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Bashar al-Assad feels safe, won’t quit

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It is by far clear now that Syrian president al Assad, under Russian shield, feels secure now and he is more firm than ever not to quit presidency. Russian strongman Putin who became president for third term now defends Assad who never faced – and is scared of – an election to stay in power. Possibly Putin, who promotes Russian variety of Soviet era democracy in Russian federation, feels there is hardly any difference between dynasty and democracy.

After pushing for the removal of President Assad for years, now USA, under pressure from Russia which withdrew troops from Syria possibly on agreement with Washington, seems stopped asking him to quit. This makes Assad to be firm in stay8in gin power. Russian military intervention made Assad’s stay in power fairly easy.

The main opposition, along with the United States and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include the departure of Assad from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.

The UN mediated third indirect peace talks between Syrian opposition and the Syrian government in Geneva on March 20 has not made even tentative resolution to end the war in Syria or Assad’s fate. Arguments over Assad’s fate were a major cause of the failure of previous UN peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 to end a civil war that has now lasted five years, killed more than 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis. The peace meeting in Geneva, owing to divergent opinions, also did not make any headway n revolving the political transition in Syria. The Syrian opposition assesses whether to continue indirect peace talks with the Syrian government.

The Syrian president looked more secure than ever at the start of the latest round of talks, riding high after a Russian-backed military campaign. But Russia’s surprise withdrawal of most of its forces during the week signaled that Moscow expected its Syrian allies to take the Geneva talks seriously. And de Mistura appointed a Russian expert to sit in the negotiations with him and to advice on political issues.

Russian president Putin has warned that his forces would return to Syria if required.

Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss the fate of President Bashar al-Assad -the issue which is far outside their comfort zone and are doing their best to avoid the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” and, emboldened by the Russian and US muscle that brought the participants to the negotiating table, he refuses to drop the subject. After a week of talks in Geneva, Mistura praised the opposition for the depth of their ideas, but criticised the veteran diplomats on the government side for getting bogged down. “The government is currently focusing very much on principles, which are necessary in any type of common ground on the transition,” he said, “but I hope next week, and I have been saying so to them, that we will get their opinion, their details on how they see the political transition taking place.”

Unlike previous rounds, the talks have run for a week without any hint of collapse, forcing the government delegation led by Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to acknowledge de Mistura’s demands. Ja’afari began by giving de Mistura a document entitled “Basic elements for a political solution”. “Approving these principles will open a serious dialogue under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said in a brief statement after the longest session of the talks so far. But officials and diplomats involved in the talks variously described the document as “very thin”, “bland” and “off the point”. It listed familiar goals such as maintaining a ‘secular state’ and Syria’s territorial integrity and the importance of fighting ‘terrorism’, according to sources who have read it. But it said nothing about a political transition.

In sessions with de Mistura, Ja’afari has approached the negotiations as slowly as possible, reopening UN resolutions and going through them “by the letter”, said a source with knowledge of the process. “Mr Ja’afari is still in a kind of delusion of trying to filibuster his way out of town, or to filibuster the opposition out of town,” said a western diplomat. “He will spend every minute questioning the nature of the opposition, quibbling about the font in the agenda.”

De Mistura said Ja’afari’s team needed to go faster and couldn’t avoid the substantive question forever. “The fact that the government delegation would like to set different rules or play with the terms of this agreement is I think a non-starter,” said opposition delegate Basma Kodmani.

A diplomat involved in the peace process said Assad was not used to having to compromise, and that made Ja’afari’s negotiating position rigid. “He has to have control. If he gives up 1 percent, he loses 100 percent. He’s designed like that,” the diplomat said.

In three meetings with each side during the week, de Mistura quizzed the negotiators about their ideas, and they were also able to put questions to their rivals through him.

The UN mediation team spends the sessions “stripping the papers apart and delving deep into the subject and forcing them to do more homework and forcing them to give answers”, said a source with knowledge of the process.

The negotiators do not meet each other, but face de Mistura in a functional, windowless room with desks arranged in a square. There is space for eight or nine people around each side, but the conditions are slightly cramped, and afford no luxury beyond a plastic bottle of mineral water on each desk. “De Mistura is dragging the regime in with his queries on their position paper, rather than allowing them to talk about what they want,” said the diplomat involved in the peace process. The regime had in the past a bit of space to play and to manoeuvre. He said: “The regime knows it has to come and stay but is not prepared for the idea that it has to engage the opposition.”

Syrian government is so far has refused to engage in detailed negotiations and instead continuing to starve Syrians into submission, its chief negotiator has said.

Mohammed Alloush, the leader of the Syrian opposition delegation at the peace talks, suggested in a interview that little progress has been made in the first week of negotiations and many pitfalls lie ahead. Alloush, a political figure in the Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group, is the senior negotiator for High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the official Syrian opposition delegation at the Geneva peace talks. He is probably the single most important figure in the opposition and through his connections with Jaysh al-Islam, which Damascus and Moscow consider a terrorist group, has credibility with some fighters on the ground.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syrian special envoy, is struggling to persuade the Syrian government to engage in detailed discussions about plans for a transitional body to run Syria over the next 18 months and the role of Bashar al-Assad in such a government. De Mistura is shuttling between the two main delegations in search of common ground but has admitted there are large gaps.

The opposition could not accept the Syrian president as part of the transitional body and added that “those with blood on their hands can have no part in a reconstituted Syrian army”.

The new transitional body, Alloush said, should have the powers of the president, the government, parliament and the courts. He added that those charged with war crimes should be dealt with by Syrian courts and not the International Criminal Court, arguing the ICC has a backlog of 30,000 cases that would delay justice.

Alloush said his team will decide whether to continue with the talks at the end of the week and the whole world can then see clearly who is procrastinating and who is putting obstacles in the way. He said so far the Syrian government had only put forward a very general paper of eight principles that was not relevant to the task of forming a transitional government.

By contrast, he said his team had put forward detailed papers covering justice, security and political transition. “We are ready to answer all questions in detail put to us by the UN. The UN has said our paper is detailed, positive and moderate. The government paper is simply not relevant to what we have come to discuss.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is due to meet Vladimir Putin for talks in Moscow this week that will include Syria. Alloush said “America had a moral duty to increase the pressure” and, in particular, needed to intervene to persuade Russia to require Assad to negotiate seriously, including by ending the use of starvation sieges to force Syrians to abandon the resistance. He also warned European leaders to be more involved in the talks. “More refugees are heading to Europe. The international community has to tackle the root cause of this problem. We cannot just deal with symptoms. The root cause is the one person Assad who has forced millions and millions to leave their homes”. “Take Bashar al-Assad and 1,000 criminals then Syria could take back the refugees. That would be the logical and just solution for this problem. The international community is capable of doing this. More financial measures are not the answer.”

In a further sign of problems ahead for De Mistura, Alloush showed hostility to the idea of the Syrian Kurdish YPG being represented at the talks, describing them as “followers of the Assad regime”. The YPG has been excluded from the talks, partly due to Turkish protests, and the HNC has other Kurds on its delegation. He also reported no progress on the issue of political detainees, saying “we know there are 9,000 women in detention centres and none of them have been released”.

Executions were carried out daily by the Assad regime. Reeling off a list of towns still under siege, Alloush said Russian intelligence was working with Syrian intelligence to blackmail towns especially in rural areas around Damascus by offering to trade food in return for reconciliation agreements and truces. Using food like this is a war crime, according to the UN.

Alloush also challenged claims that Russia had truly announced a military withdrawal last week, and accused Russia of a reckless bombing campaign. By saying they can return to return to Syria within four hours, it is clear it is not really even a partial withdrawal. The Russians were given targets that were not accurate: 90% of the air raids were conducted against citizens. They hit 67 schools, over 40 local markets and over 100 hospitals and medical facilities. Russians said they were targeting terrorists but really they were targeting civilians but even when they target Raqqa, they target civilians. Alloush said a war like this cannot be won from the air. Russia knows that.

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Middle East

Gulf countries pivot towards Israel: Can Arab recognition be foresighted?

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The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman surprised the entire world and delivered a message of smoothening of relations between Oman and Israel. This event has marked the first ever visit by any Israeli leader to Oman in 22 years. The Israeli Prime Minister and the Sultan discussed ‘Ways to enhance the peace process in the Middle East’ as well as other issues of ‘joint interest’. For Netanyahu, a milestone was achieved in the form of Oman recognition of Israel as normalizing relations with fellow regional states is one of the important clause of Netanyahu’s policy. Moreover, an Israeli Minister Yisrael Katz attended an International Transport Conference in Oman and proposed a railway link to connect Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea. However, the railway link isn’t confirmed yet, it was just proposed in the conference. In parallel, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attended Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 in United Arab Emirates, where for the first time in history the national anthem of Israel was played. Similar approach was adopted by Israel towards Qatar. These changing dynamics can foresight the future of Gulf politics, that is, gulf countries can align with Israel to counter the influence of Iran in the region and for this purpose gulf countries may recognize Israel.

An important thing to notice is that the countries smoothening their relations with Israel are members of GCC, where Saudi Arabia is at the top of hierarchy- the major decision maker in Middle East- which means without Saudi Arabia’s willingness and its interests, GCC countries cannot take such a big decision. Now here a question arises, why would Saudi Arabia allow this approach?

The main reasons are; firstly, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman have cordial relations with Israel’s top leadership and he(MBS) is seen as a potential ally by Israel in Middle East, the major reason why Israel demanded US to side by Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder case. Second, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia- the self-proclaimed leader of the Sunni Muslim world- to recognize Israel while other states in the region still oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Middle East. Recognition of Israel by other GCC countries would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel or at least to melt ice. Lastly, the Khashoggi murder case have already deteriorated the international image of Saudi Arabia, at this point of time the country cannot afford to bear another blame as Muslim countries think it would be injustice to Palestinians if Israel is recognized.

So will Saudi Arabia follow the suit and recognize Israel? The question still remains ambiguous, but since Saudi Arabia haven’t opposed these action of GCC countries and a continuous diplomatic support from Israel to Saudi Arabia have been visible although both countries do not have diplomatic relations, it can be predicted that something is going on, between both of these states which they have chosen  not to disclose now. Coming to Qatar, since Qatar is also involved in this process of developing diplomatic relations with Israel, it can prove to be a catalyst in the troubled Saudi/Qatar relations as helping Saudi Arabia to develop relations with Israel while other Arab states are doing the same can lift up the entire blame from Saudi Arabia. Maybe the sanctions over Qatar will be lifted or just become less intensified. Qatar sees it as an opportunity to regain the similar status in the region as well as to reconstruct relations with the other Arab countries.

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Middle East

Turkish Newspaper Implicates UAE’s Crown Prince in Covering Up Murder of Khashoggi

Eric Zuesse

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, are close friends and allies, who jointly lead the war against Houthi-led Yemen. On Sunday afternoon, November 18th, a leading Turkish newspaper, Yeni Şafak, reported the two leaders to have also collaborated in hiding the murder on October 2nd in Istanbul of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yeni Şafak headlined “Dahlan ‘cover-up team’ from Lebanon helps hide traces of Khashoggi murder” and reported that on October 2nd, “A second team that arrived in Istanbul to help cover-up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dispatched by Muhammed Dahlan, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed’s chief hitman in the region, … according to an informed source who spoke to Yeni Şafak daily on the condition of anonymity.”

On November 16th, the Washington Post had headlined “CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination”.

Bin Salman and bin Zayed are U.S. President Donald Trump’s closest foreign allies other than, possibly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All four men are determined that there be regime-change in Shiite Iran. This anti-Shia position bonds them also against the Houthis, who are Shiites, in Yemen, where bin Salman and bin Zayed lead the war, and the United States provides the training, logistics, and weapons. Both bin Salman and bin Zayed are fundamentalist Sunnis who are against Shia Muslims. Israel and the United States are allied with these two princes. Saudi Arabia’s royal family have been committed against Shia Muslims ever since 1744 when the Saud family made a pact with the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Mohammed ibn Wahhab, who hated Shia Muslims. Thus, Saudi Arabia is actually Saudi-Wahhabi Arabia, with Sauds running the aristocracy, and Wahhabists running the clergy.

In 2017, in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh, Trump sold, to the Saudi Crown Prince, initially, $350 billion of U.S.-made weapons over a ten-year period (the largest weapons-sale in world history), and $110 billion in just the first year. That deal was soon increased to $404 billion. For Trump publicly to acknowledge that Salman had “ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination” would jeopardize this entire deal, and, perhaps, jeopardize the consequent boom in America’s economy. It also would jeopardize the U.S. alliance’s war against Shiites in Yemen.

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Middle East

Revisiting the Qatari crisis

Ahmed Genidy

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In 2017 the dispute between Qatar and a number of its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Oman has considered as the most serious crisis since years and could escalate in the future to destabilise an already turbulent region. The Qatari support to the extremist parties and terrorist entities in the region is the apparent reason, however, conflicting of interest between Qatar and the other states about the Iranian relations, the political Islam and the competition over the regional leadership are the main reasons. Egypt, Oman and the UAE with the leadership of Saudi Arabia withdrawing diplomats, closing borders, announcing a number of Qatari citizens as terrorist supporters and place an embargo on Qatar and most of its interests and businesses in the region.

The primary reason for the Saudi’s camp blockade is the Qatari politically and financially support for violent extremist groups often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood which considers as a real threat for the other GCC states in particular because of the ability of these group to create a secretive organisation with extreme religious behaviour. However, Qatar is relatively weaker in terms of politically and militarily than the Saudi’s camp, but it has continued to support its Islamist allies for many reasons: ideological sympathy; a believe that political Islam could reflect into Qatar’s influence in the region; a desire to challenge the traditional regional influence especially Saudi Arabia and its followers. In addition, Qatar has used its owned media tool the Aljazeera channel to magnify the Muslim Brotherhood influence and to criticise leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which has been the major thorn in the relations.

The Qatari-Iranian close tie is the second source of tension which seen by other GCC states as a threat to the stability and even the existence of the Sunni majority states in the Gulf. The growing Qatari Iranian relation is evident in many occasions such as the Qatari voting against the UNSC resolution that calling on Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment project and the signing of Qatari Iranian agreement in counterterrorism cooperation which is a Qatar approach to benefit from the Iranian forces due to the modest Qatari military capability. Moreover, the Amir of Qatar called the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and congratulated him on his re-election on April 2017. Finally, Qatar paid the amount of $700 for Kataab Hezbollah Iraq (Iranian baked militia) for the exchange of a member of the Qatari royal family who has been a hostage in Iraq, (probably falsely) was the act that irritated most of the GCC states and triggering the crisis.

The Trump’s administration policy in the region gives Riyad, Cairo and Abu Dhabi the green light to punish Qatar for its support to the Islamic movement. Trump expressed a passive acceptance to the Saudi and its allies in an attempt to contain the greedy Iranian strategy in the region and to confront the rising of the radical Islam. However, it seems that Saudi and its allies are unqualified for such a containment scheme to Iran the giant regional power. Trump also took credit on Twitter and describe the Qatari Amir as “high-level founder of terrorism.” Thus, the blockade can see as an attempt from the Saudi’s camp to push Qatar back to the line, an opportunity to satisfy their allies in Washington and to shift the public opinion to the Qatari issues instead of many internal issues and shortcoming.

The crisis involved a number of unpredictable stakeholders with huge interests in the region which could turn the situation into uncontrollable in many ways. The blockade camp clearly desires that Qatar recognise how serious they are, rapidly back to the line and admit unambiguously their list of demands which include shutting down Aljazeera, end the cooperating with Iran, stop supporting the Islamic parties and recognise the Saudi leadership in the GCC region. On the other hand, Qatar with its relatively small population 300,000 citizens and fund over $300 billion ensures the state will never face a serious financial issue in the future. Moreover, Qatar is the home of the U.S. air base Al-Udeid which is a critical component of the U.S. campaign in the Middle East. Therefore, Qatar knows that the U.S. has an immediate interest in emphasising the stability and the security in Qatar in particular while the U.S. does not have an alternative to Al-Udeid base to support its strategy in the Middle East. The Saudi’s camp is unlikely to abandon their demands. The crisis shows how much the GCC leaders are threatening and in a confusing situation toward support specific radical Islam movements and relation with Iran. In addition, the blockade camp can maintain the sanctions for a long time rather than take a military action due to its economic cost and the lack of suitable capabilities to conduct such a war. For instance, the Saudi campaign in Yemen now and after three years, shows a significant failure to achieve its strategic goals.

The current situations for both sides show that the crisis could easily continue for more years which is a critical concern to all the stakeholders in the region. Now Iran and Turkey are playing a significant role in supporting Qatar needs of foods and goods to minimise the inconvenient of the embargo. Also, Ankara is considering enhancing its military presence in Qatar which seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia the major regional compotator for the Turkish influence. That also shows a high possibility of an Iranian Turkish large-scale involvement in case of a military confrontation.

The U.S. mission should focus on balancing the support to the Gulf States and their core interests as well as supporting the stability by avoiding encouraging them from adopting a risky diplomatic offensives options that can backfire into the whole region. It seems that the U.S. should adopt nuanced diplomacy to end the crisis which is not that simple for the current U.S. administration. Since the conflicting parties of this crisis will not likely find a comprehensive solution on their own, the U.S. should make it a priority to help them do so before the costs of the dispute continue to escalate in unpredictable ways.

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