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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.

Middle East

Iran regime’s Parliamentary elections and challenges facing it

Aladdin Touran

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Forty-one years have passed since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and now the regime is entrenched in crises and facing a deadlock.

On the one hand, it faces crippling economic crises and severe budget deficits, and on the other hand, injustice and lack of freedom have turned the Iranian society into a powder keg that can explode at any moment.

According to information published by the main Iranian opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in the nationwide Iran protests last November more than 1500 protesters were shot dead, while protests spread to more than 190 Iranian cities. The fact that these protests are continuing in 2020indicates that the Iranian regime’s crises are intensifying.

In the international arena, the regime is also in a very weak position. Its warmongering policies and nuclear and ballistic missile program are under the magnifying glass and pressure of the international community. U.S. sanctions have added to the regime’s crises and put it in a deadlock.

Solutions for the regime

The regime is in dire need of money to quell protests related to its failing economy. To get this money, it needs the U.S. to lift sanctions. The U.S. administration’s Maximum Pressure campaign left the regime with a dilemma of choosing between two courses of action:

It can either accept U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12-point plan and conditions for normalization of relations, which would mean abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile program and military interventions in other countries.

Or it can choose the path of contraction and confrontation. Which would require the regime to unify itself to be able to stand against the upcoming crises.

Review of the regime’s solutions

If the regime accepts all of a part of Pompeo’s 12-point plan, it would mean that the regime would end up negotiating at its weakest point. The “Death to America” chant will ring hollow. After 41 years of the Islamic Republic’s establishment, sitting at the negotiation table with representatives of the “Great Satan”, which killed the regime’s second most-important figure, General Qassem Soleimani, in January, will cause its forces to collapse from within.

It seems that the regime has chosen the path of contraction. This decision is aimed at buying time and is an investment on proxy wars in the region in order to force the U.S. to step back and lift sanctions. The regime hopes that in the next U.S. elections someone else will replace Donald Trump with a milder Iran policy.

The Supreme Leader’s decision to go down the contractive path can be seen in the regime’s so-called upcoming legislative elections. The upcoming election is the most important event through which the Supreme leader can unify its regime from within and prepare it for tougher times ahead.

The engineered elections

In Iran the legislative elections are basically engineered by the Supreme leader. Its method is as follows. First, different factions introduce their candidates. Then, the Guardian Council reviews their competence. The Guardian Council consists of 12 members. Six of them are clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader. The other six are jurists chosen by the Chief of the Judiciary. But the Judiciary Chief himself is appointed by the Supreme Leader. It is in fact a labyrinth with various entrances that leads at the end to the Supreme Leader. In fact, any concept of “moderation” in Iran is a lie and a political game to keep the people and the western countries busy. The principal conflict between the so-called “reformists” and “hardliners” is about the method of continuing the regime’s existence and a power struggle between different regime mobs.

More than 16,000 people presented themselves as candidates for the legislative elections. More than 55% of these candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council. Some 90% of the so-called reformists candidates are among the disqualified. The Guardian Council even disqualified 90 members of the current Majlis (Parliament). State media report that from 290 seats in Majlis, 200 seats have already been assigned.

Regime’s only solution

A way out for the regime is to show a “massive” participation of people in the elections. On February 5, 2020, the Supreme leader for the first time begged the people to participate in the elections, “even if you disagree with me.” Despite the removal of the so-called reformist candidates, the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani also begged in a speech on the anniversary of the Iranian revolution on February 12, 2020 for people to participate in the elections.

The President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, has called on the Iranian people to boycott the upcoming elections.

A poll on the state-run news network’s Telegram showed that 83% of the people are not willing to participate in the elections. The regime was forced to hastily remove this poll from Telegram.

The regime also failed to mobilize its forces for the annual ceremony of the marking the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. Video clips taken from Tehran’s Azadi Square during Rouhani’s speech show that the scene was empty. The regime fears a repeat of the no-show during the legislative elections.

The maximum pressure campaign on the regime must continue and the European Union must join it. It’s time that the Iranian people’s desire for a free Iran be recognized by the international community.

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Middle East

Growing Political Instability in Middle East: A Case Study of Yemen

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Yemen’s full-blown war was the consequence of a series of events that succeeded one after the other. Violence escalated during the second half of 2014, when citizens grew massively discontent with the political instability of Yemen’s transitional government. Once violence became the norm, parties to the dispute quickly polarized, and as violence ramped up, polarization accelerated.

This violence more intensified because Yemen has fragile transitional government led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and was further debilitated when Houthi rebels captured Sanaa in September 2014. The president’s Peace and National Partnership Agreement had emerged as a kernel of hope for an early resolution to the violence, but it did not fulfil and produce its promised. Therefore, faced severe outcome and Boasted by their early success in capturing Sanaa, the Houthis had their militias take control over key institutions in the city. They installed their own people within major institutions and media outlets, and in other cases ‘puppeteer’ members of the government whose members were ultimately put under house arrest. All hopes for the Peace and National Partnership Agreement were lost in January 2015, when Hadi resigned shortly after his escape from house arrest in Sanaa. Following a brief residence in the city of Aden, he took refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Out of immediate danger, Hadi decided to revoke his resignation and continue his presidency from abroad. At the same time the Houthis decided to promote their own version of a national constitution and create their own government bodies. In the meantime, the Houthi insurgency continued, pushing all of Yemen into a civil war. Yemen’s current multipolar political landscape is nothing new. The country’s population has never—after its 1944 civil war, or since unification in 1990—taken on a single national identity. During the 2011 Arab Spring, group differences were exacerbated, but at the outset of the revolutions relative balance of power in the country was able to bring parties together, making possible negotiations at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

This is no longer the case, and three important developments explain the changes post NDC. First, Yemen’s political scene became radicalized and at the same time was polarized. This made any links between the groups, whether based on historical ties or cultural similarities, impossible. Second, the changing balance of power and enduring resilience of the conflicted sides has inspired optimism within each group that and would prevail and achieve dominance over others. This reduces prospects for negotiating a settlement. For example, as the Houthis consolidated their power on the eve of their complete capture of Sanaa, rejecting calls for negotiations seemed easy, and group officials seemed unfazed by the UN resolution urging them to withdraw and reverse their course. Third, the people in Yemen have no faith in a central government, and even less faith in any political process as a solution to their problems; largely due to disappointment over a long negotiating process and an ineffective transitional government. In addition, there is no leader who inspires hope, or can rally Yemenis under one flag, or for a common purpose. While President Hadi enjoys international support, at home he is unable to ensure unity amongst even his allies, let alone the whole country.

While Yemen faces an internal quagmire, regional actors, in particular the GCC states, have been increasingly engaged in the conflict. A Saudi-led military campaign, Operation Decisive Storm’ began in March 2015, based on a coalition of forces originally supported—according to Saudis officials and public statements from countries in the wider MENA region—by more than ten countries. The UAE has been a strong supporter of the military action, contributing air support that has removed any ballistic threat for the region within the first 25 days of the operation. Other GCC states and MENA countries have also positively responded to Saudi Arabia’s move for military solutions.

Civil War in Yemen

Nations of the region have pledged military support and have become engaged in the second phase of the operation, titled ‘Restoring Hope.’ One of the strategic objectives of this operation is the disabling of the Houthi insurgency and the reinstatement of Hadi as the President of Yemen. For that purpose, large groups of pro-Hadi Yemeni fighters have been provided with weapons, equipment, and necessary military training. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have more recently delivered large quantities of heavy weapons (tanks), armored vehicles, and ammunition to the pro-Hadi fighters through the newly liberated areas in Aden. Troops from the Arab countries have been involved in training. Hadi’s army, which lacks expertise in operating for much of the weaponry and equipment being supplied. Some of the foreign troops, however, are reported to be involved in military operations themselves, and not simply working in a training capacity. Operation Restoring Hope also has a humanitarian component, and its first aid planes and ships have already arrived in Aden. The United States is also providing some assistance through intelligence, aerial refueling for fighter jets, and has indicated that it would provide possible assistance in rescuing of downed pilots. The thus empowered pro-Hadi army will be the much needed ‘boots on the ground’ to complement the Saudi air campaign. If the Southern Resistance answers Hadi’s call for a united anti-Houthi front positively, and thus integrates with Hadi’s army, a quicker advancement towards Sanaa may follow. Meanwhile, the UN is still at the forefront of the negotiations in Yemen. Negotiations are not a number one priority, however, since the UN’s reputation was significantly damaged following months of less than effective diplomacy engagement in Yemen. That is not to say that UN’s efforts are futile. Anyways, UN special envoys encourage Saudi government and Yemeni government to collaborate of sign a pact, aiming to end fight between government and separatist allies in the south. UN wants to political solution of Yemeni crisis.

Oman’s Role

Except Oman, which is not part of the campaign and it is offering a venue for negotiation and are in the strong support for President Hadi. Time may prove that the UN’s ongoing shuttle diplomacy is the best way to a ceasefire, followed by peace agreement. When taking stock of the current Civil war in Yemen, it is imperative to have a holistic view of the complex conflict, and especially when seeking to find a way out of the turmoil. As things stand, a clear path towards quick conflict resolution seems impossible. The murkiness of the actual support by the Yemeni people for current leaders, ongoing shifting political dynamics, and the mixed results of militarily operations makes any conflict resolution strategy difficult to argue. This, in turn, renders many of the policy recommendations focusing on just one or another approach risky to follow.

Understanding the Conflict’s Dynamics

Yemen’s conflict is saturated with different groups, and each have unique interests. Antagonism amongst the various Yemeni groups and the process of ‘othering’ between the Zaydis from the north and the Shaga is from the central and southern parts of Yemen has been obliterating memories of coexistence and making any reconciliation unforeseeable. The current conflict has even blurred the actual differences between theZaydis branch of Shia (Fivers) and those in Iran (Twelvers). This blurring is exacerbated when the Houthis’ religion is equated with the one of the Persian belief structures and used as an argument to link the two. A March Briefing report by the International Crisis Group observed this in action, noting that the “previously absent Shiite-Sunni narrative is creeping into how Yemenis describe their fight,” primarily through the labels used by the Houthis and the Sunni Islamist party Islah.

In a way, increased use of sectarian rhetoric by the group has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. While domestically the Houthis managed to maintain control over a large part of Yemen, including the capital, this has not translated into commensurate international recognition. The group is aware that UN resolutions are clear that Hadi’s government is the only authority in Yemen. Attempts to make inroads in the international community have thus been carried out through economic ties, those aimed at Russia (which remains unresponsive) and China, which has an interest in the Yemeni oil industry. While these efforts indicate some determination to reach out to whole the international community, the Houthis have shown no state-building acumen and political alliances are made from convenience.

With little regard for other political parties, the Zaydi Shia militias have forged an unholy alliance with former president Aki Abdullah Saleh. The deal was made without regard to the two groups’ hostile history, which includes fighting in multiple wars against each other. For now, they seem to have been able to put most of their differences aside and unite against Hadi and his supporters. This alliance means the Houthis benefit from Saleh’s powerful friends in the Yemeni army, something that has contributed greatly to the Houthis’ early rise to power. The group may yet be aided by Saleh’s diplomatic skills. For his part, Saleh is on a quest to regain his lost authority.

The politically savvy former president of Yemen hopes to extend his influence through his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), this can be read as a move against current President Hadi, who had been a member of GPC until November 2014, when he was kicked out. His ouster was the result of a travel.

International Crisis Group, “Yemen at War’

It is important to note that Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress has rejected the Houthi constitutional announcement from January 2015. This is just one example of their uneasy relationship. Ban and asset freeze imposed by the UN Security Council on Saleh and a few other leaders from the Houthi side. Hadi’s rivalry with Saleh and his break with the party only further speak to his inability to become a gravitational center in Yemeni politics.

At best, Hadi was able to become a rival of Saleh, use decrees to make new appointments and reassignments to reduce Saleh’s influence in the governing structures and military. Overtime, these moves have been able to attract defectors from Saleh’s faction, but without building a real base of his own. While having defectors on side is extremely useful when defections and declarations of support of Hadi from key GPC members provide a much-needed boost to the legitimacy of the current President, his overall legitimacy remains low. This is not least because of his moves to divide forces to steer against the Houthis.

His allies, the Southern (Popular) Resistance, are a secessionist movement with strong support in the South and do not share Hadi’s vision of a post-conflict Yemen. Influence also comes from Yemen’s immediate neighbors, who are generally strongly pro-Hadi. The political positions of regional actors and their interests in the different sides would indicate that regionalization of the Yemen conflict was inevitable. Saudi Arabia’s actions, however, are also in response to wider regional trends. Intervention in Yemen has a great deal to do with curbing Iranian foreign policy on at least two big issues – the Iranian nuclear deal and their role in Iraq. With the nuclear deal recently concluded without any direct input from the Saudis, and Iraq set to be an even bigger challenge in near future, Saudi involvement in the Yemen sphere seemed inevitable. Where Teheran’s involvement in Iraq is welcomed by the Western powers, and with there-engagement of Iran in the international community their role could be strengthen, Saudi Arabia does not share the West’s enthusiasm. But the situation in Yemen is different. The level of support from Iran, as secretive as it may be, is not the same as Iran’s support for the Shia militias in Iraq, the government of Syria’s Assad, or Hezbollah in Lebanon. While hesitation to become further embroiled may be very much connected to a fear of possible overstretching in the region and the fact that the Houthis are not under Iran’s direct control, It may also be the cane that Teheran has calculated the likelihood of a strong and determined response by Saudi Arabia if it were to step up involvement. Iran’s public declarations call for ceasefire, though they know the balance of power on the ground in Yemen matters a lot since it will transfer to the make-up of any negotiations table. Iran leaves little up to luck. Iranian Revolutionary guards are on the ground in Yemen, Iranian money and aid has been shipped to the Houthis. It should not be a surprise if more money were to be poured in, especially given the funds that will be made available in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal and an unfreezing of assets. Even though weapons may be much more needed than cash, the Houthis will still be more effective in maintaining control and popularity if they have no huge financial challenges.

Saudi Arabia Role

For the leadership in Riyadh, Yemen continues to be a foreign policy priority. The Kingdom acted as patron to Yemen’s government from the 1980s onwards, and it never accepted foreign influence in the country. In the 1960s Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to expand his Pan-Arab revolution to Yemen, only to see his efforts neutralized by the Saudis. This time around, as Iran employs their ‘revolution export ‘strategy, similar determination exists in the House of Saud and its key allies to thwart it. No accounting of the current conflict in Yemen would be complete, however, without accounting for terrorist groups. The best way to look at this issue is to understand the historical role of al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its relatively recent branch of Daesh (The Arabic acronym for the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIL). AQAP is considered the most powerful of al-Qaeda’s branches after the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Moreover, a terrorist group with a long legacy in Yemen. Many men who fought alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan at the end of the last century came back to Yemen and to found AQAP. Indeed, since 1990, leaders of the largest Islamic military groups in this country have claimed ties to Bin Laden.6 With the creation of AQAP, allegiance to Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al Zawahiri was declared, and has been reasserted repeatedly since. The newly appointed leader of the AQAP Qasm al-Rimi, who assumed his position after the death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June2015, made the same oath of allegiance when he took power. With such strong roots in Yemen, it would be difficult for ISIL to take over as a leader in the jihadist movement in the country. Further dividing ISIL and the AQAP is the firm policy of the latter for the gradual establishment of a caliphate when the ‘right conditions’ are met. This is already underway in Yemen and is not an ideology that is shared by the now rival terror group. As far back as 2009, the AQAP issued a recruitment call to aid in establishing an Islamic caliphate in Yemen.

The call anticipated the departure of Saleh from power, and the opportunity was taken at his departure to create new institutions in Yemen toward the goal of the caliphate. Further distinguishing the two groups, AQAP maintains that consultation with respectable scholars and influential leaders in the Ummah are a sine qua non for the establishment of a supranational entity. For AQAP, this serves as a source of unity and legitimacy. It is also cited in the attempts to challenge the authority.

Iran’s Role

Iran is seeking of wider legitimacy speaks to the priority of alliances for AQAP, which has indeed demonstrated success in gathering more allies amongst tribal leaders in Yemen than ISIL. These alliances are largely based on a common interest to deter any advancement of the Houthis, rather than any shared ideals for the future political reorganization of Yemen. Therefore, it is difficult to assess how long these alliances may endure, but, without a better alternative, it is likely the tribes’ current cooperation with AQAP will remain in place as long as Houthi movement provides a need for it. This means AQAP is well positioned to expand its governing territory, at least for the duration of the Yemeni crisis. ISIL may also expand their influence in Yemen, but they are unlikely to be a major player in the crisis.

While the group loyal to al-Baghdadi is increasingly popular in the media, it has had limited success in Yemen. The group will need to be accounted for, however, in the aftermath of the war and during a possible peacemaking process. Both AQAP and ISIL have declared that the Houthis deserve to be killed, however, ISIL has far more extreme methods and are prone to terrorist acts, which deepen the sectarian rift.Each of these parties is operating, moreover, in a country with limited economic prospects. In addition to high unemployment, water and food shortages, oil exports are failing to produce enough revenue for the government, due to the fall in oil prices and declining oil production because of the conflict. This means that the nation is not and will not be economically self-sufficient in the near future. The crisis in Yemen has all of the necessary conditions of a conflict that will continue for many years to come. Pro-Hadi forces have had a few recent successes securing territory in the south, which has further boosted their capabilities, allowing an increase of weapons shipments, as well as military and humanitarian aid in the south.

Conflict’s Unclear Future

The mercurial dynamics of the Yemini conflict and the multiple possible pathways upon which it might develop make planning unclear. Various scenarios explore multiple probable trajectories, and the many stakeholders – both domestic and regional – prefer diverse and conflicting outcomes. What does seem unlikely is that an outcome will be left to the will and capabilities of any one party to determine the outcome alone.

The four scenarios below represent the four poles of possible outcomes that current stakeholders may have to accommodate in any possible solution. The scenarios are fluid and represent a spectrum of possible outcomes. The X-axis represents the stability of Yemen, with outcomes ranging between its two extremes: war and peace. The war extreme examines the possibility of protracted conflict, where the war in Yemen continues at its current level, or even worse, at a heightened level of violence. At the other end of the spectrum is a peaceful solution, which assumes a peaceful resolution to the crisis. While obviously the peaceful solution is desirable, it is important to note that a resolution does not assume positive peace or an imminent reconciliation.

On the contrary, considering that this is a near-term analysis, certain ungoverned territories or sporadic violence should be expected even in the most optimistic future. The Y-axis tackles the issue of integrity. It assumes a possible return to the process of solidifying a unified Yemen, on the one hand, or dividing the territory into two separates entities on the other. ‘Integration’ marks the preservation of the country’s existing borders, regardless of its level(s) of decentralization (e.g. federation), where the opposite extreme reflects the endemic lack of national cohesion and thus represents the possibility of dividing the country in two separate states/territories. Such a scenario includes the possibility of reverting back to the pre-1990 borders, or even an alternative re-drawing of the map.

Stability and integration are key factors for the future of the country. Stability as a criterion is an overarching theme, vital for enabling further discussion on political, economic, and social issues. In other words, depending on the stability of the country and whether there is war or peace in Yemen, different policies should be applied. Integration on the other hand, provides a lens through which to examine key political developments that are equally unpredictable. Ultimately, having one or two countries on Yemen’s current territory would completely change the political landscape, and consequently, the strategies employed to reach a peaceful resolution. Understanding how these two factors combine helps complete the possible pictures of Yemen over the next few years.

Fluid Control and Power

A first scenario, based on Yemen’s current dynamics, plots a possible future for the country along the ‘development’ of the status quo. In this scenario, the country remains undivided as a political unit, but the war is unceasing and offensive operations are continuously being launched. Consequently, different parties gain or lose control of territory based on successful military/insurgent advances. This makes a map of territorial control one that constantly morphs, even within short time intervals. Such a future remains very much like today’s Yemen, where ongoing lashes between the Houthis and pro-Hadi insurgents in large cities like Aden and Taiz have given mixed results for each side. Earlier in the year the Houthis had managed to quickly gain a large territory in their quest to capture Aden, and it was then that they also overtook the al-Anad Air Base in Lahij. With the recent success of the popular resistance troops and Hadi’s supporters in retaking much of that same area, it is also possible that a further Houthi retreat may follow. A similar situation is seen in the battle for Taiz, the battle over which could go on for any length of time.

Warring Territories of Yemen

A second scenario posits that a certain level of war fatigue on the ground will result in a divided Yemeni territory, to be controlled by different groups. War-weariness may not be enough for the warring parties to conclude a peace process and may instead only serve to limit the conflict to the frontlines. A war-weary end to hostilities would simply entrench parties in their positions and focus each on defending areas under their control. The Houthis would then likely control the northern part of current-day Yemen, while the forces loyal to the regime in exile (which would likely return to Yemen under these conditions) could successfully defend the southern and central areas of the country.

Although still divided on how the future political map of Yemen should look, Hadi loyalists and the Southern Resistance (Hirak) are likely to keep a fragile and to a degree united front in the fight against their common enemy. Small areas of ungoverned territory may also exist in the current al-Qaeda controlled areas, with neither party willing or able to conquer the other territories. Under this outcome, the conflict would be expected to manifest through clashes alongthe frontlines, but sporadic terrorist attacks beyond these areas could not be ruled out. Military operations from regional state actors would also likely continue. However, without the ground support of Hadi’s loyalists, the air campaign would likely produce limited results.So far, success in regaining control of territory from the Houthis has been in areas in the south where the Houthi movement does not have massive support. It will be increasingly difficult to repeat these territorial gains in the north, which are areas of Houthi strongholds. This is, why the battle may be limited to the frontlines and over time a de facto disintegrated country could be created, as no institution has authority over the full territory.

Two Yemens

If violence is halted, the future of Yemen will be decided by the largest and most relevant parties in the country, in conjunction with help from the international community. One possible outcome in this direction would be for the negotiators to acknowledge that a Westphalian nation-state is impossible on this territory, and instead conclude an agreement to divide Yemen. This will not be a quick or easy process, but it has significant support in the county, especially in the south. The Popular Committees in the south and Hadi’s army fighting against the Zaidi Shia Islamist group there neither belong to a single tribe nor share a common strategic objective – just a common enemy. Clashes in mid-July – when control over Aden was claimed back from the Houthis – represented for some fighters the liberation of the nation’s second largest city. For the members of the region’s separatist movement, it was a liberation of their old (and possibly future) capital. For Saudi Arabia, this means having in what would become Northern Yemen, a neighbor that is no friend of theirs, and another, Southern Yemen, which will inherit the AQAP problem.

Reconciliation and Coexistence

While currently ineffective, peace negotiations may eventually lead toward a permanent cease-fire and a deal that will preserve the unity of Yemen. This could come to pass in one of two ways. First, as the result of an effective and creative diplomacy, or second, because of the success of Operation Restoring Hope, which seeks to put President Hadiin charge of Yemen and the surrender of the Houthi movement and Saleh’s forces. Whatever means peace talks may emerge, however, the years to follow are sure to be difficult.

Conclusion

One way the road to stability could be eased, is through a possible rebirth of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, or PNPA 2.0. This agreement, or a new form following similar lines, could revive internal political dialogue in the country. A successful agreement would mean that post conflict institutions would have to be agreed upon, and integration of different demographic groups would be expected to take place at various levels in the government. While a clear step forward, a PNPA 2.0 would merely begin the process of reconciliation and give hope for a prolonged stability. An international peacekeeping mission might also be necessary to keep the terms of any agreement in its in initial phases, as a united and relatively stable Yemen could slowly rebuild as a federal system.

However, since the terrorist organizations operating in the country will certainly not be part of the negotiations process, and not seen as a possible actor that could be integrated into the reconstructed national institutions, they will likely remain a problem for the next government of Yemen as well as the international sponsors of the peace process.

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Middle East

Thwarting Iranian Influence is Key to Iraq’s Security

Saad Khoury

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The mass uprisings in Iraq over the past several months have many factors in common, the most salient of which include ordinary citizens decrying economic hardship and rampant corruption among the ruling elite. With that agenda in mind, protesters seek to weaken the grip of the Iranian regime that has entrenched itself in Baghdad’s political and economic affairs.  

How Far is Iran’s Reach in Iraq?

While the 2011 Arab Spring reacted to similar events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, recent uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq are distinguished by Iran’s dominance over economic and political relations there.

As Iran’s closest Arab neighbor and home to the Arab world’s largest Shi’a population, no country in the “Shi’a crescent” feels Iran’s influence more profoundly than Iraq. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, then Iran’s main rival in the region, Tehran has sought to exploit the years of marginalization felt by Iraqi Shi’a’s in order to empower them. Many exiled Iraqi’s who sought refuge in Iran during Saddam’s rule returned after his fall to take up positions of authority in light of the power vacuum left by the US invasion

Many of these Iraqis, once in exile, have become the leading power brokers in Iraq, many of whom have expressed a keen willingness to follow the political roadmap laid out by their former benefactors and protectors in Tehran.

Nonetheless, the overbearing weight of these Iranian backed actors in Iraq has led to economic ruin in the country. Faced with high youth unemployment, high inflation, and a lack of essential services, Iraqi are growing tired of Tehran calling the shots in their country. To add insult to injury these Iranian proxies have relentlessly employed harsh crackdowns to retain their influence, wealth, and control within both private and public spheres. This authoritarian dominance also prevents the Gulf States, Iran’s regional rival, from providing Iraq with crucial investment opportunities. 

Iranian Influence Supersedes Ethnicity and Religion In Iraq

In Iraq, a fragile balance of power has seen institutions parceled out to various corrupt ethnic and religious elites. 

This endless and brazen cycle of placing Iran-backed politicians in power to represent the Iraqi people is holding Iraq back from progress and prosperity. In this realm, it isn’t religion, ethnicity, or background that bring Iranian puppets together. It’s their mutual understanding that they need each other and Tehran’s backing if they want to continue to gain wealth and maintain the status quo they have built. 

The converse is also true. Opposition to Iran is not drawn on sectarian lines, but rather, large swathes of the country’s Sunni and Shi’a population are taking to the streets to call for an end to Iranian interference. 

How can Iraq Reclaim its Sovereignty

Protesters in Iraq have only recently transcended fault lines to form a united front. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, or social background, protesters are united to overturn their country’s Iranian backed elites that have been siphoning out money and resources, while placing an inexorable toll on the economy in the process.

In response to these massive protests, Iranian-back proxies in Iraq have cracked down mercilessly against protesters, with up to 600 demonstrators being killed since the movements began. 

Moreover, the death of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most senior military commander and al-Muhandis, the head of the powerful pro-Iran Iraqi Popular Mobilization forces, has been a big blow to Iranian operations in Iraq. 

With the loss of its two most prominent actors in the Iraqi theatre, Iran’s puppeteers are scrambling to fill the power vacuum. Though they have decided to confer their confidence in Muqtada Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri Hadi temporarily, Tehran’s influence is beginning to show cracks as attempts to unite a fractured support network are proving futile. 

In tune with protestors’ calls to reject Iran, Iraq’s pro-sovereignty opposition groups are growing in popularity. Anti-Iranian and nationalist messaging from groups like the National Wisdom Movement and the National Independent Iraqi Front resonate strongly with demonstrators who decry the economic stagnation caused by Iran’s impact on their country’s politics. 

Taking advantage of the blow dealt with Iran through Sulemani’s death to end the confessional system in Iraq will be crucial for the success of the Iraqi protest movement. Though it is too early to tell if these protesters can flush out Iran’s deep-rooted influence in Iraq entirely, supporting genuine pro-sovereignty Iraqi leaders will leverage their initiatives. These leaders, and the protests movements they represent, are exposing cracks in Iraq’s circles of power as they stand resilient in the face of increasingly violent crackdowns. 

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