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Whither the Kurds?

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Palestinians have long been known for a history of missing opportunities. By contrast, Kurds spread across several Middle Eastern nations appeared to have a keener understanding of geopolitics and were seemingly willing to embrace the art of the possible. All of that has changed in the past year with both Palestinians and Kurds seemingly further away from achieving their long-standing goal of statehood.

A combination of the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, the emergence of the Islamic State, the wars in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s turn towards authoritarianism, and the fallout of failed policies by Palestinian and Kurdish leaders have rendered both nations struggling to salvage what can be salvaged.

To be sure, circumstances that shape the struggle to achieve the two peoples’ national aspirations could not be more different. Yet, while Iraqi Kurds may have destroyed in the short-term what they built in almost three decades of autonomy with an ill-advised referendum on independence in September 2017, at least Iraqi and Syrian Kurds could in the middle-term be closer to some form of sustainable self-rule, if not independence, than immediately meets the eye.

By contrast, with Trump backing Israel to the hilt, symbolized by his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, Palestinians are groping for an alternative framework for peace negotiations and tiptoeing around the possibility of a new uprising or Intifada that the last time round at the turn from the 20th to the 21st century had a devastating effect on them.

A region in transition

Working in the favour of both Kurds and Palestinians is the fact that they live in a region that has been in volatile and violent transition since the Arab popular revolts of 2011. That transition is likely to continue for years, if not a quarter of a century, before the battles between forces of change and counterrevolution and complicating regional rivalries have battled it out and the fallout of the outcome of those struggles settles in.

As Kurds contemplate the future, they have the advantage in contrast to the Palestinians, that the transition calls into question the future political structure of Syria and Iraq, if not their existence as nation-states within their post-colonial borders. Similarly, the nature of the regime in Syria is likely to change with the contested future of President Bashar al-Assad while the prospects of Iraq’s democratically elected, Shiite-dominated government are in flux as it struggles to ensure that the country’s Sunni minority maintains a stake in a unified Iraq and address Kurdish aspirations. In Turkey, too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to remain in power at least until his country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023 is certain to encounter headwinds.

Kurdish hopes are often vested in predictions articulated by former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden that “Iraq no longer exists, Syria no longer exists” as well as the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the wake of the demise of communist rule. That remains a possibility but more realistic is the fact, at least in the immediate future, the Syrian and Iraqi states as they existed in the past are more likely to change rather than dissolve. The lesson of the 2017 Iraqi Kurdish referendum and the fact that the Iraqi state has already demonstrated resilience in surviving and its Syrian counterpart may well do so too, means that Kurds will have to strive for some autonomous accommodation within a federal structure.

Another lesson the referendum and the wars in Syria and Iraq have taught the Kurds is that, despite having been close allies of the United States in multiple battles, including the fight against former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State, they cannot count on the kind of support Washington has extended to Israel. That, however, may be less of a disadvantage than the obstacles Palestinians face as they counter a strong and entrenched Israeli state that despite widespread condemnation of its annexationist policies enjoys a network of strong international relationships even with those, like the Gulf states, who are unwilling to recognize it and establish formal diplomatic ties.

With the future of Syria and Iraq as nation states in question, Kurds ironically benefit from the fact that Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian constituencies are not striving for a unitary state carved out of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi territory unlike the Palestinians who despite the split between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority on the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are seeking an independent entity that would encompass both territories. One consequence of that is the fact that Kurdish leaders in the various territories are less stymied by their differences than are the Palestinians whose leverage in potential negotiations and ability to marshal more than symbolic international support has been undermined by their inability to form a united front.

It has also made them more vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of external players such as Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Encouraged by the UAE and Egypt controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief Mohammed Dahlan is weighing a return to Palestinian politics and challenge to Abbas either by forming a party of his own or joining Hamas in governing Gaza as part of national salvation government.

Playing ball with Syria

Syrian Kurds are likely to benefit from the fact that decentralization will probably be Syria’s best bet to ensure its territorial integrity once the guns fall silent. That would enable Kurds to claim enhanced powers in purely Kurdish areas, strengthen their demand that Syria identify itself as a republic rather than an Arab republic, create the basis for the children of minorities to be educate in their mother tongue in both Kurdish-majority regions as well as in Kurdish neighbourhoods of major Syrian cities, and allow for an equitable distribution of oil export revenues. Syrian Kurds stressed the centrality of the revenues by declaring in 2016 their autonomous federal region at a gathering in Rumeilan, the oil capital of northeast Syria, rather than  Qamishli, their de-facto capital.

In some ways, the building blocks for autonomy are starker in Syrian Kurdish areas than in Iraqi Kurdistan. The differences in law enforcement, the administration of utilities and social services, and economic policy in Kurdish areas and those parts of Syria controlled by the Assad government are greater than in Iraq.

The regional Kurdish authority has promulgated laws, including a quasi-constitution dubbed ‘Rojava’s social contract;’ created agencies to license and administer investments, education, and media; founded the region’s first university; created a system for the sharing of economic resources; laid plans for an independent central bank, and witnessed the emergence of a broad network of non-governmental associations. Notionally Damascus retained a presence in the regional area by maintaining its monopoly on the issuing of civil record documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, the paying of civil servant salaries, and its control of Qamishli Airport, the area’s main gateway.

Nevertheless, a generation of Syrian Kurdish children is being educated exclusively in Kurdish rather than also in Arabic. They are growing up with a notion of Syria as a hostile, foreign forces, that they have never visited. Kurdish children in Afrin are likely to have had their first encounter with Syrians in early 2018 when Syrian government forces entered the region in support of Kurdish forces fighting off military intervention by the Turkish military and Ankara-backed rebels. Ironically, Kurdish agreement to the Syrian entry could strengthen their bid for autonomy in a future federal arrangement. The agreement reportedly involves the declaration of a no-fly zone over Afrin, the establishment of Syrian military base, and put maintenance of a local administration in northern Syria and sharing natural resources and services on the table. Critics assert that those are conditions that the Assad government is likely to walk away from in the longer term.

To succeed in achieving sustainable autonomy, Syrian Kurds will have to endorse some combination involving and/or the relinquishing of non-Kurdish territory, particularly in areas once occupied by the Islamic state; loosen the ties of the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey labels a terrorist organization; and align its local governance structures with those of Syria. This will likely involve a balancing of Kurdish, Turkish, and Syrian interests.

That could prove easier said than done particularly with Assad seeing the survival of his regime as well as that of his Alawite minority in Syria’s continued embrace of pan Arabism as a concept that includes “all ethnic groups, religions, and communities” and recognizes their contribution to the notion’s development. Assad see his country’s brutal war as an attempt to force Syria to abandon its own identity and kowtow to foreign powers or to become a society of “communities in conflict.” Speaking in late 2017, Assad asserted that “Arabism and national thinking have continuously been accused by their enemies of backwardness and of being old-fashioned in an age overwhelmed by globalization in order to turn us into tools to serve the interests of huge financial institutions led by the United States.”

Returning from the abyss

The Iraqi Kurds wasted their moment in history by falsely assuming that the United States would back their quest for independence based on the September 2017 referendum. Instead it will take the Iraqi Kurds time to heal their internal divisions stemming from one faction allowing the Iraqi military to take unopposed control of the strategic city of Kirkuk and crawl back the degree of self-rule they had achieved under the umbrella of the United States. Iraqi Kurds are still trying to come “to grips with the trauma caused by the abrupt change from a quasi-state status to that of an entity under threat of annihilation…  If Iraq’s history as a nation-state can be taken as a proof then the possibility of peaceful coexistence seems quite unrealistic.,” said scholar Ofra Bengio.

Negotiations are nevertheless likely to be the only way to achieve that. Both sides have incentives to engage in talks. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s military is weak despite its recapture of territory controlled by the Islamic State as well as Kirkuk and has a poor track record in retaining control of territories it has conquered. The threat of a military confrontation with the Kurds will moreover continue to exist as long the two sides fail to reach an agreement that is based on the country’s that recognized Kurdistan’s regional status and gave it a far-reaching degree of self-rule.

Similarly, Iraqi Kurdish leaders have little other choice given the fallout of the mis-guided referendum. External players like Turkey and Iran that were crucial in thwarting Iraqi Kurdish aspirations of independence would likely be supportive as long as Kurdistan remains an integral part of Iraq and Iraqi territorial integrity is guaranteed.

The key to successful negotiations is the elephant in the room: the future of what the constitution terms “disputed territories” that are rich in hydrocarbon resources, which in effect means agreement on the boundaries that separate the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdish leverage in negotiations is likely to be in part determined on whether the potential revival of Sunni-Shiite tensions will erase the sense of national urgency that existed in the three-year struggle against the Islamic State. The jury is still out on whether the local administration that controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will succeed in taking into full account the interests of the Sunnis and ending their sense of alienation. To do so, the government in Baghdad will have to secure the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised population – something it has failed to effectively do in the past.

To be sure, Abadi, unlike Assad in Syria, has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive. Yet, crucial to the Kurds, is the underlying question of whether Abadi’s inclusiveness will succeed in putting the Iraqi nation state’s core problem, the inability to create a deeply rooted national identity, behind it.

Nonetheless, while it remains likely that the Kurdish-Iraqi standoff will continue without a renewed eruption of hostilities for some time to come, the question is for how long,” “The fractious nature of Iraqi politics inherently works against compromise. In Baghdad, a united front for compromise is almost impossible to achieve. As such, brave or original ideas are easily undercut by opponents who will resort to the lowest common denominator: a unitary Iraqi nationalism. This is the surest way to discredit any conciliatory move on the Kurdish issue… Even if (the current crisis) ends with a return to a mildly reshuffled form of the status quo ante, Arab Iraqis would be sorely mistaken if they celebrate this as an Iraqi triumph: it would be a completely Pyrrhic victory that merely intensifies the mutual mistrust and delays confrontation,” warned Iraq scholar Fanar Haddad.

Regional imbroglio

The various Kurdish struggles risk becoming pawns in the Middle East fundamental rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar that is backed by Turkey and Iran. Turkey has already alleged that the Emirates, the kingdom and Egypt are supporting the PKK. Yeni Safak, a newspaper closely aligned with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), charged that a $1 billion Saudi contribution to the reconstruction of Raqqa, the now partly Syrian Kurdish-controlled former capital of the Islamic State, was evidence of the kingdom’s involvement in what it termed a “dirty game.”

Similarly, Iran reported increased insurgent activity in majority-Kurdish region, asserting that Saudi Arabia was supporting it as part of a bid to destabilize the Islamic republic. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said it had recently seized two large caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan. It said the Kurdish cache seized in the town of Marivan included bomb-making material, electronic detonators, and rocket propelled grenades while the one in the east contained two dozen remote-controlled bombs. Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman vowed last year that the battle between his kingdom and the Islamic republic would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Compared to the Kurds, Palestinians have the advantage that they confront one rather than multiple states even if stability in Israel and US backing for hard-line Israeli positions is beyond doubt. The Kurds may however discover that the greater complexity of their struggle could turn out to be an advantage provided they are able to play their cards right.

This story was originally published in Europa Ethnica, Vol. ½, 2018

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

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Public opinion surveys challenge the image Arab leaders like to project

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Several recent public opinion surveys send a mixed message to autocratic reformers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which hosts this year’s World Cup in less than two months.

The surveys reveal contradictory attitudes among Arab youth towards religion as well as widespread rejection of notions of a moderate Islam and formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

One survey, published this week by Dubai-based public relations agency ASDA’A BCW, revealed that 41 per cent of 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind. That is 7 per cent more than those surveyed in the agency’s 2021 poll.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law.

Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture. Sixty-five per cent argued that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.

Yet, paradoxically, 73 per cent felt that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77 per cent believed that Arab religious institutions should be reformed.

Autocratic Arab reformers will take heart from the discomfort with the role of religion and skepticism towards religious authority that stroked with earlier surveys by ASDA’A BCW, which has conducted the poll annually for the past 14 years.

Even so, the greater emphasis on religion as the core pillar of identity, concern about traditional values and culture, and the call for Islamic law cast a shadow over social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE.

Moreover, the poll results were published as Qatar debates how to deal with potential conduct by World Cup fans that violates Qatari law and mores, such as public intoxication and expressions of affection, pre-marital sex, and sexual diversity.

Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness would escape prosecution under plans under development by authorities.

While Saudi Arabia’s rupture with religious ultra-conservatism that long was the kingdom’s hallmark was stunning, reforms in the UAE were the most radical in their break with Islamic law that constitutionally constitutes the principal source of the country’s legislation.

Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms severely restricted the authority of the religious police, lifted the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s rights and opportunities, loosened gender segregation, and introduced western-style entertainment – all measures that are essentially not controversial in much of the Muslim world but went against the grain of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative segment of the population and clergy.

That could not be said for Mr. Bin Zayed’s equally far-reaching changes that decriminalized sexual relations out of marriage and alcohol consumption for UAE nationals and foreigners and lifted the prohibition on living together for unmarried couples.

Mr. Bin Zayed’s reforms are expected to persuade some fans to base themselves in the UAE during the World Cup and travel for matches to Qatar, which is socially more restrictive.

Even so, the ASDA’A BCW survey suggests that the reforms in the kingdom and the Emirates may not have been embraced as enthusiastically by a significant segment of the youth as the two countries would like public opinion to believe.

Separate surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59 per cent of those polled in the UAE, 58 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 74 per cent in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”

The youth’s quest for religion and traditionalism strokes with youth attitudes toward democracy and diplomatic relations with Israel.

Autocratic leaders will likely be encouraged by the fact that a whopping 82 per cent of those surveyed by ASDA’s BCW said stability was more important than democracy. At the same time, two-thirds believed democracy would never work in the Middle East.

Three quarters saw China, followed by Turkey and Russia as their allies, as opposed to only 63 per cent pointing to the United States and 12 per cent to Israel. Even so, they viewed the US as having the most influence in the Middle East, but a majority favoured US disengagement.

Yet, the United States and Europe continued to constitute preferred destinations among 45 per cent of those polled seeking to emigrate.

However, despite widespread skepticism towards democracy, leaders will also have noted that 60 per cent expressed concern about the increased role of government in their lives.

The establishment two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel by four countries included in the ASDA’A BCW survey — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, — and the fact that Saudi Arabia has become more public about its relations with the Jewish state and its desire to establish diplomatic ties once a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found is likely to have shaped responses in the surveys.

Aware of public hesitancy, Saudi Arabia, together with the Arab League and the European Union, this week convened a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to explore ways of dusting off the 1982 Saudi-inspired Arab peace plan.

The plan offered Israel recognition and diplomatic relations in exchange for creating a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

For his part, Yair Lapid expressed support for a two-state solution in his address to the assembly. It was the first time Mr. Lapid backed two states since he became prime minister and the first time since 2017 that an Israeli prime minister spoke in favour of Palestinian statehood.

Nevertheless, only 14% of the Egyptians polled in the Washington Institute surveys viewed their country’s 43-year-old peace treaty with Israel and the more recent establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state by the UAE and others as positive.

In contrast to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, where Israeli business people, tourists, and residents have been welcomed, only 11 per cent of Egyptians surveyed favoured the normalisation of people-to-people relations.

Similarly, 57 per cent of Saudis surveyed by the institute opposed the normalization of the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Still, a higher percentage in the kingdom and the UAE than in Egypt, 42 per cent, agreed that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”

To sum it all up, the message is that autocratic reformers appear to be far ahead of significant segments of their populations even if public attitudes may be contradictory.

For now, keeping the lid on freedom of expression and dissent helps them maintain their grip but casts a shadow and a doubt over the image they work so hard to project.

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Middle Eastern Geopolitics in The Midst of The Russo-Ukrainian War

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Russia’s national interests have been harmed by the West’s efforts to obstruct Eurasia’s integration and provoke conflict. Support from the United States and the European Union for Ukraine’s anti-constitutional coup d’état sparked a societal upheaval and a bloody conflict. Right-wing nationalist ideology is getting more and more popular, Russia is being painted as an enemy in Ukrainian society, the violent resolution of internal problems is being gambled on, and a profound socioeconomic catastrophe is making Ukraine a chronic centre of instability in Europe and along Russia’s border.

US military-biological labs in Russia’s neighbours are being expanded. There are four ways Russia utilizes to keep the world safe: political, legal, diplomatic, and military. To protect national interests, armed force can be employed only after all other options have failed.

NATO has effectively rendered Russia’s Black Sea control worthless in terms of gaining access to warm water. “Irresponsible” would be a better word to describe Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO. Russia’s Eurasian aspirations are jeopardized by Ukraine’s proclivity for self-determination. From Ukraine to Abkhazia, Russia seeks to control the northern Black Sea coast and to turn it under its sovereignty. For Russia, it is necessary to remove Western influence from this region and Russia’s immediate surroundings. However, it is impossible for Ukraine to remain “neutral” because of its geopolitical and ethnic realities.

Russia’s geopolitical security is threatened by Ukraine’s borders and sovereign orientations, which are equivalent to invading Russia’s land. Eastern Ukraine (east of the Dnieper River to the Sea of Azov) is inhabited by Great Russians and Orthodox Little Russians, whereas the rest of the country is controlled by Ukrainians. Anti-Russian sentiment runs deep in Crimea, a region with a wide range of nationalities (such as the Tatars). Crimea is under Moscow’s authority for strategic reasons. From Chernigov to Odessa, an area has cultural ties to Eastern Ukraine and a place in the Eurasian geopolitical context.

The Eurasian core (Russia) and the European core (Germany) should work together to complete the long-term disengagement between Europe and the United States by forming a Eurasian continental military complex.

Russian intervention in Ukraine is urgent in order to avert an attack by NATO. The foregoing suggests that Russia’s policy of severing all ties with Western security systems in the vital territory directly adjacent to Russia is being carried out in Ukraine. The only way to achieve this aim peacefully is to use force.

There are two main actors engaged in this conflict; the Russian Federation (the official heir to the USSR) and the United States, which is slipping in several soft and hard power indicators. Paul Kennedy saw imperial overstretch as a precursor to strategic decline for the United States, while Richard Barnet predicted decline for the United States in the 1980s. Flora Lewis’ research, published a year after Paul Kennedy’s, confirmed the fall of the United States. It was prophesied by James Schlesinger that the United States will lose both its economic and military power. Peter Passell and Tom Wicker argued that the United States has lost its economic and scientific leadership to Japan because of its dependence on foreign sources of raw resources and energy.

According to Niall Ferguson’s 2004 study on US diclinism, the United States wants to expand free markets, the rule of law, and representative government around the world, but it is unwilling to make the long-term investments in human capital and financial resources necessary to end conflict resulting from state inefficiency. When it comes to internal weaknesses like financial deficits and people power, as well as ignoring global responsibilities, he thinks that the United States is a failing empire that refuses to accept its own demise. “Terrorist” groups and organized crime gangs will fill the void, he predicts. Ferguson sees this as a strong endorsement of the US-China-European partnership.

Biden should not threaten China and should treat Russia as a serious power in Eurasia, as argued by one of the most anti-EU thinkers in the United States, Francis Ferguson, Jr. An analysis conducted by the US National Intelligence Council in 2008 predicted that the international system would become more multipolar due to the emergence of new major powers, the continuation of economic globalization, the transfer of wealth from the West to the East, and the expansion of sub-state and supra-state entities.

According to the report, by 2025, there would be less disparities between regions and governments in the international system. In order to avoid further collapse in Russia’s interior and to enlarge Russia’s critical space, each empire looks to exploit geostrategic territories. NATO’s laxity has made it easier for the other empire (the United States) to halt its collapse and strengthen relations with Europe.

All of the foregoing has an impact on the Middle East, particularly on the Arab region. The Middle East is no longer a priority for US policy, according to President Joe Biden’s strategic plan. Some countries in the region have attempted to compensate for the loss of the United States by forging ties with Israel to counter internal opposition and strengthen the anti-Iran coalition.

It is possible that the Ukraine issue could divert American attention away from the Middle East in the next months, which could have an impact on Arab relations with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Because of the lack of response from the Middle East in response to US demands about the Ukrainian issue (blockade of Russia, military support for Ukraine, increased gas and oil production, etc.), there has been a “relative” shift in the region’s position in US strategy.

Currently, there are many thorny issues in the Middle East, including: Russia’s policy in the Arab region is hampered by its inability to overcome regional power imbalances. Russian, Iranian and Israeli differences. Reconciling Iran with Gulf States and a number of Arab nations. Reconciling the security needs of Israel and Syria. Israeli demands vs. Russian pledges on Palestinian rights.

The trade volume differential between Russia and the Arab region just adds to the complexity of these political issues already in existence. Over the previous three years, Russian trade with the Arab world has averaged $18 billion each year. One group of Arab countries imports Russian civilian goods, such as wheat and iron, whereas the other group imports Russian military equipment. Russia exports civilian goods to Egypt, Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, and Qatar. After Syria, Algeria (81 percent), Iraq (44 percent), Egypt (41%), and the United Arab Emirates (5.3%), Russian arms sales to Arab countries account for 21 percent of Russia’s overall sales, or $5 billion yearly, making them the top five countries acquiring Russian weaponry.

It’s not uncommon for relations between Arab countries that acquire Russian civilian items and those that import Russian military hardware to be strained. In the near future (within the next five years), when Russia’s global economic embargo will cover more civilian items than military ones, it will be difficult for Russia to limit the influence of Arab disputes on its relations with all Arab countries.

Due to its military-to-civilian trade imbalance, Russia may have to reassess its regional priorities. Relations between the Arab world and Russia could take a dramatic turn in the near future. Russia’s trade with Israel ($3.5 billion) and Iran ($777 million) is impossible to compare. Even in light of the boycott, Russia’s relations with Iran and Israel will be problematic.

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Creating Building Blocks for Cooperative Security in the Middle East

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Fading hopes for a revival of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program potentially puts one more nail in the coffin of a regional security architecture that would include rather than target the Islamic republic.

The potential demise of the nuclear agreement, coupled with America redefining its commitment to Middle Eastern security as it concentrates on rivalry with Russia and China, spotlights the need for a regional security forum that would facilitate confidence-building measures, including common approaches to transnational threats such as climate change, food security, maritime security, migration, and public health.

Mitigating in favour of a firmer grounding of the reduction of regional tension is the fact that it is driven not only by economic factors such as the economic transition in the Gulf and the economic crisis in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt but also by big-power geopolitics.

China and Russia have spelled out that they would entertain the possibility of greater engagement in regional security if Middle Eastern players take greater responsibility for managing regional conflicts, reducing tensions, and their own defense.

Rhetoric aside, that is not different from what the United States, the provider of the Middle East’s security umbrella, is looking for in its attempts to rejigger its commitment to security in the Gulf.

In addition to the emerging, albeit tentative, unspoken, macro-level big power consensus on a more inclusive, multilateral approach, efforts by the major regional powers – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Israel, and Iran, except for as it regards ties between the Jewish state and the Islamic republics — to reduce tensions and put relations on a more even keel, contribute to an environment potentially conducive to discussion of a more broad-based security architecture.

The need to focus on conflict prevention and improved communication between regional rivals alongside more robust defense cooperation is evident irrespective of whether the Iran nuclear accord is brought back from the dead, given that the covert war between Israel and Iran will continue no matter what happens.

Israeli officials this month warned that an Israel airstrike against Syria’s Aleppo airport was a warning to President Bashar al-Assad that his country’s air transport infrastructure would be at risk if he continues to allow “planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism to land,” a reference to flights operated on behalf of the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards.

Even so, the Biden administration remains focused on broadening responsibility for a regional security architecture that targets Iran rather than an inclusive structure that would give all parties a stake, seek to address root problems, and stymie an evolving arms race.

The administration has encouraged security cooperation between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the two Arab states that two years ago established diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which has changed its long-standing hostile attitudes towards the Jewish state but refuses to formalise relations in the absence of a resolution of the Palestinian problem.

The year’s move of Israel from the US military’s European to its Central Command (CENTCOM) that covers the Middle East facilitates coordination between regional militaries. In a first, Israel this year participated in a US-led naval exercise alongside Saudi Arabia, Oman, Comoros, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, countries with which it has no diplomatic relations, as well as the UAE and Bahrain.

In March, top military officers from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt met in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the contours of potential military cooperation.

Similarly, the US, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are attempting to create a regional air defense alliance. In June, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz claimed the partnership had already thwarted Iranian attacks.

Similarly, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are working on a fleet of naval drones to monitor Gulf waters and ward off Iranian threats.

Furthermore, CENTCOM plans to open a testing facility in Saudi Arabia to develop and assess integrated air and missile defense capabilities.

Scholar Dalia Dassa Kaye argues that focusing on confidence-building aspects of cooperative security involving a dialogue that aims to find common ground to prevent or mitigate conflict rather than collective security that seeks to counter a specific threat is one way of breaking the Middle East’s vicious circle.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) patchwork of security structures, alliances between external powers and individual association members, and inclusive regional forums demonstrate that the two security approaches are not mutually exclusive.

The ASEAN model also suggests that, at least initially, a less centralized and institutionalized approach may be the best way to kickstart moves towards regional cooperative security in the Middle East.

Negotiating an agreement on principles guiding regional conduct on the back of exchanges between scholars, experts, and analysts, as well as informal, unofficial encounters of officials, could be a first step.

To be sure, Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel and its perceived goal of destroying the Jewish state likely constitutes the foremost obstacle to initiating an inclusive, cooperative security process.

The carrot for Iran will have to be credible assurances that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel will not pursue regime change in Tehran and recognize that Iran’s security concerns are as legitimate as those of others in the region. However, even that could prove to be a tall order, particularly if the negotiations to revive the nuclear accord fail.

Nevertheless, that may be the only realistic way of putting Iran’s support for militants in various Arab countries, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militia, various pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as the Islamic republic’s ballistic missiles program – the two major concerns of Israel and the Gulf states — on an agenda to which Iran is a participating party.

Ms. Kaye argues that “despite these serious obstacles, it is important to present a vision and pathway for an inclusive, cooperative process when a political opening emerges, or when a crisis erupts of such severe magnitude that even bitter adversaries may consider options that were previously unthinkable.”

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