Following the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the third multilateral agreement that the current United States administration has withdrawn from. The administration has also put in jeopardy other multilateral arrangements such as NAFTA, the global trade system, and parts of the United Nations system, thus inflicting considerable damage to multilateralism, and the prospects for resolving disputes through diplomacy.
The announcement on 8 May 2018 of United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and the unilateral and unlawful re-imposition of nuclear sanctions — a decision opposed by majority of the American people — was the culmination of a series of violations of the terms of the accord by this administration, in spite of the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency, as the sole competent international authority had repeatedly verified Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the accord. The U.S. decision was rejected by the international community and even its closest allies, including the European Union, Britain, France and Germany.
On 21 May 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a baseless and insulting statement, issued a number of demands of and threats against Iran in brazen contravention of international law, well-established international norms, and civilized behavior. His statement reflected a desperate reaction by the US administration to the overwhelming opposition of the international community to the persistent efforts by the White House to kill the JCPOA, and the ensuing Washington’s isolation. Mr. Pompeo, in his statement, attempted to justify the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and divert international public opinion from the unlawful behavior of the United States and its outright violation of UN Security Council resolution 2231; a resolution drafted and proposed by the US itself and adopted unanimously by the Council. Mr. Pompeo’s 12 preconditions for Iran to follow are especially preposterous as the US administration itself is increasingly isolated internationally due to its effort to undermine diplomacy and multilateralism. It comes as no surprise that the statement and the one made by the US president on Iran were either ignored or received negatively by the international community, including by friends and allies of the United States. Only a small handful of US client states in our region welcomed it.
I seriously doubt that had the US Secretary of State even had a slight knowledge of Iran’s history and culture and the Iranian people’s struggle for independence and freedom, and had he known that Iran’s political system—in contrast to those of the American allies in the region—is based on a popular revolution and the people’s will, would he have delivered such an outlandish statement. He should, however, know that ending foreign intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs, which culminated in the 25-year period following the US-orchestrated coup in 1953, had always been one of the Iranian people’s main demands since well before the Islamic Revolution. He should also be aware that in the past 40 years the Iranian people have heroically resisted and foiled aggressions and pressures by the US, including its coup attempts, military interventions, support of the aggressor in an 8-year war, imposition of unilateral, extraterritorial and even multilateral sanctions, and even going as far as shooting down an Iranian passenger plane in the Persian Gulf in 1987. “Never forget” is our mantra, too.
The Islamic Republic of Iran derives its strength and stability from the brave and peace-loving Iranian people; a people who, while seeking constructive interaction with the world on the basis of mutual respect, are ready to resist bullying and extortions and defend in unison their country’s independence and honor. History bears testimony to the fact that those who staged aggression against this age-old land, such as Saddam and his regime’s supporters, all met an ignominious fate, while Iran has proudly and vibrantly continued its path towards a better and brighter future.
It is regrettable that in the past one-and-a-half years, US foreign policy—if we can call it that—including its policy towards Iran has been predicated on flawed assumptions and illusions—if not actual delusions. The US President and his Secretary of State have persistently made baseless and provocative allegations against Iran that constitute blatant intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs, unlawful threats against a UN Member State, and violations of the United States’ international obligations under the UN Charter, the 1955 Treaty, and the 1981 Algiers Accord. While rejecting these fictitious allegations, I would like to draw the attention of U.S. policymakers to some aspects of their nation’s current foreign policy that are detrimental to the entire international community:
Impulsive and illogical decisions and behavior of the US President—and efforts by his subordinates to find some justification to persuade a reluctant domestic and foreign audience—have already surfaced as the main feature of the decision-making process in Washington over the past 17 months. This process, coupled with ill-conceived and hasty explanations to justify outcomes, usually lead to contradictory statements and actions. As an example, in his role as CIA Director, Mike Pompeo once in a Congressional hearing emphatically stated: “Iran has not violated its commitments.” Later, and following the US President’s decision to withdraw from the accord, now Secretary of State Pompeo in his statement on May 21 emphatically stated that “Iran has violated its commitments.”
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some aspects of US foreign policy have been put up for auction—far beyond the routine lobbying practices. It is, for instance, unprecedented that a US president should choose the very country he had called “fanatic and a supporter of terrorism” during his election campaign as the destination for his first foreign visit as president, or to publicly make aspects of his foreign policy positions contingent on the purchase by one or another country of arms and other items from the United States. It has also been reported that in some other cases, mostly illegitimate financial interests have been the main basis for the formulation of mind-bogglingly ill-conceived US policy positions.
Contempt for international law and attempts to undermine the rule of law in international relations have been among the main features of the current administration’s foreign policy. To the extent, according to media reports, that the US negotiators in the G7 Summit were even insisting on deleting the phrase “our commitment to promote the rules-based international order.” This destructive approach began by showing contempt for the fundamental principle of pacta sunt servanda, which is arguably the oldest principle of international law. The US withdrawal from some international agreements and undermining others, coupled with efforts to weaken international organizations, are examples of destructive moves so far by the US government, which have unfortunately darkened the outlook for the international order. Obviously, the continuation of such policies can endanger the stability of the international community, turning the U.S. into a rogue state and an international outlaw.
Predicating decisions on illusions is another aspect of this administration’s foreign policy. This has been especially evident with respect to West Asia. The illegal and provocative decision regarding al-Quds al-Sharif, blind support for the cruel atrocities committed by the Zionist regime against Gazans, and aerial and missile attacks against Syria are some of the more brazen aspects of such an unprincipled foreign policy.
The statement made by Mr. Pompeo on May 21 was the culmination of a delusional US approach to our region. Ironically, the U.S. Secretary of State tried to set preconditions for negotiations and agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran at a time when the international community is doubtful about the possibility or utility of negotiation or agreement with the US on any issue. How can the US government expect to be viewed or treated as a reliable party to another round of serious negotiations following its unilateral and unwarranted withdrawal from an agreement which was the result of hundreds of hours of arduous bilateral and multilateral negotiations, in which the highest ranking US foreign affairs official participated, and which was submitted to the Security Council by the US and adopted unanimously as an international commitment under Article 25 of the Charter?
Recent statements and actions by the U.S. president, including reneging on his agreement with the G7 while in the air flying back from the summit, are other examples of his erratic behavior. His remarks immediately following his meeting with the leader of the DPRK regarding his possible change of mind in 6 months are indicative of what the world is facing—an irrational and dangerous US administration. Does the US Secretary of State really expect Iran to negotiate with a government whose president says: “I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong. I don’t know if I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse”? Can such a government really set preconditions for Iran? Isn’t it actually confusing the plaintiff for the defendant? Mr. Pompeo has forgotten that it is the US government that needs to prove the credibility of its words and legitimacy of its signature, and not the party that has complied with its international obligations and sticks to its word. In fact, the truth is that all US administrations in the past 70 years should be held accountable for their disregard for international law, and their violations of bilateral and multilateral agreements with Iran. A short list of the rightful demands of the Iranian people from the US government could include the following:
The US government must respect Iran’s independence and national sovereignty and assure Iran that it will end its intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs in accordance with international law in general, and the 1981 Algiers Accord in particular.
The United States must abandon its policy of resorting to the threat or use of force – which constitute a breach of the preemptory norms of international law and principles of the Charter of the United Nations – as an option in the conduct of its foreign affairs with or against the Islamic Republic of Iran and other States.
The US government should respect the State immunity of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a fundamental principle of international law, and, while rescinding previous arbitrary and unlawful financial judgments, it should refrain from executing them in the US and extra-territorially.
The US government should openly acknowledge its unwarranted and unlawful actions against the people of Iran over the past decades, including inter alia the following, take remedial measures to compensate the people of Iran for the damages incurred, and provide verifiable assurances that it will cease and desist from such illegal measures and refrain from ever repeating them:
its role in the 1953 coup that led to the overthrow of Iran’s lawful and democratically-elected government and the subsequent 25 years of dictatorship in Iran;
unlawful blocking, seizure and confiscation of tens of billions of dollars of assets of the Iranian people after the Islamic revolution, or under various baseless pretexts in recent years;
direct military aggression against Iran in April 1980, which was a blatant violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran;
provision of massive military and intelligence assistance to the Iraqi dictator during the 8-year war he imposed on the Iranian people inflicting hundreds of billions of dollars of damages on Iran and its people;
responsibility in the enormous suffering that Iranians have incurred over the past 3 decades as a result of the use by Saddam of chemical weapons, whose ingredients were provided by the US and some other western countries;
the shooting down of an Iran Air passenger plane by the USS Vincennes in July 1988—a flagrant crime that led to the murder of 290 innocent passengers and crew, and the subsequent awarding of a medal to the captain of the ship rather than punishing him for his war crime;
repeated attacks against Iran’s oil platforms in the Persian Gulf in the spring of 1988;
repeated and unwarranted insults against the Iranian people by calling the entire nation “an outlaw and rogue nation” or “a terrorist nation” and by including Iran in the so-called “axis of evil;”
unlawful and unreasonable establishment of a bigoted list of the nationals of some Islamic countries, including Iranians, prohibiting their entry into the US. The Iranians are among the most successful, educated and law-abiding immigrants in the US and have done great service to American society. They are now prohibited from seeing their loved ones, including even their aging grandparents;
harboring and providing safe haven to anti-Iranian saboteurs in the USA, who openly incite blind violence against Iranian civilians, and supporting criminal gangs and militias and terrorist organizations, some of which were listed for years as terrorist groups by the US and later removed from the list following intense lobbying by those who have received money from them. Some of those lobbyists now occupy high-ranking positions in the Trump administration;
support provided to Mossad for the multiple terrorist assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists;
sabotage of Iran’s nuclear peaceful program through cyber-attacks;
fabrication of fake documents to deceive the international community over Iran’s peaceful nuclear program and to create an unnecessary crisis.
The United States government must cease its persistent economic aggression against the Iranian people which has continued over the past four decades; nullify the cruel and extensive primary and extraterritorial sanctions, rescind hundreds of legislations and executive orders aimed at disrupting Iran’s normal development which are in flagrant contravention of international law and have been universally condemned, and compensate the Iranian people for the enormous damages to the Iranian economy and its people.
The US government should immediately cease its violations and breaches of the JCPOA, which have caused hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect damages for disrupting trade with and foreign investment in Iran, compensate Iranian people for these damages and commit to implement unconditionally and verifiably all of its obligations under the accord, and refrain (in accordance with the JCPOA) from any policy or action to adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.
The US government should release all Iranians and non-Iranians who are detained under cruel conditions in the US under fabricated charges related to the alleged violation of sanctions, or apprehended in other countries following unlawful pressure by the US government for extradition, and compensate for the damage inflicted on them. These include pregnant women, the elderly and people suffering from serious health problems; some of whom have even lost their lives in prison.
The US government should acknowledge the consequences of its invasions and interventions in the region, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region, and withdraw its forces from and stop interfering in the region.
The US government should cease policies and behavior that have led to the creation of the vicious DAESH terrorist group and other extremist organizations, and compel its regional allies to verifiably stop providing financial and political support and armaments to extremist groups in West Asia and the world.
The US government should stop providing arms and military equipment to the aggressors—who are murdering thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians and destroying the country— and cease its participation in these attacks. It should compel its allies to end their aggression against Yemen and compensate for the enormous damage done to that country.
The US government should stop its unlimited and unconditional support for the Zionist regime in line with its obligations under international law; condemn its policy of apartheid and gross violations of human rights, and support the rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination and the establishment of an independent Palestinian State with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital.
The US government should stop selling hundreds of billions of lethal—not beautiful—military equipment every year to regions in crisis, especially West Asia, and instead of turning these regions into powder kegs it should allow the enormous amount of money spent on arms to serve as funding for development and combating poverty. Only a fraction of the money paid by US arms customers could alleviate hunger and abject poverty, provide for potable, clean water, and combat diseases throughout the globe.
The US government should stop opposing the efforts by the international community for the past 5 decades to establish a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. It should compel the Zionist regime—with its history of aggression and occupation—to de-nuclearize, thus neutralizing the gravest real threat to regional and international peace and security, which emanates from the most destructive arms in the hands of the most warmongering regime in our time.
The US government should stop increasingly relying on nuclear weapons and the doctrines of using nuclear weapons to counter conventional threats—a policy that is in flagrant contravention of its commitment under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the 1995 NPT Review Conference Declaration, and UN Security Council resolution 984. The U.S. should comply with its moral, legal and security obligations in the field of nuclear disarmament, which is a near unanimous demand of all United Nations Member States, and virtually all people across the globe, including even former US Secretaries of State. As the only State that is stamped with the shame of ever using nuclear weapons itself, it is incumbent on the US to relieve humanity from the nightmare of a global nuclear holocaust, and give up on the illusion of security based on “mutually assured destruction” (MAD).
The US government should once and for all commit itself to respect the principle of pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept), which is the most fundamental principle of international law and a foundation for civilized relations among peoples, and discard in practice the dangerous doctrine which views international law and international organizations as merely “a tool in the US toolbox”.
The aforementioned US policies are examples of what has resulted in Iranians distrusting the American government. They are also among underlying causes of injustice, violence, terrorism, war and insecurity in West Asia. These policies will bring about nothing but a heavy toll in human lives and material assets for different regions of the world, and isolation for the US in world public opinion. The only ones benefitting are and will be lethal arms manufacturers. If the US government summons the courage to renounce these policies in words and deeds, its global isolation will end and a new image of the US will emerge in the world, including in Iran, paving the path to joint efforts for security, stability, and inclusive sustainable development.
I admit that regrettably, it is not realistic to harbor a hope for such a change in US behavior. Thus, at the global level the Islamic Republic of Iran has for years promoted inclusion, multilateralism, dialogue, respect for the rule of law and nuclear disarmament through initiatives such as Dialogue among Civilizations and WAVE (World Against Violence and Extremism), and participated actively in international efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament and a rule-based international system. We have also presented practical proposals and engaged in serious diplomatic efforts to end regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen through diplomacy from the earliest stages of these unfortunate conflicts, sadly, to the deaf ears of the United States that continues to support aggressors and terrorists in every conflict in our region. And following the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has earnestly engaged with the remaining JCPOA Participants (EU/E3+2) in a good faith effort to salvage this unique global diplomatic achievement. We continue to do so as of this writing.
Nationally, Iran has ensured its security and stability in the past 4 decades on the basis of its inherent domestic capabilities and its reliance on the great Iranian people, not on any foreign power’s benevolence or patronage. Despite foreign pressure and while expending comparatively the least amount in the region on armaments, it has become stronger, more stable and more advanced by the day.
And regionally, in contrast to the US and its foreign policy, Iran—in accordance with its constitution—neither seeks to dominate nor will it ever submit to domination. It believes that the era of regional and global hegemony has long passed, and any effort by any power to achieve it is futile. Instead of yielding to foreign domination or trying to dominate others, countries in our region should seek to create a stronger, more prosperous and more stable region. We in Iran view our security and stability as inseparable from those of our neighbors. We have a common history and culture as well as indivisible opportunities and challenges, and can only enjoy security and stability at home, if and only if our neighbors enjoy internal and international stability and security. We expect other regional countries to adopt a similar approach, and instead of insisting on the failed experiment of “trying to purchase or outsource security,” concentrate on dialogue, mutual understanding, confidence building, and cooperation with neighbors.
The Islamic Republic of Iran views the establishment of a “Regional Dialogue Forum” in the Persian Gulf as the best means to resolve regional crises and create a stronger region. We can begin adopting confidence-building measures to bring regional countries closer to each other on the basis of such principles as the sovereign equality of states, non-resort to the threat or use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for territorial integrity of other States, inviolability of international boundaries, non-intervention in domestic affairs of others, and respect for the right of peoples to self-determination. By fostering common understanding about threats and opportunities at the regional and global levels, we can move towards achieving a non-aggression pact and creating common mechanisms for regional cooperation. We firmly believe that we, regionally—as the inheritors of the richest civilizations the world has ever known—should stand tall and can solve our own problems amongst ourselves and secure a better future for all of our children without outside interference and patronage, both of which come at a heavy cost to our collective dignity as well as our future development.
First published in our partner MNA
MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?
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.”
Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus
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
Jamal Khashoggi rejiggers the Middle East at potentially horrible cost
The fate of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assuming that his disappearance was the work of Saudi security and military officials, threatens to upend the fundaments of fault lines in the Middle East.
At stake is not only the fate of a widely respected journalist and the future of Turkish-Saudi relations.
Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, whether he was kidnapped by Saudi agents during a visit to the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain proof of his divorce or murdered on its premises, threatens to severely disrupt the US-Saudi alliance that underwrites much of the Middle East’s fault lines.
A US investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate mandated by members of the US Congress and an expected meeting between President Donald J. Trump, and the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, could result in a US and European embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impact the kingdom’s brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen.
It also would project Saudi Arabia as a rogue state and call into question US and Saudi allegations that Iran is the Middle East’s main state supporter of terrorism.
The allegations formed a key reason for the United States’ withdrawal with Saudi, United Arab Emirates and Israeli backing from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions.
They also would undermine Saudi and UAE justification of their 15-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that the two Gulf states, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, accuse of supporting terrorism.
Condemnation and sanctioning of Saudi Arabia by the international community would complicate Chinese and Russian efforts to walk a fine line in their attempts to ensure that they are not sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Russia and China would be at a crossroads if Saudi Arabia were proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and the issue of sanctions would be brought to the United Nations Security Council.
Both Russia and China have so far been able to maintain close ties to Saudi Arabia despite their efforts to defeat US sanctions against Iran and Russia’s alliance with the Islamic republic in their support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
A significantly weakened Saudi Arabia would furthermore undermine Arab cover provided by the kingdom for Mr. Trump’s efforts to impose a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would favour Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
Finally, a conclusive determination that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s fate would likely spark renewed debate about the wisdom of the international community’s support for Arab autocracy that has proven to be unashamedly brutal in its violation of human rights and disregard for international law and conventions.
Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally and stability in the kingdom, a key tenant of US, Chinese and Russian Middle East policy, were to be at risk.
The reputational damage suffered by Prince Mohammed embarrasses UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who together with his aides and representatives in world capitals, worked hard to project his Saudi counterpart as the kingdom’s future.
Saudi Arabia has so far done itself few favours by flatly rejecting any responsibility for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance with no evidence that the journalist left the consulate at his own volition; asserting that claims that it was involved were fabrications by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; seeking to defame Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancé and supporters; and refusing to fully cooperate with Turkish investigators.
Saudi reluctance to cooperate as well as the US investigation and Ms. Cengiz’s expected meeting with Mr. Trump complicate apparent Turkish efforts to find a resolution of the escalating crisis that would allow Saudi Arabia to save face and salvage Turkey’s economic relationship with the kingdom.
Turkey, despite deep policy differences with Saudi Arabia over Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refrained from statements that go beyond demanding that Saudi Arabia prove its assertion that Mr. Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate at his own volition and fully cooperate with the Turkish investigation.
Reports by anonymous Turkish officials detailing gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder by Saudi agents appear designed to pressure Saudi Arabia to comply with the Turkish demands and efforts to manage the crisis.
Widely acclaimed, Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, irrespective of whether he as yet emerges alive or is proven to have been brutally murdered, is reshaping the political map of the Middle East. The possibility, if not likelihood is that he paid a horrendous price for sparking the earthquake that is already rumbling across the region.
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