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Efforts to return Syria’s Assad to Arab fold amount to hollow victory for autocrats

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Two developments, the pending return of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to the Arab fold and protests in Sudan, Jordan and Tunisia, send contradictory messages of where the Middle East and North Africa are headed.

Conservative monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that for much of the past decade have gone to great lengths to reverse the achievements of the 2011 Arab popular revolts that toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and sparked mass protests in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf have heralded the pending lifting of Syria’s suspended membership of the Arab League as symbolizing the definitive death of the Arab spring.

A number of recent contacts, including a visit to Damascus by embattled Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, the first by an Arab leader since the eruption of the Syrian civil war; a meeting in Cairo of Syrian and Egyptian intelligence chiefs, and the refurbishing of the shuttered UAE embassy in the Syrian capital, are widely seen as precursors for Syria’s return.

In a twist of irony, Messrs. Al-Bashir and Al-Assad have both been accused of war crimes. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Al-Bashir that has largely been ignored by Middle Eastern and African nations.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader, in a UAE-Saudi-backed military coup in 2013, drove home autocrats’ seeming victory with the appearance in a court of the country’s two toppled leaders, Hosni Mubarak and Mr. Morsi.

In a demonstration of Mr. Al-Sisi’s supremacy, Mr. Mubarak was required to testify against Mr. Morsi in a case involving a 2011 jail break.

There is little doubt that Middle Eastern and North African autocracy has the winds at its back, in part because many in the region have been taken aback by the brutality of the counterrevolution that has sparked civil war, military intervention and harsh repression.

Nonetheless, multiple protests in recent years across the region in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Mauritania and Sudan as well as online protests in various countries, including Saudi Arabia, suggest that grievances underlying the 2011 and subsequent protests remain widespread. This is true for countries like Egypt where the achievements of the 2011 protests have been reversed as well as Tunisia, the one country that succeeded in pursuing political transition.

A recent survey conducted by Zogby Research Services (ZRS) concluded that only one in five Tunisians and Egyptians believed that their country was moving in the “right direction,” while 69% of Tunisians and 55% of Egyptians said their countries were moving in the “wrong direction.”

When asked whether respondents felt they were better or worse off than they had been five years ago, only 21% of Tunisians and 20% of Egyptians said “better off,” while 59% of Tunisians and 64% of Egyptians claimed they were “worse off.”

The survey seemed to confirm the notion that the key to long-term stability in the Middle East and North Africa lies in resolving the region’s ticking time bomb: unemployment and particularly youth unemployment.

The Zogby survey showed that employment, corruption, nepotism, an improved educational system and political reform were priorities for Egyptians and Tunisians. “The bottom line: the need to create jobs and reform governance so as to create greater confidence and opportunities for citizens are the challenges faced by the leaderships in both Tunisia and Egypt,” said James J. Zogby, the founder of ZRS.

Official youth unemployment rates across the Middle East hover around 30 percent and 20-25 percent in North Africa with real rates believed to be far higher.

Neither Arab autocrats nor democratic Tunisia have so far been able to deliver. Yet, the outcome of the battle between greater political liberalism and autocracy in the Middle East is likely to be won in the sphere of economics rather than politics.

Arab autocrats as well as Tunisian leaders have since 2011 been long on promising economic reform that would create jobs and enhance career perspectives and short on delivery. A failure to tackle corruption, the enhanced role of the state in countries like Egypt where the military supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia plays an ever-greater role in the economy, and depressed oil prices, have stymied growth in the region.

As a result, economics rather than politics will also seal the ultimate fate of the Arab spring, a code word for the crisis of confidence in the system and in leadership that has helped autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa retain or regain power and has fuelled populism, nationalism and the rise of the far right across the globe.

In a rare and furtive recognition of Middle Eastern and North African realities by the Trump administration, the US embassy in Riyadh tweeted in early December a video with Arabic subtitles promoting peaceful protest as a path to “positive social and political changes,” but quickly deleted it when questioned about it by Middle East Eye.

The video argued that “even in oppressive, authoritarian conditions, protesters can tailor their campaigns to succeed.” It featured archival photos of celebrated protest movements, asserting that research showed that between 1900 and 2006, non-violent protests had been twice as effective as violent ones.

Mr. Al-Assad’s return to the Arab fold may constitute one more setback for forces of change in the Middle East and North Africa but is a long way from symbolizing their demise. For that to happen, the region’s autocrats have to make good on their promises by implementing painful structural reforms that inevitably will challenge vested interests. So far, there is little indication of that happening.

Which means that a warning earlier this year by Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that “public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed” remains as valid today as when she first issued it.

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 Muslim world’s changing dynamics: Pakistan struggles to retain its footing

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Increasing strains between Pakistan and its traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is about more than Gulf states opportunistically targeting India’s far more lucrative market.

At the heart of the tensions, that potentially complicate Pakistan’s economic recovery, is also India’s ability to enhance Gulf states’ capacity to hedge their bets amid uncertainty about the continued US commitment to regional security.

India is a key member of the Quad that also includes the United States, Australia and Japan and could play a role in a future more multilateral regional security architecture in the Gulf.

Designed as the backbone of an Indo-Pacific strategy intended to counter China across a swath of maritime Asia, Gulf states are unlikely to pick sides but remain keen on ensuring that they maintain close ties with both sides of the widening divide.

The mounting strains with Pakistan are also the latest iteration of a global battle for Muslim religious soft power that pits Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Turkey, Iran, and Asian players like Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic movement.

A combination of geo- and domestic politics is complicating efforts by major Muslim-majority states in Asia to walk a middle line. Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, has reached out to Turkey while seeking to balance relations with its neighbour, Iran.

The pressure on Pakistan is multi-fold.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan charged recently that the United States and one other unidentified country were pressing him to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Pakistani and Israeli media named Saudi Arabia as the unidentified country. Representing the world’s second most populous Muslim nation, Pakistani recognition, following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain, would be significant.

Pakistan twice in the last year signalled a widening rift with the kingdom.

Mr. Khan had planned to participate a year ago in an Islamic summit hosted by Malaysia and attended by Saudi Arabia’s detractors, Turkey, Iran and Qatar, but not the kingdom and a majority of Muslim states. The Pakistani prime minister cancelled his participation at the last moment under Saudi pressure.

More recently, Pakistan again challenged Saudi leadership of the Muslim world when Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi complained about lack of support of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for Pakistan in its conflict with India over Kashmir. The OIC groups the world’s 57 Muslim-majority nations. Mr. Qureshi suggested that his country would seek to rally support beyond the realm of the kingdom.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a visit to Pakistan earlier this year, made a point of repeatedly reiterating his country’s support for Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute.

By openly challenging the kingdom, Mr. Qureshi was hitting Saudi Arabia where it hurts most as it seeks to repair its image tarnished by allegations of abuse of human rights, manoeuvres to get off on the right foot with incoming US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, and fends off challenges to its leadership of the Muslim world.

Pakistan has not helped itself by recently failing to ensure that it would be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, despite progress in the country’s legal infrastructure and enforcement.

Grey listing causes reputational damage and makes foreign investors and international banks more cautious in their dealings with countries that have not been granted a clean bill of health.

Responding to Mr. Qureshi’s challenge, Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan repay a US$1 billion loan extended to help the South Asian nation ease its financial crisis. The kingdom has also dragged its feet on renewing a US$3.2 billion oil credit facility that expired in May.

In what Pakistan will interpret as UAE support for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates last week included Pakistan on its version of US President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Inclusion on the list of 13 Muslim countries whose nationals will no longer be issued visas for travel to the UAE increases pressure on Pakistan, which relies heavily on exporting labour to generate remittances and alleviate unemployment.

Some Pakistanis fear that a potential improvement in Saudi-Turkish relations could see their country fall through geopolitical cracks.

In the first face-to-face meeting between senior Saudi and Turkish officials since the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Mevlut Cavusoglu, held bilateral talks this weekend, on the sidelines of an OIC conference in the African state of Niger.

“A strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region,” Mr. Cavusoglu tweeted after the meeting.

The meeting came days after Saudi King Salman telephoned Mr. Erdogan on the eve of a virtual summit hosted by the kingdom of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies.

“The Muslim world is changing and alliances are shifting and entering new, unchartered territories,” said analyst Sahar Khan.

Added Imtiaz Ali, another analyst: “In the short term, Riyadh will continue exploiting Islamabad’s economic vulnerabilities… But in the longer term, Riyadh cannot ignore the rise of India in the region, and the two countries may become close allies – something that will mostly likely increase the strain on Pakistan-Saudi relations.”

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Assassination of top Iranian Nuclear Scientist: A big Tragedy

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Image source: Wikipedia

On the sad incident of the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, the UN spokesman said, “We urge restraint and the need to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.” Turkey termed the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh as an ‘act of terrorism’ while the EU calls it ‘criminal’ and urges ‘maximum restraint.’ Anger can be seen in Iran and the region. The whole region is worried and mourning.

Masses are demanding to investigate the assassination act thoroughly and punish the responsibles. It is a straight forward criminal act and a direct threat to Iran’s sovereignty. The whole world is upset and can not forgive.

It was well-known that the US assassinated General Qasim Sulymani in Baghdad just a few ago. The retaliation from Iran was just appropriate, and the US could not digest it yet. Top nuclear Scientist’s assassination is not accepted under any circumstances, and any retaliation will be justice.

Iran has the capability and will to retaliate. Although we all – peace-loving people request Iran to cool down and observe restrains, at the same time, we understand, if the aggressors are not checked, it will happen again and again, and maybe in more intensity and frequency. If the retaliation is severe, then the aggressor may not dare to attempt again in the future. A minimum level of deterrence is required to maintain. Otherwise, further assassinations are encouraged.

The ruthless assassination of Dr. Fakhrizadeh on Friday 27 November is not just ‘another’ routine incident—it’s causality is more significant than it’s aftermath. The Western world engaged Iran under JCPOA in October 2015. Things were smooth, and Iran was in full compliance with the deal. Internation Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was regularly monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and confirmed the fullcompliance. All the signatories of JCPOA were also satisfied, except President Trump. Even his administration has not noticed any deviation from Iran, but after having a close presentation from the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, President scrapped the JCPOA in 2018. The unilateral withdrawal of President Trump from the nuclear deal was widely criticized but was celebrated by Israel. Since then, Iran was under immense pressure from the US as well as Israel.

Highly classified speculations are that the final decision to eliminate Fakhrizadeh was perhaps taken last Sunday 22 November, in a semi-secretive meeting in the Saudi coastal resort of Neom—attended by Mike Pompeo, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yossi Cohen, and Prince MBS.

There are other views that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is another big conspiracy to destabilize global peace and stability, which might hinder the transition of power to newly elect-president Joe Biden. As a result, President Trump remains in control. Strong possibilities are that the outgoing President Trump will make the most of the power transfer transition period—taking big decisions to please his external partners/friends (Isreal and anti-Iran Arab states). Some say this killing will reduce Iran’s negotiating powers—should Joe Biden/Tony Blinken revive the JCPOA. Some global security pundits comment, this assassination was aimed at infuriating Iran, instigating it to react with military force against Israel, prompting the US and its regional allies (Israel, KSA, UAE, and Bahrain) to declare an all-out direct war on Iran.

It is relatively early to say something precisely, that what happen? How happened? And What will happen next? All are view points, and no authentic opinion is concluded. But one thing is very much clear, the region is a cooked volcano and may burst any moment.

It may destabilize the whole region; the oil-rich region may halt oil supply to the Western world. The Oil prices may shoot up; Industrial growth may be harmed, inflation may hike up, the global economy may suffer adversely.

It is also possible that the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world be divided visibly and further harm the Muslim world. Irrespective of any country or nation, or religion, humankind will suffer at the end of the day. Irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, we must urge the safety of human lives.

The world community must proactively play a positive role in saving humankind and the loss of precious lives. Bloodshed is not permissible in any religion, society, or law, especially because we claim to be a civilized world and should act as civilized.

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Middle East

Libya: Lights and shadows of the peace process

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After six days of intense closed-door talks between the 75 delegates of the various Libyan factions summoned to Tunis by the Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG), Stephanie Williams, the first round of negotiations that ended on November 15 confirmed the “ceasefire”, but failed to reach an agreement on the mechanisms and criteria for selecting the candidates for a new “national unity” government.

Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams has decided to reconvene in the coming days – via video conference – a second round of what has been called the “Libyan Political Dialogue Forum” (LPDF), with the ambition of succeeding in forming a government able to manage the national elections scheduled for December 24, 2021.

While admitting the partial failure of the Tunis talks, the U.S. diplomat declared frankly that it was not “realistically possible to find solutions to a ten-year conflict in a simple round of negotiations”. Nevertheless, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams has stressed that “there seems to be the possibility of an agreement on three important sensitive aspects of the negotiation, i.e. the tasks and duties of the new government; the criteria for appointing those who will take up the government posts and the roadmap for the peace process.

She added that “Libyan politicians now have the opportunity to effectively occupy centre stage or end up going extinct as dinosaurs”.

Tough words that convey the disappointment for a negotiation that sees the parties involved (the Tripoli government led by Fayez al-Sarraj; the Tobruk faction commanded by General Khalifa Haftar and the Fezzan independent tribes) willing to respect the armed truce, but little inclined to make political concessions to their counterparts.

Certainly it was not easy to make the Libyan stakeholders – who, until last summer, had been fighting one another in open field -converge on a political dialogue path

It was not easy also due to the behind-the-scenes activism of the international sponsors of the opposing factions: Turkey and Qatar in favour of al-Sarraj; Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Russia supporting the “Libyan National Army” led by General Haftar, while President Macron’s France is openly siding with the Fezzan tribes.

During the Tunis talks, all delegates systematically leaked to the press fake drafts of possible agreements, in view of thwarting the proposals of their counterparts.

According to “Agenzia Nova”, apparently official documents were circulated containing references to the topics actually under discussion, “polluted” by totally invented parts: “real poisoned drafts received from Libyan sources close to General Haftar”.

 Malicious rumours have also spread about the possible corruption of some delegates, bribed with many dollars to favour the appointment of Abdullh al-Dabaiba -the powerful “warlord” of Misrata and founder of the “Future for Libya” movement – to the new government. It should be recalled that, thanks to Turkish weapons and Islamist mercenaries brought by President Erdogan to Libya from Syria, Misrata’s militias rescued al-Sarraj’s government from collapse when last April General Haftar’s militias had arrived at Tripoli’s gates.

However, despite the difficulties, in her report to the UN Security Council, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams also highlighted some positive aspects of the situation on the ground.

First of all, the military truce is holding out: there are no significant violations of the “ceasefire”, while “the exchange of prisoners continues, facilitated by the Council of Elders, with the support of the Joint Military Commission.

Another important result has been achieved in the oil sector: with the agreement of all the parties involved, the National Oil Company has resumed oil production in full swing, which has quickly returned to last year’s level of 1.2 million. However, the transparent distribution of oil revenues must be postponed until an agreement is reached between all the parties involved, pending which the National Oil Company shall set aside the proceeds from oil sale in a special UN-controlled account.

This is a sensitive aspect regarding directly Italy: the resumption of crude oil extraction means much for ENI which – albeit left alone by national institutions to operate in the dangerous situation of tension between the opposing Libyan factions – has managed to establish itself as a credible and reliable counterpart and to maintain its extraction, production and refining activities in Libya.

While concluding her briefing to the UN Security Council, Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams underlined: “Seventy-five Libyans came together in Tunis …in a good faith effort to start the process of healing their nation’s wounds. …they extended their hands, if not their hearts, to each other”.  

“Not their hearts”: this is the deepest shadow hanging over the Tunis talks, casting uncertainty over a peace process in which the role of the national players is often influenced and manipulated by the various international sponsors – and the sponsors certainly do not act for “heart” reasons.

On the Tripoli government’s front, the two key allies are President Erdogan’s Turkey and Qatar ruled by young Emir Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani.

Despite the accession of the former to NATO and of the latter to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the two countries have embraced the cause of Muslim extremism by more or less openly supporting jihadist militias during the civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq and, most recently, Libya.

At the side of these awkward travel companions, in a quiet and secluded corner, we can find Italy which, in 2016, with an undoubtedly politically correct move, followed the United Nations, which imposed a neo-colonialist governmental solution on Libya, by establishing al-Sarraj’s “Government of National Accord” (GNA), at first in Tunis and later in Tripoli. A “neo-colonialist” solution because the GNA has not been recognised by any of Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s Parliaments and has never been legitimized by elections or supported by the people.

Over the last four years, while al-Sarraj barely controlled the capital, the Italian diplomacy has not seemed able to find a clear policy and line of action, in a region of vital importance for the country, other than that of “respect for UN resolutions”, a formal pretext used also by the European Union to justify its inaction.

 As said above, faced with Turkey’s and Qatar’s political and military commitment to support al-Sarraj, but above all the Islamist militias of Tripoli and Misrata, the Gulf States have broken diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing its Emir of an adventurous conduct in favour of the “Muslim Brotherhood” throughout the region.

Furthermore, together with Egypt, France and Russia, the Gulf States have actually established an alliance to protect two of the three Libyan political-military components, i.e. General Haftar’s”Libya Liberation Army” and the militias linked to the Fezzan tribes with whom France has established an almost exclusive partnership.

While the diplomacies interested in the Middle East are playing on several tables – just think of the new relations between the Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and above all Saudi Arabia, with Israel-Italy and Europe – probably also because of the pandemic – seem to be immobilized and bogged down into passive positions of principle on the positive aspects of “multilateralism”.

Indeed. the other countries are taking action also in view of possible political and economic dividends in the future, while Italy and Europe, with their wait-and-see attitude, remain on the sidelines to watch – as mere spectators – the development of events that will have a decisive impact on the new Mediterranean equilibria of the near future.

Nevertheless, there seem to be no good news about U.S. international commitments in the “after-Trump era”.

The new President, Joe Biden, has appointed Antony Blinken as the new Secretary of State.

 Despite his being an educated, cosmopolitan and polite person, we cannot forget that, during Obama’s Presidencies, Blinken was a close aide of Hillary Clinton, at first, and of John Kerry, later, i.e. two negative protagonists of international relations and foreign policy who, with their naïve support for the fake “Arab Springs”, contributed to upset North Africa and the Middle East in the name of a mirage that saw an unattainable goal of Western democracy for the countries experiencing Islamist civil uprisings and unrest.

After having fomented and militarily supported the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi, the U.S. Department of State led by Hillary Clinton, had to face the sacrifice of its ambassador in Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, where he had been sent for a confused and botched negotiation with the Islamists of Ansar Al Sharia.

Under Kerry’s leadership, with Blinken at his side as Deputy Secretary of State, the United States managed the Syrian crisis in a politically and militarily unwise manner, thus finally leaving the field open to Russia and Turkey.

Against this backcloth, the prospects for a return to action of U.S. diplomacy (partly put to rest by Donald Trump) are not particularly fascinating, in an area such as Libya where Italy, in its own small way, is not even able to sketch out a credible negotiation for the release of the eighteen fishermen from Mazara del Vallo, kidnapped by General Haftar’s forces for over two months.

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