Optimists see hopeful signs that the Middle East may be exiting from a dark tunnel of violence, civil war, sectarian strife, and debilitating regional rivalries.The Islamic State (IS) is on the cusp of territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia may be groping for an exit from its devastating military intervention in Yemen. Gulf states are embarking on economic and social reform aimed at preparing for the end of oil.
Haltingly, Gulf states may be forced to find a face-saving solution to their more than three-month-old crisis that has pitted a UAE-Saudi led alliance against Qatar and there may even be an effort to dial down tension between the kingdom and Iran.
Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza said it was willing to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the strip and move towards long overdue elections.
At first glance, reasons for optimism. But don’t hold your breath. Optimists base their hopes on shifting sands and tentative suggestions that protagonists may be looking for ways out of the malaise.
Yet, none of the indicators involve actions that would tackle root causes of the Middle East multiple conflicts and problems. In fact, some of the solutions tossed around amount to little more than window dressing, while others set the stage for a next phase of conflict and strife.
Talks between the feuding Palestinian factions have repeatedly failed. It was not clear whether Hamas would be ready as part of a deal to put its armed wing under Mr. Abbas’s control – a key demand of the Palestinian president that the Islamists have so far rejected. It also remains to be seen how Israel would respond. Israel together with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Beyond Palestine, the contours of future conflict are already discernible. If Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines.
Disputes over territory, power and resources between and among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds that fuelled the rise of IS in Iraq are resurfacing with its demise. In a twist of irony, a recent poll showed Sunnis were for the first time more positive about Iraq’s future than the country’s majority Shiites.
Reconstruction of Sunni cities in the north destroyed by the fight against IS is key to maintaining a semblance of Iraqi unity. With no signs of massive reconstruction gaining momentum, old wounds that have driven insurgencies for more than a decade could reignite IS in new forms. “All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” said former Iraqi foreign minister and Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, referring to the group by another of its acronyms.
The initial flash in the pan threatens to be the fact that Iraqi Kurds are certain to vote for independence in a unilateral referendum scheduled for September 25. If the independence issue did not provide enough explosives in and of itself, the Kurds’ insistence on including in the referendum the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and adjacent areas further fuelled the fire.
The referendum and the dispute over Kirkuk reopen the question of what Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are even if the Kurds opt not to act immediately on a vote for independence and to remain part of an Iraqi federation for the time being.
The issue could blow a further hole into Iraq’s already fragile existence as a united nation state. Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has denounced the referendum. His efforts to persuade the Iraqi parliament to fire Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim for backing the poll as well as for calls for parliament to withdraw confidence in Iraqi President Fuad Masum and sack ministers and other senior officials of Kurdish descent could push the Kurds over the edge.
Iraqi military officials as well as the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are aligned with the military have vowed to prevent the referendum from being held in Kirkuk. “Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. We would by no means give up on Kirkuk even if this were to cause major bloodshed,” said Ayoub Faleh aka Abu Azrael, the commander of Imam Ali Division, an Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia.
A possible fight may not be contained to Kirkuk. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces vie for control of areas from which IS has been driven out stretch westwards along the length of northern Iraq. Mr. Al-Abadi warned that he would intervene militarily if the referendum, which he described as unconstitutional, provoked violence.
Add to that, the ganging up on the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and the United States. The US backs the Iraqi government even if it put Kurdistan on course towards independence when it allowed the autonomous enclave to emerge under a protective no-fly zone that kept the forces of Saddam Hussein at bay. Breaking with the US and its Arab allies, Israel has endorsed Kurdish independence.
Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Iranian Al Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani have warned the Kurds on visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to back away from the referendum. Iran has threatened to close its borders with the region.
Describing the referendum as “a matter of national security,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “no one should have doubt that we will take all the necessary steps in this matter.” Turkey fears that Kurdish independence would spur secessionist aspirations among its own Kurds, who account for up to 20 percent of its population and that an independent Kurdistan would harbour Turkish Kurdish insurgents already operating from the region.
Mr. Al-Abadi alluded to possible Turkish and/or Iranian military intervention to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan by suggesting that the referendum would be “a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders… The Turks are very angry about it because they have a large Kurdish population inside Turkey and they feel that their national security is threatened because it is a huge problem for them. And, of course, the Iranians are on the same line,” Mr. Al-Abadi said.
The Kurdish quest for some form of self-rule is likely to manifest itself in Syria too. The US backs a Syrian Kurdish militia aligned with Turkish Kurdish militants in its fight against IS. The militia that prides itself on its women fighters is among the forces besieging the IS capital of Raqqa.
The Kurds are hoping that an end to the war in Syria will leave them with an Iraq-style autonomous region on the Turkish border – an aspiration that Turkey, like in Iraq, vehemently opposes. The target of strikes by the Turkish air force, the Kurds hope to benefit from the force’s shortage of pilots because of mass purges in the wake of last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The air force last month ordered all former fighter pilots flying for Turkish airlines to report for service.
The Kurds may provide the first flashpoint for another round of volatility and violence, but they are not the only ones. Nor are sectarian and other ethnic divisions that are likely to wrack Iraq and Syria once the current round of fighting subsides.
Eager to find a face-saving exit from its ill-fated invasion of Yemen that has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss, Saudi Arabia is will have to cope with a populous country on its border, many of whose citizens harbour deep-seated anger at the devastation and human suffering caused by the Saudis that will take years to reverse.
Similarly, the three-month-old rift between Qatar and an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is likely to leave deep-seated scars that will hamper integration among the six Gulf states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Middle East’s only functioning regional organization prior to the crisis. A failure of talks between Qatar and its detractors, mediated by US President Donald J. Trump, even before they got started, suggested that a resolution to the crisis is nowhere in sight.
Coping with the fallout of the crisis and the Yemen war, simply adds to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s woes as he prepares to at some point succeed his ailing father, King Salman. Prince Mohammed, who is popular among the country’s youth in expectation of economic and social change, has already had to backtrack on some of the promised change. Foreign lenders have moreover indicated a lack of confidence as they head for the exit rather than explore new opportunities.
In addition, Prince Mohammed has signalled concern about opposition to his proposed reforms within the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family, determination to avoid political change, and willingness to rule with an iron fist. Prominent religious scholars with significant followings and activists have been arrested in recent weeks while dissenting members of the ruling family have been put under house arrest.
The optimistic view may be that the Middle East is six years into an era of political, economic and social change. If historic yardsticks are applicable, that amounts to one third of a process of transition that can take up to quarter of a century to work itself out. There is little reason to believe that the next third will be any less volatile or violent.
Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power
The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.
The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.
The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.
Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.
Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.
That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.
In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.
Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.
More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.
A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.
Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.
Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr. Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.
FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets, and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.
Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.
A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.
In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.
In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.
A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”
Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.
In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.
Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.
Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.
The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.
“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.
It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.
Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.
One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.
Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.
Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.
With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”
He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.
Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week
The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.
Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.
The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday.
Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.
“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.
“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”
The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.
An important contribution
The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.
This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.
For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning.
He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”
Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”
North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?
In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.
In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.
Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.
With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.
Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.
But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.
Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.
It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.
The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.
In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!
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