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The Muslim Brotherhood/Al-Qaeda Connection

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As former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi’s trials continue, it’s enlightening to consider what is likely to be one of the centerpieces of the trial: longstanding accusations that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party worked with foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, against the national security of Egypt.

Based on these accusations of high treason, Morsi and others could face the death penalty.

Concerning some of the more severe allegations, one of Egypt’s most widely distributed and read newspapers, Al Watan, recently published what it said were recorded conversations between Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri’s brother.

In these reports, Watan repeatedly asserts that Egyptian security and intelligence agencies confirmed (or perhaps leaked out) the recordings.

Much of the substance of the alleged conversations is further corroborated by events that occurred during Morsi’s one-year-rule, most of which were reported by a variety of Arabic media outlets, though not by Western media.

In what follows, I relay, summarize, and translate some of the more significant portions of the Watan reports (verbatim statements are in quotation marks). In between, I comment on various anecdotes and events—many of which were first broken on my website—that now, in light of these phone conversations, make perfect sense and independently help confirm the authenticity of the recordings.

—–

The first recorded call between Muhammad Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri lasted for 59 seconds. Morsi congratulated Zawahiri on his release from prison, where he had been incarcerated for jihadi/terrorist activities against Egypt, and assured him that he would not be followed or observed by any Egyptian authorities, and that he, Morsi, was planning on meeting with him soon. Prior to this first call, Refa’ al-Tahtawy, then Chief of Staff, mediated and arranged matters.

The presidential palace continued to communicate regularly with Muhammad Zawahiri, and sources confirm that he was the link between the Egyptian presidency and his brother, Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born leader of al-Qaeda.

It should be noted that, once released, the previously little-known Muhammad Zawahiri did become very visible and vocal in Egypt, at times spearheading the Islamist movement.

The next recording between Morsi and Zawahiri lasted for 2 minutes and 56 seconds and took place one month after Morsi became president. Morsi informed Zawahiri that the Muslim Brotherhood supports the mujahidin (jihadis) and that the mujahidin should support the Brotherhood in order for them both, and the Islamist agenda, to prevail in Egypt.

This makes sense in the context that, soon after Morsi came to power, the general public did become increasingly critical of him and his policies, including the fact that he was placing only Brotherhood members in Egypt’s most important posts, trying quickly to push through a pro-Islamist constitution, and, as Egyptians called it, trying in general to “Brotherhoodize” Egypt.

This second phone call being longer than the first, Zawahiri took it as an opportunity to congratulate Morsi on his recent presidential victory—which, incidentally, from the start, was portrayed by some as fraudulent—and expressed his joy that Morsi’s presidency could only mean that “all secular infidels would be removed from Egypt.”

Then Zawahiri told Morsi: “Rule according to the Sharia of Allah [or “Islamic law”], and we will stand next to you. Know that, from the start, there is no so-called democracy, so get rid of your opposition.”

This assertion comports extremely well with his brother Ayman Zawahiri’s views. A former Muslim Brotherhood member himself, some thirty years ago, the al-Qaeda leader wrote Al Hissad Al Murr (“The Bitter Harvest”), a scathing book condemning the Brotherhood for “taking advantage of the Muslim youths’ fervor by … steer[ing] their onetime passionate, Islamic zeal for jihad to conferences and elections.” An entire section dedicated to showing that Islamic Sharia cannot coexist with democracy even appears in Ayman Zawahiri’s book (see “Sharia and Democracy,” The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 116-136).

The call ended in agreement that al-Qaeda would support the Brotherhood, including its international branches, under the understanding that Morsi would soon implement full Sharia in Egypt. After this, Muhammad Zawahiri and Khairat al-Shater, the number-two man of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, reportedly met regularly.

It is interesting to note here that, prior to these revelations, U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson was seen visiting with Khairat al-Shater—even though he held no position in the Morsi government—and after the ousting and imprisonment of Morsi and leading Brotherhood members, Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham made it a point to visit the civilian Shater in his prison cell and urged the Egyptian government to release him.

The next call, recorded roughly six weeks after this last one, again revolved around the theme of solidifying common cooperation between the Egyptian presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and al-Qaeda and its jihadi offshoots on the other, specifically in the context of creating jihadi cells inside Egypt devoted to protecting the increasingly unpopular Brotherhood-dominated government.

As I reported back in December 2012, Egyptian media were saying that foreign jihadi fighters were appearing in large numbers—one said 3,000 fighters—especially in Sinai. And, since the overthrow of the Brotherhood and the military crackdown on its supporters, many of those detained have been exposed speaking non-Egyptian dialects of Arabic.

During this same call, Zawahiri was also critical of the Morsi government for still not applying Islamic Sharia throughout Egypt, which, as mentioned, was one of the prerequisites for al-Qaeda support.

Morsi responded by saying “We are currently in the stage of consolidating power and need the help of all parties—and we cannot at this time apply the Iranian model or Taliban rule in Egypt; it is impossible to do so now.”

In fact, while the Brotherhood has repeatedly declared its aspirations for world domination, from its origins, it has always relied on a “gradual” approach, moving only in stages, with the idea of culminating its full vision only when enough power has been consolidated.

In response, Zawahiri told Morsi that, as a show of good will, he must “at least release the mujahidin who were imprisoned during the Mubarak era as well as all Islamists, as an assurance and pact of cooperation and proof that the old page has turned to a new one.”

After that call, and as confirmed by a governmental source, Morsi received a list from Zawahiri containing the names of the most dangerous terrorists in Egyptian jails, some of whom were on death row due to the enormity of their crimes.

In fact, as I reported back in August 2012, many imprisoned terrorists, including from Egypt’s notorious Islamic Jihad organization—which was once led by Ayman Zawahiri—were released under Morsi.

One year later, in August 2013, soon after the removal of Morsi, Egypt’s Interior Ministry announced that Egypt was “preparing to cancel any presidential pardons issued during Morsi’s era to terrorists or criminals.”

During this same call, and in the context of pardons, Morsi said he would do his best to facilitate the return of Muhammad’s infamous brother and al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Zawahiri, back to Egypt—”with his head held high,” in accordance with Islamist wishes—as well as urge the U.S. to release the “Blind Sheikh” and terrorist mastermind, Omar Abdul Rahman.

In March 2013, I wrote about how Morsi, during his Pakistan visit, had reportedly met with Ayman Zawahiri and made arrangements to smuggle him back to Sinai. According to a Pakistan source, the meeting was “facilitated by elements of Pakistani intelligence [ISI] and influential members of the International Organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The gist of the next two calls between Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri was that, so long as the former is president, he would see to it that all released jihadis and al-Qaeda operatives are allowed to move freely throughout Egypt and the Sinai, and that the presidential palace would remain in constant contact with Zawahiri, to make sure everything is moving to the satisfaction of both parties.

Zawahiri further requested that Morsi allow them to develop training camps in Sinai in order to support the Brotherhood through trained militants. Along with saying that the Brotherhood intended to form a “revolutionary guard” to protect him against any coup, Morsi added that, in return for al-Qaeda’s and its affiliates’ support, not only would he allow them to have such training camps, but he would facilitate their development in Sinai and give them four facilities to use along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

That Libya is mentioned is interesting. According to a Libyan Arabic report I translated back in June 2013, those who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were from jihadi cells that had been formed in Libya through Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood support. Those interrogated named Morsi and other top Brotherhood leadership as accomplices.

More evidence—including some that implicates the U.S. administration—has mounted since then.

Next, Watan makes several more assertions, all of which are preceded by “according to security/intelligence agencies.” They are:

  • That Morsi did indeed as he promised, and that he facilitated the establishment of four jihadi training camps. Morsi was then Chief in Command of Egypt’s Armed Forces, and through his power of authority, stopped the military from launching any operations including in the by now al-Qaeda overrun Sinai.
  • That, after Morsi reached Pakistan, he had a one-and-a-half hour meeting with an associate of Ayman Zawahiri in a hotel and possibly spoke with him.
  • That, after Morsi returned to Egypt from his trip to Pakistan, he issued another list containing the names of 20 more convicted terrorists considered dangerous to the national security of Egypt, giving them all presidential pardons—despite the fact that national security and intelligence strongly recommended that they not be released on grounds of the threat they posed.
  • That the Muslim Brotherhood’s international wing, including through the agency of Khairat al-Shater, had provided $50 million to al-Qaeda in part to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

One of the longer conversations between Morsi and Zawahiri reported by Watan is especially telling of al-Qaeda’s enmity for secularist Muslims and Coptic Christians—whose churches, some 80, were attacked, burned, and destroyed, some with the al-Qaeda flag furled above them, soon after the ousting of Morsi. I translate portions below:

Zawahiri: “The teachings of Allah need to be applied and enforced; the secularists have stopped the Islamic Sharia, and the response must be a stop to the building of churches.” (An odd assertion considering how difficult it already is for Copts to acquire a repair permit for their churches in Egypt.)

Zawahiri also added that “All those who reject the Sharia must be executed, and all those belonging to the secular media which work to disseminate debauchery and help deviants and Christians to violate the Sharia, must be executed.”

Morsi reportedly replied: “We have taken deterrent measures to combat those few, and new legislative measures to limit their media, and in the near future, we will shut down these media stations and launch large Islamic media outlets. We are even planning a big budget from the [Brotherhood] International Group to launch Islamic and jihadi satellite stations to urge on the jihad. There will be a channel for you and the men of al-Qaeda, and it can be broadcast from Afghanistan.”

Undeterred, Zawahiri responded by saying, “This [is a] Christian media—and some of the media personnel are paid by the [Coptic] Church and they work with those who oppose the Sharia… secularist forces are allied with Christian forces, among them Naguib Sawiris, the Christian-Jew.”

Morsi: “Soon we will uphold our promises to you.”

In fact, there was a period of time when the secular media in Egypt—which was constantly exposing Brotherhood machinations—were under severe attack by the Brotherhood and Islamists of all stripes (comedian Bassem Youssef was the tip of the iceberg). In one instance, which I noted back in August 2012, six major media stations were attacked by Brotherhood supporters, their employees severely beat.

The last call recorded between Muhammad Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri took place on the dawn of June 30, 2013 (the date of the June 30 Revolution that ousted Morsi and the Brotherhood). Morsi made the call to Zawahiri in the presence of Asad al-Sheikha, Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff, Refa’ al-Tahtawy, Chief of Presidential Staff, and his personal security.

During this last call, Morsi incited Zawahiri to rise against the Egyptian military in Sinai and asked Zawahiri to compel all jihadi and loyalist elements everywhere to come to the aid of the Muslim Brotherhood and neutralize its opponents.

Zawahiri reportedly responded by saying “We will fight the military and the police, and we will set the Sinai aflame.

True enough, as I reported on July 4, quoting from an Arabic report: “Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Muhammad Zawahiri, is currently planning reprisal operations by which to attack the army and the Morsi-opposition all around the Republic [of Egypt].” The report added that, right before the deposing of Morsi, Zawahiri had been arrested and was being interrogated—only to be ordered released by yet another presidential order, and that he had since fled to the Sinai.

Also on that same first day of the revolution, Khairat al-Shater, Deputy Leader of the Brotherhood, had a meeting with a delegate of jihadi fighters and reiterated Morsi’s request that all jihadis come to the aid of the presidency and the Brotherhood.

—–

As Morsi’s trial continues, it’s only a matter of time before the truth of these allegations—and their implications for the U.S.—is known. But one thing is certain: most of them comport incredibly well with incidents and events that took place under Morsi’s government.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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