are already significant.

Let us think about the Israeli air attack in early  September 2017, with an operation in Masyaf, Western Syria – a mission carried out by Israel shortly after the United Nationshad accused Bashar al-Assad’s government  of the chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheykhoun, which had taken place in April 2017.

At the time, both the Russians and the Syrians of Assad’s government had reassured the United Nations and the other players that no one had ever used forbidden weapons.

However, those who were poisoned and unable to breathe  were still in hospitals, so as to demonstrate the opposite of what had officially been declared by the Syrian-Russian military connection.

The ease with which the Syrian allies put Russia in difficultiesvis-à-vis the West and the other global powers is a burden for it.

Hence what did Israel want and what does it want to demonstrate with these raids, the last of which was  unsuccessful  for  “David’ slingshot”?

Firstly, it wants to make it clear to all regional players that the “red line” between the territory of the Jewish State and the territory of the Syrian-Lebanese State is still fully in force.

Secondly – but this is a strategically primary issue – Israel wants to show how dangerous it is for Iran to try and build its new forward bases in the border area between the Golan Heights and the Litani River in the Lebanon. Finally, Israel wants to ever more perfect its air attacks to avoid or postpone a ground attack.

The technologies for air attacks have already been largely developed.

As far as we know, they would be a mix of micro-intelligence on the ground and of new remotely-controlled, but high-precision weapons,  as well as a new distribution of defence systems, built and deployed on the ground in such a way as to hit several thousand targets within one hour at most.

Certainly, in all likelihood, there is a new Iranian base south of Damascus.

A station mainly equipped with air forces, but fully managed and controlled by the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with the high probability of adding submarines in the coastal areas controlled by Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

Hence either a scenario of attack on Israel from a unified front in the North, between Syria, Golan and the Lebanese Litani area, or another even more dangerous scenario for Israel, in which the Jewish State would be attacked from the North and the South at the same time.

The first attack would take place according to the model already tested by Hezbollah in 2006, and also in 2004, but this time together with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The second attack could take place when movements modelled on Hezbollah will be active and dangerous also  in the Palestinian area east and south of Jerusalem, like the recently-established Al Sabiroun in the Gaza Strip.

Also the Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian organization founded in Gaza in 1979 from a previous network of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been based with its leaders in Damascus since 1988.

Currently, however, Iran’s funding is scarce for this Sunni organization that, since the very beginning, accepted and supported the 1979 Ayatollah Revolution, as also Yasser Arafat did.

It is always worth remembering it.

Indeed, there isclose continuity between the “secular” and Marxist Palestinian uprising, which is still very much liked by the EU finest spirits, and the “radical” jihadist and Islamist twist that,for the amateurs of Middle East politics, appears to be a novelty with respect to the para-Soviet model of Yasser Arafat’s PLO and its many internal groups.

Iran’s relations with HAMAS are rhapsodic, precisely considering the close link – strengthened from 2011 onwards – between this Palestinian military structure, which also originated from a cell of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia.

In all likelihood, however, the timing of the combined attack from the South will be connected to the development and military preparation of Al Sabiroon, which shall be at least equal to Hezbollah’s.

According to some sources, however, Iran has already long arranged as many as 70,000 missiles in Syria, all targeted  or targetable to Israel.

The Al Quds Force has also already deployed 5,000 soldiers in the area around Damascus and about 50 kilometres from the border with Israel.

Then there are the Shiite military groups, who often approach the border with Israel and sometimes cross it.

Furthermore, in Syria, Iran arms and trains Shiite battalions  from the various regions of that country, such as Al Baqr and the Battalion 313.

The latter Syrian Shiite unit reminds of the number of Muhammad’s fighters in the Battle of Al-Badr, but it is actually called “The Great Apostle’s Brigade”, while it is worth recalling that the number 313 also regards the  esoteric eschatology connected to the final coming of the Mahdi, He who will put an end to the world.

According to our sources, the Brigade 313 is still in the region of ​​Homs where jihadists still operate in its Southern area.

Currently, however, the number of brigades or battalions of Syrian-origin Shiite militants, all trained by the Pasdaran, is equal to five units, all located between Central and Southern Syria and all with autonomous commands, but actually directed by Iranian officials of the Al Quds Force.

The operations of camouflage and strategic deception of the many Iranian missiles were all directly authorized by Bashar al-Assad and conducted by Iran and Hezbollah with the active support of the Syrian Arab Army.

Again according to said sources, within a year from now,  the number of small or large missiles is expected to reach over 500,000 (according to Iranian and Lebanese programmers).

A saturation of airspace that, according to Iran experts, is supposed to block the reactions of the Israeli’s space protection system.

During the Israeli State visit to Russia of January 29, 2018,Netanyahu officially asked Vladimir Putin to containIran’s anti-Israeli operations in Syria.

It is also very likely that the Israeli leader provided to Vladimir Putin also a good amount of intelligence on the Iranian threat to the Jewish State from within Syria.

Furthermore, the strategic divergence between Russia and Iran on the Syrian territory is already quite evident and  essentially unresolvable, considering the current situation on the ground.

But certainly Russia has no interest in creating further tension with Israel.

Hence probably the Russian authorization for the Syrian (and possibly Iranian) anti-aircraft operations is the last act of a sequence of strategic signals between Russia and the United States on the Syrian issue.

In fact, while it is true that Iran is absolutely essential in Syria for the Russian Federation, with a view to avoidingRussia’s too heavy engagement in favour of Assad, certainly Russia does not want to create a political and strategic system in which Bashar al-Assad is subjected solely to Iran’s will.

Once finished the clashes on the ground, Russia will redesign the Syrian map, thus preventing the country from splitting – also implicitly and subtly – into various regions, all with a different padrinage.

Russia does not certainly want to guarantee to Iran a Shiite context going from Iraq to Syria, so as to arrive without interruption up to the Mediterranean coast.

Moreover Russia wants the strengthening and final success of the Astana talks – a decompression system of the Syrian conflict inevitably involving two other players besides Russia, namely Iran and Turkey.

Turkey against Iran, despite the recent good relations between the two countries sanctioned by the meeting held in early October 2017.

A visit which significantly took place while the Saudi leadership was paying an official visit to Russia.

Hence, from now on, the Russian Federation will play Turkey against Iran and viceversa, so as to avoid losing the role of main actor in Syria and, at least for the time being, in the rest of the Middle East.

Yet good relations between Russia and Israel are still needed.

Hence this is the reason why, on the one hand, Bashar al- Assad is ever less interested in supporting Iran’s post-war ambitions and he does not directly operate – at least for the time being – against the Turkish forces that entered Idlib.

This happens while Syria operates – now explicitly – in favour of the Kurds, traditionally fought by Turkey and currently de factoabandoned by the United States.

However, we have just been informed of a new agreement between the United States and the Kurdish leadership in Syria.

Besides Russia, Tukey and Syria have every interest in preventing the Kurds from changing the complex ethnic composition of the areas under their control – but here the only possible broker and mediator is the Russian Federation.

And this is also a primary Israeli strategic interest.

Moreover, all Syrian richest oil and water areas are now under the direct control of the Kurdish YPD, which will create further conditions for Russian mediation.

This happens while the United States is now ambiguously avoiding supporting the Kurds, whom it has armed and trained so far.

Moreover, currently the United States has problematic  relations also with Turkey, which has never appreciated the US strategic double standard in Syria.

But today, after Putin’s phone call to Netanyahu on October 18, 2017- designed to avoiding military climax in Syria and particularly to protecting his forces, distributed throughout the Iranian and Hezbollah networks – we need to look at some other variables of this complex equation.

Israel’s operations could also hit the Russian  base of Tiyas, i.e. the T4 near Palmira, the base from which the Iranian drone – copied from an old US drone lost by the Americans many years ago – is supposed to have left.

The base currently hosts four air squadrons.

In other words, Russia’s message to Israel is simply the following: dear Israeli friends, accept the new Russian hegemony over Syria and the Middle East and nothing will happen to you – neither by Irannor by others.

The Russian message, however, also entails as follows:  Israel should stop putting the lives and operations of the Russian soldiers present in the region in severe danger.

It should also stop putting the Russian forces in difficulties in their relations with the Iranian and Syrian forces that could put Russia in trouble precisely because of its friendship with Israel.

Israel cannot do without the alliance with the Russian Federation, while Russia cannot forget the number and importance of the Russian Jews who emigrated to the Jewish State.

It cannot forget how close the Russian-Israeli cooperation is in the technological, military, intelligence and cultural sectors.

For Israel the Russian military presence in Syria represents two strategic variables: on the one hand, it avoids the clash  in the Golan Heights – and also in Lebanon, considering  the tested system of terrestrial passage into Syria between Iran and the Lebanon -being massively targeted to Israel, that is not at all a Russian enemy.

On the other hand, the Russian military presence in Syria prevents the Jewish State from striking – surgically or not – the Iranian and Hezbollah forces operating on the ground.

Furthermore, Russia knows all too well that – by reaction – the operations in Syria have created a strong Sunni alliance, signed early June last with the exclusion of Qatar.

Israel hasnow excellent, but confidential relations with the new Sunni political universe.

Finally Russia has no intention of breaking all ties with the world dominated by Saudi Arabia and by the other Gulf powers because of their alliance with Iran in Syria.

Too much business is already underway, but above all what is at stake is Russia’ strategic wisdom in proposing itself as a global broker and mediator for the Middle East region, without ever forgetting anyone.

Moreover, the Russian Federation is well aware that, without Hezbollah’s and Iran’ support, it could certainly not have afforded a solitary war against ISIS and its allies in Syria – terrorists and Caliphate’s jihadists also backed by many Western powers and their Middle East points of reference, as Putin correctly stated in October 2015.

Thanks to its new dominance in Syria, the Russian Federation also wants to achieve a project of strong relations with the United States, thus re-establishing a new “strategic parity” with it.

It is precisely through the war in Syria that Russia wants to get out of its old post-1989 role of “regional power” in order to be once again a global player.

But how can it reach this goal without Israel’s regional support?

It is worth recalling, however, that Iran is absolutely necessary for the Russian Federation both for the creation of the Eurasian bloc – the future central axis of Putin’s geopolitics – and also for the essential oil connection  between Russia and Iran.

Last August there were also secret contacts between Israel, Russia and the United States in Amman.

Jordan and the Jewish State pointed out – especially to Russia – that the “de-escalation zones”,envisaged in the Astana agreements and later reaffirmed by the Geneva Peace Conference, had apositioning that would enable the  Iranian and Hezbollah forces to attack the Israeli positions, and obviously the Jordanian ones, more easily.

It is worth recalling that the “de-escalation zones” in Syria are the following : 1) the Idlib province, as well as the Northeastern  areas of ​​Latakia province, Western areas of Aleppo and Northern areas of Hama; 2) the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in Northern  Homsprovince; 3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside; 4) the rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

Again in that secret meeting Jordan and Israeli added that  it would be preferable for them to have Russia’s direct control over the border between Syria and Jordan.

Russia and the United States – this time united – only wanted to reach, as soon as possible, an agreement on the cease-fire in Southern Syria, unavoidable to successfully attack the areas still held by Daesh-Isis.

This was the strategic sense of the Amman meeting.

At that time Israel also asked – but only to the Russian Federation – to create an area of ​​at least 20 kilometres away from the Israeli border with Syria completely devoid of Iranian or Hezbollah positions.

There was also the possibility that Israel would ask Russia and the United States to expel all Iran’s and its allies’ forces from Syria.

Obviously this is inconceivable. Neither of the two major global players, namely Russia and the United States, is interested in expelling Iran from Syria.

Russia cannot do without it, as we have already seen.

The United States, however, has no intention of being  directly involved in the Syrian chaos, with many boots on the ground, since it rather prefers a military and geopolitical balance between its various client groups.

Furthermore, the visit paid by the Russian Defence Minister, Shoigu,to Israel in mid-October 2017 has not solved the primary issue, i.e. the excessive presence of  Iranian weapons and soldiers – or connected to Iran – near the Golan Heights border.

In fact, Israel saw the emergence of ISIS in Syria as an excellent opportunity to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – an enemy if considered on his own and also Iran’s loyal supporter.

Netanyahu, however, reiterated to Minister Shoigu the concept we have already mentioned, i.e. that the de-escalation zones do not guarantee at all the absence of Shiite militias on the Syrian-Israeli border.

Probably they favour their transfer to the Golan Heights and to the Lebanon.

A possible solution is that, after destroying the last Isis-Daesh pockets of resistance, Russia is really ending its operations in Syria.

This will soon imply also the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the other Shiite militias.

A return back home that, according to our sources, will be controlled by the Russian Federation and by other regional and global players – none of them particularly interested in favouring Iran.

Hence if Israel persuades the Russian Federation to carry out a parallel credibleand geographically verifiable withdrawal from Syria – also of the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces – the tension on borders, but also the line of direct connection between Iran and the Lebanon could be interrupted or damaged.

But certainly the Jewish State cannot fail to keep on monitoring its borders carefully. It will check with other actions, but not necessarily with the air force, Russia’s willingness to defend Iranian positions to the bitter end.

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Middle East

Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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