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Trump’s chaos produces results: Gulf states upgrade ties to Israel

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A cornerstone of the Trump administration’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace, involving a restructuring of relations between erstwhile Middle Eastern foes appears to be taking shape: Gulf states are making long-standing covert ties to the Jewish state overt without establishing formal diplomatic relations. In the process, the Palestinians are being pressured to fall into line.

The willingness of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to be more open about their long-standing relations with Israel reflects their growing common interest with the Jewish state in countering Iran and groups that they include in their sweeping definitions of terrorism; countering mounting criticism of their tarnished human rights records by forging closer ties to Jewish leaders in the United States; and supporting US President Donald J. Trump.

The moves boost Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who has talked for months about ‘breakthroughs’ in Israel-Arab relations and recently asserted that cooperation “is much larger than any other period in Israel’s history”.

In the clearest sign to date, of an upgrading of ties between the three Gulf states and Israel, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorized Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles who delivered a benediction at Mr. Trump’s inauguration, to announce a series of gestures towards Israel at a ceremony at the centre’s Museum of Tolerance.

The Bahrain-funded ceremony was attended by the king’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, who as commander of Bahrain’s Royal Guard and president of the country’s National Olympic Committee has been accused of abusing the human rights of opponents of the government as well as athletes and sports executives who in 2011 participated in peaceful anti-government protests. Bahrain blames the protest on Iran and views Shiite opponents as Iranian stooges.

The centre released at the event a Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance authored by King Hamad, the first of its kind by an Arab head of state. Prince Nasser and Mr. Hier signed the declaration at the ceremony.

To be fair, Bahrain’s minority Sunni Muslim government, while brutally cracking down on Shiites, who constitute a majority of the population and have been demanding equal rights and an end to discrimination, has long had a record of religious tolerance towards non-Muslims.

The country has Jewish representatives in parliament and at one point had an ambassador to the United States who was both female and Jewish. Nancy Khedouri, a Jewish MP, attended a recent gathering of the World Jewish Congress where she publicly met Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz.

Gulf states hope that they can benefit from the Jewish community’s influence in the United States. Their approaches come, however, at a time that the community is split in its attitude towards Mr. Trump.

Jewish religious leaders this year backed away from organizing a conference call with the president to mark the Jewish high holidays in protest against Mr. Trump’s refusal to identify neo-Nazi’s as responsible for a the killing of a woman in Charlottesville during a white supremacist march in which anti-Semitic slogans were raised.

Mr. Heir told the ceremony that he and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the centre’s associate dean, had been authorized to make public a series of statements made to them by King Hamad during a meeting in February. In those statements, the king denounced the long-standing Arab boycott of Israel and announced his intention to build by the end of this year a museum of tolerance of his own.

Bahraini officials reportedly recently discussed with Israel the institutionalization of mutual visits, allowing Bahraini nationals to freely travel to Israel, and opportunities for trade between their two countries. Gulf states legally ban their citizens from visiting the Jewish state.

Saudi and UAE troops helped the Bahrain government crush the 2011 popular revolt. Bahrain has since hued close to Saudi policy and would not have made its gestures towards Israel without Saudi approval.

The Bahraini overtures came a month after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson castigated Bahrain for discriminating against Shiites. “Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Bahrain must stop discriminating against the Shia communities,” Mr. Tillerson said.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also in the firing line because of the brutal conduct of their 2.5-year-old ill-fated invasion of Yemen as well as iron-fisted domestic abuse of human rights.

Weeks before Bahrain’s public moves, Israeli media reported that a member of a Gulf ruling family, believed to be a Saudi prince, had secretly visited Israel in a bid to kickstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, said last week it was willing to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the strip and move towards long overdue elections. Debilitating rifts among the Palestinians have complicated failed peace talks.

Hamas’ willingness to bury its hatchet with ailing Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement came as a result of a pincer movement in which the Palestinian leader sought to strangle Gaza economically while the UAE worked to engineer the return to Palestine of its protégé, Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief with presidential ambitions.

The UAE effort, coupled with Gulf gestures towards Israel, stroke with the Trump administration’s efforts to create an environment conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peace by first strengthening informal ties between the Jewish state and key Arab nations. The administration has been pushing for more open relations on issues like trade as well as more open contact built on a common front against Iran and militant Islam.

The UAE in effect initiated the process when in 2015 it allowed Israel to open its first diplomatic mission in the Gulf.

Gulf states have offered to establish relations with Israel if it were to accept a 1982 Arab-endorsed Saudi plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that called for an Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied during the 1967 Middle East war and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. As a result, Israel’s mission is accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi rather than the UAE government but serves as an unofficial embassy to the Gulf.

The ink on Bahrain’s declaration of religious freedom had barely dried by the time that the gestures towards Israel became mired in the 3.5-month-old Gulf crisis that pits Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Jewish leaders targeted by the three countries condemned efforts by Qatar emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to meet with the Jewish community during his visit to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Sheikh Tamim hired a Jewish PR firm to organize meetings.

Reflecting the divisions among American Jewry, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach organized a full-page ad in The New York Times to denounce Jews willing to meet with the Qatari leader. “It is a shameful episode for our community when those who fund the murder of Jews in Israel are being embraced by Jews in the United States,” the ad said, referring to Qatari relations with Hamas that have been endorsed by the United States.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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