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Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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A little acknowledged clause may be main obstacle to revival of Iran nuclear accord

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A little acknowledged provision of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program explains jockeying by the United States and the Islamic republic over the modalities of a US return to the deal from which President Donald J. Trump withdrew.

The provision’s magic date is 2023, when the Biden administration if it returns to the agreement, would have to seek Congressional approval for the lifting or modification of all US nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

Both the administration and Iran recognize that Congressional approval is likely to be a tall order, if not impossible, given bi-partisan US distrust, animosity, and suspicion of the Islamic republic.

As a result, the United States and Iran have different objectives in negotiating a US return to the accord.

The Biden administration is attempting to engineer a process that would allow it to sidestep the 2023 hurdle as well as ensure a negotiation that would update the six-year-old deal, limit  Iran’s controversial ballistic missiles program and halt Iranian support for non-state actors in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.

A pro-longed negotiation would allow President Joe Biden to focus Congress on his domestic legislative agenda without Iran being a disruptive detraction.

Mr. Biden “needs something to get beyond 2023. So, he wants a process that would take a number of steps that could take…a number of years to accomplish. During that time, the United States could ease some sanctions… These small things along the way could happen in a process but the key is going to be to have a process that allows the Biden administration to draw this out for some time,” said former State Department and National Security Council official Hillary Mann Leverett.

An extended process would, moreover, make it easier for Mr. Biden to convince America’s sceptical Middle Eastern partners – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – that a return to the deal is the right thing to do.

Mr. Biden sought to reassure its partners that, unlike Mr. Trump, he would stand by the US commitment to their defence with this week’s missile attack on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia base in Syria. The strike was in response to allegedly Iranian-backed militia attacks on US targets in Iraq as well as the firing of projectiles against Saudi Arabia reportedly from Iraqi territory.

The US attack also served notice to Iran that it was dealing with a new administration that is more committed to its international commitments and multilateralism as well as a revival of the nuclear agreement but not at any price.

The administration has reinforced its message by asking other countries to support a formal censure of Iran over its accelerating nuclear activities at next week’s meeting in Vienna of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board of governors.

The United States wants the IAEA to take Iran to task for stepping up production of nuclear fuel in violation of the nuclear accord and stalling the agency’s inquiries into the presence of uranium particles at undeclared sites.

While risking a perilous military tit-for-tat with Iran, the US moves are likely to reinforce Iranian domestic and economic pressures, in part in anticipation of the 2023 milestone, to seek an immediate and unconditional US return to the accord and lifting of sanctions.

Pressure on the Iranian government to secure immediate tangible results is compounded by a public that is clamouring for economic and public health relief and largely blames government mismanagement and corruption rather than harsh US sanctions for the country’s economic misery and inability to get the pandemic under control.

The sanctions were imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018.

The pressure is further bolstered by the fact that recent public opinion polls show that the public, like the government, has little faith in the United States living up to its commitments under a potentially revived nuclear deal.

The results suggest that neither the government nor the Iranian public would have confidence in a process that produces only a partial lifting of sanctions. They also indicated a drop of support for the deal from more than 75 per cent in 2015 to about 50 per cent today.

Two-thirds of those polled opposed negotiating restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for regional proxies even if it would lead to a lifting of all sanctions.

Public opinion makes an Iranian agreement to negotiate non-nuclear issues in the absence of a broader effort to restructure the Middle East’s security architecture that would introduce arms controls for all as well as some kind of non-aggression agreement and conflict management mechanism a long shot at best.

Among Middle Eastern opponents of the nuclear agreement, Israel is the country that has come out swinging.

The country’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, last month rejected a return to the deal and signalled that Israel would keep its military options on the table. Mr. Kochavi said he had ordered his armed forces to “to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to those already in place.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, suggested a couple of weeks later that his country may not engage with the Biden administration regarding Iran if it returns to the nuclear agreement.

“We will not be able to be part of such a process if the new administration returns to that deal,” Mr. Erdan said.

By taking the heat, Israel’s posturing shields the Gulf states who have demanded to be part of any negotiation from exposing themselves to further US criticism by expressing explicit rejection of Mr. Biden’s policy.

To manage likely differences with Israel, the Biden administration has reportedly agreed to reconvene a strategic US-Israeli working group on Iran created in 2009 during the presidency of Barak Obama. Chaired by the two countries’ national security advisors, the secret group is expected to meet virtually in the next days.

It was not immediately clear whether the Biden administration was initiating similar consultations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In a confusing twist, Israel has attracted attention to its own officially unacknowledged nuclear weapons capacity by embarking on major construction at its Dimona reactor that was captured by satellite photos obtained by the Associated Press.

Some analysts suggested that Israel’s hard line rejection of the Biden administration’s approach may be designed to distract attention from upgrades and alterations it may be undertaking at the Dimona facility.

“If you’re Israel and you are going to have to undertake a major construction project at Dimona that will draw attention, that’s probably the time that you would scream the most about the Iranians,” said non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis.

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Will the New Interim Government Lead Libya Out Of A Long-Standing Crisis?

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Last week, February 17, Libyans celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution that ousted the long time leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The decade that followed the violent change of power has not brought Libya any closer to the desired outcome. Instead, the country plunged into endless wars and economic turmoil, the consequences of which did not cease to plague Libya until recently.

In June 2020, after the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) de facto established a ceasefire, the United Nations intensified its peacekeeping efforts to resume the political process. Jump started by Stephanie Williams, interim head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum paved the way for a step-by-step solution to the impasse in which Libya has found itself after almost a year and a half of non-stop hostilities. From the first meeting in Tunisia in early November of 2020 up to the last one held in Geneva this February, 75 forum members representing the Libyan society in its entirety have been working to determine the fate of the war-weary nation.

Finally, to the great surprise of many foreign observers familiar with the Libyan agenda, the forum participants managed to agree with little effort on the lists of potential candidates for positions in a transitional government, which is supposed to replace both rival administrations in Tripoli and Al-Bayda. By doing this, the representatives actually accomplished two main tasks: filling in the vacuum of legitimacy of the GNA conditioned by the expiration of the Skhirat agreement, as well as ending the vicious struggle for power, putting the implementation of reform under international supervision.

It’s worth noting that the winning list of candidates comprised of the chairman of the Presidential Council (PC), his two deputies, and prime minister, appeared to be starkly different from the expectations of many. The vote gave victory to politicians with little fame not only among foreign pundits, but even Libyans themselves. Muhammad Younis Al-Manfi, a former diplomat, became the head of the PC, while Abdullah Al-Lafi and Musa Al-Quni took over as his deputies. In turn, Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba, a prominent Libyan businessman hailing from an influential family of the city of Misurata, was appointed as prime minister. Al-Dabaiba is supposed to oversee the appointment of ministers and the formation of the so-called government of national unity, which will lead Libya to the national elections scheduled for December 24.

Holding general elections is the primary mission of the new government, along with the reform of the armed forces, which mainly implies their unification, as well as the disarmament and elimination of illegal armed groups. In order to fulfill this ambitious task, something their predecessors failed to do since 2015, the current leaders of the interim government should make every effort, keeping in mind that any manifestation of bias or flirtation with foreign powers at the expense of the aspirations of the nation can annihilate all achieved progress and spark the conflict anew.

These considerations must at all times remain at the top of the agenda of the transitional authorities, since many influential domestic players appear to be not fully satisfied with the current distribution of power and the appointment of ‘undesirable’ persons to senior positions. Among these ‘undesirables’ is a native of Misurata Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba. After the 2011 revolution, the city exploited the seaport and ready access to the state budget to achieve a virtual independence, building an army of numerous and well-equipped militias. It is generally accepted that it was the Misurati groups that made a deciding contribution to lifting the blockade on Tripoli in 2020 and forcing Khalifa Haftar to withdraw his troops from western Libya. The election of Al-Dabaiba was only logical, as it represents an outcome of the conflict that ended in favor of a coalition where Misurata played a key role.

There is another circumstance that could potentially cause a démarche of the elites in eastern Libya, who still remember the bitterness of defeat. The Al-Dabaiba family has close ties with the Turkish leadership and personally President Erdogan. In particular, Ali Al-Dabaiba, cousin of the new prime minister Abdulhamid Al-Dabaiba and once mayor of the city of Misurata (1989-2011), who headed the Organisation for Development of Administrative Centers (ODAC) and granted Turkish companies 19 billion dollars in Libyan construction contracts during his tenure. The issue of Turkey’s involvement still constitutes a main obstacle for normalizing relations between parties to the conflict. Ankara actively supported the GNA in the fight against the LNA, sending thousands of mercenaries, military equipment and advisers to Libya. The LNA repeatedly listed the withdrawal of the Turkish forces as a condition for national reconciliation. In addition, Ali Al-Dabaiba has almost succeeded in subversion of the work of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunisia, after he attempted to bribe its participants to make them vote for his cousin. This incident provoked uproar from the Libyan public, forcing the UN to open an investigation into the forum members.

In this regard, Prime Minister Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba along other officials of the newly formed government will face a difficult challenge of meeting the expectations of the Libyan people and the international community. Although the recent reforms of governmental organs did not actually change the balance of power, keeping those loyal to the established allies of the GNA within the leadership structure, they sidelined the existing differences between the warring parties, allowing to prolong the fragile truce and relaunch the political process.

In the nearest future Libya’s current leaders should make it their priority to minimize the dictate of Turkey or the West, and, if possible, prevent their further interference, as well as maintain the transparency of the interim government before the general elections. Even the slightest retreat from neutrality and independence, two principles the new head of Presidency Council Mohammed Al-Manfi appear to be keen on upholding, may entail catastrophic consequences and lead to an indefinite delay in settling the Libyan conflict.

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Gender in the GCC — The Reform Agenda Continues

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In my previous Op-Ed about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I talked about the importance of the human capital. Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day this March 8th, it is a good moment to take stock of the impressive progress that some countries in the GCC are making in expanding opportunities for women in order to utilize all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged over the last couple of years as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that are allowing women to more fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.

The benefits of such trendsetting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is being seen in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, gender equity for women in both the public and private spheres. To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, those GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective implementation, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbors for inspiration.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ranking in the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report jumped by the largest number of points of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking. This was in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a raft of measures to expand women’s roles in Saudi society and give them unprecedented economic freedoms. The reforms included increasing freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own; enabling women to be heads of households in the same way as men and allowing them to choose a place of residency; a prohibition on the dismissal of pregnant women from the workplace; a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit; the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment; the equalization of retirement ages between women and men; and a removal of the obedience provision for women. A year later, amendments to the Labor Law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.

As for the UAE, in September 2020, it became the first country in MENA to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation, which, at 57.5%, is one of the highest in the MENA region. The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritize gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. In 2019, the UAE introduced a first set of reforms, including guaranteeing equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households like men; passing legislation to combat domestic violence and impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining. These reforms were recognized in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 report, in which the UAE was the highest-ranked country in the MENA region.

The additional reforms introduced in 2020 address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. Specifically, the reforms include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands and to lift restrictions of women’s ability to travel outside the country, new provisions to allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and an amendment to the Labor law that mandates equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.

Lessons Learned and Ingredients for Success

Three common elements underpin the success of these reform efforts: strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries, and the deployment of information campaigns supporting the reforms.

Strong government commitment is crucial because it ensures not only that reform-minded legislation is passed in the first place, but that it is underpinned by tools to ensure implementation. In the UAE for example, the government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective implementation of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. To support implementation in Saudi Arabia, the government updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.

Effective collaboration and cooperation among government ministries is also key. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by a broad swath of government entities. And in Saudi Arabia specifically, a June 2019 royal decree established the Women’s Empowerment Committee, which includes representatives from a wide range of ministries and has as its mandate the coordination of efforts to achieve women’s empowerment through legal reforms.

Such cooperation among ministries is important because it can help support governments’ effective decision-making going forward. Specifically, all ministries whose mandates touch on issues related to women can collect reliable, uniform data to be used to support policy choices aimed at helping both women and the economy. In the UAE, for example, ministries are collecting gender disaggregated data on topics ranging from women’s opportunities for entrepreneurship to their dropout rate from the labor market to the incidence of domestic violence.

Effective implementation efforts have also included strong communication and information dissemination campaigns. The governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed great emphasis on raising awareness of the new provisions to ensure compliance with the legal framework and to show the economic and social benefits of these reforms. The reforms were widely covered by local and international media. The government also used social media, government websites, and government-sponsored seminars and workshops with various stakeholders to spread the word.

Throughout history, women have played a critical role in economic recovery following global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal reforms in the Gulf are enabling women to contribute more effectively to recovery this time, as well. The role of regional leaders like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not just for inspiring reforms, but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learned from the reform effort. These three countries can play a transformational role in the MENA region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the implementation of gender-neutral laws.

World Bank

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