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Saudi religious diplomacy targets Jerusalem

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A United Arab Emirates-backed Saudi effort to wrest control from Jordan of Islam’s holy places in Jerusalem signals a sharper, more overt edge to Saudi religious diplomacy and the kingdom’s quest for regional hegemony that risks deepening divides in the Muslim world.

The effort also serves to support Donald J. Trump’s plan for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has split the Muslim world even before it has officially been made public and been clouded by the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

At the very least, Saudi Arabia hopes at the risk of destabilizing Jordan, where Palestinians account for at least half of the country’s almost ten million people, to drop its resistance to the Trump initiative.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s focus on Jerusalem has wider regional implications as they battle Turkey for ownership of the Jerusalem issue. The two countries tried to downplay the significance of two Islamic summits in Istanbul convened by Turkey to counter Mr. Trump’s move.

Turkey and the Gulf states are also at odds over the Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar and policy towards Iran.

The power and geopolitically-driven effort constitutes a marked shift in Saudi religious diplomacy that for much of the past four decades involved a $100 billion public diplomacy campaign to globally promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. More recently, Saudi Arabia has sought to project itself as a beacon of tolerance, inter-faith dialogue and an unidentified form of moderate Islam.

Saudi Arabia has not officially announced its quest to wrest control from Jordan of the Haram al- Sharif or Temple Mount, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third most holy site after Mecca and Medina, but evidence is piling up against the backdrop of ever closer relations between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

Flexing the kingdom’s financial muscle, Saudi King Salman told an Arab summit in Dhahran in April that he was donating $150 million to support Islam’s holy places in Jerusalem.

The donation constitutes a multitude of Turkish bequests to Islamic organizations in Jerusalem and efforts to acquire real estate.

But contrary to Saudi Arabia, Turkey can capitalize on the fact that it maintains diplomatic relations with Israel to organize Islamist tours to the city. Thousands of Turkish supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) visited the city in the past year. Turkish activists allegedly participated in last years protests on Haram al-Sharif.

Striking a different cord from that of his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been vocal in his support for M. Trump and empathy with Israeli positions, King Salman denounced the “invalidity and illegality” of the US decision to recognize Jerusalem.

Saudi Arabia, in opposition to the Jordanian endowment that administers Haram al-Sharif, last year backed Israel’s installation of metal detectors following an attack that killed two Israeli policemen.

Some Jordanians saw the Saudi support as a precursor for a US-backed agreement with Israel that would give Gulf states a foothold on Temple Mount by allowing Saudi and UAE personnel to be posted at its entrances.

In competition with Turkey, the UAE, according to Kamal Khatib, an Israeli Palestinian Islamist leader, as well as Arab media reports, is seeking to purchase real estate adjacent to Haram al-Sharif. Mr. Khatib asserted that the UAE was operating through an associate of Mohammed Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with presidential ambitions.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia clashed in December during a gathering of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union when the kingdom attempted to challenge Jordan’s custodianship of holy places in Jerusalem.

Saudi Arabia together with the UAE and Kuwait pledged US$ 2.5 billion to Jordan after mass anti-government protests rocked the country earlier this year in a bid to gain leverage and prevent it from turning to Turkey for help.

Al-Monitor quoted Raed Daana, a former director of preaching and guidance at Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, as saying that Saudi Arabia had secretly invited Palestinian Muslim dignitaries in a bid to garner support for a Saudi power grab.

Saudi officials are further believed to be pressuring Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to allow Saudi Islamic scholars to visit Palestine. In a rare outreach, Iyad Madani, a Saudi national and secretary-general of the Jeddah-based, 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), visited Haram al-Sharif in January.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used Bahrain, a financially weak state whose ruling family was bolstered in 2011 by the intervention of a Saudi-led military force to counter a popular revolt, as a front for some of their overtures towards Israel.

Bahrain, which last week granted entry to an Israeli delegation to participate in a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting, has been at the forefront of the Gulf states’ religious diplomacy and propagation of inter-faith dialogue.

Israel’s only official presence in the Gulf is its under-the-radar mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi that is widely seen as the Jewish state’s embassy to the region.

A prominent American rabbi, Marc Shneier, and evangelist Reverend Johnnie Moore, a member of Mr. Trump’s faith advisory board, keynoted at a dinner in Washington in May hosted by the Bahrain embassy. Reverend Moore led a delegation of Bahraini and expatriate civic and business leaders on a visit to Israel last December, days after Mr. Trump had recognized Jerusalem as Jewish state’s capital.

The delegation’s Palestinian reception suggests that Saudi-UAE efforts to gain a geopolitically-driven religious foothold in Jerusalem may not be straight forward. Palestinian guards barred the delegation from entering Haram al-Sharif while protesters in Gaza blocked it from visiting the strip.

Said Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi in a comment about the visit that could have applied to the broader Saudi-UAE effort: I don’t believe “this whole lovey-dovey approach of ‘we’re here to show tolerance’. Then go home and show tolerance at home.”

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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UAE-Israel relations risk being built on questionable assumptions

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A year of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has proven to be mutually beneficial. The question is whether the assumptions underlying the UAE’s initiative that led three other Arab countries to also formalise their relations with the Jewish state will prove to be correct in the medium and long term.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed laid out the strategic assumptions underlying his establishment of diplomatic relations, as well as its timing, in a conversation with Joel C. Rosenberg, an American-Israeli evangelical author and activist, 18 months before the announcement.

Mr. Rosenberg’s recounting of that conversation in a just-published book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East, constitutes a rare first-hand public account of the Emirati leader’s thinking.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting on his conversation with Prince Mohammed is largely paraphrased by the author rather than backed up with quotes. The UAE’s interest in building good relations with American Evangelicals as part of its effort to garner soft power in the United States and project itself as an icon of religious tolerance, and Mr. Rosenberg’s willingness to serve that purpose, add credibility to the author’s disclosures.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting, wittingly or unwittingly, has laid bare the potential longer-term fragility of the relationship that is evident in Prince Mohammed’s timing for the UAE’s recognition of Israel as well as the assumptions on which the Emirates has argued that relations would contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What emerges is that the UAE and Israel have a geopolitical interest in cooperating to contain Iran and militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that are associated with the Islamic republic. They also reap economic benefit from the formalisation of a relationship that has long existed de facto.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the implication is that public support for the relationship could prove to be fickle even though comment on social media in a country that tightly polices freedom of expression was dominated by supporters of the Emirati government.

Prominent Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla described the public backing as “a show of support for the government rather than a show of support for ‘normalization’ (with Israel) as such.” Mr. Abdulla was speaking in May as Israeli warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip in a conflict, sparked by protests in East Jerusalem, with Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the territory.

He noted that “no matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you.”

It was this sensitivity that persuaded Prince Mohammed that the door would close on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel without a solution to the Palestinian problem if then Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu were to go ahead with his plans to annex parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

“The only way to stop Netanyahu from grabbing what the Emiratis saw as Palestinian land was to go full Godfather and make Bibi an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname.

A proposal by the Trump administration that the UAE and other Arab states sign a non-aggression and non-belligerency pact with Israel without establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state gave Prince Mohammed the opening to push his plan.

“MbZ was open to the idea, but he now realized it would not be enough to pull Netanyahu away from his desire to annex large swaths of the West Bank. The only way to get what he wanted, MBZ recognized, was to give Netanyahu what he wanted most – full peace, full recognition, full normalization. But MbZ would have to move fast” to pre-empt the Israeli prime minister Mr. Rosenberg summarised, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Quoting then Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, rather than Prince Mohammed, Mr. Rosenberg regurgitates hopes publicly expressed by Emirati officials that the establishment of diplomatic relations would reinvigorate moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The establishment of diplomatic relations promised to be “a 360-degree success, one that goes beyond trade and investment,” Mr. Rosenberg quoted Mr. Gargash as saying.

Emirati economy minister Abdulla Bin Touq said the UAE hoped to boost trade with Israel to US$1 trillion over the next decade. Emirati officials were further banking on the fact that strong cultural and people-to-people ties – absent in Israel’s initial peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s – would put flesh on a skeleton of Arab-Israeli relations and ensure that Israel refrains from acts like annexation that would upset the apple cart.

Mr. Netanyahu’s successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has put those hopes to bed. He has unequivocally rejected the notion of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, refused to negotiate peace with the Palestinians during his term, and suggested that the improvement of social and economic conditions would satisfy Palestinian aspirations.

That could prove to be a risky bet given a shift to the right in Israeli public opinion, the growing influence of conservative religious segments of society, and the fact that some 600,000 Israelis who populate settlements built on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem make a two-state solution de facto impossible. That would leave a one-state solution as the only solution.

For that to work, Palestinians would have to buy into Mr. Bennett’s approach that is informed by the concept of “shrinking the conflict” that seeks to marginalise the Palestinian problem, put forward by Micah Goodman, an Israeli academic who chose to build a home in a West Bank settlement.

“Twenty per cent of Israelis are on the extremes, for either withdrawing from the territories or annexing them,” Mr. Goodman says. “The remaining 80 percent who don’t want to rule over the territories or relinquish them don’t have a way to talk about the conflict, so they just don’t think about it. Which is the tragedy of the Israeli center.”

Shrinking the conflict, rather than solving it, is what Mr. Goodman calls “replacing indifference with pragmatism.” He suggests that initiatives such as the creation of corridors between Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank and a border crossing to Jordan “up to the level that the Palestinians feel they are ruling themselves, without the capacity to threaten Israel” would tempt Palestinians to buy into his concept. Mr. Goodman’s plan would ensure, in his words, that Palestinians “don’t get anything like the right of return, a state or Jerusalem.”

Prince Mohammed appears, based on Mr. Rosenberg’s account of his conversations with the UAE leader and other Emirati officials, to have adopted the approach.  

“MbZ believed that by breaking the mould and making peace with Israel without giving the Palestinian leadership veto over his freedom of movement, he could open the door for other Arab countries to see the benefits and follow suit,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote.

Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco were quick to follow the UAE’s example. Some 300 Iraqi tribal and religious leaders, activists and former military officers called last week for diplomatic relations with Israel in a gathering in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

“Just as we demand that Iraq achieve federalism domestically, we demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords internationally. We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel and a new policy of mutual development and prosperity,” said Wisam Al-Hardan, a spokesman for the group and onetime tribal militia leader that aligned with the United States to fight al-Qaeda in 2005.

Mr. Rosenberg noted that “as more Arab states normalized relations with Israel, MbZ and his team believed it could create the conditions under which the Palestinians could finally say yes to a comprehensive peace plan of their own with Israel.”

That may prove to be over-optimistic. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Palestine Authority would withdraw its recognition of Israel and press charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court if Israel did not withdraw in the next year from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and lift the 14-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The assumption underlying Prince Mohammed’s hopes that Palestinians as well as Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon for that matter, would ultimately fall into line, creates a false equation between most Arab states and those bordering on Israel or under Israeli occupation.

Most Arab states like the UAE have existential issues with Israel that need to be resolved, which makes public opinion the potentially largest constraint on recognition of the Jewish state. There is no doubt that for Palestinians the issue is nothing but existential. The same is true for Jordan that has historic connections to the West Bank and whose population is more than half of Palestinian descent.

Similarly, Lebanon and Syria host large numbers of Palestinian refugees. Syria, moreover, has its own issues with Israel given the latter’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967.

Improving the social and economic conditions of the Palestinians are unlikely to satisfy their minimal needs or those of Israel’s immediate neighbours. Not to mention what the accelerated prospect of a de facto one-state solution to the Palestinian problem would mean for an Israel confronted with the choice of being a democratic state in which Palestinians could emerge as a majority or a Jewish state that sheds its democratic character and claim to be inclusive towards its citizens.

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Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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