The opacity of oil-drenched Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has failed to hide the blood-bath it has been shedding over several Middle Eastern nations, both directly and indirectly. A number of other countries have become suppliers to the Arab nation’s barbaric objectives that have been causing grave instability in the MENA region.
However, with increasing death toll in the war-torn regions, brutal killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights violations, Saudi’s partners in crime began pulling out their support.
The latest in the series of “unfriending” the Arab nation is the United Kingdom, which is the second-largest exporter of arms to the Saudis, after the United States, as the statistics suggest. Last month, the British government put a halt to the approval of any new licenses for selling weapons, after the judges ruled that the ministers acted unlawfully despite being aware about the possibility that it could lead to the violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen.
According to the UN, the Saudi-led military coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”. While Saudis, with support of its major partner UAE, has claimed to have been fighting the rebels, rights groups have been protesting that their attacks have killed thousands of civilians in the last four years. Human Rights Watch reported deaths of 6,872 civilians as of November 2018, with 10,768 wounded.
The UK master of the rolls — Sir Terence Etherton, Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Singh — ruled in favor of the campaigners, who have been against the arms trade. They concluded that the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, was “irrational and therefore unlawful”, as he licenced weapons exports without judging if the past incidents broke international law and if there was a “clear risk” of future breaches.
Where the activists celebrated the courts of appeal ruling, the government is likely to challenge it and drag it to the Supreme Court. Fox stated that the government had suspended new exports licenses for the Kingdom and its coalition in the vicious war, but the existing grants would not be suspended.
UK’s Contribution to Destruction
The move could have come sooner, but it is still a major setback to the UK’s rearmament of Saudi Arabia. A day after the four-year-old war began under the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the Saudi-led coalition dropped first bombs in Yemen on March 26, 2015, foreign secretary Phillip Hammond told reporters that Britain would “support Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”.
Since then, the UK arms companies, BAE Systems and Raytheon, increased the pace to keep up with the deadly attacks that Saudis are launching on thousands of civilians, along with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. According to the BBC, Britain licenced export of over 4.7 billion pounds (nearly $6 billion) to one of the biggest human rights abusers in the last four years. Moreover, from 2008-2017, the British government granted a total of 9,003 export licenses to the UAE, which included 6,038 exclusive grants for weapons and military equipment.
Where the UK ban on arms sale is being associated to merely weapons, not many are aware about the extensive assistance that the British nation solely provides to Saudi Arabia. Among the weapons that the Kingdom and UAE receive from Britain are precision-guided bombs, sophisticated armoured vehicles, grenades, rifles, rocket launchers and fighter jets.
As per a report by The Guardian, BAE systems and UK Raytheon were under government contract to manufacture Paveway bombs that costs £22,000 a piece, Brimstone bombs costing £105,000 per unit, and Storm Shadow cruise missiles for £790,000 a piece. Moreover, BAE has long been under a government contract to assemble jets in hangars located just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.
In addition to weapons, BAE has also been sub-contracted to deliver logistical support, ensuring the provision of engineers and weapons maintenance inside Saudi Arabia. Reports revealed that nearly 6,300 British contractors are stationed at Saudi’s forward operating bases.
UK has been providing the Gulf nation with the personnel and expertise that is helping them to continue such barbaric wars. For years, the British government has been deploying RAF personnel to train Saudi pilots as well as to work as engineers.
According to the Stats, the United Kingdom had issued 103 licenses in 2016 with the value of 679 million and 126 licenses in 2017 worth 1.129 billion to export military goods to Saudi Arabia.
Beginning of Arms Trajectory
UK and Saudi Arabia share a long history of dealing in weapons. These weapons have been used to create chaos and deaths in several countries in the MENA region – Yemen, Syria, Libya and Sudan. The UK has been supplying arms to the Arab nation since 1960s. However, the first major deal was signed in 1985.
Becoming one of the biggest arms deal in history, it came to be known as The Al Yamamah. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the then-UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of former Saudi Defence Minister and Crown Prince Sultan.
Under the deal, the Saudis were receiving weapons supply from BAE Systems, which provided 48 Tornado IDSs, 30 Hawk training aircraft, 30 Pilatus PC-9 trainers, 24 Tornado ADVs, a range of weapons, radar, spares and a pilot-training programme, until 2007.
Years later, the Saudi negotiator, Prince Bandar came under allegations of receiving payments of £30 million every quarter for at least 10 years, from BAE. It was reported that the payments were a lobbying effort by the UK government— Thatcher and BAE Systems. The massive bribes were reportedly offered to persuade the Gulf nation to change its choice of French Mirage jets, leading the Kingdom to instead sign the deal for joint UK-French made Tornado.
While BAE Systems came under investigations, former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was quick to cover the matter under a black cloth. As his government came into power, Blair broke the law and abandoned the fraud investigation into a multibillion-pound arms deal, giving birth to newer controversies.
The scandals and lobbyists became successful in keeping the arms supplying route free of hindrances. The arms deal that began for strategic purposes soon turned into an economic agenda.
In 2013 and 2014, the British government issued three special export licences to BAE, which permitted the sale of an unlimited number of bombs to the Kingdom. Becoming an immunity for Saudi, these licenses exempted the requirement of disclosure of total sale. Despite the major sales not being on record, Britain’s military exports to Riyadh augmented almost 35-fold in a year— from £83m in 2014 to £2.9bn in 2015.
While the UK weaponry was already being deployed for wars in MENA countries, the western nation became the major supplier of arms and military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen in 2015. The Guardian had reported that a majority of the bombs that fell on the war-torn country belonged to Britain.
Increasing Criticism, Decreasing Support
The country, under Prime Minister Theresa May, has been continuing the arms support, despite the increasing death tolls in both Syria and Yemen. On the other hand, protests from the Labour Party, world leaders and rights groups, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Amnesty International, continued to soar.
“Theresa May must prove that she is willing to stand up to the kind of repugnant behaviour shown by the killing of Khashoggi and halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately,” stated Belgian leader Philippe Lamberts.
May has been criticised of supporting husband Philip May, who’s an investment relationship manager at Capital Group, the largest shareholder in arms manufacturer BAE Systems. “While UK Prime Minister Theresa May supports Trump and Macron’s military action in Syria, she is also helping her husband’s investment firm to make a killing,” said political investigative journalist Johnny Vedmore.
After the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, where the UN recently reported to have “credible evidence” against Crown Prince MbS’ links in the operation, several countries — Germany, Belgium, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Finland — have discontinued arms trading with the Saudis. However, the major suppliers of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — the US, UK and France — decided to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s increasing human rights violations.
British foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, even tried convincing Germany to lift the ban. He wrote a letter to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, stating, “I am very concerned about the impact of the German government’s decision on the British and European defence industry and the consequences for Europe’s ability to fulfill its NATO commitments.”
The UK’s diplomatic lobbying and relentless support for Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), raised doubts that for British leaders, an economy thriving on blood-money is more important than the millions of lives being killed brutally every day.
Re-routing arms to rogue elements
Several reports released in the past reveal a disturbing scenario. The investigations and analysis have revealed that the arms that the Saudis and the UAE received from western countries ended up in the hands of ISIS, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda, hardline Salafi militias, rebel groups and other factions in Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Robert Fisk, The Independent’s correspondent, released a report in July last year, providing evidence that the arms sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were handed over to what the US State Department itself calls terrorist organizations’. He stated that ‘the buyers’ transferred several expensive weapons “to ISIS, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda … or some other anti-Assad Islamist group”.
Months later, in November 2018, The Guardian reported that an investigation into the weapons used in the Yemen war exposed how the weapons traded to the Saudi and UAE-led coalition by the US and UK, end up in the hands of militias. A report by journalist Mohamed Abo-Elgheit and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (ARIJ) alleged that the weapons are also openly passed on to marginalised and feuding groups fighting their own territorial battles that serve the interests of the two Gulf nations.
The Arab powers — Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition — have strategically caused havoc through proxy wars. The US and the European nations have been equal contributors to the prolonged destruction, despite the resistance from their own people as well as the rights groups.
Recently, Switzerland banned its aerospace firm, Pilatus, from continuing its operations in Saudi Arabia and UAE. The restrictions came after the revelation that the Swiss company was providing “logistical support” to armed forces of the two countries. The move came after several other nations had already extricated their support.
While Saudi Arabia and UAE’s major arms trading partners, the UK, has suspended export licenses, only the US and France remain as the crucial allies serving Saudis’ merciless objectives. However, the US President Donald Trump is also facing soaring opposition from his administration and the Democrats over his unwavering alliance with the Arab nation.
The Saudi-led coalition, though, is increasingly losing the support it has been receiving from its international allies. The brutality that these Middle East powers have been inflicting may finally have become too much to bear for the global community.
Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race
A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.
North Korea ramps up tensions
According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.
Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”
China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”
North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”
In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.
South Korea joins in on the missile testing
Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.
Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.
Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”
The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.
HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds
Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.
The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.
Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.
Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.
In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.
HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.
Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.
The bottom line
Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.
To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.
To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.
Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.
The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’ of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.
Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.
Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”
Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.
Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.
China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.
To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.
Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.
Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.
Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”
The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.
Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.
Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.
Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.
Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.
Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.
The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”
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