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Turmoil in Yemen: Implications for Regional security of Middle East

Mehwish Akram

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Background

The recent unrest in Yemen is not a new phenomenon it has deep roots in its history. Initially, it was divided into North and South Yemen both these parts got unified in 1990. Yemen since its inception has faced small scale conflicts among the Sunni and Shia. Yemen is one of the poorest countries of Middle East having lowest GDP in the region.  If we go deep into the history one easily identify the causes of division and fault lines of the brewing conflict since the independence of Yemen. It is one of the artificially created states by the colonial powers in order to indirectly rule them by giving legitimacy to tribesmen who have no experience of ruling a country. The incompetence of tribal lords promoted weak and self-serving ruling elite that deepens the roots of conflict in Yemen. In the same manner, a role of external powers cannot be overlooked as they try to take advantage of fragile government to achieve their ulterior motives rather than resolving their domestic issues.

Introduction

Yemen has a history of sectarian issues since its independence due to the Sunni-Shia rift. But the situation got worst in 2011 especially after the Arab Spring when locals mainly Shia community starts to protest against the Sunni government. The instigation sparked in the country, as a result, of the oppressive rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and low economic indicators that further aggravated the domestic issues within Yemen. Yemen is mostly dependent on foreign assistance for its economy. Saudi Arabia is backing and providing financial assistance along with international donor agencies. Moreover, the sectarian divide within a country is another major cause of conflict.  The power rivalry between the Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony has complicated the situation by creating division in Yemen. The Sunni government supports Saudi Arabia whereas Shia Mehdi’s are covertly backed by Iran.

Yemen is strategically significant as Bab-ul-Mandab is located here in Arabian Peninsula that is a vital route for transport of oil to the rest of the world. It has close ties with Saudi Arabia as they are helping them to cope with the poor economy. Similarly, GCC countries are also facilitating them to stand on their feet. In the same manner, Iran is providing aid but it is often criticized for promoting ethnic rivalry to challenge the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern region. Yemen predominantly remains under the influence of Saudi Arabia because of ideological affinity with Wahabi school of thought of ruling elite. Similarly, one cannot ignore the significance of Yemen for Saudi Government since Saudi Arabia will have more room to maneuver in Arabian Peninsula to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is well aware of the Iranian role in the region. The regional rivalry between these two states is not something new it is deeply rooted in their historical legacy of their relations with each other.

Rationale of study 

Yemen is ethnically divided between Sunni and Shia since the independence. Furthermore, this ethnic rivalry is exploited by two major players Saudi Arabia and Iran to increase their area of the influence in the region. According to the experts, the card of ethnicity is played in case of Yemen. The internal situation of Yemen was gotten worse after the Arab Spring in addition, to suppression of minorities including the Shia community under the Ali Abdullah Saleh government in the center. As he himself belongs from the Sunni community and has a soft corner for Saudi government and American influence in their country. At the same time, one cannot undermine the role of Iran in the region and their growing influence in the internal politics of the Middle Eastern region. The main aim of this paper is to analyze the repercussions of the unrest in Yemen on the whole region in terms of its security and stability is concerned. It can be assessed in three contexts that are domestic, regional and international context. In order to critically evaluate the present situation of Yemen, one cannot do it without taking all aspects into account including the domestic, regional and global level of analysis to understand its implications for the security of Middle East in coming few years.

One cannot neglect the role of external powers as far as Yemen is concerned because the role of US is an open secret as they have close ties with the Saudi Arabia as its regional ally. Many experts of Middle Eastern affairs are of the view that the US has apprehensions regarding the increasing influence of the Iran in the region particularly ousting the Sunni government in Yemen by supporting Zaydi’s Shia militias in Yemen. Since Iran also have aspirations to become a regional hegemon by challenging both Saudi Arabia and their allies in the region. On the other hand, GCC countries also are significant in determining the future of Yemen in changing regional dynamics in the context of Iran-US nuclear deal which is considered to be the victory of Iran on the diplomatic front in a global arena.

Domestic context

It is essential to look deep into the internal dynamics of the Yemen before going for regional and international factors responsible for the turmoil in the country. (Bookings, 2015) Every country has unique domestic issues that they had to deal it. Yemen can be called as least developed states within the Middle East. It is dependent on Saudi Arabia and foreign assistance for running the economy. Another aspect that can be considered as a root cause of domestic rivalry is a divide between Sunni and Shia that has affected the peace of the country. Moreover, the weak government of Yemen is unable to eradicate the differences between two groups to bring stability in the country.  The conflict in Yemen was ignited with start of Arab Spring within the Middle East along the prevailing conditions within the Yemen most of the people living there are not satisfied the ruling elite of the country. The lack of leadership at domestic is another reason for masses that led to violence in the country. The ruling elite is not doing enough to address the issues of people rather than protecting their regime interests. The lack of unity is also a major factor for the disorder as they divided into Sunni and Shia which is exploited by the regional players for serving their interests.

Reasons for unrest

Sunni versus Shia

The major cause of conflict in case of Yemen is a Sunni and Shia divide that has created many problems. Firstly, it has created internal division within the country which is manipulated by different interest groups in the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, when a nation is not united at the domestic level then one cannot have coherent policies at the national level. The lack of uniform policy at national level makes the country internally weak and fragile. Yemen due to its divisions within is suffering from the setbacks in framing national coalitions to deal with their issues at home.

Moreover, the past legacy of both Yemen North and South has a dominant role as both represent each sect which is Sunni and Shia. After the unification in 1990, this problem remains there as there was no substantial effort was done by the ruling elite of the country to resolve this contentious concern inside Yemen. The internal division further got complicated when central government detaches itself from the masses who were not satisfied with the government. The failure of a government to address the grievances of masses has played a major role in further cleavage in Yemen. The people at the national level are fighting for their basic rights including food and shelter unsuitable economic conditions and heavy dependence on the foreign aid for running the country. Furthermore, the growing differences between Sunni and Shia community considered being the core problem of Yemen. Many experts believe that it is a cause of rift among the ruling elite locals are usually use as a tool to serve their purpose most of them don’t give much thought to the so-called divide between Sunni and Shia. One cannot completely negate this analysis of experts because masses are usually exploited in the name of religion by ruling elite.

Role of Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula

Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula is another major threat that is posing a serious threat to the peace of Yemen. The role of Al-Qaeda is vital in terms security of the region is concerned because the growing influence is posing a threat to its internal security. Consequently, the unrest in Yemen is becoming a breeding ground for terrorists that can have dangerous consequences for its internal security. In addition, if they tend to get a stronghold in Yemen it can further disrupt the existing security situation in the Middle Eastern region. Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula is the offshoot of Afghani Al-Qaeda which is active and has a capability to even take over Yemen under weak government control in the country (Neubauer, 2015).

The role of AQAP cannot be underestimated provided current security situation in the Middle East. One of the key factors that they can exploit to serve their interest is of Sunni- Shia conflict within the Yemen. The proponents of Wahabi school of thought that is closer to Sunni ideology if the Sunni of Yemen started joining this organization it can adversely impact the security of the Middle East. Many experts consider AQAP as a potential threat to the not only for Yemen but also for the Arabian Peninsula in coming few years. They are against foreign intervention of the western countries especially the role of the US in the Middle East due to ideological differences and suspicious of the external powers involvement in the region. The current scenario in the Middle East is depicting an uncertainty in terms of peace and stability in the region due to the presence of Isis and their increasing violent activities.

Grievances of people

Another factor that is not addressed by the ruling elite of Yemen is grievances of local people since they are deprived of basic necessities and famine like situation due to ongoing tug of war between Houthis and Mehdi’s of Yemen. Most of the people living in the country are living under the poverty line which is alarming for international donor agencies of human relief. Yemen is not self-sufficient in terms of food to meet the needs of its population mostly relying on other neighboring countries for fulfilling needs of local population. Moreover, illiteracy is one of major reason behind the back forwardness of the Yemen. The masses, in general, are not enlightened about their potential abilities and rights being the citizen of the Yemen. It is one of poorest countries in the oil-rich region of Middle East and relatively weak internally. Despite the efforts of regional countries and international organizations, it is struggling with a shortage of food and chaos in the Yemen. The internal insecurity is widening mainly people are not happy with their government. The malfunctioning of government can be seen in its leadership that is incompetent to handle the internal situation on their own and often exploited in hands of external and regional powers.

On the other hand, due to the ongoing war between two groups in a country, most of the people are forced to leave their home to other countries. They are living in refugees camps and facing an uncertain future for them and their young generation. According to the Experts of Middle East, it is very difficult to bring stability in Yemen in coming few years. The intense fighting between government forces and rebels will not let any force to bring peace in the country by bringing both parties to the negotiation table to resolve it in an effective way.

Regional context

At the regional level, one assesses the regional dynamics by giving the example of two major players in the Middle East that is Iran and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between them is based on their historical legacy. Iran has a strong sense of nationalism that has prevented them from assimilating into the Arab identity. Whereas Saudi Arabia on the other hand, called them as advocates of the Arab unity that they are promoted at the regional level. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaidi, 2015) But Iran always opposes any such attempts that would affect the nationalism as they called them as Persians, not Arabs due to the unique identity. Iran being part of Persian Empire glorifies them as Persians rather than associating them with the Arab nation. The distinct identities of Iran and Saudi Arabia are one of the reasons that have widened their differences with each other. The distrust is another factor that is not letting them forget their bitter experiences with each other. Iran is suspicious of Saudi intentions because of their close relations with the US. Iran since its revolution has contentious relations with the US they have apprehensions regarding their influence in the Middle East. The US also developed conflictual relations with supreme leader on the issue of backing Israel against Muslim countries.

Saudi Arabia being a major state and ally of US in the region due to its oil production and export to the rest of the world makes its distinct position in a global arena. Saudi Arabia has close ties with the US since the inception. Saudi Arabia has greater regional influence due to their stature within the region and outside the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has an international standing due to its closer ties with the almost all major states of the world. Despite being major state of Middle East they have an ideological rift between their regional rival Iran. They are in conflict with each other due to Sunni-Shia rivalry. According to the experts, it not just their religious rivalry instead it is political tactics to expand their areas of influence inside the region and beyond it. The analogy of Arab and Persian was used to increase the economic and political hegemony by both the parties. The differences between the Saudi’s with the Iranian government is based upon the potential capability of the Iran and Saudi Arabia to rule the Gulf region. Many experts are of the view that the major cause of conflict is misunderstanding between them.

International context

At the global level, one cannot ignore the role of the US and its ally’s role in the Middle East. Historically, one cannot deny the US involvement in the region after the Second World War especially having strategic relations with Israel. The interest of US has increased after the discovery of oil in this part of the world.  The energy security in the contemporary world is core national interest of the US and other western countries. (Swift, 2012) The growing dependence of industries of the world on hydrocarbons has enhanced the vitality of the oil-rich region which is known as the Middle East. One of the major turning points was 1979 revolution of Iran before that Shah of Iran has friendly relations with the US. Since the revolution, the relations of US were never smooth with Iran due to differences with the supreme leader of Iran who labeled the US as Great Satan. Whereas in Iraq although they installed pro-Hashemite government but when they were replaced by the Saddam Hussein of Baathist party the relations become strained due to his aggressive posture towards other Gulf states. Before that, Saddam Hussein used to have good relations with the US as they help them to build a strong Iraq.

Currently, the alliance of US with Saudi-led coalitions against rebels in Yemen has complicated the situation. As the US initially avoided getting into confrontation directly but recently they have started using their major power status to suppress the rebels inside the Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia is an open secret but the overt participation of US forces has raised a number of questions about the future of conflict within the Yemen. Despite the claims of US to stay out of the Yemen crisis particularly after the invasion of 2003 in Iraq by other means has increased the apprehensions about their potential role in Yemen unrest. According to the analysts, the recent activities of the US are not welcome by Yemen and Iran.  The backing of US for Saudi coalition’s air strikes has earned a bad name for the US across the globe due to the casualties of the civilians in Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia can have negative repercussions as far as the stability of Yemen is concerned because by supporting Saudi against rebels can affect their relations with Iran. Iran is often blamed for supporting the rebel groups to counter the Saudi influence in the Middle East.

The role of UN is very minimal as it has failed to bring peace in the country. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaydi, 2015) Although UN did pass a resolution for devising a way to stop the fighting within in Yemen but still no results are so far achieved. United Nations lacks the ability to solve the domestic issues of Yemen as it has no authority to intervene in the internal matters of any country. Similarly, UN is an inactive institution in terms of resolving issues particularly in Middle East region mainly because of interests of major players in the international arena. UN as an institution is weak for implementing its decisions at international level.

Why is it posing a serious threat to Middle East?

The Distrust of Regional players within the Middle East against the external powers can amplify the instability by deepening the misunderstanding making it more volatile in coming few years. If the regional countries are suspicious of the Western powers role in domestic issues of the region then any minor incident can initiate a major conflict that will further deteriorate the situation of the worn prone region. The external power is crucial for making the Middle East peaceful which can be attained by building the trust of the major players of the Arabian Peninsula for achieving relative stability. Moreover, the trust deficit between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another major concern for growing instability in the Middle East. There is a need that both states try to resolve their ideological differences by removing the misunderstanding for the greater goal that is to ensure peace of the Middle Eastern region for them. According to experts the distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be removed by developing a middle way or consent of leadership on both sides to let go their conflictual past for secure future for them rather than fighting with each other over regional hegemony.

The Spread of Extremism mainly after the proclamation of Daesh and growing of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East will increase the terrorism and extremism. The militant elements are using the uncertain situation of the region for serving their purpose by making it brewing ground for more lethal conflicts in near future. Furthermore, the effective leadership is required to foresee their minor issues for ensuring peace in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia can play a significant role by not letting extremist element to take refuge in their areas in the name of Sunni-Shia divide for promoting violent activities in any of Middle Eastern country. But it is difficult to attain as the ideological rivalries are deeply rooted in their mindset. In order to change the mindset deliberate efforts are needed for the considerable period of time to change the perception of Iran and Saudi leadership mindset for saving their region from the terrorists. On the hand, both countries should not fund any group for advocating sectarian divide which is becoming a hurdle in a way of the Middle East.  The mutual efforts by the Saudi and Iranian government are required for bringing prosperity of the whole region instead of working for narrow national interest.

Increase rivalry between Iran-Saudi Arabia

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is deeply rooted but the recent involvement by both states in Yemen will increase their animosity to the larger extent. As we know both Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon particularly after a conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with the US. Saudi Arabia has expressed their apprehensions with the US. Saudi Arabia is the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iranian role in the regional politics as the nuclear deal will disturb the balance of power in the region. The Saudi government is of the view that this deal will bring instability in the region as Iran will try to reassert its power by supporting regional proxies, for example, Hamas and Hezbollah. Moreover, Iran, on the other hand, has its hesitation regarding the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment. In a case of Yemen, one would say both states have their interests as they want to increase their sphere of influence in the region. Iran is blamed for covertly supporting Zaydi’s Shia living inside the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale in revolt the government.( Masood, 2016,) Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen.

Challenges

Firstly, the weak leadership is one of the major issues in a context of Yemen. It is the inability of local leadership which is causing unrest in Yemen. The ruling elite is not trying to resolve their issues internally which is complicated the situation in the country. The role of regional players is increasing in case of Yemen due to the links of ruling elites with the Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to experts on the Middle East, the current situation in Yemen is becoming worse due to incompetence on the part of the leadership of Yemen who are relying on regional players to resolve their internal issues. Yemen is largely dependent on aid and assistance provided by GCC and Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, the role of external powers mainly of US is dominant after the failure of peace talks between Saleh regime and Houthis rebels (Future Directions International, 2014). Initially, US forces avoided directly involving them in Yemen. But end up indulging them in direct confrontation by supporting Saudi-backed forces by assisting them in airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US has also used drone strikes to target rebels for supporting Saleh regime in Yemen. The growing involvement of US in internal politics has transformed the internal rift within Yemen into an international conflict. The role of UN is not significant because it has failed to get desired results to maintain peace within the Yemen.

Another major threat that Yemen is facing is the threat of terrorism in form of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula (NATO Foundation Defence College, 2016,). The significance of the AQAP has increased inside Yemen due to ongoing rift between Saleh regime and Houthi rebels. The power vacuum has been created which is exploited by the Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula.  The sympathies of masses for Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula can further complicate the situation in Yemen consequently increased militancy in the country. The people are frustrated if they start joining terror organization it would disrupt the stability of Yemen in long run and security of the whole region.

Analysis

One can say the unity within Yemen is required for bringing stability in the country and saving Middle East region in larger extent from future conflicts. There is a need for internal cohesion among the internal players that can only be achieved by building consensus between them. The ruling elite should take steps to address the grievances of the people by sharing power with other major groups that are significant in politics of Yemen. The Shia community should be taken on board by giving then their due share in internal dynamics of the country. They should be consulted while making important policy decisions of the country to ensure the stability of Yemen.  Moreover,   the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia was ignited in case of Yemen that will increase their hostility with each other. According to experts, Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon especially after the normalization of the relation between Iran and US with the nuclear deal. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is also expressing their reservations regarding deal of Iran with the US. Saudi Arabia being the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iran’s role in the regional politics.  It will disturb the balance of power in the region as the nuclear deal will bring instability in the region.  According to Saudi government Iran will try to increase its power by actively backing regional proxies in form of the Hamas and Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Iran has apprehensions about the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment in Middle East region. In a context of Yemen, one can say that Iran and Saudi Arabia have their interests as both wants to increase their area of influence in the region. Iran is often blamed for clandestinely supporting Zaydi’s Shia of the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale. Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen by supporting them through aid and military assistance. The growing role of two major rival states is increasing instability of Middle East on one hand and on the hand becoming a cause of unrest in a case of Yemen.

Yemen should become self-sufficient in order to stop the intervention of external and regional players in its internal politics. It can only be possible if the leadership take the responsibility rather than serving their interests they should solve their internal issues by mutual consent. The fighting among various groups will increase the instability of their country.  There is the need to on part of ruling elite is to share their power for bringing internal cohesion with the groups who deprived of becoming major getting their due share in the context of domestic politics of Yemen. For instance, Shia community Zaydi’s which constitute majority at the domestic level within Yemen.

Conclusion

To conclude, one can say that role of leadership of Yemen should be pragmatic in order to resolve the internal issues by taking all stakeholders on board. Currently, the reliance of ruling elite on regional and international actors is causing more chaos. The leadership of Yemen should try to resolve their issues by building the consensus of domestic actors for bringing peace and stability in their country. The future of Yemen is largely dependent upon the decisions of the ruling elite who is running the country. The masses of Yemen want stability of their country which is disrupted by the involvement of regional and international players into the domestic politics of Yemen.

Way forward

The role of leadership should be pragmatic for addressing domestic issues.

The consensus building is required for ensuring the stability of Yemen.

Yemen needs to become self-sufficient for resolving their issues themselves.

Mehwish Akram holds masters degree in International Relations and currently doing M Phil in Political Science. Her areas of interest are Democracy, Political theory and Environmental politics .

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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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Middle East

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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