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US-Saudi nuclear talks: A barometer for whither the Middle East?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Talks aimed at transferring US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia serve as an indicator of where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is heading as well as the strength of the informal Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran.

The possible transfer could spark a new arms race in the Middle East and constitutes one explanation why Saudi responses to President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were muted and limited to rhetorical statements.

Mr. Trump’s decision was perhaps most challenging for the Saudis, who as custodians of Islam’s two holiest cities, would have been expected to play a leading role in protecting the status of the city that is home to the faith’s third holiest site. Saudi Arabia was represented at this week’s summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul that recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine by its foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, rather than the king, crown prince or another senior member of the ruling family.

The difficulty for the Saudis is not only their close cooperation with Israel, willingness to increasingly publicly hint at what long was a secret relationship, and their position as the US’ closest friend in the Arab world, who reportedly was willing to endorse a US Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the making that would fail to meet the minimum demanded by Palestinians and Arab public opinion.

With Mr. Trump backing Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in a swath of land stretching from Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa despite mounting US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of its military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh has a vested interest in maintaining its close ties to Washington. While having been put in an awkward position, international condemnation of Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move has also increased Saudi leverage.

Mr. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia as well as his transactional approach to foreign policy that aims to further US business interests holds out the promise of tipping the Middle East’s military balance of power in favour of the kingdom.

In the president’s latest effort, his administration is weighing allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium as part of a deal that would ensure that bids by Westinghouse Electric Co. and other US companies to build nuclear reactors in the kingdom are successful. Past US reluctance to endorse Saudi enrichment and reprocessing of uranium has put purveyors of US nuclear technology at a disadvantage.

Saudi Arabia agreed with the US in 2008 not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing but has since backed away from that pledge. “They wouldn’t commit, and it was a sticking point,” said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Testifying to Congress in November, Christopher Ford, the US National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, refused to commit the Trump administration to the US restrictions. The restrictions are “not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome.” Mr. Ford said. He added that the 2015 international agreement with Iran that severely restricts the Islamic republic’s nuclear program for at least a decade, made it more difficult for the United States to insist on limiting other countries’ enrichment capabilities.

Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030 at a cost of an estimated $100 billion. Officially, Saudi Arabia sees nuclear power as a way of freeing up more oil for export in a country that has witnessed dramatic increases in domestic consumption and contributing to diversification of its economy. It would also enhance Saudi efforts to ensure parity with Iran in the kingdom’s ability to enrich uranium and its quest to be the Middle East’s long-term, dominant power.

Saudi Arabia has large uranium deposits of its own. In preparation of requesting bids for its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia in October asked the US, France, South Korea, Russia and China for preliminary information. In addition to the United States, the kingdom has in recent years concluded a  number of nuclear-related understandings with China as well as with France, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina.

Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease US restrictions services his campaign promise to revive and revitalize America’s nuclear industry and meet competition from Russia and China. Saudi contracts are crucial for Westinghouse, a nuclear technology pioneer whose expertise is used in more than half of the world’s nuclear power plants. Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in March because of delays in two US projects.

A deal that would lift US restrictions in return for acquiring US technology could enmesh Saudi Arabia in bitter domestic political battles in Washington evolving around alleged Russian interference in the election that brought Mr. Trump to office. Controversial Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn sought to convince Israel to accept the kingdom’s nuclear program as part of his efforts to promote Russian nuclear interests in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump’s willingness, against the backdrop of uncertainty about his readiness to uphold US adherence to the 2015 agreement with Iran, could unleash an arms race in the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Trump recently refused to certify to Congress that Iran was compliant with the agreement.

Dropping restrictions on Saudi enrichment could not only fuel Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has wreaked havoc across the region, but also encourage other recipients of US nuclear technology to demand similar rights. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have accepted restrictions on enrichment in their nuclear deals with US companies as long as those limitations were imposed on all countries in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has long been suspected of having an interest in ensuring that it would have the ability to develop a military nuclear capability if ever deemed necessary. For decades, Saudi cooperation with nuclear power Pakistan has been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asserted that Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave the kingdom arms’ length access to his country’s nuclear capabilities.

“By the 1980s, the Saudi ambassador was a regular guest of A. Q. Khan” or Abdul Qadeer Khan, the controversial nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who fathered Pakistan’s atomic bomb,” Mr. Haqqani said in an interview.

Similarly, retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, the author of a semi-official history of Pakistan’s nuclear program, has no doubt about the kingdom’s interest.

“Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear program to continue, especially when the country was under sanctions,” Mr. Khan said in a separate interview. Mr. Khan was referring to US sanctions imposed in 1998 because of Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. He noted that at a time of economic crisis, Pakistan was with Saudi help able “to pay premium prices for expensive technologies.”

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in a report earlier this year that it had uncovered evidence that future Pakistani “assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”

The report said it was unclear whether “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program,” the report said.

The report concluded that the nuclear agreement with Iran dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails,” the report said.

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce. This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future.

“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the Washington Institute said.

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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Prospects of normalization grim in Libya

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Analysts say that Libya is one of the most important crisis to watch for in 2020 because of the involvement of Russia and Turkey. More importantly, the plight of the Libyans after almost 10 years of civil war cannot be ignored.

Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance recently said in an interview that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA increasing the possibility of Russia and NATO locking horns.

Eight years after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi eliminated his country’s weapons of mass destruction the colonel found himself on the wrong side of the gun, when he was overthrown and killed in 2011 submerging the country in a civil war.

NATO members led by Britain and France supported the so-called revolution by airstrikes – then watched as the country sank into chaos. Barrack Obama said leaving Libya without a plan after Gaddafi was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency.

There are fears that the global Covid-19 pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where a decade long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.

Today the country is divided into two factions backed by foreign powers struggling to put the country together.

On the one side, there is the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj in Tripoli supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries.

Tripoli has been under siege by Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Khalifa Haftar, who started his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. The offensive was launched while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli to prepare for a peace conference.

Unsuccessful in taking Tripoli, Haftar has laid a siege on the capital city for the last four months.

The 76-year-old Libyan-born commander Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt, France, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Israel. Russia has sent mercenaries.

The Wall Street reported that prior to his April offensive on Tripoli, Haftar was in Riyadh where Saudis gave him tens of millions of dollars. 

In his dominion, Haftar is known as “the marshal”, and is the military ruler of eastern Libya, with Benghazi as his stronghold. He has promised to build a stable, democratic, and secular Libya but the regions in his control are without any law and order and corruption abounds.

There were several summits by international community to put an end to the Libyan strife before Covid-19 pandemic sidelined the Libyan crisis.

The last summit was called the Berlin Conference was held on January 19. Haftar and al-Sarraj didn’t even meet face to face and the summit failed to yield results.

China has remained neutral in this conflict. Under the Gaddafi regime, China engaged in various infrastructure activities with 35,000 Chinese laborers working across 50 projects, ranging from residential and railway construction to telecommunications and hydropower ventures. The year leading to Gaddafi’s overthrow, Libya was providing three percent of China’s crude oil supply, constituting roughly 150,000 barrels a day. All of China’s top state oil firms – CNPC, Sinopec Group, and CNOOC – had had standing infrastructure projects in Libya.

In the outbreak of protests in 2011, China sought to preserve economic ties with Libya and rejected the NATO-led military intervention. China abstained at the UN Security Council vote to authorize military intervention.

In late 2015, the GNA emerged as the new political authority, the product of negotiations brokered by the United Nations and backed by China.

Although many Chinese projects were suspended in Libya and bilateral trade decreased by 57 percent, China’s neutrality paved the way for Beijing to stand in good stead with GNA for years to come.

Immigrants crisis

Home to an estimated 654,000 migrants – more than 48,000 of them registered asylum seekers or refugees – many of them cramped conditions with little access to healthcare amidst the pandemic. An outbreak can be catastrophic.

Many live on transfers from friends and family and UNHCR handouts. With work hard to find many hope to proceed with their journey to Europe. Smugglers have put hundreds and thousands of them in boats and sent them across the Mediterranean to Italy.

UNHCR has been evacuating some of the most vulnerable refugees until airspace was shut in early April.

On May 13, WHO issued a joint statement on Libya emphasizing that the entire population of the country, especially some 400,000 Libyans that have been displaced – about half of them within the past year, since the attack on Tripoli — are at risk of Covid-19 pandemic.

The statement reported everyday challenges that humanitarian missions and workers face to carry on with their mission. The UN verified 113 cases of grave violations, including killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools, and health facilities.

The report points out that as of May 13, there were 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including three deaths, in different parts of the country. This shows transmission of the disease is taking place and the risk of further escalation of outbreak is very high.

The report talks about food security and latest assessments show that most cities are facing shortages of basic food items coupled with an increase in prices, urging all parties to protect the water supply facilities that have been deliberately targeted.

“We look forward with anticipation to the pledged financial support to the Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya, as announced by the GNA,” WHO statement said.

Oil production

Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa with 46.4 billion barrels as of 2010. Much of Libya’s oil wealth is located in the east but the revenues are channeled through Tripoli-based state oil firm National Oil Corporation (NOC), which says it serves the whole country and stays out of its factional conflicts.

Prior to the 2011 Libyan civil war, Libya produced over 1.5 million barrels a day. As a result of a blockade of export terminals by LNA by February of this year oil production dropped to 200,000 barrels a day reports Bloomberg. NOC said the North African state’s current level of production is at 91,221 barrels per day as of March 17.

In order to choke GNA from the crucial crude export revenue, the LNA seized Libya’s export terminals and ports in the east in mid-January. The blockade has cost Libya some $560 million, Petroleum Economist reported in January. 

According to NOC, the blockade has plunged production from around 1.2 million barrels a day, and added losses had surpassed four billion dollars by April 15.

Conflict wages

In the last couple of weeks, significant developments have been happening in the Libyan civil war.

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance said that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA. He stressed NATO is supporting UN’s efforts for a peaceful solutions to conflicts both in Libya and Syria.

Meanwhile, the independent English language Tripoli-based Libyan Express reported that Haftar launched a rocket attack Thursday on Tripoli, hitting the Central Hospital on other downtown areas. 

Tripoli Central Hospital and some civilian areas were targeted. GNA’s Health Ministry said 14 civilians were injured, adding that the hospital will not be able to serve people due to the attack pointing out what a massive setback was amid the outbreak of Coronavirus.

Libyan military forces said Monday that the Libyan army struck forces loyal to Haftar in Al-Watiya airbase in the southwest of Tripoli during the government-led Operation Volcano of Rage.

LNA has intensified attacks on civilians since the beginning of May as GNA made substantial military progress in the offensive in the western part of Tripoli. Armed drones provided by Turkey conducted effective attacks against the LNA.

Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashaghe has accused Haftar’s forces had used chemical weapons on the Salah Al-Deen front, south of Tripoli. The accusations were confirmed by Canadian journalist Amru Saleheddine, who found several government soldiers with symptoms to those of epilepsy, usually caused by nerve gas.

The conflict in Libya is backed by foreign actors with different objectives and priorities. Any emerging power configuration will be fragile unless the external actors come to a shared understanding.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Internationalization of Higher Education in the GCC Countries

Ivan Bocharov

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Education is an important area of social life, shaping the intellectual and cultural state of society. In the context of globalization, the challenges of time give rise to new trends in it, one of which is internationalization. This process has already swept the whole world, including Arab countries. Some of them, especially the Gulf states, nowadays are actively competing with other exporters of educational services in the world market.

The development paths of higher education in the Arab Gulf countries were analyzed in a scientific article «Internationalization and the Changing Paradigm of Higher Education in the GCC Countries», as well as measures were taken to improve the quality of education and its regional integration. The author of the scientific work is Julie Vardhan, Assistant Professor at the School of Business, Manipal University. The work is based on an analysis of 167 university sites of the countries of the region and some scientific works devoted to the internationalization of higher education, integration, and demographic processes in the GCC countries. The analysis of Julie Vardhan is comprehensive. In addition to university sites, issues related to the history of the internationalization of education were analyzed, as well as data reflecting demographic trends in the GCC countries. These data allow to see the general picture of how the internationalization of higher education is developing in the Arab States of the Gulf.

According to the author’s definition, internationalization is the process of integration of international components into the country’s higher education system. Although universities have always developed international cooperation, globalization has created a new context for internationalization. Over the past decades, the number of educational institutions and students studying in them has sharply increased in the region.

Julie Vardhan divides the countries that compete among themselves in the educational services market into four groups. The first group includes the USA, UK, and Australia. In these countries are the best universities in the world, and English is their native language. The second group consists of Germany and France. German and French universities are trying to attract students from neighbouring countries, as well as those countries with which established strong sociocultural and historical ties. The third group includes Japan, Canada, and New Zealand. They attract from 75 thousand to 115 thousand international students per year. The fourth group consists of Malaysia, Singapore, and China. These countries have recently recognized the importance of global education, and now they are spending resources on the development of higher education to compete effectively in the global educational services market. According to the author, the GCC countries are also included in this group.

The main goal of the Gulf Cooperation Council is to develop integration processes and establish cooperation, including in the field of education. At the same time, the GCC countries face some problems associated with the development of advanced technologies. Recently, governments of member states have begun to pay more attention to the development of human capital to ensure sustainable economic growth. Educational and labour migration of knowledge workers directly affects the development of the country’s economy, and the Arab Gulf states are just interested in creating a knowledge economy.

For studying the electronic resources of educational institutions, the author used the method of content analysis. In particular, Julie Vardhan ascertained whether internationalization was mentioned on the university’s website by searching for the keywords «international», «global», «international partnerships», «international collaboration», «world-renowned faculty» and «diverse students, multicultural». Only one category is used in the study, in which the words mentioned above and phrases are combined, and it is the «phenomenon of internationalization». As part of the study, 167 university websites of the GCC countries were analyzed. Site analysis was limited to their English versions.

The author made a table that shows the growing trend in the number of universities in the region. Until the 1990s in most GCC countries, there were only one or two state universities. Since the early 2000s, a significant increase concerning the number of both state and private universities has been observed. This boost, according to Julie Vardhan, cannot be explained only by population growth. The focus on the development of human capital played a significant role in increasing the number of universities in the country of the region.

Most GCC countries have public and private institutions that establish partnerships with foreign universities. Besides, some international universities create their branches in the countries of the region. Among the 167 universities examined in this study, 103 educational institutions are private, 70 of them have established partnerships with foreign universities, or are their affiliates. In each of them, internationalization manifests itself in different ways. For example, Saudis often go abroad as part of academic mobility programs. At the same time, many students from other countries come to Saudi Arabia to study the basics of Islam at local universities. Thus, within the framework of internationalization, there are both import and export of education. The UAE and Qatar are states with a considerable number of branches of foreign universities, and the universities of Oman and Kuwait offer many double-degree programs.

One of the reasons for the growing demand for educational services from private universities and those universities that have established partnerships with educational institutions from other countries is the increasing number of youth. Another reason is that the Gulf Arab governments support internationalization and educational integration with other countries and foreign universities. Julie Vardhan outlines the following approaches to the internationalization of higher education, which are used by the governments of GCC member states. The first approach is the implementation of neoliberal reforms aimed at increasing the accessibility of higher education while compensating for the costs of consumers and the private sector. The second approach is to make changes to the curriculum to meet international standards. For example, Saudi Arabia, over the past years, has been trying to develop secular education, actively uses English to educate students, and also adopts the American system of education. The third approach is the establishment of extensive partnerships with foreign universities, affecting the international recognition of the prestige of education in the GCC countries.

The author acknowledges that the study has flaws. There is limited potential for the content analysis method. Julie Vardhan points out that the ability to analyze the content of Internet resources is limited by changing the nature of the data source. The content and structure of web pages can change quite quickly after the content analysis. She also notes that researchers should develop their coding scheme for the content analysis of university sites.

Despite some problems (for example, the commodification of education and the transformation of national identity), significant progress has been achieved in the internationalization of higher education in the GCC region in a short time. The region has great potential for further internationalization. The results of the study by Julie Vardhan help to trace the prospects for the internationalization of education in the framework of regional integration of learning. This work is of great scientific interest to anyone interested in the internationalization of higher education in the Gulf countries.

Studying several aspects of the internationalization of education at once prevented the author from concentrating on the electronic internationalization of university Internet resources. The methodology for researching university sites is not spelt out, and it does not specify how exactly the individual stages of content analysis should be implemented. Julie Vardhan believes that researchers should develop their coding scheme, which is the basis of the methodology. It is advisable to create universal and convenient tools for everyone to analyze the content of university sites so that every researcher of the internationalization of higher education can make the maximum contribution to their study. The question remains what difficulties the universities of the Arab countries of the region face in such internationalization. In this context, it is interesting to analyze which state initiatives in the field have been successful, and which experiences have not.

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Middle East: From COVID-19 invasion to an epidemic of disintegration?

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The recent declaration of autonomy in southern Yemen and Khalifa Haftar’s declaring himself the ruler of all Libya once again drew the world’s attention to the phenomenon of separatism. This phenomenon is certainly not new, amply exemplified by events in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol. In Europe, the problem is normally discussed and resolved on a legal basis, if not always peacefully. When it comes to Asia and Africa, the chances of legal settlement of such issues are even lower.

Back in the early 1990s, Bernard Lewis, a renowned expert on Islamic civilization, foresaw the breakup of a number of states in the Greater Middle East. Later, in 2006, Armed Forces Journal published the “future” map of the region, drawn up by the US military expert, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who predicted the division of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states and the emergence of a number of countries on parts of the territories of today’s Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The events of the largely foreign-influenced “Arab Spring” gave a strong boost to the centrifugal processes in the region. In some places it resulted in the downfall of political regimes, in others it led to their transformation. Armed conflicts flared up in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, which continue to this day and there are no guarantees that before very long these countries’ borders won’t change.

The start of the leap year 2020 was marred by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, followed by an oil price collapse. According to the World Health Organization, the health care systems of developing countries are unable to cope with the pandemic on their own due to the lack of medical facilities, equipment, medical staff and even basic protective gear. While developed countries have allocated huge financial resources to check the spread of COVID-19, poor countries, most of which are struggling for survival, cannot afford the introduction of long-term quarantine, nor do they have enough money to assist their citizens. Moreover, the real picture of the spread of the coronavirus infection in developing countries remains pretty dim, meaning that the socio-political consequences of the pandemic for these countries can be disastrous.

The dramatic fall in oil prices has not only dealt a severe blow to the economies of the oil-producing countries, sharply choking off their budget revenues, but it also exacerbated the situation in the countries that survive largely on money transfers from their citizens working abroad and assistance from oil and gas-rich neighbors.

In addition, the region has enough old problems to deal with.

Yemen, which is a patchwork of various tribes and tribal unions, was established in its present form in 1990 as a union of North and South Yemen (or rather as a result of the annexation of the country’s southern regions by the North). According to the UN, the country experienced a genuine “humanitarian catastrophe” even before the advent of the coronavirus and collapsing oil prices.

Just four years after the unification, the so-called Democratic Republic of Yemen was proclaimed in the country’s south, but existed only a couple of months. In 2014, an armed conflict erupted (and still continues) among the northerners themselves – the Shiite group Ansar Allah and the central government. In March 2015, an international Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia joined the fight against the Iranian-backed Shiites. In addition, the central government has since 2007 been confronted by yet another secessionist organization, now in the south – the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which recently declared self-governance of the territories under its control.

Faced with such a disturbing reality, the governors of several provinces, including the most economically developed ones, stop making financial transfers to the state budget and host foreign ambassadors and foreign military delegations.

Iraq is a country characterized by significant ethno-confessional diversity with almost two-thirds of the population being Shiite Arabs, most of them pro-Iranian due to the fact that during the long reign of the Ba’athists (members of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party – PASV, or Ba’ath), Shiite Arabs were not considered as 100-percent citizens of the country. During the 2003 intervention by a US-led international coalition, many Shiite organizations allied themselves with the Anglo-American forces. During the subsequent occupation of Iraq, the local administration assumed real power over the country’s Shiite south and to this very day the central government in Baghdad does not completely control the southern governorates.

During the 1960s, the Kurds, who predominantly lived in northern and northeastern Iraq, mounted an armed struggle for independence. The government’s brutal, including with the widespread use of chemical weapons, crushing of the movement in 1987-1989 made it absolutely inacceptable for many Kurds to keep living in the same country with the Arabs, even after Iraqi Kurdistan was granted the status of autonomy in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. The invasion by the Western coalition forces allowed the Kurds not only to establish a regional government, but also to phase out the local Arab population and occupy a number of oil-rich regions, which the Kurdish leaders said had been taken away from them by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

An independence referendum for Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was an attempt to finally legitimize the Kurdish statehood failed however, even though an overwhelming majority of votes were cast in favor of independence. At that time, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan did not sit well with either Iran and Turkey (as it would sent a “wrong” signal to the Kurds living there), or the United States, who believed that the Kurdish state in Iraq could lead to the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite entity in the south, including in the strategic Basra oil field.

Today, Sunni Arabs fear (rightly or not) that the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will make them defenseless both against the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, leaving them one on one with Iran, which Iraq fought against during the war of 1980-1988.

The ethno-cultural makeup in Syria is equally diverse, with over 70 percent of Syrians being Sunni Arabs and about 15 percent – Shiites, including the Alawites, whose affiliation with Islam is questioned by many. After the country gained independence in 1946, Syrian army officers and members of the state bureaucracy were traditionally and overwhelmingly recruited from Alawites, much to the chagrin of the country’s majority Sunnis, many of whom still support the armed opposition.

In 1920, France carved up the mandated territory of the Middle East entrusted to it by the League of Nations into four zones: Greater Lebanon, the State of the Alawites, the State of Aleppo and the State of Damascus. The Jabal Druze State and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which broke away from Turkey before WWII, were added the following year. However, France later ended its experiment on ethno-confessional division of the region, and the Alawite clan of the Assads, backed by the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, has thus ruled Syria since 1963.

The “Arab Spring” all but destroyed Syria as an independent state, which survived only thanks to the political and military assistance of Russia and Iran.

The Kurds – the largest ethnic minority in Syria – live in the northeast of the country and make up about 10-12 percent of the population. After decades of discrimination (until recently, the Kurds did not even have Syrian citizenship), big and small revolts, Kurdish politicians, taking advantage of the chaos of the civil war, established regional authorities virtually independent of Damascus. Then, due to their support for the Western coalition fighting ISIL (ISIS, IS, Islamic State – a terrorist entity outlawed in Russia) and apparently heeding the advice of US instructors, the Kurdish groups, like Iraqi Peshmerga, occupied a number of the country’s traditionally Arab oil-bearing territories.

The Syrian Kurds are being sponsored by the United States, which is not going to cede to anyone its control neither over the territory, nor the local administration and militia, let alone the oil fields.

Syrian Turkmens (Turkomans) are a sizeable ethnic group, who are under the watchful care of Turkey.

For Christians (about 6 percent of the population) and Druze (about 3 percent), the threat posed by the Sunni Islamists borders on genocide, hence their unconditional support for the central government.

The territory of modern Libya consists of three historical provinces – Tripolitania (in the west), Cyrenaica (in the east) and Fezzan (in the south), which were united by Italy only in 1934. The country’s population is relatively homogeneous: the vast majority are Arabs, and there are also Berbers who live in the southwest, Tuaregs in the south, and Tubu in the southeast. The tribal organization of society plays a significant role in the socio-political life of the country.

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years until he was deposed and killed in 2011. The country has virtually fallen apart as a result of a long-running war of all against all. There are two main rival political forces now existing in the country – the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar and based in the east of the country, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, with its headquarters in Tripoli. The opponents rely on the support of a various social groups, including Islamists, and divisions run along political, not national or religious lines.

Many analysts still see “a significant potential for the emergence of new centers of power.”

The long-term efforts by outside actors (primarily European countries and Russia) to set in motion the negotiating process have not yet yielded any tangible results. Khalifa Haftar recently announced the transfer of power in the country to the armed forces (i.e. to himself). The GNA assumed an equally implacable position, turning down an LNA-proposed truce for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan.

If the hypothetical disintegration of these four countries becomes real it would lead to a new spiral of degradation of the political situation in the region and to a further escalation of violence.

In the event of a collapse of Yemen, Iran will obtain a satellite in the form of the country’s Shiite north, but complicated logistics may hamper the provision of assistance to its newly-acquired ally. Riyadh will not tolerate Shiite statehood on “its” peninsula, and the military suppression of the Houthis will take long due to the Saudis’ low combat efficiency. Following the example of Djibouti, the country’s north and south will start selling land for  foreign military bases (oil reserves are depleted and you can’t live long off exporting fish, and this is about all the country can sell now), which could escalate tensions in the strategic region of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

In Iraq, interfaith clashes and social protests that began after the main forces of the Anglo-American coalition were pulled out in 2011, have not subsided, to say the least. The Kurds are taking their time, but the 92 percent of the “yes” votes cast in the 2017 independence referendum means that sooner or later they will resume their drift away from Iraq. The country’s breakup into three parts would theoretically be beneficial to Iran as the southern governorate bordering on Saudi Arabia would have to move under Tehran’s control. The country’s Sunni center will find itself sandwiched between Iran, the Shiite south, the Alawite-ruled Syria and the Kurds, who hold a longtime grudge against their Arab fellow citizens. Under such circumstances, the Sunnis will have to look for other patrons – the United States (if, despite all Trump’s statements to the contrary, the Americans stay on in the region, and it looks like they will), Saudi Arabia or Russia. This choice will determine the future course of events in Mesopotamia.

In Syria, centrifugal processes are presently being determined by outside players: Americans support the Kurds, Turks – Turkomans and Sunni Arabs along the border, Iranians – their fellow Shiites, and Saudis back the Arab Sunni tribes in the east. The most likely candidates for secession are the Kurds, who, having expanded their controlled territory in northeast Syria, have actually linked up with the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. So far, their political leaders haven’t been getting along with each other, but this may change if it meets the interests of Washington, which is sponsoring both.

Libya, meanwhile, is increasingly turning into an arena of proxy war, which the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are waging against Turkey and Qatar. The degree of hatred borne of many years of mutual extermination is going through the roof, making the prospects of a settlement close to nil. The country is actually fighting for oil and control over the flow of refugees, which, as the events of the recent years show, can be quite successfully used as a bargaining chip with Europe.

Many experts warn that any redrawing of borders in the region can bring about a chain reaction and even resuscitate the “Islamic international,” if under a different moniker. Meanwhile, the United States, as the Indian political scientist Brahma Chellaney put it, will not get rid of its addiction to interfering in the “chronically volatile Middle East.” And its policy over and over again turns out to be “spectacularly counterproductive.”  Well, it’s hard to disagree with.

From our partner International Affairs

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