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Russia’s Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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It is often said in the Western mainstream media that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a disrupting role around the world, including in the Middle East. However, such accusations remind of an old Soviet joke that made its rounds in the late 1980s and could certainly be applicable to the United States and other Western countries. The joke begins with a man walking into a Soviet hospital and asking the desk nurse if he can see the eye-ear doctor. “There is no such doctor,” she tells him, “Perhaps you would like to see someone else?” “No,” he replies, “I need to see an eye-ear doctor.” “But there is no such doctor,” she replies. “We have doctors for eyes and doctors for ears, nose and throat (ENT), but no eye-ear doctor.” “No help,” he repeats. “I want to see the eye-ear doctor.” They go around like this for a few minutes before the nurse interjects and says, “Sir, there is no eye-ear doctor, but if there was one, why would you want to see one?” “Because,” he replies, “I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”

This is exactly the sentiment that seems to be gripping the international community. It is stated as fact that President Putin is attempting to destabilize the Middle East and Europe quite like he ‘orchestrated’ in the American Presidential Elections in 2016. Leaving aside the lack of evidence for the latter two cases, Middle Eastern countries do not feel that Russia is trying to destabilize the region. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Israeli-Russian relations have never been better: Russia’s “frenemy,” Saudi Arabia turns to Russia for regional issues more so than to the US; and Turkey has improved its relations with Russia since the Turkish army shot down the Russian jet in Syria. Russia is in close contact and on good terms with all the key players and countries in the Middle East, and playing broker or interlocutor when a crisis arises.

Russia has been actively involved in the region to preserve its interests, namely ensuring stability in a region where jihadi terrorism has run rampant. That was the main reason it intervened in Syria in 2015, as Salafi jihadi forces such as Da’esh, Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham, and others were almost certainly on their way to occupying Damascus, which constitutes a red line for Moscow. In nearly three years, Russia has almost removed all of the Salafi jihadi terrorists from Syria and is now focused on finding a negotiated solution to the seven-year civil war. While it is working on a peace agreement in Sochi and Astana, Russia still sees Syria as the front line to its war on terror and is closely working with the Syrian Army to ensure it can fend off terrorists and any destabilizing efforts from any regional and external players. At the same time, Russia is constantly working with all the necessary partners to ensure stability there.

However, some prominent Russian figures including Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov, and scholar Vitaly Naumkin have suggested that Russia can play a crucial role in resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the prospect for a solution to this conflict seems bleak, having a new player that can help is a positive sign. In fact, Russia has unique credentials to kick-start peace talks, since it is a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council and a member of the Middle East Quartet. In both international bodies, Washington has been mingling with far right-wing elements in Israel and stonewalling any potential peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians by vetoing key United Nations Security Council resolutions. A more reliable player who is active in the region, like Russia, would serve well as a broker to help the necessary parties come to an agreement.

More importantly, Russia can play a constructive role and be a dependable broker because it has close ties with all the necessary parties needed for any agreement. It is more of an honest broker than Washington for a variety of reasons. Chiefly among them, if for no other reason, is the fact that Russia can play a fair interlocutor given its presence in the region. If we look at Donald Trump’s ill-advised decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it not only reignited violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians but it also revealed that Washington had never been an honest broker in resolving the age-old conflict.

This is not the first time that Moscow had offered to be a broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Kremlin had offered to host the two parties in Moscow as a venue for discussions in 2016. However, all hopes were dashed when two Israeli professors decided to reveal that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was a KGB Agent in the 1980s while pursuing his doctorate degree. It was later revealed that the two Israeli professors had leaked this document to the Israeli press because they had their own agenda and did not want negotiations to bear fruit under the auspices of the Russians.

It takes two to tango: Do the two states want it?

Israelis

Current Coalition Government

The current Israeli government’s perspective on a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is nearly nonexistent. This is Israel’s most far-right government coalition since it first became a state in 1948. Since becoming Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has always found an excuse to not seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Moreover, Netanyahu has laid down the conditions to an agreement that no Palestinian leader can agree to. For instance, in 2013, he outlined his so-called “vision” for a future Palestinian state. He stated that there would be no agreement unless the Palestinian leadership recognizes Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This is an ill-conceived approach as Israel’s concern should be about creating a two-state solution (and future narrative) for its national security rather than ensuring that its future neighbouring state recognizes the complexion of its statehood. Does the United States have to recognize Canada as a multicultural country? Or does Canada have to recognize the United States as a Christian state? No. The United States recognizes Canada as a state and vice versa. What each state does internally is its own business.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, he has always suggested that the Palestinians are divided and when they did unite he suggested that they are aligning with Hamas—a “terrorist” organization—and, thus, Israel cannot negotiate with the Palestinians. In reality, Hamas conducted terrorist activities in the past, but today they are very popular with Gazans, East Jerusalemites, and West Bankers. If elections were held today in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas most likely would win in all three cities. For the last nine years, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition governments have accused the Palestinian leadership of incitement. However, the blame should really be put on Netanyahu’s government for their incitement in the Occupied Territories (East Jerusalem and the West Bank), as it condones the daily activities of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the settlers’ mistreatment of the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis. As the country has shifted further to the extreme right in recent years, it will take much skill to convince Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his far right-wing coalition to come to the table and, eventually, agree on a final two-state solution with Israel’s neighbours. If anyone other than Netanyahu’s “Likud” Party in this coalition (namely Naftali Bennett’s “HaBayit HaYehudi” Party, any of the religious parties, or, to a certain extent, Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” Party, or any of their offshoots) wins the next general election, which is scheduled for 2019, then it will be increasingly difficult to reach a two-state solution agreement.

Opposition Parties

There is still some hope because there are a few party leaders that want to seek a two-state solution. However, the two main opposition leaders—Avi Gabay (“Labor” Party) and Yair Lapid (“Yesh Atid” Party) — do not seem to indicate that they are genuine in seeking a two-state solution. Their statements about Jerusalem, and other issues for a future agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, are disheartening. Both Gabay of the “Labor” Party (a central partner in the “Zionist Union” Party with Tzipi Livni’s “Hatnuah” Party) and Lapid of the “Yesh Atid” Party have shifted to the right of the Israeli political spectrum. Whether this is a tactic to attract right-wing voters or it is their fundamental belief remains to be seen. However, their statements signal trouble for the two-state solution if either of them were to become Prime Minister.

That leaves Israel with “Meretz” Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and “the Joint List” Chairman Ayman Odeh. Zandberg leads the progressive “Meretz” Party into the next election with only 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). She has tried to inject new life in the party and suggested that if she were to lead a government, or take part in a coalition government, she would enter with all progressive parties on the Israeli left and would not rule out right-wing politician and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, the Chairman of “Yisrael Beiteinu,” is a pragmatic leader who might be the only politician on the Israeli right that will change his view if he sees the security of his country at risk. That leaves the progressive with some hope that he would play it nice with Zandberg, but his negative comments about Arabs, Palestinians, and a future peace agreement makes one wonder if his views will actually change when faced with any potential agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Zandberg’s comments, however, could simply be a tactic for trying to lure more voters to her party, especially those on the right of the spectrum. It is still disheartening to hear the new “Meretz” Chairwoman make that promise to voters despite Lieberman’s rhetoric, which puts him in opposition to a fair peace treaty. Also, “Meretz’s” silence on Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, like other political parties on the left, with the exception of the “Joint List,” is also demoralizing to those struggling to bring peace.

Ehud Barak is a factor because he has wanted to return to the political scene since he resigned from his post as Defense Minister in a previous Netanyahu administration. He has been quite critical of the current Prime Minister over his several corruption scandals and his lackluster interest in seeking dialogue with the Palestinians. A former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and a protégé of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Barak has always sought a peace agreement with Israel’s neighbours and the Palestinians in particular. This is encouraging news, as Israel needs safe borders to ensure its stability and address its two national security priorities: ensuring the Jewish complexity of the state and reducing the violence within its borders. While it would be advisable to maintain a two-state solution, Barak’s strategy to ensure Israel’s national security concerns might be met with stumbling blocks. First, it is unclear if Barak is a strong contender, as many Israelis still remember his attempt at a peace agreement with the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Second, it is unclear what he will do should he negotiate with the Palestinians. In his last attempt, he refused to divide Jerusalem, rejected to return land to the Palestinians along the 1967 borders, and declined to dismantle settlements in those Occupied Territories. If he were to repeat this strategy, negotiations will almost certainly fail. In any case, Barak’s last attempt was Israel’s closest at reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. It abruptly ended when violence broke out between Palestinians and Israelis on Temple Mount, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon decided to pay a visit to the holy site for Jews and Muslims, thus giving start to the second intifada. In the following elections, Ehud Barak lost to Ariel Sharon ending all hopes for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While most would dismiss Ayman Odeh, it would be a mistake to do so. The “Joint List” is the third largest political party (13 seats) in the current Knesset behind the “Zionist Union” (24 seats) and the “Likud” (30 seats). Along with being the Chairman of the “Joint List” Party, a coalition of several Arab parties in the Knesset, Odeh is the leader of the “Hadash” Party. The young and energetic leader has consistently said that he supports a two-state solution, has consistently advocated for the rights of minorities living in Israel, and has challenged the current government’s policy on settlement building in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and East Jerusalem), in Gaza, and how it has conducted itself in bordering countries—namely in Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can play a productive role in a coalition government. As previously mentioned, Odeh has consistently stated that he wants a two-state solution—something that Israel should be seeking to ensure its national security. More specifically, in a future coalition, he can make the government treat minorities with respect and dignity—something past government coalitions have not done. A high ministerial position in the government for Odeh would be a first step in demonstrating that Israel is serious about integrating the 20% of its population that feels neglected and alienated by Israeli society. At the time of publication, both Gabay and Lapid have ruled out giving the “Joint List” Party a place in their coalition government, but we have yet to hear from the other candidates on the Israeli left. It is unknown what “Meretz” Leader Zandberg would do. In any case, if not as Prime Minister, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can inject some new blood into a two-state solution and implement some progressive policies within Israel.

Palestinians

Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini)

Fatah is one of the main factions in the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and the second largest faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The Chairman of the faction, Mahmoud Abbas, is also the President of the PA. He succeeded the PA’s late President, and Fatah founding member, Yasser Arafat in a contested election. There are many problems with Fatah. Much has changed since it was founded in 1959. Swamped with graft and corruption, the “Old Guard” is still in control, but it is a movement that is deeply divided. The main tribulation for the “Young Guard” is the amount of corruption and the fact that it governs with a vertical approach, both within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. While the “Young Guard” is demonstrating its frustrations about the movement, it remains largely dominated by aging cadres from the pre-Oslo era of Palestinian politics—most of them gaining prominence through their patronage to the late Yasser Arafat.

Most notable from the “Young Guard” is the popular Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti. The jailed politician left Fatah in 2005 to form his own “al-Mustaqbal” Party, which was mainly composed of the youth of Fatah. His main complaint was the faction’s lack of vision and exorbitant corruption. This struck a chord with many in the Occupied Territories. However, his party never came to fruition, as Fatah decided to present a unified list to voters in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections—with Barghouti campaigning for Fatah from his jail cell. After the election, Barghouti remained popular within Fatah regardless of being in jail. PA President, Mahmoud Abbas is aging, in poor health, completely disconnected with the Palestinian people, and utterly alienated and demonized by the Israelis (with support from the United States). Any future mediator must look to the “Young Guard” within Fatah for a negotiating partner for a two-state solution—and Barghouti is one of those leaders to keep an eye on.

Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah)

Hamas is another faction within the PA, and the largest faction within the PLC. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Mahmoud Zahar, and several others founded it in 1987, right after the beginning of the first intifada. Its current Chief of the Political Bureau is Ismail Haniyeh. He succeeded Khaled Mashal, who held on to the position from 1996 until 2017. Originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was hostile to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—the predecessor to the PA—and Israel. However, it has since revoked most of its hostile rhetoric to the PA and Israel. Furthermore, it has revamped its hostile charter, which recognizes Israel as a state along the 1967 borders—indicating the land that Israel obtained in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel took ownership of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

This is not to mean that Hamas does not face challenges. It is in a quagmire of its own, as it struggles to maintain legitimacy in the Gaza Strip, where it has governed since the brutal power struggle between them and Fatah following the 2005 Disengagement. There have been some small murmurs of discontent of their leadership as it tries to balance between resisting the occupation, avoiding another war, and governing its people. As the economic situation has deteriorated over the years (mainly but not solely due to the Israeli blockade), it has led to small divisions within the rank-and-file, but nothing noteworthy of any type of threat to their leadership in the Gaza Strip. For all intents and purposes, Hamas is a necessary partner in a future peace agreement as it is still popular with the majority of Palestinians.

Suggesting that Hamas is solely a terrorist organization is a mistake. There are some elements within the organization that still seek a hard line with Israel and want to have the entire state of Israel. However, this is not the official position of Hamas. This is the main argument that comes from the Israeli right and the naysayers to openly negotiating with Hamas. To those that feel that Hamas should never be trusted and dialogue with the organization is a non-starter: would it not be wiser to engage with an organization that has extremist views, such as they do, and integrate them into the mainstream in the hopes of marginalizing those that want to make Palestine a cause while strengthening those that want to make Palestine a nation? The only way to change Hamas’ behaviour for the better is to engage them in the process, rather than leave them as an outlier where their mischievous behaviour will certainly continue. Engaging Hamas is necessary because without Hamas, there is no peace agreement.

The current regional players: How do they see it?

Saudi Arabia

The PA and Saudi Arabia have had a longstanding relationship. They both sit in the Arab League and the Islamic Cooperation Council. For the longest time, the two countries have been allies and the perception had been that the Saudis have always defended the Palestinians. As a charter member of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia has supported Palestinian rights to sovereignty and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories since 1967. However, in recent years, this all changed. With the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman having won the power struggle to succeed King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, the policy and relations with the Palestinians have significantly shifted.

With the Crown Prince in full control, he “offered” a “deal” to the Palestinians that was almost immediately rejected by PA President Abbas because it made many guarantees to the Israelis, but offered the Palestinians nothing. This should not come as a surprise because, in one of the region’s worst kept secrets, Saudi Arabia and Israel have improved their relations significantly. This is a foreign policy that Bin Salman has carried out since solidifying his power. One has to wonder if this is a wise decision for Israel because the young Defense Minister has been highly sectarian in his wars with Yemen and the standoff with Qatar. What is more, he deems Iran as a greater threat than Israel, which is the main reason for his policy shift. For a country that is very weak, he is trying to hold on to power with an iron fist. This will not bode well for the Sheikhdom—a country composed of regions that differ in nature, which were united into a single political entity only by blending the Ibn Saud dynasty with Wahhabism. If left unchecked, Bin Salman’s iron fist mentality, will most certainly disintegrate Saudi Arabia into its historic components, as happened in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and potentially could happen in Syria. Furthermore, Bin Salman’s belligerent behaviour may lead to resistance from the Saudi elites who he is attempting to purge. Also, there is a considerable Shi‘i minority in the eastern part of the Sheikhdom, which will probably pursue a military or political sponsor for itself in Iran.

This type of aggressive activity at home and abroad has the very real possibility of creating a confrontation with Iran. Thus, Saudi Arabia can no longer be trusted as a key player in any political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if not for its weakness and bellicosity, then for its lack of support within the Palestinian leadership as it’s seen as a guarantor for the Israeli side. This does not mean engagement should be shelved. On the contrary, a mediator should be in contact with the Sheikhdom in order to avoid rogue elements within the regime to sabotage an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Iran

Iran has been labeled as a menacing force by many Western countries, namely the United States and Israel. The argument is that Iran is a state that is sponsoring terrorism in the region and abroad. This is grossly exaggerated. While it might be on the same level as Saudi Arabia in “sponsoring terrorism,” where is this criticism of Saudi Arabia? It has funded numerous organizations that are in line with its Wahhabist vision. We see this in Iraq, Libya, and Syria where Daesh (the Islamic State or IS for short), and other similar organizations, have wreaked havoc after American covert or overt operations created a vacuum allowing these Salafi jihadi organizations to run amuck. These same organizations are still threatening others in the region. The Arab New Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia might have started in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution was successful in overthrowing the Shah, but the extremist ideological feud predated it with the Saudi Sheikhdom’s unholy alliance with Wahhabism and the exportation of its revolution into other countries in the Middle East. All this while cozying up to Western powers long before Iran had begun to export its revolution. What needs to be done with Hamas is exactly what needs to be done with Iran, and for the same reason. However, a similar approach also needs to be taken with Saudi Arabia because it is a country that has been allowed to act without consequence. The onus for the instability in the region and international terrorism should be placed on the Sheikhdom just as much as (if not more than) the Iranians.

Regarding Iran’s influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is limited. They do fund the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed responsibility for some of the rockets launched into Israel. However, their influence and power are limited. But, if a mediator wants to marginalize the extremists within the organization, it would be wise to engage with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is what Fmr. US President Obama began in 2015 with his “Iran Nuclear Deal.” The withdrawal from the deal by the United States by current US President Donald Trump is disheartening for the simple reason that Iran has no incentive for cooperating with the international community and, more specifically, revoking its funding to Shi‘i organizations in the region, such as the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Turkey

In recent years, Turkey has taken a major shift from what it used to be in the 20th century. Under current President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country has taken on a more traditionalist identity. When first elected as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan was elected because the society was changing. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were military coups happening more often than one would change their underwear. Those that had become wealthier now wanted to be able to practice their religion freely. Many people also felt disenfranchised for a variety of reasons. Whether it was for religious, economic, or social reasons, the people wanted a change from a strict, secular country guided by the military. It would be a misnomer to suggest that Turks wanted (and still do not want) to be an Islamic fundamentalist state. Rather, they wanted to be free to pray or practice their religion without feeling threatened (a more traditionalist state, if you will). The Turks do not want an Islamic fundamentalist state and their Presidential elections have consistently shown that as Erdoğan or his presidential allies have usually received a little over than fifty percent of the vote while always maintaining power in the Turkish parliament. The message the voters are sending is that it likes the government’s economic policies and it wants the traditionalist element in Turkish daily life but it does not want to have a fundamentalist version of Islam guide its country.

At the beginning, Erdoğan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), were the perfect fit. This is exactly what the party promised in their first election campaign and it has, more or less, implemented these laws throughout their time in power. However, as time went on, many rifts emerged within the AKP that eventually cost it seats in parliamentary elections. In fact, it received a minority government for a brief period before a snap election was called where the AKP regained its majority. Over the years, Erdoğan had gradually become weaker while pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” crusade in the region. We saw this in Libya during its civil war, in Syria during its civil war, and in his tough words and actions regarding Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan remains weak and we know he is weak given the failed coup attempt back in 2016 and the countless arrests he has made ever since.

Today, Turkey has resumed ties with Moscow after Ankara shot down a Russian plane over Syrian skies. This is good news if Russia seeks to mediate a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Turkish-Israeli relations are “luke-cold” at best. They have diplomatic relations with each other. However, Turkey consistently criticizes Israel’s every move and consistently tries to defend the Palestinians. It is in close contact with Hamas, a vital partner for any agreement, and ties have been improving with Fatah. Turkey has consistently invited Hamas to Ankara and has defended them on many occasions. Any mediator needs to include Turkey, given their strong ties to Hamas, because leaving the country on the sidelines might have undesirable consequences that will not be in the international community’s best interest.

Qatar

Long before Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s failed blockade back in 2017, Qatar had been conducting a robust foreign policy. The tiny peninsular Arab country has sought ties with many different states within the region beyond its “base.” For instance, it has sought ties with Iran, which was at the heart of the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) led blockade. Since the Saudi-UAE led blockade, the Qataris also successfully reached out to improve diplomatic relations with Oman, Turkey, the United States, and Russia. Regarding the latter, in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Qatar established diplomatic relations and for three decades the two countries have had good diplomatic relations despite some minor tensions between them. In any case, economic ties between the two countries are strong and became even stronger after the failed Saudi-UAE blockade.

More importantly, Qatar is a crucial player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will play a critical role in its solution. For the longest time, Qatar has been an active supporter of Hamas. It housed Hamas’ former Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashal and has assisted the Palestinian organization financially. This has been another element in its robust foreign policy. For a small country, it is trying to gain clout in a region where countries are jockeying for a position of regional supremacy. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it very much has clout due to the fact that, like Turkey, it has very close ties to Hamas. Some might suggest that it has more pull than Ankara. In any case, like Turkey, it should not be left aside in a future peace agreement.

Two be or not two be: Can it be done?

The question remains: can this seven-decade-old conflict be resolved? The answer is yes, if there is the resolve. There are players in both camps that are willing to engage in resolving the conflict. It will be a tall order to accomplish, but all parties — both domestic and foreign — need to be on board and engaged. “Yisrael Beiteinu” Chairman and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman once said that there should be a regional agreement before a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He does have a point, but it is vital that the two sides come to an agreement first before a regional agreement is achieved for the very simple reason: it’s imperative Israel solve this issue for its own national security.

The United States and other Western countries have tried and failed to make the two sides come to an agreement. In the case of the former, it was never an honest broker in resolving the problem and usually took the side of the Israelis. Western players—namely, the European Union (EU) — never had the wherewithal and clout to resolve the conflict. With the exception of some breakthroughs, the Israelis and the Palestinians are far from coming to an agreement in which Israel will agree to give up the West Bank (in its entirety) along with East Jerusalem, and remove the blockade in the Gaza Strip. Israel claims that it still needs security guarantees that the latter will not lead to constant wars. However, if it doesn’t completely relinquish these areas, the one-state reality and the very real possibility of a civil war will be upon the Zionist entity sooner rather than later, which would surely spell the end of the Jewish identity of the country.

At the moment, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are keen on talking to one another—each accusing the other of incitement and blaming one another for the upsurge in violence. Where the United States and the EU have been unsuccessful, Russia has the potential of successfully bringing these two sides together. Why Russia? It has good ties with the Israelis and Palestinians as well as the key regional players that must sign off on the agreement. As much as it is in the Israelis’ national security interests to come to an agreement as soon as possible, so too is it an urgent national security issue for Russia. A civil war, which could explode in a region where extremism is rampant, is not only a threat to the Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire Middle East—but also to Russia and the entire international community.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russian-Jews left the Russian Federation, because under former President Boris Yeltsin, life was tough and Israel offered better opportunities. Today, Israel has a significant population of Russian-Jews as well as other Jewish people from other countries of the former Soviet Union. Since President Putin came to power, he has sought better relations with Israel. Over the years, there have been numerous state visits: many Israeli Prime Ministers visited Russia and President Putin and others have visited Israel on many occasions. Today, the two countries are cooperating very closely in Syria. Russia also has good ties with the Palestinians. This relationship predates the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union usually took the side of the Palestinians. Where Russia plays a unique role that others don’t is its presence and commitment to the region. It also has contacts with all the countries in the region and is, more or less, on good terms with them all. Russia genuinely wants to ensure stability in this region because of its fears that the extremism can spread to its backyard and, potentially, into its own country. It also has the experience and the relevant expertise to make the two-state solution a reality. More importantly, Russia has been in the region for centuries. So, trust and experience in a region full of skepticism can go a long way—and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no exception.

The Israelis and Palestinians have been in a stalemate for too long and something needs to change. The status quo is unsustainable, mainly for the Israelis but, to a certain extent, for the Palestinians as well. Both parties desperately need to return to the table if for no other reason than to ensure that their people live in peace, stability, and security. With the United States removing itself from the region over the last decade and a half coupled with the fact that it is a biased broker in this conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians should look to Russia if they want to resolve their age-old conflict. Russia seems to be a willing partner to broker a deal. Now, the warring parties must be ready to do the same rather than throw out useless accusations of incitement or “it is their fault, not mine.” For Israel, this is an existential moment, as the very identity of the country is at stake. If this opportunity is overlooked, Israel will only have itself to blame—and one would assume that the elite in Israel do not want that to happen to its people and to the Jewish diaspora who it claims to be protecting.

First published in our partner RIAC

Junior Editor for Global Brief Magazine and a PhD Candidate in Middle Eastern & African History at the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv Uni-versity

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Middle East

Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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From ‘Decisive Storm’ to Secret Talks: The Journey of Saudi Conquest of Yemen

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In the last days of the spring of 2015, Saudi generals were sitting around a V-shaped table in front of a newly appointed defense minister, dwelling on the answer to the rise of Houthi rebels in Yemen which had critically threatened the security of the southern border. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been known for its wise and cagey foreign policy, often following the lead of Washington, in any regional or global military conflict but this time was different.

When the 29-year-old defense minister, Muhammad bin Salman, ordered, “Send in the F-15s,” it shocked all of them. Despite having spent only eight months heading the armies of the kingdom, he was about to shape an aggressive or rather reckless foreign policy of one of the most resourceful and conservative countries in the world.

The Unresolved Conflict

After six years of war in Yemen, 233,000 lives have been ravaged of which more than 3,000 were children, 3.3 million have been displaced from their homes, 24 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian support, while 16.2 million Yemenis are on the verge of food insecurity. Now, Saudi Arabia is finally looking for a way out.

“We want the guns to fall completely silent,” remarked Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, in March, laying out the Yemen Peace Initiative. The Houthis rejected the plan as it imparted “nothing new” according to them. “We expected that Saudi Arabia would announce an end to the blockade,” stated the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammad Abdulsalam, to Reuters.

Riyadh had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy was stormed by the protestors angry at the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a top Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province—a region known for being marginalized on the sectarian basis.

Saudi Arabia and Iran held the first official talks, brokered by the Iraqi government, in Baghdad on 9th April. The Baghdad talks canvassed the Yemen conflict as well as the political and economical instability of Lebanon to evaluate whether both countries can reach a common understanding of the situation.

The Zaidiyyah Imamate

Coming to the Yemen conflict, the rugged Yemeni mountains known for their finest coffee growing regions have a thousand-year-long history of the rule of Zaidiyyah imamate carved on them.

The Zaydism Shia sect is rooted in the unsuccessful rebellion of Zayd bin Ali, the grandson of Husayn bin Ali – the direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – against the Umayyad Caliphate in 740AD. Zaidiyyah’s theology differs from Iran’s Twelver Shiism and Ismaili branches in being far more tolerant towards early Islamic caliphs and in set qualifications for an imam to be a ruler.

The Creation of the Yemen Arab Republic

The imamate resisted the Romans and Ottomans to some extent for centuries but a revolution was brewing and the imams provided the catalyst themselves. Amid 1930’s modernism, Yemeni Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din stepped up from his conservative policy of not allowing foreign travel and authorized around forty boys to study abroad. He envisioned them as his “Famous Forty”—leaders of politics, military, and administration.

Until 1959, several hundred boys had gone through advanced studies from Iraq, Egypt, and Europe but they had envisioned something else. They laid the foundation of a progressive republican movement marked with several attempted coups and the assassination of Imam Yahya (1948) till 1962 when the last imam, al-Badr, was deposed by the revolutionary movement. This led to the emergence of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) with Abdullah Sallal as its leader and after that, Yemen was never the same.

Tracing the Root of the Saudi-Yemen Conflict

Al Saud had troubling relations with the imamate since Saudi Arabia had emerged as a kingdom in 1932. “Who is this Bedouin coming to challenge my family’s 900-year rule?” stated Imam Yahya once, which erupted the 1934 war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and ended up in the Treaty of Taif. The treaty demarcated the border and granted Jizan, Asir, and Najran to Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s victory.

The Saudis then cultivated alliances within the bordering Yemeni tribes to erect a makeshift buffer zone during the 1960s civil war in Zaydi Imamate. Al Saud sided with Yemeni loyalists when the republican government tossed away the Treaty of Taif in 1962 and Egypt lined up 70,000 troops to assist the republic against Imam Badr’s guerrilla opposition.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, North and South Yemen struggled for coexistence and peace with continuous border clashes, including a bloody civil war in the South, which John Kifner aptly referred to as MassacrewithTea, that cost thousands of souls. Eventually, after 20 years of political and military turmoil, South Yemen’s Ali Salim al-Baidh joined with the North’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the unification agreement of the two states on November 30, 1989.

Yet, while Ali Abdullah Salih was being declared as the president of a unified Yemen and the country was facing an economic collapse, something worse was brewing in the heights of northern Yemen.

The Houthis and the Saudi Construct

Feeling his unique sect threatened by the Saudi-funded proselytization through Salafist preachers, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi scholar from Maran range established a seemingly political and revivalist movement, Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)to preserve the Zaidiyyah sect, followed by 40% of the Yemeni population, which turned into an aggressive armed insurgency in no time.

The point is that the current regional discord has centuries-old bad blood embedded in its roots. The Houthi movement, their substantial public support, and their military successes must be deconstructed from the local perspective, along with the regional one, to reach a better understanding of the conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition has been portraying Houthis just as an Iranian proxy, which is far from reality. In their annual policy paper, the Middle East Institute of Washington D.C stated that the current civil war of Yemen is entrenched in widespread public resentment over political marginalization, a paralyzed economy, and a corrupt and failed state.

Where Saudi Arabia’s policy of sectarian expansionism across the borderlands made the descendants of Zaidiyah Imamate, ousted from a centuries-long rule, feel more vulnerable, discrimination for Shia sects by Abdullah Saleh’s regime and corrupt practices tossed Yemen into a cycle of political upheaval and violence—all of which had nothing to with Iran.

The Houthis took arms against the Yemeni government six times from 2004-2010, a chapter remembered as the Saada Wars, long before Tehran came into the picture.

Civil War in Yemen

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, called countrywide demonstrations to end Saleh’s 33-year rule but after Saleh resigned and declared his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the head of state in exchange of immunity, hopes rose for peace. However, Hadi, shockingly, stepped down in January 2015 and fled the country after the National Dialogue Conference failed to agree on the division of Yemen in the UN-backed transitional process and the Houthis stormed the Presidential Palace.

After the Houthis took over Sanaa in February 2015, Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy for Yemen, went straight to Riyadh, which highlights Saudis’ concerns over the matter. On March 26, 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, with Saudi jets targeting the military compounds around the capital overnight.

The tactical inabilities of the coalition air force manifested to reality when three days later, Saudi warplanes accidentally bombed a refugee camp killing at least 40 and injuring 200. It was the beginning of one of the most horrible bombing campaigns, a disaster from a civilian and military perspective.

As civilian casualties mounted, the United States, concerned by the human cost of the conflict, urged Saudi Arabia to reach a negotiating position as soon as possible. Riyadh ended Operation Decisive Storm on 21 April, claiming the achievements, and rolled out Operation Renewal of Hope. But the truth was, the Saudis failed to deliver a considerable blow to the Houthis’ hold of the capital.

In May and June, the first reports came of mortar and Scud missile attacks by Houthis across the Saudi border. The Houthis proved tenacious and provoked Riyadh for a ground invasion, which worked out disastrously for the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and others had deployed hundreds of ground troops by the end of the year.

Although they spawned some temporary gains in forcing the Houthis out of key southern provinces, like the vital Aden seaport in July, Zinjibar, and Al-And Airbase in August, the Houthis also inflicted heavy casualties to the coalition. In just one Houthi missile attack on a weapon depot in Marib in September 2015, 45 Emirati and Five Bahraini troops were killed.

The Kuwait Talks: A Failed Attempt at Resolving the Conflict

After a year into the war with no end in sight, reports came in March 2016 of the first Houthi delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ senior advisor and spokesperson.

Two weeks later, the UN envoy for Yemen, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that talks will circumvent the withdrawal and disarmament of militias and inclusive political dialogue. Kuwait’s emir and legendary peacemaker, late Sheikh Sabah, mediated talks between the delegations of the Houthis, Abdullah Saleh, and ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had returned to coalition controlled Aden in September 2015. Riyadh kept its distance from the Kuwait talks held in April  2016.

“Saudi Arabia seeks through the Kuwait talks to exonerate itself from its aggression against Yemen and to portray said aggression as a civil Yemeni war,” accused Yahya Saleh, a former general and Saleh’s nephew, after the Kuwait talks struck a stalemate over Houthis demanding a new consensual transitional regime while Hadi’s delegation insisted on a return to the current government, an out and out surrender for Houthis.

The peace talks were formally suspended in August 2016 when Houthis announced a new ten-member governing body to replace the interim Supreme Revolutionary Council, which had run the country since February 2015. The unilateral move was immediately denounced by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. “Houthis, as well as their supporters, are making the search for a peaceful solution more difficult,” declared the statement issued by the group of G18 ambassadors of nations that backed the UN peace talks while tens of thousands of Houthi supporters rallied through Saana to show their support for the Houthis.

In all of this, a frangible ceasefire was held throughout the year with occasional skirmishes. In October 2016, a coalition double airstrike cremated a crowded funeral hall, killing around 140 mourners, adding to the domestic and international pressure on the US to review the billion dollars arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

Previously, The Guardian had concluded that each one in three Saudi strikes hit civilian targets but the coalition kept sweeping all of this under the rug. The Houthis also left no stone unturned to kill any hopes of negotiations when in March 2017, a Pro-Houthi court sentenced President Hadi and six other top officials to death in absentia for high treason. This was followed by the Burkan missile attack on Mecca in July 2017, although the Houthis claimed that it was aimed at the King Fahad airbase.

The United States’ Endless Support of Saudi Arabia

In August 2017, the Middle East Eye reported an email leak between UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, and a former high-level US diplomat, Martin Indyk, which revealed that the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman, wanted out of Yemen but Riyadh could not withdraw without ensuring the cross-border security.

On the other hand, in a striking development, the Houthi-Saleh split went real in December 2017 amid Saleh’s attempt to switch sides with the coalition and turned up in Houthis killing the former president of Yemen, who had been the sole ruler for more than three decades.

As 2018 unfolded, the international criticism for Saudi intervention and Washington’s role in the Yemeni chapter of war crimes plummeted. Houthis were no angels either as a UNHCR report published in Aug ‘18 noted coalition hitting civilian targets, it also documented blanket use of force on the civilian population in Houthi controlled areas.

“The group of experts is concerned by the alleged use by the Houthi­-Saleh forces of weapons with wide-area effect in a situation of urban warfare.” stated the report. It also stated that the Houthis were hitting women and children through shelling and snipers in their homes, fetching water at local wells, or traveling to seek medical attention.

On August 18, another coalition strike annihilated 40 boys, aged from six to eleven, in their school bus. As Bellingcat traced back the Mk-82 bomb, approved by the US Department of State, used in the attack to Lockheed Martin, it added to the criticism of the US’s unconditional support to the Saudi regime.

In June 2018, the Yemeni National Army backed by a Saudi-led alliance had launched an offensive to recapture the northwestern port city of Hodeidah, a significant economic hub and fourth-largest city. After six months of intense fighting, both parties agreed to a truce, total withdrawal from Hodeidah, and a “mutual understanding” in Taiz.

Blaming Iran

In January 2019, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Italian Institute of International Political Studies had listed Yemen in the Top Conflict Watch of the year. As Houthis scaled up their military capabilities, shooting down US MQ-9 reaper drone with Iranian assistance—according to CENTCOM—reports came of UAE pulling out from Aden, amid intensified tensions between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

On September 14, 2019, at 3:31 to 3:42 am in morning, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and the world’s largest oil processing facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais Oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, were attacked by Houthi drones, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude output.

Despite the Houthis’ taking credit for the attack and the UN’s claims regarding the Houthis acquiring long-range drones (1200-1500km) capable of hitting Riyadh, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, the United States and Saudi Arabia asserted that the attack hadn’t stemmed from Yemen. Instead, Iran was directly behind the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” tweeted the US Secretary of State at that time, Mike Pompeo.

Tehran immediately refuted all such accusations. Despite this continuous rhetoric, US President Donald Trump’s statements had hinted that Washington would avoid any additional escalation with Iran which would have doomed global energy supplies further down the hill while markets hadn’t recovered from the previous attacks on Saudi facilities.

The Saudi-Emirati Rivalry in Yemen

On the other hand in a dramatic twist, the civil war turned multi-layered when the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists seized Aden’s control from coalition-supported government forces. Few days after a joint statement was released from both Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers urging for peace talks between the Yemeni government and southern separatists, the UAE struck Hadi’s forces to aid southern separatists, killing 30 Yemeni troops as per Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In November 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia successfully struck the Riyadh agreement, between the southern separatists and the Yemeni government, which entailed power-sharing in cabinet and the military withdrawal of all forces from Aden, Abyan, and Shabwah. The landmark deal granted the absolute authority of southern Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Later in the same month, Reuters reported indirect talks in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

In January 2020, the Houthis claimed to seize 1,500 square miles of territory in Al-Jawf and the Marib governorate, and in March, they successfully captured the strategic city of Al Hazm. “Control of the capital of Al-Jawf could totally change the course of the war. The Houthis are changing the balance in their favor,” Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of Sanaa Centre, deciphered the situation to AFP. 

Bethan McKernan, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent reported the same that Saudi-Emirati tussle had been dragging the conflict as Riyadh was already back channeling with Houthis through Oman while the UAE was pressing the attacks to keep the Saudi-backed Islah faction in check.

The One-sided Agreement

In April 2020, in light of the proposal sent by UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, the coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire amid the globally surging COVID-19 pandemic, although the coalition forces kept violating the ceasefire with at least 106 airstrikes in just a week.

The Houthis had already called it a “ploy”, demanding the lifting of air and naval blockade of Yemen which had been depriving the population of food and medicines. It seemed like the international pressure on the coalition, and the financial strain on Al Saud was dealing with, had not gone unnoticed by those controlling most of northern Yemen.

The Houthis had released their own proposal which Elana DeLozier from the Washington Institute narrated as a “wish list”, as it had thrown all the responsibility of ceasefire on the coalition with demands of demilitarization of borders and above all, war compensations and salaries in northern Yemen for a decade, but all were non-starters for Riyadh.

The Saudis kept extending the one-sided ceasefire but things only got worse. The STC separatists withdrew from the Riyadh agreement six months after signing, announcing the establishment of self-rule in southern Yemen. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government immediately denounced the declaration while the Houthis were claiming to “liberate” 95% of the Al-Jawf governorate; this left only the Marib province in the north under the control of Hadi’s forces.

The Houthis were keenly observing and seizing the fruits of coalition infighting. Separatists moved to redirect the revenues from ports, free zones, and an oil refinery to the STC accounts as reports surfaced of the Yemeni government attacking the separatists in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.

A week later, the STC president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, landed in Riyadh to talk over the deadlock that persisted between supposedly anti-Houthi allies. The Yemeni government and STC separatists agreed to a ceasefire to begin peace talks in June 2020. In December 2020 while a freshly established cabinet of coalition-backed government arrived in Yemen after agreeing to equal power-sharing, two blasts shook Aden International Airport. With cabinet members remaining safe, 22—with most being aid workers—were killed in this fatal attack.

Coalition’s Failure in Yemen

“Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition played into the hands of the Houthis,” stated Nadwa Al-Dawsari from the Middle East Institute. Local tribes lacked the medium-range surface-to-air ballistic missiles and other advanced weaponry on which Houthis built their tactical achievements.

The Houthi combat units constituted 20, or even fewer men, and three trucks for higher mobility to counter the constant aerial surveillance by coalition UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the US satellites. According to Jamestown Foundation, disregard for meritocracy and skills, the weary chain of commands, and persisting corruption in Yemeni government forces due to Saudi black-cheque strategy laid the ground for coalition failures. While perpetual imprecise bombings cost thousands of civilian lives and the worst humanitarian crisis due to the air and naval blockade, the public resentment against the coalition fueled.

In the aftermath of King Abdullah’s death in January 2015, his brother Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to rule but being 79 with speculations of dementia and Parkinson’s enabled his most ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, to rise as a de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly he is named “little general” behind his back due to his craving for respect from Washington and turning down his advisers who predicted a catastrophic outcome from an all-out Yemeni offensive, including former foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. Saudi military failure in Yemen hatched from a “panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove” rather than from his desire to check Iranian influence and rescue Yemen, wrote Sophia Dingli, a lecturer in international relations from the University of Hull.

Besides all this, Washington has also altered its course with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. “The war in Yemen must end,” stated President Biden in his first significant foreign policy speech. A week later, the state department repealed the Houthis’ status of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization(SDGT) and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) enacted a day before Donald Trump left the Oval Office.

Saltana Begum, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) advocacy manager in Yemen, voiced that at that time “We had famine warnings where 16 million people – that’s one in two Yemenis – were close to starvation.”

Setting Terms for Peace

In June this year, the Saudi-led coalition even ceased the air raids temporarily for “preparing the political ground for a peace process in Yemen,” remarked the coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki. The gesture came as efforts ramped up for a political settlement. The US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking had visited Riyadh in the same month where he met several government officials along with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths.

Saudi and Houthi camps have been reportedly close to a ceasefire deal. The Houthis want the end of the blockade “without impossible conditions” before a “comprehensive ceasefire”, stated Houthi’s chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam. As promising as it all might seem, and although Oman has been an excellent mediator with its impartial and carefully measured foreign policy, there are still a lot of bridges to cross and compromises to be made from both sides for a mutually beneficial post-war arrangement.

The Saudis would not just demand guarantees on border security from Oman and Iran but also a check to Iranian influence and even that won’t cater to the grievances of anti-Houthi factions battling alongside coalition forces. So, the peace process has to be inclusive for sustainable accords.

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