[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]n Syria, on February 24 last, Iraq carried out its first bombing against Isis in the region of Abu Kemal, but the tactical and intelligence support to the Iraqi forces was been given by Russia and Iran, not by the United States which, however, also tacitly allowed the operations.
This also means that Putin has lost his patience and fears the new fragmentation of power and factionalism in the United States, considering Donald Trump’s Presidency and the intelligence agencies now deployed against the new President. Hence Putin goes on with his operations in Syria with the support of Iran and not with the US support, as had previously been planned by the Russian intelligence services.
It is also assumed that the United States does not accept the primary role of the Turkish forces in the conquest of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called “Caliphate”. However, after the conquest of the town of Al Bab in Northern Syria, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, announced that the Turkish armed forces would continue actions towards Raqqa with the support of France, Great Britain, and Germany – not to mention the United States.
Therefore, if the United States is de facto expelled from Syria, it will be irrelevant in the Greater Middle East. If the United States is short-lived in the Greater Middle East, America will be fully marginal in Europe. If it will not be present in Europe, this will not be a problem for the European Union which will not even notice it, but the United States will also be non-existent in the Maghreb region and in Central Asia.
The US absence will not be a danger for the EU’s foreign policy. The European foreign policy does not even exist now, let alone in the future.
Nevertheless for Russia and China it will mean “green light” for the great Eurasia planned by Russia and for the new Silk Road, namely the Road and Belt Initiative, conceived by China as early as 2013.
In both cases, this marks the end of the EU-US relationship as we currently know it, but in Brussels nobody has yet noticed it – hence let us leave them asleep.
It is exactly in this context that the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia must be seen.
Between February 21 and 22 last, while the United States showed their weakness in the Middle East and in the rest of the world, the Saudi Chief of the intelligence services, Khalid bin Ali al Humaidan, secretly visited both Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Al Humaidan, recently appointed Head of the main intelligence service of the Saudi Kingdom does not belong to the network of the most important princes of the Al Saud family, the so-called “seven Sudayri”, but has emerged solely thanks to a brilliant military career – and it is the first time that this happens.
In fact, the Saudi intelligence services are very worried about the project, authorized a few weeks ago by the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and also by President Rouhani, whom Westerners stupidly define as a “reformist” – a project that the Iranian Armed Forces define as Riyadh, at first.
For Iran the issue lies in adding further 100 kilometres to the range of their SCUD-C and SCUD-D missiles, which is currently 600 and 700 kilometres, respectively, so as to enable the missile to directly reach the Saudi capital city.
Currently the Iranian operation is implemented at the Al Ghadi base in the Ganesh area, about 48 kilometers from the capital city of the Shiite republic.
Al Ghadi is a few kilometres from Hamadan, the base that Iran granted to the Russian air force last August which, however, has already been left by it, with some Iran’s complaints.
Therefore the strategy of the Shiite republic is clear: instead of accepting diversions or multiple regional conflicts by proxy, Iran will hit immediately and directly the Saudi Kingdom with such a missile salvo as to block its decision-making centres and much of its economy.
On the other hand, just on February 4 last, Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels attacked with a Borkan missile (i.e. a Volcano 1 missile) – which has an average range of 800 kilometers – the Saudi camp of Al Mazahimiyah, 40 kilometres west of Riyadh.
The Borkan 1 is a tactical ballistic missile developed on the basis of the R-17 Soviet Elbrus model, but it is not very likely for this medium-range missile fuelled with solid propellant to have been launched by the Houthis. It is rather the first test of the new Iranian extended-range SCUD missile.
What will the Head of the Saudi intelligence services have said to the Palestinian leaders gathered in Ramallah?
Certainly he will have told the PLO heirs to stop strengthening their ties with Iran.
As early as 2014 Hamas and the Al Qassam Brigades have publicly reaffirmed their political-military relationship with the Shiite republic, even though Hamas is an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood that has always been the number one enemy of the Sunni kingdom of the Al Saud family.
While in 2012 Hamas had broken its relations with Iran, in the phase of the silly “Arab Springs”, by supporting the political legitimacy of President Hadi in Yemen, currently Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, wants a preferential relationship with Iran for its financial and military support, while the Saudi and Arab Emirates’ support is vanishing.
And this happens even though the Hamas leaders would accept, at first and preferentially, the support of the Saudi Kingdom.
Support to the Palestinian struggle which, however, is currently not provided “for internal reasons within the Saudi regime,” as said by our sources within the Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestinian Territories.
Furthermore a meeting was already held between Iranian and Palestinian delegations in Brussels, in mid-February 2017.
It is that meeting which alerted the Saudi intelligence services.
The whole Iranian delegation had been appointed directly by President Rowhani, the “reformist,” while the Palestinian one was led by Jibril Rajoub, whom Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, will probably appoint as his deputy in the coming days.
Rajoub is “persona non grata” for Jordan; he emerged as leader at the Fatah Congress held in Ramallah in 2016 and cannot even travel to Egypt.
On the contrary, in Jerusalem, the Head of the Saudi intelligence services will have talked about the issues relating to the next Middle East Conference proposed by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in their last meeting.
However, what is the current relationship between Israel and the Gulf petromonarchies?
It is worth recalling that Israel sent its first diplomatic mission to the United Arab Emirates, precisely to Abu Dhabi, on November 27, 2015.
Obviously both for the United Arab Emirates and for Saudi Arabia the relationship with the Jewish State is instrumental to contain Iran, a sworn enemy of both counties.
But we must consider the economy and, above all, the advanced technology, which is essential for the economic diversification of the Sunni petromonarchies.
Recently Qatar has even tried to establish some unofficial diplomatic channels with Israel – channels that had been disrupted after the 2008-2009 Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf petromonarchies are ever less interested in the Palestinians, but ever more greedy for the Israeli advanced technology that the United States has not or does not want to grant.
As early as the Six Day War, the Jewish State’s leadership has used the concessions made to the Palestinians with a view to defusing the threat that the Arab States posed to its very survival.
Moreover the Israeli diplomacy has always used the 1994 model of normalizing relations with Jordan to propose similar actions with the other Arab League countries.
And, over the years, the Qatari support to Hamas and the Saudi support to the whole Palestinian military and political region has become ever less passionate and relevant.
The primary reason is the massive corruption reigning in the Territories, which prevents also the Saudi and the Emirates’ counterparts from doing business, while the Saudi strategic equation is increasingly focused on Al Sisi’s Egypt, a ferocious enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than on Hamas, which is the Palestinian armed wing of the Brotherhood and, hence, directly operating in the Sinai region.
Currently the Saudi and Emirates’ support to the Palestinians is increasingly tactical and vague, except for preventing Iran from conquering the thriving market of “aid” to the Palestinian National Authority’s military forces.
Saudi Arabia does not want the increasingly close relationship between Mahmoud Abbas and Iran, nor it wants to support a military struggle against Israel – and it is worth noting King Salman Al Saud’s absence from the Arab League’s meeting held in Mauritania on July 25, 2016 – a Summit focused precisely on the Palestinian issue.
Currently the Israeli high-tech products and advanced technologies for irrigation have already entered the Kingdom through “third” companies.
In 2011, some Israeli companies sold military technology to the Arab Emirates to the tune of 300 million US dollars, while the members of the Gulf Security Council use technologies produced by the Jewish State to maintain safety and security in their oil wells.
In 2009 Saudi Arabia even tested its air defences to check the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran launched from its territory while, on the basis of 2015 data, 53% of the Saudi citizens see Iran as the primary threat, while Israel is considered the number one enemy only by 18% of the Saudi citizens.
Moreover, Israel publicly supported the Egyptian granting of the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, while the primary strategic relationship in which Israel is interested is the one regarding the Saudi – or anyway Sunni – opposition and contrast to Iran’s penetration into the Palestinian universe.
The companies resulting from the spin-off of the Israeli intelligence services are used by Saudi Arabia to probe the deep web, while much of cybersecurity in the Emirates is originated from Israel.
Recently the United Arab Emirates have spent six billion dollars in security infrastructure, by using Israeli engineers and companies owned by or linked to Israeli businessmen.
The main intermediary for these relations, at least at government level, is Ayub Kara, an Arab-Israeli Druze who is currently Minister in Netanyahu’s government.
He is a Likud man, who cherishes no illusions about the strategic aims of Israel’s possible “friends” in the Middle East.
The starting point for new networks between Riyadh and Jerusalem is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Project.
The “Two Seas Canal” will bring drinking water from Aqaba to Lisan, in the Dead Sea – water available to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories – and will generate electricity. It is located entirely on the Jordanian territory and will be funded by the Jordanian government and by some international donors.
Its construction is expected to start next year and Ayub Kara, in particular, supports the redevelopment and enhancement of the Haifa port for the transport of goods to the EU and Turkey, in addition to conceiving a role for the Israeli port towards Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Another Israeli project in which Saudi Arabia is interested is the old Red Sea pipeline, an old network of 50 years ago from Eilat to Ashkelon, built jointly with the Iranian Shah.
It avoids the Suez Canal and hence reduces many political costs, as well as the costs for transporting oil to Europe and the United States.
Last year, however, a Swiss court granted to Iran 1.1 billion US dollars for loss of earnings, but Israel refuses to pay this sum to Iran, as can be easily imagined.
Other Israeli companies in the safety and security sector sold to the United Arab Emirates integrated systems for monitoring networks and people flows – systems which are also used for the remote supervision of pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.
Hence the new strategic coordinates of the Greater Middle East will be, on the one hand, the Iranian management of the Shiite minorities in Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria and, on the other, Saudi Arabia’s opening to every Iranian enemy in the region.
The United States will continue their withdrawal from the Middle East system. Russia will become the true and only broker of military power and equilibriums in the Fertile Crescent. If there are no future military crises on its borders, in addition to the Syrian one, Israel will become the point of reference both for Russia and the Sunni world, which is orphan of the United States.
As is currently the case, Europe will be irrelevant and devoid of ideas.
Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage
With Turkish investigators asserting that they have found further evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed when he visited the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Turkey appears to be leveraging the case to enhance its position as a leader of the Islamic World and reposition itself as a key US ally.
To enhance its geopolitical position vis a vis Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and Iran and potentially garner economic advantage at a time that it is struggling to reverse a financial downturn, Turkey has so far leaked assertions of evidence it says it has of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing rather than announced them officially.
In doing so, Turkey has forced Saudi Arabia to allow Turkish investigators accompanied by Saudi officials to enter the consulate and positioned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the kingdom’s saviour by engineering a situation that will allow the kingdom to craft a face-saving way out of the crisis.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering announcing that Mr. Khashoggi, a widely-acclaimed journalist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went into self-exile because he feared arrest, was killed in either a rogue operation or an attempt gone awry to forcibly repatriate it him back to the kingdom.
US President Donald J. Trump offered the Turks and Saudis a helping hand by referring this week to the possibility of Mr. Khashoggi having been killed by rogues and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara.
Mr. Khashoggi, seeking to obtain proof of his divorce in the kingdom so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, visited the consulate two weeks ago for the second time after having allegedly received assurances that he would be safe.
Turkey emerges as the crisis moves towards a situation in which an official version is agreed that seeks to shield Prince Mohammed from being held responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely murder with its international status significantly enhanced.
Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.
As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.
It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.
Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.
Already, Mr. Khashoggi’s family who was initially quoted by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media as backing Saudi denials of responsibility, insinuations that his fate was the product of a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and casting doubt on the integrity of the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, has called for “the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”
Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on multiple issues that divide the Muslim world. Turkey has vowed to help Iran circumvent Saudi-supported US sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear agreement.
Turkey further backs Qatar in its dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that has diplomatically and economically boycotted the Gulf state for the last 16 months. The credibility of the alliance’s allegation that Qatar supports terrorism and extremism has been dented by the growing conviction that Saudi Arabia, whether in a planned, rogue or repatriation effort gone wrong, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
Mr. Khashoggi’s death, moreover, highlighted differing approaches towards the Brotherhood, one of the Middle East’s most persecuted, yet influential Islamist groupings. Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Many brothers have sought refuge in Turkey with Mr. Erdogan empathetic and supportive of the group. A former brother, Mr. Khashoggi criticized Saudi repression of the group.
The Saudi-Turkish rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world was most evident in the two countries’ responses to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his as yet unpublished plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Turkey emerged as the leader of Islamic denunciation of Mr. Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital after Prince Mohammed tried to dampen opposition. Ultimately, King Salman was forced to step in a bid to clarify the kingdom’s position and counter Turkish moves.
No matter how Turkey decides to officially release whatever evidence it has, Saudi Arabia figures out how to respond and halt the haemorrhaging, and Mr. Pompeo holds talks with King Salman and Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is likely to emerge from the crisis strengthened despite its increasingly illiberal and increasingly authoritarian rule at home,
Turkey’s success is all the more remarkable given that it has neither Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle nor the mantle the kingdom adopts as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
A successful political resolution of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to earn it the gratitude of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and its other detractors like the UAE who support the kingdom even if it may help it to regain popularity in the Arab world lost as a result of its swing towards authoritarianism, alliance with Iran and Qatar, and support for Islamism.
One immediate Turkish victory is likely to be Saudi acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s demand that Saudi Arabia drop its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria that Ankara sees as terrorists – a move that would boost Turkey’s position the Turkish-Russian-Iranian jockeying for influence in a post-war Syria. Turkey is also likely to see Saudi Arabia support it economically.
Turkey may, however, be playing for higher stakes.
Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall. (It wants to) disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West” in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, said international relations scholar Serhat Guvenc.
Turkey’s relations in recent years have soured as a result of Turkish insistence that the US is harbouring a terrorist by refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the preacher it accuses of having engineered the failed 2016 coup; detaining American nationals and US consulate employees on allegedly trumped up charges, cosying up to Russia and purchasing its S-400 surface to air missile system, and aligning itself with Iran. Relations were further strained by US support for Syrian Kurds.
Mr. Trump, however this week heralded a new era in US-Turkish relations after the release of unsubscribeAndrew Brunson, an evangelist preacher who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.
Mr. Guvenc argued that Turkey hopes that Saudi Arabia’s battered image will help it persuade Mr. Trump that Turkey rather than the kingdom is its strongest and most reliable ally alongside Israel in the Middle East.
Said journalist Ferhat Unlu: “”Turkey knows how to manage diplomatic crises. Its strategy is to manage tensions to its advantage,”
MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?
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.”
Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus
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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