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The Druze Militias of Southern Syria

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Compared to how much has been written on the Sunni-Alawite dynamics in the Syrian civil war, little analysis exists on the Druze aspect of the conflict.

This study hopes to rectify the deficiency by considering the nature of Druze militias operating in the south of Syria, specifically in Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus governorates where Druze populations are concentrated.

The Principle of Self-Defense

The most prominent name for Druze militias appears to be “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” (“Army of the Monotheists/Unitarians”), echoing the Druze’s self-description as “muwahhideen” emphasizing the strict unity of God. Most notably, here is a video from the beginning of this year of a statement from a “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” militia in Jabal al-Arab (Mountain of the Arabs), also known as “Jabal ad-Druze”: a mountainous area of Suwayda governorate primarily inhabited by Druze.

In the video, the speaker declares that the army is “under the leadership of Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi…we are the Muslim Unitarian Druze sect…we have been and continue to be defenders of our property and sons, and protectors for them.”

He also characterizes the struggle as a “jihad” but it is framed in purely defensive terms: that is, anyone who commits aggression on the Druze land of Jabal al-Arab- regardless of his/her affiliation- will suffer consequences at the hands of the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen, for they are not afraid of fighting in defence of their people. The statement was released in light of attacks on Druze in Suwayda governorate at the hands of gangs coming from Deraa, including the kidnapping of Druze youth referenced in the video.

The reference to my fellow Tamimi tribesman Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi is an important part of Druze identity here. Abu Ibrahim was an early Druze leader who succeeded Hamza ibn Ali, who is considered to be the founder of the Druze sect during the reign of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim in the eleventh century. While Hamza is thought to embody the principle of al-‘aql (“mind”) in Druze doctrine, Abu Ibrahim represents nafs (“soul”). Within Jaysh al-Muwahhideen social media circles, one finds the name of “Jaysh Abu Ibrahim” being used alongside Jaysh al-Muwahhideen.

The video linked to above illustrates the main Druze priority in the Syrian civil war: namely, to protect the community’s land and honor. This principle is corroborated by interviews I conducted with the activists behind a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen Facebook page and a purely online support page called “Katiba al-Muwahhideen”(“Battalion of the Unitarians”). Thus, the former stressed that the Druze militia is not concerned with “attacking the terrorists, but defense of land and honor (not aggression). We only defend.” The latter similarly emphasized defending the Druze online.

Showing Support for Assad

While the focus on self-defense suggests political neutrality in theory (and indeed, the Katiba stated to me that they are not affiliated with any political faction), in practice the Druze militias will side with the local strong actor who can guarantee the preservation of Druze land.

Combined with concern regarding the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra,[1] who have for many months played a key role in fighting on the Deraa front in particular,[2] working with a variety of factions, and apparently being responsible for a recent bomb attack in Suwayda city, it follows that Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles make a show of demonstrating Druze loyalty to the Assad regime.

Thus, the Katiba affirmed to me that in Jabal al-Arab and Jabal al-Sheikh, “people’s committees for the protection of villages and towns” have been formed to fight against “terrorism,” working “in cooperation with the Syrian army.” The Katiba also praised the Syrian army as non-sectarian, claiming that “the Syrian Arab Army is for all Syria. In it are Druze, Alawites, Sunnis, and Christians. Not only Druze. We [i.e. the Druze of Jabal al-Arab and Suwayda, where the activists are based] have brought forth a thousand martyrs in the Syrian Arab Army in the defense of the nation and we are prepared to bring forth more.”

An important aspect of the concepts of Druze loyalty to the Syrian nation is anti-colonialism, and the Druze role in uprisings against Ottoman and French rule. Hence, the Katiba affirmed to me that “all in Syria know that we [the Druze] do not attack anyone, we only defend, thus we fought Ottoman and French colonization and expelled them from our land.” The fighting against the Ottomans is referring to the multiple Druze revolts against the Ottomans.[3]

In 1842, there was a revolt against direct Ottoman rule under ‘Umar Pasha following on from conflict with the Maronites. Later, Druze peasant agitation beginning in 1888 developed into a revolt by 1889 in response to repeated attempts by Ottoman authorities to bring Jabal al-Hawran (later to become Jabal ad-Druze, with widespread Druze settlement in the latter half of the 19th century) under direct Ottoman rule from Damascus. The revolt ultimately failed as Ottoman troops poured into Jabal al-Hawran and bombarded Suwayda in 1890.

Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, refusal by the Druzes of Jabal to take part in a census ordered in 1908 led to a full-scale Ottoman invasion of the Jabal, followed by disarmament, conscription of Druze into the Ottoman army, and execution of a number of Druze sheikhs. However, Ottoman troops withdrew by 1911, which meant the Druze could revert to autonomy.

While the Druze came to support the “Arab Revolt” in the First World War, dissatisfaction with French rule led to a Druze revolt in 1925 that then took on a nationalist element spurred on by some of the Druze chieftains’ sympathy with Arab nationalism. Thus in 1926, Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash insisted that the Druze would not lay down arms unless the French recognized the “complete independence of Syria.”

Although the revolt ultimately failed in 1927 and led to the designation of a separate Jabal ad-Druze state, the revolt had inspired a younger generation of Druze with nationalist romanticism- just as many younger Alawites were beginning to adopt ideas of Syrian nationalism- and by 1936 Jabal ad-Druze was incorporated into Syria.

Sentiment about union with Syria was of course sharply divided among the Druze, as was the case among the Alawites. During the 1936 negotiations, both Alawite and Druze leaders sent petitions insisting on remaining separate from Syria, and appealing to Jewish PM Leon Blum’s supposed Zionist sentiments. For the Druze militia circles today, however, it is the unionist side that is commemorated.

Conclusion: Separatism? Alliance with Israel?

It would be a mistake to characterize all Druze who have taken up arms in the Syrian civil war as staunchly pro-regime. Some form of distinction from the above evidence can be made between Druze irregulars and those who fight in the Syrian army- principally on the basis that the former are defined by their anonymity.

At the same time, one must be skeptical of narratives pointing to a supposedly growing Syrian Druze separatist trend. For instance, Hussein Ibish contends that Druze “militias are becoming increasingly independent and generally no longer work with government forces.” There is no evidence to support this view.

On the contrary, the support for Assad emphasized in Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim media circles (including those featuring anonymous Druze fighters), together with the testimony of Katiba al-Muwahhideen, the apparent Jaysh al-Muwahhideen martyrdoms in Jaramana, and the large and continuous stream of Druze martyrdoms for the Syrian army point to three things.

First, of the Druze who have taken up arms, a majority have done so on the side of the Assad regime. Second, there are still generally close ties between Druze irregulars and the Syrian army, mainly under the guise of people’s protection committees. Third, even if actually autonomous, Druze militiamen generally want to show ties of loyalty to the regime and the Syrian nation.

Could this all change? Yes. A loss of willingness to support the regime might occur, for example, if it were being perceived that regime forces are losing much ground and on an irreversible and major retreat from Suwayda and Deraa governorates. At the present time, nothing points to such a picture on the battlefield. Druze irregulars might also turn decisively against the regime if, say, the Syrian army were forcing Druze off their land to take up firing positions against rebels. Yet this seems unlikely.

We should equally dismiss the notion touted recently in some Israeli press circles of a Druze state emerging from the fragmentation of Syria and aligning with Israel. Besides the problems of the viability of a Druze state (such as the means of supporting an economy), Druze in Syria fall in line with most of the Syrian Arab population (including Alawites and Christians) in having an existential hatred of Israel: that is, not wanting Israel to exist in any form. Indeed, the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles continue to highlight the issue of the “occupied Golan.”

From the Israeli side, experience has shown that getting involved in multipolar civil wars by propping up one side- as was the case in Lebanon- ends in disaster. In the long-run, the rebel presence in Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus governorates is unlikely to be purged completely. Even in the event of a peace agreement entailing de facto partition, the Assad regime is likely to retain the southern and western areas of Syria. Israeli pundits’ hopes of minority allies remain illusory, as Israeli officials maintain a more sober policy of overall neutrality while launching airstrikes to prevent those who might wish to wage war on Israel from acquiring new weaponry and providing occasional medical aid to refugees.

To sum up, the Druze community in Syria as a whole remains tied to the regime, whether out of genuine pro-Assad sentiment or belief in the regime as its only viable protector[iv] and there is unlikely to be a profound shift in the orientation of the Syrian Druze community, at least in the near future.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Notes

[1] Note this Jabhat al-Nusra Deraa council statement from May warning the Druze against supporting the Assad regime and highlighting a supposed policy of protecting Christian villages.
[2] The increasing prominence of Jabhat al-Nusra on the Deraa front has recently been noted by some analysts (e.g. Kirk Sowell). Previously, some saw Deraa as an example of a shift to a more ‘mainstream’/Salim Idriss SMC-aligned insurgency. I would clarify that while Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham may be smaller numerically than in the north and east, nothing supports the idea of a contrast whereby southern rebels are more likely to be hostile to these jihadi factions than in the north.The picture is rather of mixed views on the whole. At any rate, there is a risk of downplaying Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in Deraa in earlier months (see my articles here and here). The group has consistently maintained overall good working relations with a variety of rebel factions in Deraa.
[3] In the account of the anti-colonial Druze history narrative that follows I am reliant on Kais Firro’s “A History of the Druzes,” Brill (Leiden, 1992).
[4] To be contrasted perhaps with an overall display of neutrality earlier on when the outcome of the unrest in Syria seemed highly uncertain.

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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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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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Jamal Khashoggi rejiggers the Middle East at potentially horrible cost

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The fate of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assuming that his disappearance was the work of Saudi security and military officials, threatens to upend the fundaments of fault lines in the Middle East.

At stake is not only the fate of a widely respected journalist and the future of Turkish-Saudi relations.

Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, whether he was kidnapped by Saudi agents during a visit to the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain proof of his divorce or murdered on its premises, threatens to severely disrupt the US-Saudi alliance that underwrites much of the Middle East’s fault lines.

A US investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate mandated by members of the US Congress and an expected meeting between President Donald J. Trump, and the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, could result in a US and European embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impact the kingdom’s brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

It also would project Saudi Arabia as a rogue state and call into question US and Saudi allegations that Iran is the Middle East’s main state supporter of terrorism.

The allegations formed a key reason for the United States’ withdrawal with Saudi, United Arab Emirates and Israeli backing from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions.

They also would undermine Saudi and UAE justification of their 15-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that the two Gulf states, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, accuse of supporting terrorism.

Condemnation and sanctioning of Saudi Arabia by the international community would complicate Chinese and Russian efforts to walk a fine line in their attempts to ensure that they are not sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Russia and China would be at a crossroads if Saudi Arabia were proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and the issue of sanctions would be brought to the United Nations Security Council.

Both Russia and China have so far been able to maintain close ties to Saudi Arabia despite their efforts to defeat US sanctions against Iran and Russia’s alliance with the Islamic republic in their support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

A significantly weakened Saudi Arabia would furthermore undermine Arab cover provided by the kingdom for Mr. Trump’s efforts to impose a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would favour Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Finally, a conclusive determination that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s fate would likely spark renewed debate about the wisdom of the international community’s support for Arab autocracy that has proven to be unashamedly brutal in its violation of human rights and disregard for international law and conventions.

Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally and stability in the kingdom, a key tenant of US, Chinese and Russian Middle East policy, were to be at risk.

The reputational damage suffered by Prince Mohammed embarrasses UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who together with his aides and representatives in world capitals, worked hard to project his Saudi counterpart as the kingdom’s future.

Saudi Arabia has so far done itself few favours by flatly rejecting any responsibility for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance with no evidence that the journalist left the consulate at his own volition; asserting that claims that it was involved were fabrications by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; seeking to defame Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancé and supporters; and refusing to fully cooperate with Turkish investigators.

Saudi reluctance to cooperate as well as the US investigation and Ms. Cengiz’s expected meeting with Mr. Trump complicate apparent Turkish efforts to find a resolution of the escalating crisis that would allow Saudi Arabia to save face and salvage Turkey’s economic relationship with the kingdom.

Turkey, despite deep policy differences with Saudi Arabia over Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refrained from statements that go beyond demanding that Saudi Arabia prove its assertion that Mr. Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate at his own volition and fully cooperate with the Turkish investigation.

Reports by anonymous Turkish officials detailing gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder by Saudi agents appear designed to pressure Saudi Arabia to comply with the Turkish demands and efforts to manage the crisis.

Widely acclaimed, Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, irrespective of whether he as yet emerges alive or is proven to have been brutally murdered, is reshaping the political map of the Middle East. The possibility, if not likelihood is that he paid a horrendous price for sparking the earthquake that is already rumbling across the region.

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