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Elections in the Lebanon

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.

A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.

The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.

Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.

Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.

The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of  government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.

The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.

Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.

From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance”  was closely linked to Saudi interests.

It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach  a 180% share in three years.

In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.

As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.

70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.

Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.

Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.

This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.

The March 8 Alliance, however, was established  by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.

According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.

However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.

As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.

As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.

In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the  Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.

Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.

It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.

During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.

Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.

Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.

It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long  secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.

Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.

As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.

In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.

Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support –  certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.

Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.

Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.

Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions  even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won  one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.

Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.

Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has  the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.

The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.

As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.

Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.

He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.

The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.

The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).

The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.

Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.

General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.

Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.

The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.

It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.

The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.

It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.

Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations  failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.

It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.

It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.

General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou,  responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.

Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.

Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.

The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.

Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly.  Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.

As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.

Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.

Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.

As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.

Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose  from 8 to 14 seats.

Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.

The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.

The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.

However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.

Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.

The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.

Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to  Europe and the United States.

The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.

Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.

Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office  began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.

The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.

Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.

Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.

Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7,  2013, were postponed again.

The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office  until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.

Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.

Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.

Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.

All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.

As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”

With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.

This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.

The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.

With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.

In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.

This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.

This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.

The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.

The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.

In other words –  as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.

Therefore the  Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.

Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is  increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.

Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.

Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.

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

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Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Turkish investigators asserting that they have found further evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed when he visited the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Turkey appears to be leveraging the case to enhance its position as a leader of the Islamic World and reposition itself as a key US ally.

To enhance its geopolitical position vis a vis Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and Iran and potentially garner economic advantage at a time that it is struggling to reverse a financial downturn, Turkey has so far leaked assertions of evidence it says it has of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing rather than announced them officially.

In doing so, Turkey has forced Saudi Arabia to allow Turkish investigators accompanied by Saudi officials to enter the consulate and positioned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the kingdom’s saviour by engineering a situation that will allow the kingdom to craft a face-saving way out of the crisis.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering announcing that Mr. Khashoggi, a widely-acclaimed journalist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went into self-exile because he feared arrest, was killed in either a rogue operation or an attempt gone awry to forcibly repatriate it him back to the kingdom.

US President Donald J. Trump offered the Turks and Saudis a helping hand by referring this week to the possibility of Mr. Khashoggi having been killed by rogues and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara.

Mr. Khashoggi, seeking to obtain proof of his divorce in the kingdom so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, visited the consulate two weeks ago for the second time after having allegedly received assurances that he would be safe.

Turkey emerges as the crisis moves towards a situation in which an official version is agreed that seeks to shield Prince Mohammed from being held responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely murder with its international status significantly enhanced.

Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.

As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.

It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.

Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.

Already, Mr. Khashoggi’s family who was initially quoted by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media as backing Saudi denials of responsibility, insinuations that his fate was the product of a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and casting doubt on the integrity of the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, has called for “the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on multiple issues that divide the Muslim world. Turkey has vowed to help Iran circumvent Saudi-supported US sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear agreement.

Turkey further backs Qatar in its dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that has diplomatically and economically boycotted the Gulf state for the last 16 months. The credibility of the alliance’s allegation that Qatar supports terrorism and extremism has been dented by the growing conviction that Saudi Arabia, whether in a planned, rogue or repatriation effort gone wrong, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

Mr. Khashoggi’s death, moreover, highlighted differing approaches towards the Brotherhood, one of the Middle East’s most persecuted, yet influential Islamist groupings. Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Many brothers have sought refuge in Turkey with Mr. Erdogan empathetic and supportive of the group. A former brother, Mr. Khashoggi criticized Saudi repression of the group.

The Saudi-Turkish rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world was most evident in the two countries’ responses to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his as yet unpublished plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey emerged as the leader of Islamic denunciation of Mr. Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital after Prince Mohammed tried to dampen opposition. Ultimately, King Salman was forced to step in a bid to clarify the kingdom’s position and counter Turkish moves.

No matter how Turkey decides to officially release whatever evidence it has, Saudi Arabia figures out how to respond and halt the haemorrhaging, and Mr. Pompeo holds talks with King Salman and Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is likely to emerge from the crisis strengthened despite its increasingly illiberal and increasingly authoritarian rule at home,

Turkey’s success is all the more remarkable given that it has neither Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle nor the mantle the kingdom adopts as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

A successful political resolution of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to earn it the gratitude of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and its other detractors like the UAE who support the kingdom even if it may help it to regain popularity in the Arab world lost as a result of its swing towards authoritarianism, alliance with Iran and Qatar, and support for Islamism.

One immediate Turkish victory is likely to be Saudi acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s demand that Saudi Arabia drop its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria that Ankara sees as terrorists – a move that would boost Turkey’s position the Turkish-Russian-Iranian jockeying for influence in a post-war Syria. Turkey is also likely to see Saudi Arabia support it economically.

Turkey may, however, be playing for higher stakes.

Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall. (It wants to) disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West” in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, said international relations scholar Serhat Guvenc.

Turkey’s relations in recent years have soured as a result of Turkish insistence that the US is harbouring a terrorist by refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the preacher it accuses of having engineered the failed 2016 coup; detaining American nationals and US consulate employees on allegedly trumped up charges, cosying up to Russia and purchasing its S-400 surface to air missile system, and aligning itself with Iran. Relations were further strained by US support for Syrian Kurds.

Mr. Trump, however this week heralded a new era in US-Turkish relations after the release of unsubscribeAndrew Brunson, an evangelist preacher who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.

Mr. Guvenc argued that Turkey hopes that Saudi Arabia’s battered image will help it persuade Mr. Trump that Turkey rather than the kingdom is its strongest and most reliable ally alongside Israel in the Middle East.

Said journalist Ferhat Unlu: “”Turkey knows how to manage diplomatic crises. Its strategy is to manage tensions to its advantage,”

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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