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Syria’s new position on the Russian scene

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]mong the nine military bases currently used by the Russian Federation, so far the only one in Syria is Tartus, a naval facility classified by Russia as a “technical and material support point”, operating since 1971 thanks to an agreement with Hafez al-Assad’s Baathist Syria. The Humaynim air base, however, is Syrian and, in any case, Russian aircraft and sensors are stationed there.

The Tartus base is a necessary supply and repair point for the initially Soviet and later Russian ships that were to transit through the base located in the Syrian territory to reach the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

The Tartus base can accommodate three ships at the same time and an Amur PM-138 class repair ship is stationed there. Nevertheless the base is not yet suitable for hosting, protecting and repairing the new large Russian warships.

Nevertheless the new agreement between the Russian and Syrian governments, signed last January, extends the concession of the base to the Russian Federation for further 49 years and allows the necessary works to make the Tartus base capable of repairing and supplying eleven ships at the same time. Most importantly, it grants to Russia sovereignty over the base territory and its waters.

In particular, the Tartus base will be able to host ships which are both nuclear-armed and nuclear-propelled.

If we relate this fact to the Russian base planned by Khalifa Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” on the coast of Cyrenaica – an operation seeking to ridicule the European and North American powers which have bet on the wrong horse, namely Al Serraj, a true Machiavelli’s “unarmed prophet” – we have all the geopolitical dimension of the new projection of Russian power onto the Mediterranean.

We must also consider the Conference managed by Russia for mediating between Hamas and Fatah, making Russia stand for becoming the only real Middle East power broker, while the United States is turned into a  free tool of the Saudi policy against Iran and Qatar, which are still supported by Turkey, namely NATO’s second armed force.

It is certainly not easy for NATO to find a common policy on the Middle East, considering that France and Turkey support Haftar; the other NATO European countries unnecessarily support al-Sarraj’s government, in line with UN preferences; Russia backs “Operation Dignity” of Libyan General Haftar, who already controls Cyrenaica, Sirte and much of the Libyan oil crescent, and the United States does nothing.

In other words, in the Mediterranean basin, the Russian Federation plans to restructure the whole Maghreb region on its own, after the evident US failure of the “Arab Springs”.

The Russian strategy is easy to explain, namely a series of military bases or concessions, which progressively expel the United States and its  European allies from the Mediterranean region.

Furthermore Russia will soon propose a possible agreement of mutual alliance and bilateral support against terrorism that will be offered by it to all NATO and EU Mediterranean countries, ever less seduced by NATO and above all by the United States.

Let us revert, however, to the new Russian base in Syria, which closes the loop of this strategic project.

Today, the military engineers’ corps of the Russian Armed Forces are building a new base, which will probably be the vertex of the new Russian Mediterranean triangle, at Kirbet Ras Al-Wa’r, in the Syrian district of Bir Al Qasab.

The Syrian-Arab army, the main force available to Bashar al-Assad, has recently reconquered the whole area from Kirbet up to Arinbah and the whole desert south-east of Damascus, by defeating the para-jihadist – albeit US-backed – forces of Assud Al Sharqia.

Assud Al Sharqia’s group operated under the command of the US base of Al Tanf, on the Syrian border with Iraq.

As we will see later on, this base has now been made harmless.

The war material left by the defeated anti-Assad “rebels” is certainly remarkable both in quantitative and in qualitative terms: many RPG-26 disposable anti-tank rocket launchers developed by Russia, but probably of Jordanian origin; other GRAD BM 21 missiles, namely largely and effectively used rocket launchers manufactured by Russia; many KONKURS (NATO reporting name: AT 5 Spandrel), widely-used wire-guided anti-tank missiles developed in the former Soviet Union.

Clearly the new Russian base of Khirbat Ras al Wa’r, at the core of the Syrian Southern region, deprives the United States of the only concrete possibility of attacking Bashar Assad’s forces north of Al Tanf and, in any case, of drawing the Syrian-Arab Army of the Alawite government away from the Iraqi border, a primary source of support for jihadists and for those whom the United States – using an Orwellian expression – calls “moderate Islamists”.

The new Russian base is 85 kilometres from Damascus, 96 from Deraa and 185 kilometres from the US base of Al-Tanf, which will soon be encircled from the South by the operations of Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian-Arab Army, which is also opening its way to Deraa and Idlib along the Jordanian border.

Furthermore, the recent US operation against the Russian-Syrian base of Shayrat, in central Syria, was meant to be a retaliation against the attack on the village of Qan Shayqun, for which Syria had considered the possibility of using nerve gas.

Despite the scarcity of sources, also the US intelligence had clarified that  the Syrian attack had been targeted against a jihadist gathering organized there on April 4 – an attack carried out by a Russian-guided missile containing conventional explosives.

The US reaction – prompted by the fake news that Syria had used Sarin –  was based on a series of Tomahawk missile launches, but most of the Syrian aircraft had already been moved to bases far from Shayrat.

All this gives you the idea of the poor quality of the US operational and tactical intelligence on the Syrian territory and of the particular level of disconnection between the collection of data on the field and the US decision-making process.

The new base – the intelligence axis of Russia’s engagement in Syria –  will be aimed at controlling the Syrian South-Eastern border, where both the US-backed and the Iranian forces enter.

Building this new military base, just 50 kilometres from Damascus, means protecting the Syrian capital city from any present and future threat, namely the one currently coming from the Al Tanf area and, hence, from the  Jordanian forces, from the US ones and their “moderate jihadist” allies operating on the Syrian soil.

Hence the final stabilization of Bashar al-Assad’s regime under the Russian protection is approaching, as well as the consequent expulsion of the Sunni and pro-American jihad from the Syrian territory.

This is the operation that will become the starting point for a new Russian hegemony in the Greater Middle East, where Russia has no real enemies, but wants to restructure it according to its interests: at first, the projection onto the Mediterranean and, later, the strategic correlation between Russian and OPEC oil.

The construction of the base has begun when the secret contacts between the United States and the Russian Federation resumed in Amman, Jordan.

Contacts useful primarily to define the “de-escalation zone” in Southern Syria, especially in the Deraa area.

For various parts of Syria, the four de-escalation zones had already been defined during the Astana talks of last May in a specific agreement between Russia and Iran.

Obviously the United States does not accept an agreement with Iran, but  proposes a new de-escalation zone to Russia, without having to rely on a relationship with Iran.

The two delegations are led by Michael Ratney for the United States and Aleksandr Lavrentiev for Russia.

At the end of last January, the Russian envoy had already negotiated with Israel the central lines of the future peace in Syria.

Al Tanaf, the US base that the new Russian facility could make harmless, was one of the two pillars of the US plan, consisting in unilaterally declaring a “de-escalation zone” between Al Tanaf itself up to the Euphrates valley, in the direction of Deyr al-Zur.

The plan underlying this operation was to break the “Shiite crescent” that was supposed to connect, on the ground, Iran to the Lebanon via Southern Syria.

It is likely, however, that the plan was, in fact, to build a larger Sunni corridor, at the sides of the Shiite crescent, going from the Saudi-Iraqi border, namely from Al Anbar – through the Syrian Sunni area and the area occupied by the Kurds, up to the Turkish border.

The Syrian forces alone have blocked this plan by connecting the Western area of their country to the Iraqi border, north-east of Al Tanaf, and by advancing just north-east towards Abu Qamal and the Euphrates valley.

The US-Jordanian base of Al Tanaf has been closed southwest – as in a vice – by both Syria and the Iranian forces. This is the premise for the passage of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrians towards Deyr al Zur and the Euphrates valley, although today Deir is still surrounded by jihadists.

Hence the United States is acknowledging its limited room for manoeuvre in Syria.

In fact, on June 22, a still confidential tripartite agreement was reached by the United States, Russia and Jordan to create a true demilitarized zone in Southern Syria, which would also cover the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

As far as we know, the agreement envisages that the United States will continue to manage the base of Al Tanaf.

In return, the United States will not react to Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah operations against Daesh-Isis to reconquer the border town of Abu Kamal, north of Al Tanaf.

Conversely, Russia ensures the return back home of the Iranian forces, of Hezbollah and the militia they command, in a still undefined phase of the future stabilization of the Syrian area.

Moreover a joint Russian-American administration will be defined to manage the civil affairs of Southern Syria, including the areas bordering on Israel and those bordering on Jordan.

Russia, to which Syria cannot deny large interference with some Syrian areas, will ensure stability north of the Jewish State – in the place of the United States and, anyway, in a hegemonic way with respect to it – which Russia wants to keep within the Middle East, but without playing the old role of power broker it had before the conflict in Syria.

A clash that has revealed who is the new, real Middle East broker and manager, after the US ill-advised support to the jihadist guerrilla warfare against Bashar el Assad, the last tessera of the “Arab Springs” and the final crucial point of the US hegemony over the whole area.

Meanwhile, the US-linked Syrian Democratic Forces have encircled Raqqa – and Syria foresees that the liberation of the last “capital city” of Daesh-Isis will last at least three months.

The US geopolitical tape will rewind: hence future stabilization – also with the US support – of the tension between the various Palestinian organizations; probable peace between Israel and the PNA Territories; Russian-American cooperation against the jihad in Sinai and a new agreement between the United States and Egypt, while a new role of  armed mediation will be probably played by the United States and by the two conflicting governments within Libya.

Conversely, no one can say anything about Russia’s expansion in the Mediterranean, which will probably be supported by Turkey that, as already said, is the second NATO armed force, while Russia will favour either an agreement between Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj or a definitive military action against Tripoli’s government.

Nevertheless, the United States will not have the opportunity of accepting  the new bilateral US and Russian administration in Southern Syria: in fact, if Bashar al-Assad’s forces conquer Abu Kamal, Iran will strengthen its position on the Syrian-Iraqi border, while the United States does not want any presence – albeit limited in time – of Iran and Hezbollah on the Syrian territory.

Hence, according to the United States, at first the Shiites must be out of the Syrian territory and later the real bilateral negotiations on Southern Syria can start.

Nevertheless will Israel trust more the control that Russia has shown over the Iranian and Lebanese operations north of Golan or the US side guarantees which, however, will be marginal in the future in the region?

Another factor we must consider – also in view of understanding Syria’s future – is the clash between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

As is well known, the Saudi demands to Qatar are thirteen: in particular, breaking any relationship with Iran – and I think it will be hard, considering the cooperation between the two countries for the South Pars gas field; closing the Turkish military base, which does not only depend on Qatar – but Turkey has no intention of closing anything and, indeed, it is planning joint Turkish-Qatari exercises after Eid-ul Fitr, i.e. in a few days;  Qatar’s closing Al Jazeera and not funding media such as “Arabi21”, “Rassdi”, “Arabi Al-Jadid” and “Middle East Eye”; blocking any funding to terrorist groups so defined by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States,  Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – and you can tell they will be mainly Shiite and pro-Iranian groups; breaking off any relations with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Caliphate; not interfering with the internal affairs of the signatory countries of the motion against Qatar; suspending any aid to the internal opponents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; compensating the damage caused to the above-stated countries; finally aligning with said countries from all viewpoints, according to the agreement signed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2014, so as to be later subjected to monthly inspections to monitor the implementation of these agreements, at least for the first year.

In principle, it is a spoliation of Qatar to support the Saudi finances and back the transformation of the Saudi economy, with the capital and funds  of the wealthy Qatar, so as to make it no longer dependent on oil.

The United States supports this agreement to rebalance the power void experienced in Syria, but it is by no means certain it will have to do with friendly countries and with similar regional interests.

Saudi Arabia’s financial crisis is severe, mainly because of the expensive engagement of the Al Sauds’ kingdom to support the war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – a war that the very link between Bashar al-Assad and the Russian Federation has shown to be useless and dangerous from the Sunni side.

The fight to reduce the oil barrel price, triggered off by Saudi Arabia to undercut the US shale oil competition, on which Obama’s new economic growth was centered, led to Trump’s victory, thus creating – in the Saudi clan – an internal war between those who want a new relationship with Russia and China, the winners on the field, and a new and stronger relationship with the new US Presidency – which, however, will be ever  less important in the Middle East.

An almost explicit goal is to block the participation of the Saudi-dominated Middle East system in the Chinese New Silk Road project,  encompassing Iran and part of Syria.

And here we revert again to the Russian project on Syria, crowned with  the future victory on the field.

In fact, Iran would be the spearhead of the new Chinese project to put its currency at the core of future oil trade.

This is also the reason why we are still fighting in Syria. And it is precisely Iran that has just liberated Mosul.

Nevertheless it is exactly the Chinese finance that is currently pivoting on Qatar, for the whole Middle East.

Hence if the situation in Syria stabilizes under the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia will no longer have any protection from the Syrian-Jordanian border towards its territory, and even a pincer movement might take place, while the Kingdom’s finances go bust, between Qatar and Iran’s Northern allies, namely Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq.

Moreover, if Saudi Arabia keeps its role as Asia’s primary oil supplier, excluding Iran from playing this role, it can reasonably support its post-oil project for transforming its economy.

Conversely, if the United Kingdom unwillingly accepts a strong and dominant presence of Iran and its allies in the New Middle East, it shall necessarily accept to play a marginal role in the Chinese Road and Belt Initiative, which already makes most of its Middle East investment in Qatar.

Nevertheless there is the variable of the contrast between Hezbollah and Israel. Just in these days the Jewish State has carried out air raids against Syrian positions near Quneitra, three kilometres from the Golan border.

Shortly before, Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian-Arab Army and Hezbollah had fought against a large alliance of Salafist jihadist groups, while the Lebanese Shiite groups were made up of Shiites, Circassians, Shiite Afghans and soldiers of some Bashar al-Assad’s brigades.

If Syria tends to put Golan under its control, Israel’s immediate reaction will be very tough. Moreover if, from Deraa southwards, Syrians arrives at the border with Jordan, a severe casus belli will be created with the Hashemite Kingdom.

Syria cannot hit two of its opponents at the same time to avoid a joint attack that would move the Syrian-Arab Army away from Golan and would push it into the arms of Al Nusra and the other jihadist groups still present north of Quneitra.

And this will be a real acid test for the Russian Federation’s credible mediation role.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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,”

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MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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