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Can Assad’s Syria Survive Revolution?

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The outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 surprised many people. Until that time, it seemed that the 40-year reign of the Assad dynasty, at first under its founder, Hafiz, and then under his son and heir, Bashar, had succeeded in turning Syria into a strong and stable state with governmental institutions, military, and security forces.

Even social and economic systems appeared quite sturdy and effective.

Yet a year and a half of bloody fighting between the regime and the rebels has undermined most of the achievements of the Assad dynasty and turned Syria into a failing state on the verge of disintegration. Most state institutions have ceased to function. The bonds that united the various religious and ethnic communities, tribes, and regions—that took many long years of hard work to forge—are rapidly unraveling. In addition, Syria has become a kind of punching bag with foreign actors, both regional and international, intervening freely in the country’s internal affairs.

How did the revolt spread so quickly to all parts of Syria, striking such deep roots among wide segments of the Syrian society? How has the Assad regime managed, for the time being and in contrast to other Arab regimes rocked by the recent upheavals, to survive the lethal challenges facing it? And how has it been able to maintain its cohesion and strength to the point where many observers do not preclude the possibility of its ultimate survival?

The Outbreak of the Syrian Revolution

The revolution in Syria, in contrast to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, was at its base a peasants’ revolt, a protest by the Sunni periphery against what was perceived as the Baath regime’s turning its back on the country’s rural population. Only later did the rebellion take on additional dimensions with jihadists joining the struggle because of the regime’s “heretical” Alawite nature and because of its alliance with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. In the name of jihad, thousands of volunteers have streamed into Syria from all over the Arab and Muslim world[1] though jihadist slogans probably did little to arouse Syrians to join the ranks of the revolution.

Revenge was another dimension that developed with time, stemming from the regime’s increasingly violent efforts to suppress the waves of protest. It is clear that the regime’s brutality served to expand the circle of participants in the revolution. Many who joined were motivated specifically by the desire to take revenge for the spilled blood of their family members and relatives or for the destruction of their home villages and towns by the regime’s forces.[2]

Paradoxically, in the past, the Sunni rural population had been one of the regime’s foremost mainstays. It was one of the main partners in Syria’s ruling coalition of minorities and the periphery, led by members of the Alawite community, who were in turn headed by the Assad dynasty. This coalition served as the basis for the Baath revolution of March 1963, and later as the basis of support for the “Corrective Movement” and for Hafiz al-Assad’s seizure of power in November 1970.

With the passage of time and especially from the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed as if the Syrian regime had ceased reflecting Syrian society. The regime even seemed to have turned its back on the rural areas and the periphery. Beginning in 2006, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts the state had ever known with the damage felt most intensely in the Jazira region of northeastern Syria and in the south, especially in the Hawran region and its central city of Dar’a.

These regions were also adversely affected by the government’s new economic policies, which aimed at changing the character of the Syrian economy from a socialist orientation into a “social market economy.” The aim of these policies, led by Vice Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, was to open Syria to the world economy, encourage foreign investment, and promote activity in the domestic private sector so as to ensure economic growth and enable the regime to cope with its domestic and economic challenges: rapid growth of the population, backward infrastructure and lack of advanced industry, over-reliance on agriculture, etc. The new policy was backed by Bashar al-Assad, who seemed to have underestimated the importance of the Baath party’s socialist ideology as well as its institutions and networking, mainly in the periphery. One conclusion to be drawn from the negative reactions to this policy in the periphery was that while the Syrian regime did indeed manage to preserve its image of strength and solidity during the first decade of the 2000s, its support base was considerably narrowed. It lost the broad popular support that it had enjoyed among the Sunni population in the rural areas and the periphery after it turned its back on them.[3]

And so, from the time the revolution broke out in March 2011 in the city of Dar’a, the rebellion spread like wildfire to all the rural areas and the periphery, including the northern part of the state, the Jazira region, and later, the agricultural towns of Homs and Hama. The revolution reached the large cities, Damascus and Aleppo, only at a much later stage.

The Tlas Family and the Town of Rastan

An illustration of this turmoil can be found in the story of the Tlas family from the small town of Rastan. Headed by Mustafa Tlas, the family was one of the pillars of the Baath regime, a living example of the close alliance between the regime and the Sunni periphery on the one hand, and between the Sunni and the Alawite officers led by the Assad dynasty on the other.

Rastan itself is the third largest town in the Homs district and numbers about 40,000 inhabitants according to a 2004 census. It is located on the main road between Aleppo and Damascus, on the segment between the towns of Homs and Hama, about 20 kilometers from Homs and 22 kilometers from Hama. Rastan’s residents earn their livings from agriculture and light industry, notably the rock quarries for which the town is known.[4]

The town has two main clans, the Hamdan, the larger and stronger of the two, and the Firzat. The Tlas family belongs to the Hamdan clan. One of the family’s members, Abdel Qadr Tlas, served as the mukhtar (administrative head) of Rastan from the end of the Ottoman period into the French Mandate period. As a young man, Mustafa Tlas, Abdel Qadr’s son, became the ally and right hand man of Hafiz al-Assad. The two met at the Homs Military Academy, during the officers’ course in which they were enrolled after joining the Syrian army in November 1952. They were roommates during the course, and their paths never parted thereafter. They advanced in rank together and, in November 1970, seized power in Damascus with Hafiz leading and Mustafa helping him. At that time, Tlas was serving as commander in chief of the army and was quickly appointed minister of defense, a post he held until his retirement in 2004.

Tlas was in office during the brutal suppression of the Islamist revolt against the Baath regime in 1976-82, which peaked with the massacre of the citizens of Hama in February 1982. His last task was, in essence, to help Assad’s son Bashar grow into his father’s big shoes.[5]

Tlas also established an economic empire. One of its showcases was a publishing house. He used this firm as a vehicle for publishing, in addition to works of other authors, his own “scholarly” writings, memoirs, and even poetry. Tlas married Lamya Jabiri, a member of the Aleppine aristocracy, and the couple had four children: two daughters—Nahid, who married a Saudi businessman and moved with him to Paris, and Sarya—and two sons—Firas, who became a successful businessman in Damascus, and Manaf, who chose a military career. Manaf was known as a close friend of Bashar al-Assad and served as a brigade commander in the Republican Guard Division, an elite unit formed to protect the regime.[6]

Rastan and the Start of the Revolt

In addition to being home to the Tlas family, Rastan also serves as a faithful reflection of the Sunni periphery. It is not surprising that when the Syrian revolution broke out, the town became one of the revolt’s focal points. As early as the beginning of April 2011, the town square statue of Hafiz al-Assad was reportedly smashed to pieces as demonstrators shouted with joy.[7] This was a symbolic act clearly expressing the town’s disengagement from the Baath regime and from the Assad dynasty. However, Rastan is too strategically located to be given up. Since it is on a main road linking northern and southern Syria and close to the towns of Homs and Hama, it became a major scene of bloody battles between the regime’s army and the insurgents, in which scores of the town’s residents were killed.

The protest movement in Rastan did not bypass the Tlas family. The members of the family who were officers and soldiers, like many of their friends and colleagues, could not ignore the pressure of the unfolding events or the fate suffered by their relatives, neighbors, and home town.

The first Tlas family member to join the revolt was Abd al-Razzaq Tlas, who announced his desertion from the regular Syrian army as early as June 2011. He has subsequently served as commander of the Faruq battalion associated with the Free Syrian Army, which operates in the region of Homs. As time passed, Abd al-Razzaq has become one of the closely watched symbols of the revolution. Thus, for example, innumerable interpretations were given to the fact that he has begun to grow a beard though this action did not necessarily stem from religious motives. His image was not damaged even after rumors were spread about his involvement in a sex scandal though he was apparently removed from his position as battalion commander.[8] Additional members of the Tlas family followed him into the revolution until finally, in the summer of 2012, the reverberations reached the home of Mustafa Tlas. This was quite late in the game and only after it began to seem as if the days of the Assad regime were numbered.

During the first months of 2012, Mustafa Tlas, suffering from health problems, moved to Paris to be near his daughter Nihad. His son Firas soon followed and established contacts with opposition figures and began participating in resistance events abroad.[9] At the beginning of July 2012, Manaf announced his defection from the ranks of the regime. In an interview with al-Arabiya news network, he explained, “I do not see myself as a senior figure in the ranks of the regime but rather as one of the sons of the Syrian Arab army who opposes barbarism and murder of innocents and the corrupt government … I hope for the establishment of a united Syria and for its rebuilding as a state that does not believe in or promote revenge, discrimination, or selfishness.”[10] Immediately after Manaf’s defection, several opposition figures began to mention him as a possible leader of Syria after Bashar’s hoped-for fall. Other opposition figures, however, came out firmly against the idea.[11]

The steps taken by those members of the Tlas family serve as a graphic example of what was happening all over Syria during the past year and a half. They are good indicators of how people who had been strong supporters of the Assad regime turned their backs on it when they felt that it had betrayed them or no longer served their interests.

The Survival of the Regime

Every coin and almost every story has two sides, and so it is with the story of Syria. One side of the story has to do with the fact that the insurgents’ uprising spread quickly and struck deep roots. The other side of the story has to do with the regime and the undeniable fact that it has so far been able to survive. One explanation for this focuses on the built-in weaknesses of the opposition,[12] which is a faithful reflection of the Syrian society: Both opposition and society suffer from divisions and fragmentation based upon ethnic, religious, regional, socioeconomic, and other differences. Another explanation focuses on the international community’s lack of will or ability to intervene in Syria. A third explanation highlights the sources of the regime’s strengths, calling attention to the fact that the regime survives, not only because of its opponents’ weaknesses, but also because of the reserves of power at its disposal.

One source of the regime’s strength lies in the support it receives from the members of the minority communities, who serve as its social bases. These include the Alawites (12 percent of the population), the Druze (5 percent), and most of the Christians (13 percent). The Kurds (10 percent), including those who live in the regions bordering Turkey and Iraq, have for the most part, not turned against the government either. Many Kurds have exploited the revolution to throw off government control and advance the cause of partial Kurdish independence. Nevertheless, the Syrian Kurds as a whole have refrained from joining the ranks of the opposition or coming out openly against the Assad regime.

Another source of regime strength lies in the fact that while turmoil has come to the suburbs and the slums of Aleppo and Damascus, the revolution has not ignited among urban Syrians, including the Sunni bourgeoisie of the big cities. Most big city residents have chosen to remain on the sidelines and not support the protests, fearing that this leap would result in political instability, as happened in Iraq or Lebanon, at immense costs.

Part of the reluctance stems from the economic benefits the urban bourgeoisie enjoy, especially during recent years thanks to the regime’s economic policies. Some have to do with the bourgeoisie’s age-old resentments, reservations, and aversion toward the periphery and the rural regions and their inhabitants. The numbers of urban dwellers are considerable. Some 55.7 percent of Syrians live in cities. Around 8 million (out of the total population of 23 million) live in the country’s three large cities: Aleppo—2.98 million; Damascus—2.52 million; and Homs—1.27 million. Most of the Christians live in these three cities.[13]

Since most opposition activists come from rural areas, most incursions into the big cities, including Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, have been carried out by insurgents from nearby rural regions. They penetrate the big cities mostly through the slum neighborhoods and suburbs, which are often inhabited by recent migrants from the periphery and rural areas. These migrants generally maintain connections with relatives back home, and it is from there that the armed bands come. But because the bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo have refrained from joining the insurgents,[14] the Syrian opposition has been denied victory photos such as those from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which made it clear that the die had been cast in Egypt and that the youth were on the revolution’s side. In Syria, for the time being, the youth in the big cities prefer to remain shut up in their homes.

Another source of the regime’s strength lies in the loyalty of its institutions, in particular, the army, the security apparatuses, the state bureaucracy, and the Baath party apparatuses. Indeed, in many cases, using the party’s networks, the regime was able to recruit and mobilize local families in various areas, including Sunni neighborhoods, which have become local militias fighting for the regime. These include members of the Sunni community in particular with the emphasis on the Sunni periphery.

Loyalists in Rastan

Returning to Rastan, it is clearly not a big city but of the rebel periphery. But it is also undisputable that many of its residents remain loyal to the regime. In the Tlas family, some have joined the ranks of the rebels, but others maintain neutrality, and still others continue to work for the government. Thus, Talal Tlas serves as Syria’s deputy minister of defense and Ahmad Tlas serves as the commander of the First Corps, the most important military unit in southern Syria.[15] And the various branches of the Tlas family continue to live together in Rastan; battles in the town take place between rebels and army forces that come from outside in order to attack.[16]

Beside these two senior Tlas members, there are others still serving loyally as army officers, perhaps because they consider this to be in their best personal interest and a good way to advance their careers. Their position is quite different from that of the younger officers, like Abd al-Razzaq Tlas, who has his whole future before him. Joining the ranks of the revolution promises him a brilliant future should it succeed. In any case, as a young officer, he did not have nearly as many vested interests to leave behind and potentially lose. The situation of the senior and middle level officers is much different. They could lose everything, all their achievements, their ranks, pensions, possibilities for further advancement, and other benefits and privileges. Joining the revolution means sacrifice for a vague future full of unknowns. The revolutionary future holds out the promise of great rewards for the youth, but not necessarily for the symbols of the old regime.

It is clear that as long as the members of the Tlas family and people like them give the regime their support, it will be able to survive. Only about 10 percent of the army’s manpower has defected. The other 90 percent, both soldiers and officers, the great majority of whom come from the Sunni periphery, continues to stand united around the regime, giving it the breathing space it so desperately needs.

Conclusions

The story of the Tlas family and their town, Rastan, attests to the complexity of the Syrian picture. The regime is losing blood daily; little by little support for it diminishes. Since the eruption of the revolution, the trend has clearly been in one direction only. Nevertheless, the regime retains reserves of support that enable it to survive. A dramatic shift in the situation, such as Bashar’s assassination or an unexpected intervention by the international community, could give the insurgents the push they need and bring about a major change in the course of the conflict. But the example of the Tlas family and Rastan suggests that the struggle for Syria will still take a long time to unfold.

Eyal Zisser is dean of the faculty of humanities and the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.

[1] The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2012; Al-Monitor, online news, Oct. 18, 2012.
[2] Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (Stanford: Stanford University, 2012), pp. 69-156.
[3] Eyal Zisser, “The Renewal of the ‘Struggle for Syria’: The Rise and Fall of the Ba’th Party,” Sharqiya, Fall 2011, pp. 21-9; Hanna Batatu, Syria’s Peasantry: The Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables and Their Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 131-75. For economic data, “Syria—Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, Apr. 2011.
[4] The Annual Report for 2004, Central Bureau of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Office, Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus; “Syria: Mining,” Encyclopedia of the Nations, accessed Dec. 7, 2012.
[5] Mustafa Tlas, Mira’t Hayati (Damascus: Dar Tlas lil-Nashr, 1995), vol. 1, pp. 240-310; Sami Moubayed, Steel and Silk, Men and Women Who Shaped Syria, 1900-2000 (Seattle: Cune Press, 2006), pp. 89, 255.
[6] Al-Hayat (London), July 12, 2012; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), July 14, 2012.
[7] Asharq al-Awsat (London), Apr. 7, 2011; al-Arabiya TV (Dubai), Apr. 6, 7, 2011.
[8] Reuters, June 6, 7, 2011; al-Jazeera TV, June 6, 2011; BBC Radio in Arabic, Feb. 12, 2012; Aron Lund, “Holy Warriors: A Field Guide to Syria’s Jihadi Groups,” Foreign Policy, Oct. 15, 2012.
[9] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), June 28, 2012; al-Jazeera TV, July 1, 2012.
[10] Reuters, July 14, 2012; al-Arabiya TV, July 24, 2012.
[11] Al-Hayat, July 19, 24, 2012.
[12] See, for example, BBC News, Nov. 12, 2012; Itamar Rabinovich, “The Anarchy Factor in Syria,” The Straits Times (Singapore), May 3, 2012.
[13]General Census,” Central Bureau of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Office, Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, accessed Dec. 21, 2012.
[14] Reuters, July 18, 19, 2012; al-Hayat, Aug. 23, 2012.
[15] Syrian TV-24, Aug. 1, 2012.
[16] “Al-Markaz al-I’lami fi Rastan,” YouTube.com, July 22, 25, 2012.

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Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Turkish investigators asserting that they have found further evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed when he visited the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Turkey appears to be leveraging the case to enhance its position as a leader of the Islamic World and reposition itself as a key US ally.

To enhance its geopolitical position vis a vis Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and Iran and potentially garner economic advantage at a time that it is struggling to reverse a financial downturn, Turkey has so far leaked assertions of evidence it says it has of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing rather than announced them officially.

In doing so, Turkey has forced Saudi Arabia to allow Turkish investigators accompanied by Saudi officials to enter the consulate and positioned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the kingdom’s saviour by engineering a situation that will allow the kingdom to craft a face-saving way out of the crisis.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering announcing that Mr. Khashoggi, a widely-acclaimed journalist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went into self-exile because he feared arrest, was killed in either a rogue operation or an attempt gone awry to forcibly repatriate it him back to the kingdom.

US President Donald J. Trump offered the Turks and Saudis a helping hand by referring this week to the possibility of Mr. Khashoggi having been killed by rogues and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara.

Mr. Khashoggi, seeking to obtain proof of his divorce in the kingdom so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, visited the consulate two weeks ago for the second time after having allegedly received assurances that he would be safe.

Turkey emerges as the crisis moves towards a situation in which an official version is agreed that seeks to shield Prince Mohammed from being held responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely murder with its international status significantly enhanced.

Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.

As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.

It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.

Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.

Already, Mr. Khashoggi’s family who was initially quoted by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media as backing Saudi denials of responsibility, insinuations that his fate was the product of a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and casting doubt on the integrity of the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, has called for “the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on multiple issues that divide the Muslim world. Turkey has vowed to help Iran circumvent Saudi-supported US sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear agreement.

Turkey further backs Qatar in its dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that has diplomatically and economically boycotted the Gulf state for the last 16 months. The credibility of the alliance’s allegation that Qatar supports terrorism and extremism has been dented by the growing conviction that Saudi Arabia, whether in a planned, rogue or repatriation effort gone wrong, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

Mr. Khashoggi’s death, moreover, highlighted differing approaches towards the Brotherhood, one of the Middle East’s most persecuted, yet influential Islamist groupings. Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Many brothers have sought refuge in Turkey with Mr. Erdogan empathetic and supportive of the group. A former brother, Mr. Khashoggi criticized Saudi repression of the group.

The Saudi-Turkish rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world was most evident in the two countries’ responses to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his as yet unpublished plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey emerged as the leader of Islamic denunciation of Mr. Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital after Prince Mohammed tried to dampen opposition. Ultimately, King Salman was forced to step in a bid to clarify the kingdom’s position and counter Turkish moves.

No matter how Turkey decides to officially release whatever evidence it has, Saudi Arabia figures out how to respond and halt the haemorrhaging, and Mr. Pompeo holds talks with King Salman and Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is likely to emerge from the crisis strengthened despite its increasingly illiberal and increasingly authoritarian rule at home,

Turkey’s success is all the more remarkable given that it has neither Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle nor the mantle the kingdom adopts as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

A successful political resolution of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to earn it the gratitude of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and its other detractors like the UAE who support the kingdom even if it may help it to regain popularity in the Arab world lost as a result of its swing towards authoritarianism, alliance with Iran and Qatar, and support for Islamism.

One immediate Turkish victory is likely to be Saudi acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s demand that Saudi Arabia drop its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria that Ankara sees as terrorists – a move that would boost Turkey’s position the Turkish-Russian-Iranian jockeying for influence in a post-war Syria. Turkey is also likely to see Saudi Arabia support it economically.

Turkey may, however, be playing for higher stakes.

Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall. (It wants to) disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West” in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, said international relations scholar Serhat Guvenc.

Turkey’s relations in recent years have soured as a result of Turkish insistence that the US is harbouring a terrorist by refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the preacher it accuses of having engineered the failed 2016 coup; detaining American nationals and US consulate employees on allegedly trumped up charges, cosying up to Russia and purchasing its S-400 surface to air missile system, and aligning itself with Iran. Relations were further strained by US support for Syrian Kurds.

Mr. Trump, however this week heralded a new era in US-Turkish relations after the release of unsubscribeAndrew Brunson, an evangelist preacher who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.

Mr. Guvenc argued that Turkey hopes that Saudi Arabia’s battered image will help it persuade Mr. Trump that Turkey rather than the kingdom is its strongest and most reliable ally alongside Israel in the Middle East.

Said journalist Ferhat Unlu: “”Turkey knows how to manage diplomatic crises. Its strategy is to manage tensions to its advantage,”

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MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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Middle East

Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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