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Shifting Middle Eastern sands spotlight diverging US-Saudi interests

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A series of Gulf and Middle East-related developments suggest that resolving some of the Middle East’s most debilitating and devastating crises while ensuring that efforts to pressure Iran do not perpetuate the mayhem may be easier said than done. They also suggest that the same is true for keeping US and Saudi interests aligned.

Optimists garner hope from the fact that the US Senate may censor Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul; the positive start of Yemeni peace talks in Sweden with an agreement to exchange prisoners, Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Qatar to attend an October 9 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh, and a decision by the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut production.

That optimism, however, may not be borne out by facts on the ground and analysis of developments that are likely to produce at best motion rather than movement. In fact, more fundamentally, what many of the developments suggest is an unacknowledged progressive shift in the region’s alliances stemming in part from the fact that the bandwidth of shared US-Saudi interests is narrowing.

There is no indication that, even if Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani decides to accept an invitation by Saudi king Salman to attend the GCC summit rather than send a lower level delegation or not attend at all, either the kingdom or the United Arab Emirates, the main drivers behind the 17-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state, are open to a face-saving solution despite US pressure to end to the rift.

Signalling that the invitation and an earlier comment by Prince Mohammed that “despite the differences we have, (Qatar) has a great economy and will be doing a lot in the next five years” do not indicate a potential policy shift, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash insisted that the GCC remained strong despite the rift. “The political crisis will end when the cause behind it ends and that is Qatar’s support of extremism and its interference in the stability of the region.,” Mr. Gargash said, reiterating long-standing Saudi-UAE allegations.

Similarly, United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Sweden convened with the help of the United States may at best result in alleviating the suffering of millions as a result of the almost four-year old Saudi-UAE military intervention in Yemen but are unlikely to ensure that a stable resolution of the conflict is achievable without a lowering of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even humanitarian relief remains in question with the parties in Sweden unable to agree on a reopening of Sana’a airport to facilitate the flow of aid.

More realistically, with the Trump administration, backed by Saudi Arabia and Israel, determined to cripple Iran economically in a bid to force it to alter its regional policies, if not change the regime in Tehran, chances are the Yemeni conflict will be perpetuated rather than resolved.

To Yemen’s detriment, Iran is emerging as one of the foremost remaining shared US-Saudi interests as the two countries struggle to manage their relationship in the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. That struggle is evident with the kingdom’s Washington backers divided between erstwhile backers-turned-vehement critics like Republican senator Graham Lindsey and hardline supporters such as national security advisor John Bolton. The jury is out on who will emerge on top in the Washington debate.

The risks of the Saud-Iranian rivalry spinning out of control possibly with the support of hardliners like Mr. Bolton were evident in this week’s suicide bombing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, an Indian-backed project granted a waiver from US sanctions against the Islamic republic to counter influence of China that support the nearby Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Revolutionary Guards spokesman Brigadier General Ramadan Sharif suggested without providing evidence that Saudi Arabia was complicit in the attack that targeted the city’s police headquarters, killing two people and wounding 40 others.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the Guards, said the attack was the work of Ansar al-Furqan, an Iranian Sunni jihadi group that Iran claims enjoys Saudi backing.

Iran’s allegation of Saudi complicity is partly grounded in the fact that a Saudi thinktank linked to Prince Mohammed last year advocated fuelling an insurgency in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan that incudes Chabahar in a bid to thwart the port development while Mr. Bolton before becoming US President Donald J. Trump’s advisor called for US support of ethnic minorities in Iran.

In a bid to create building blocks for the fuelling of ethnic insurgencies in Iran, Pakistani militants have said that Saudi Arabia had in recent years poured money into militant anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on Sistan and Baluchistan.

The divergence of US-Saudi interests, agreement on Iran notwithstanding, was on display in this week’s defeat of a US effort to get the UN General Assembly to condemn Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s denunciation of Hamas as a terrorist organization and its demand that Qatar halt support of it, voted against the resolution.

The vote suggested that Mr. Trump may be hoping in vain for Saudi backing of his as yet undisclosed plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is believed to be slanted towards Israel’s position.

Saudi ambassador to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said the defeated UN resolution would “undermine the two-state solution which we aspire to” and divert attention from Israel’s occupation, settlement activities and “blockade” of territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.

Saudi Arabia’s changing status and the divergence of longer-term US-Saudi interests was also evident in this week’s OPEC meeting in Vienna.

To get an OPEC deal on production levels, the kingdom, once the oil market’s dominant swing producer, needed an agreement with non-OPEC member Russia on production levels as well as Russian assistance in managing Iranian resistance, suggesting

The agreement, moreover, had to balance Mr. Trump’s frequently tweeted demand for lower prices, and the kingdom’s need for higher ones to fund its budgetary requirements and Prince Mohammed’s ambitious economic reforms and demonstrate that the Khashoggi affair had not made it more vulnerable to US pressure.

The emerging divergence of US-Saudi interests in part reflects a wider debate within America’s foreign policy community about what values the United States and US diplomats should be promoting.

With some of Mr. Trump’s ambassadorial political appointees expressing support for populist, nationalist and authoritarian leaders and political groups, the fact that some of the president’s closest Congressional allies back the anti-Saudi resolution illustrates that there are red lines that a significant number of the president’s supporters are not willing to cross.

All told, recent developments in the Middle East put a spotlight on the changing nature of a key US relationship in the Middle East that could have far-reaching consequences over the middle and long-term. It is a change that is part of a larger, global shift in US priorities and alliances that is likely to outlive Mr. Trump’s term(s) in office.

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

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The rapport between Iran and Turkey over Syria: Liaisons or tussle?

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The two powers of Iran and Turkey constitute a crucial feature on the map of the Middle East. The influence of the dyadic interactions exceeds sometimes the meanings of any bilateral ties, transcending the political borders to impact the geographical proximity of surrounding states. However, more evident their influences upon the Arab Sphere were at the aftermath of what so-called the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria that became the most prominent playground for their regional competition became.

Syrian tragic conflict has, indeed, a multi-scalar interaction with different players, each of which is driven by complex and contradictory motivations. In the same vein, Turkey and Iran have several aims for intervening into Syria militarily. Nonetheless, the explicit objective for Turkey is to create a ‘buffer zone’; thus, it might drive out the Kurdish presence along its border with Syria and address the Syrian refugee issue there. On the other side, the strategic partner for Syria, Iran, is seeking to bolster Assad’s government, as it used to work as a safety valve for the regime in Damascus.

In order to prop up Bashar al Assad’s regime, Tehran developed close ties with Russia that changed the equation in Syria. But, Moscow founded the rapports with the strategical foes of Tehran; Saudi Arabia and Israel. Likewise, the “marriage of convenience” brought Turkey with Russia, which, subsequently, facilitates carving up northern Syria between them by Sochi agreement, in October 2019.

Although it worked on the opposite front to Turkey’s, nevertheless, Iran attempts always to maintain warm and unruffled relationships with it. Tehran has overtly been competing, just as it covertly cooperating with Ankara in Syria for managing the dynamic variables of the surrounding area. Subsequently, the unsatisfactory with Turkey’s presence in the torn-war Syria doesn’t mean by any means a full conflictual; neither means otherwise, a comprehensive cooperation and peace. After all, seems, Iran needs Turkey shortly both in Syria and beyond.

Upon the US withdrawal from the Kurdish-held zone of northern Syria the dispute between the two-peer regional powers, Iran and Turkey, has surfaced off considerably off. Tehran has continuously been preserving a secret connection with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units which backed by the US. It was gaining a margin of leverage by occasionally working as a covert conduit bridging the differences between the Kurdish movement and the al-Assad’s regime.

Nonetheless, Iran’s substantial concern was a repercussion which might spill over its Kurdish regions if Turkey fulfils its intent to fill the expected power vacuum in the north of Syria.Thus, it was not surprising, once Turkey uncovered its intention by interfering the north-eastern Syria militarily, Iran announced the military exercises under the slogan “one goal … one bullet” in the area barely 20 miles from the Turkish border. Its maneuver, however, implied two-edges; on the one hand, it was against any potential Kurdish movement in its territory.

On the other hand, it gesticulated an external dimensional message, mainly to Turkey. In parallel to this combatant stand, Iran attempted to show, at least rhetorically, its alignment with and understanding of, Turkey’s anxieties. As the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in an amicable expression: “We are calling on our friendly and brotherly neighbor Turkey to act with more patience and restraint and to revise its decision and chosen path” of military invasion. Further, Tehran urged Ankara alternatively to work inline with the Adana agreement.

The Adana agreement of 1998 was signed between Turkey and Syria to address the border differences. The broker of the deal, along with the other Arab countries, was Iran, and the primary aim of the agreement was at expelling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from Syria.

A complex of causes makes Iran avoid Turkey’s dissatisfaction. The latter was always supportive of the Iranian regime in challenging times. Turkey, whether during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s or international sanctions that intensified on Tehran in 2012, opened its borders with Iran to allow the trade that reached Europe. Similarly and lately, it helped Tehran to circumvent the US suffocating sanctions to a large extent.

As well, Turkey attempted to exploit the tensions between Tehran and Riyadh after the attacks on Aramco’s oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia last September, by denying Tehran’s involvement in the attacks. In an interview with Fox News, Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan said: “I don’t think it would be the right thing to blame Iran.”A few days later, when the architect of Iranian expansion in the Middle East the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was assassinated, Erdogan offered condolences to him, though didn’t use ‘martyr’ to describe him.

Notwithstanding, the chapter of persuasive confrontation between Iran and Turkey manifested when the Syrian airstrike hit the Turkish-backed forces in Idlib province on 27 January 2020. That resulted in killing 33 Turkish combatants. While Russia accused the Turkish soldiers of being “operating alongside jihadist fighters” when they had been struck, conversely and simultaneously, Iran emphasized on deescalating and restraining the tension in Idlib. It, further, called for all parties resort to decisions that had been taken by the presidents of Astana Process.

Although the Iranian President and his Turkish counterpart conducted a discussion on the phone regarding the tension over Idlib province, Turkey carried on the retaliation by launching a dozen air and missiles attack against the Syrian troops. The offence begot causalities of the Syrian military as well as several deaths of Iranian-backed forces in the northwest of Syria. As per the official Iranian media reported eight fighters of Hezbollah, and at least 21 militants affiliated with Fatemiyoun and Zaibayoun brigades were among the deaths.

Concurrently, Ankara opened the borders for the influx of the Syrian refugees to head for Europe. By so doing, it attempted to force its allies of the NATO states to pressurize Russia in order to alter its policy in Syria. Again and as always, Russian condemned the Turkish raids, but, its pragmatic rapprochements with Turkey outweigh the differences. Therefore, it is no wondering to see Russian assistance to Damascus minimized notably. Further, a deal will be reached to reduce the tension in Idlib when the Turkish President met his Russian counterpart in Moscow on March 2020.

On the other side, Iran and its affiliates warned Turkey by referring that its troops were within their “fire range”. Tehran, however, tried to shun from escalating the situation, and instead, it was accusing the US of getting Ankara into Syrian trap. Meanwhile, it was calling Ankara for holding a new summit for Iran, Russia, and Turkey within the Astana summit framework.

By devoting immense political and financial potentialities to safeguard the Ba’ath regime, Iran was not ready to cede its clout there. So convinced too, it prefers a political triumph over martial achievements. Perhaps, for that reason, it worked to boost connections with the major players in Syria, including Turkey. However, Iran shares Turkey several issues not merely in Syrian circle, but expand to the regional level sometimes. In addition to their shared economic and commercial benefits, they both have a fear of Kurdish ambitions to establish of own state, as they both stood firmly with the government of Baghdad against the Kurdish referendum in the north of Iraq in 2017. Second: Although, Turkey’s differences with Washington are mostly temporary; it meets with Iran in several issues that troubled their relations with the US.And thirdly: They were mutually pro-Qatar stand against Saudi and its allies. Qatar’s flights switched to the “Iranian airspace and Turkey upped the ante on its military presence in the country as a sign of strength and commitment”.

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Teething Troubles for Pakistan in Mediating the Saudi-Iran Tension

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Imran Khan’s visit to America, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia carries much importance concerning the unity of the Muslim community and solution of their long-standing differences and enmities particularly Saudi-Iran Tension. Moreover, these visits are not only very significant for the relations of Tehran and Jeddah but also for Pakistan, being one of the neighbors of Iran. As for as the visit of PM Imran Khan to China is concerned, Beijing, being a rising power and an economic giant, could play a very effective and decisive role in normalizing the relations between Iran and Saudi along with Pakistan because of its economic interests. Islamabad has been experiencing many changes in the national, regional and global dynamics. In this regard, Pakistan wants to balance its side by engaging with China and tries to mediate between Iran and Saudi to end the long-standing conflict between both the Muslim nations.

However, it is not easy to lessen the tensions between both the rival nations as perceived by a large portion of societies because America never allows this to happen smoothly while it will try vigorously to counter this activity because of its long-standing problems with Iran. Particularly looking over the policies and actions of the United States against Iran such as when the whole world is suffering from a fatal disease known as COVID-19/Corona Virus, America imposed more sanctions on Iran which is against humanity. Besides, the killing of Iran’s top bras general QasimSulemani in an attack by the US and the scrapping nuclear deal with Iran are condemnable acts. There can be many reasons for opposition from the United States for instance, it never wants China to engage with various nations throughout the globe mainly Iran. Because it creates the environment of friendship and engagement for China with other nations which pose threat and fear for the dominant position of Washington.

Moreover, America considers Iran as one of the staunch opposite nations of the world therefore the conflict between the US and Iran has been continued for very long. In this regard, America has imposed numerous sanctions upon Iran which creates more hardships for Tehran to smoothly run its affairs. While Iran considers it the violation of international and humanitarian laws that should not be bearable for any well-educated, sophisticated and sincere nation of the world. According to Iran, the US has been practicing inhuman and illegal policies throughout the world, especially the Muslim World. In this regard, Iran in the UN General Assembly strongly condemned the policies and actions by Washington in which Iran is on top of the list. On the other side, Saudi Arabia is one of the closest and reliable allies of America because of its economic interests.

Rationally looking over the US-Saudi bond, Washington keeps much influence concerning the economic, political and financial policies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In this regard, attacks on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia created insecurity for it therefore Saudi King called MBS requested more American forces to protect the security of his country. There are multiple perspectives regarding the control, influence and creating the warlike environment in the oil-rich Muslim nations of the Middle East. For instance, it is considered by a huge portion of the population within the Muslim world that these all issues and conflicts which have generated the deaths, destruction, fear, and insecurity all over the region are created by America to gain its interests mainly economic benefits.

This is the reason for which America intervenes within these countries rich in natural resources in the pretext of saving humanity and the US being a savior of human rights violations all over the world. While within the Western nations it is considered that terrorism and other multiple kinds of evils are generating from this region because of the undemocratic structure of these states. In this regard, the US should intervene to eliminate all evils from the region for protecting the peace and progress of the world. Therefore, Pakistan can play a very significant role through normalizing Saudi-Iran relations though it is very difficult because of sectarian division between both nations. Recent condemnation and opposition by PM Imran Khan about the new sanctions on Iran by the US is a good and positive sign. Besides, it is also considered by a huge population within the Muslim world that they are under the serious threat of Western Powers beneath different agendas so Pakistan being the only nuclear power state within the Muslim countries should seriously take the issue towards a peaceful solution. Though it is also in the interest of Islamabad because in case the spiraling tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not solved and turn into the escalation of the conflict, Pakistan because of Iran’s neighbor will face direct impact which could be sectarian violence and increasing oil prices.

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Ten years on Syria is still deep in wars

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Having barely risen from the menacing impact of Bashar al Assad’s poor economic policies during the drought from 2007 to 2010, that brought more poverty, unemployment and social distress, a spiral of conflict, in 201, took Syria from one warring episode to another. Ten years on, with most of the country in the rubble, there was little respite even in the news in 2018 that the US would reduce its footprints in Syria.

The nature of the beast is now more local than foreign.

It began when exercising their democratic rights, the disgruntled Syrians took to the street, in 2011, to demand economic and political reforms. They also wanted freedom of expression, in the political sphere. This movement to democracy was one of the many strains Syria had attracted from the Arab-spring that had erupted in the neighboring countries. 

Not used to disagreements, the Syrian government, headed by the Assads for the last four decades then, responded angrily. On March 18, 2011, the Syrian Army opened fire on the demonstrator killing four people with many more arrested.  Shocked by the treatment of the government, more people came out on streets in different parts of the country. Instead of repositioning its responses, the administration used more force to control the damage. In retaliation, a group of defected soldiers and army officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect the protesting civilians.  The group would in no time become powerful on the back of other anti-government forces. No sooner Syria descended into a full-blown civil war. 

A war that began between Syrians and their government escalated into varying wars each with its own protagonist and agenda. Supported by its Sunni allies in the Middle East, the US demanded regime change.  Taking a leaf from Iraq where the end of Saddam Hussain’s government had brought more misery than relief, Iran and Russia defied the US demand and thwarted it militarily. With this outside involvement, the war is no longer Syrian. It has become regional and even international, with an overtone of sectarian crisis. 

Today, Syria is battling three wars: Coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); violence between the Syrian government and opposition forces, and military operations against Syrian Kurds by Turkish forces.   

The US-led regime-change wars have wrought havoc with the Middle East.  Each regime change from Iraq to Libya to Syria was masked as a rescue operation to liberate people from the humanitarian crises unleashed by the bloodthirsty dictators. Not that it was the first of its kind of crises the US had perpetrated. A long list of countries stands witness to the interventionist policies of the US that would always bring more suffering then relief.

With the end of the cold war and democracy becoming the only ideology that promised salvation from all kinds of bounds and fetters, scholars started seeing the world come of its age. What other bigger event could unfold—Europe was unified and its eastern part had come out of the Russian shadow, the Central Asian states were free to form the Bolshevik yoke, colonialism had almost tapered off, proliferation of nuclear weapon had been controlled through various treaties, and with the rise of Asia the world was heading towards a more equitable survival.  

This, however, proved a ‘purpose-built façade’ with little tenacity to hold itself out for too long. The slide was rather quick. Just as the communist propelled the social system was being defeated, a new disintegrative system—terrorism—was pushed through the US military establishment to justify interventions for regime change.

This enemy on the gate was there for a long haul.  It would no more be a straightforward rivalry. An enemy in one war theatre would be a friend in another. If in Afghanistan Al Qaeda was a threat to homeland security, it joined hands with the same militant organization in Syria.  Lent to multiplication and manipulation the Jihadi proxies would later consolidate into a broader percept—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Contrary to its overriding mission of reincarnating Caliphate, the ISIS instead obliterated Iraq and Syria—the two iconic cultural sites of Islamic heritage.  Today the ISIS has its fangs spread to every country, but not without casting a negative effect on the west, though. Bred on the anti-Muslim hysteria a significant number of voters in Europe have grown against the Muslim migrants. In reaction, they voted to power the ultranationalist parties to cleanse Europe of the outsiders. Trump and Brexit owe their success to the Islamophobia industry that grew dramatically after the 9/11 attack.

The Syrian war unfolded some of the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. The United Nations had put the Syrian death toll to 400,000 in 2016. As the war becomes more complex, diffused and with no sign of abatement, international monitoring groups, even the UN have stopped counting causalities. Saying: “it is virtually impossible to verify how many died.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, over 5.6 million Syrian have registered as refugees. The majority of these refugees moved into neighboring countries. Not only did these migrating people brought an economic burden to the host countries, but they also opened a new ethnic fault- lines concerning Kurds. Soon doors were being closed down on the migrating refugees, with European countries appearing cruelest. It was not until the pictures of drowning children in the Mediterranean Sea, and refugees living in dilapidated conditions in makeshift camps on borders hit the social media, picking on the European conscience, did the European leadership start showing its moral side.  

Everything has changed in Syria in these ten years, except its political structure.  Ten years is a long period for the civil war of such ferocity triggering a huge transformation. The World Bank has assessed the damage to be at $200bn, while according to the United Nation Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, in order to restore Syria to its 2010 condition, almost $ 400 bn would be needed.

The question is: has the Syrian government started wrapping its head around the reconstructing options, that includes finding investors to foot the bills, or will Syria become another Afghanistan for proxy war among regional and global powers.

From our partner Tehran Times

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