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Why is Iran meeting with Arab Gulf States?

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KSA and UAE differences on Syria and Yemen: Reasonable Differences or a Clash?

How the Media Created an Impression of a Major Rift and Widened Misunderstandings

In recent months, Western media has bombarded the policymakers with rumors about an alleged divide inside the Arab Coalition, the supposedly irreconcilable differences that are driving UAE and KSA towards an inevitable and irreversible drift, dooming their effort in Yemen.  Indeed, the countries have individual national security concerns that have at times pushed them to focus on some issues while others remained an apparently more urgent concern for their counterpart.

However, much of the current discourse about divisions between the Gulf states has been fueled by a campaign focus on exploiting and exaggerating real divisions to the detriment of all, rather than bringing the countries back to the same page and strengthening their partnership with the United States. That goes against the Iran and Muslim Brotherhood agenda in driving the Coalition – and especially the US – out of Yemen, as soon as possible.

For that reason, mutual recriminations and attacks have been encouraged, and the situation has been portrayed in the most dire terms. Indeed, if the divide continues, it will only strengthen t he Muslim Brotherhood influence in Yemen, and give further fodder to assorted terrorist groups and Iran-induced chaos. To avoid that possibility, the US government should stop listening to what appears to be a clearly divisive political campaign and instead take the time to understand the positions of each country.  US leadership may soon discover that the apparent differences are far from irreconcilable, and that UAE and KSA ultimately wish for a stable region and are both against any sort of radicalism or fanaticism.

The Arabic language media wars between the various columnists from the two states has not been helpful either. Rather than attacking each other and mounting potentially baseless accusations, these analysts would do well to emphasize common ground as well as use the power of their keyboards to clarify the nature of the misunderstandings and to elucidate their countries’ positions in a rational way that will help arrive at common sense solutions – already evident in some of the discourse emerging from both sides.

Perceived Differences,  Unexplained, Are Played Up Causing Confusion

In the midst of tensions between Iran and the United States in the Gulf – tensions which involve oil smuggling, attacks on and hijacking of tankers, and the downing of drones – Iran appears to be pursuing a parallel diplomatic track with some of the regional stakeholders.

Iran’s recent meeting with UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed generated a great deal of discussion and controversy; meetings with Qatari officials, on the other hand, went by largely unnoticed. Is UAE really looking to abandon Saudi Arabia in its stand off against the ayatollahs?  And what is Tehran ultimately seeking to accomplish?

The rare visit by UAE officials to Iran came in the context of other developments, which have raised questions about the possible fissions within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet.

While visiting Moscow after the May attacks on Emirati and Saudi oil tankers, Abdullah bin Zayed refused to name Iran as the culprit, which to many signaled UAE distancing itself from the more confrontational position taken by the United States and Saudi Arabia, as reported by Tom O’Connor in Newsweek on June 26, 2019.  This development came after UAE and Bahrain split from Saudi Arabia in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Syria’s pro-Iran Bashar al-Assad; although even with Russia’s lobbying on Syria’s behalf, there was not enough support to readmit Syria into the Arab League as explained by Youssef Igrouane in Inside Arabia on February 27, 2019. The discussion on whether reopening embassies in Damascus would “normalize” al-Assad, and whether al-Assad, who already was receiving limited political support from Egypt vis-a-vis Turkey, as explained by the author and Mohammed Maher in Modern Diplomacy on May 6, 2019,  was considered a fait accomplit for Syria for the time being by some of the pragmatists in the Arab world and thus the reestablishment of diplomatic relationship was at that point merely a formality acknowledging that Assad is there to stay remains an open question. Was Saudi Arabia being “unreasonable” in refusing to restore relations with Assad, where the other three members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet chose to pursue a different path? And did that decision create or further divisions between Riyadh and the other three countries? Or was this step merely a reasonable and agreed upon approach given the differences in the countries’ interests, that did not affect much their cooperation on other points?

The reality is, in fact, it was a bit of both. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is a central and existential danger. Although KSA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had articulated that Iran, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey are part of a triangle of evil, in terms of policy, Saudi Arabia clearly has prioritized opposing Iran over complete eradication of the other two “sides” of the triangle. Although the Saudi government has gone to great lengths to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from within the country, it has cooperated with the Islamist brigades that are fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government as a a part of the Arab Coalition against the Houthi terrorists in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, despite tensions with Turkey, which escalated after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, retained diplomatic relations with Ankara, and although there has been a limited boycott of some Turkish products, the majority of Saudi investments have remained in place. Turkey remains a political challenge to Saudi Arabia’s interests in Middle East and Africa; Erdogan is looking for Sunni primacy through populist Islamism, and has invested heavily in various operations in Africa and Asia, to counter Saudi soft power with defense and humanitarian investments.

How Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood overshadow Iran threat for UAE

However, Erdogan has also suffered recent defeats and setbacks, primarily through the fall of his ally Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and through the stalemate in Libya.  Turkey is a political threat to Saudi Araabia’s influence; however, Erdogan has suffered political blows inside the country, such as the loss of his candidate in Istanbul, the economic fallout from the rising tensions with the United States, and other problems. For that reason, while Erdogan may be a longer-term concern, (any nationalist, even without Erdogan’s Islamists connection, in pursuit of a renewed Ottoman empire will not be looked upon kindly), he is not an immediate existential threat. Furthermore, most of his Arab following comes solely on the basis of his strongman, anti-Israel, anti-American image, but will not likely remain loyal to a non-Arab leader with a vision of reimposition of the Ottoman system from which many of their ancestors have suffered.

Saudi Arabia views Erdogan’s incursions into Syria quite negatively; however, Assad has become increasingly dependent on Iran as a result of the civil war, and Iranian presence in Syria has grown substantially.  Where the various jihadist and Muslim Brotherhood factions are mere annoyances used by state actors to attack each other, Assad is opening doors to Iran’s ideological and political influence, in addition to a military build up and the building of “land bridges” that will facilitate the influx of fighters and weapons into the area. From that perspective, and given the Saudis’ concern with countering that threat above all, not cooperating with Assad in any substantial way makes perfect sense. Turkey is unlikely to take over Syria completely; however much damage it can cause with its presence, Assad is likely to retain control over most of the country. Quite simply, Assad and Iranians are the stronger forces.

For UAE, however, the analysis was quite different, as its tensions with Turkey have intensified over time, with the arrests of UAE-based Palestinian workers (one of whom was found dead and disemboweled in a Turkish jail cell), attacks on Emirati bases in Somalia by Turkey and Qatar-backed militias, as explained by the New York Times on July 22, 2019, as well as Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring, which threatened UAE, a relatively small country, as well as Bahrain, which nearly suffered a coup, as well as the view of the UAE, that Turkey’s incursions into Syria represents an attack on the sovereignty of Arab lands, as written by Bilo Biskan for the Middle East Institute on May 1, 2019.

Erdogan’s support for Muslim Brotherhood and his backing of UAE’s regional rival, Qatar, contributed significantly to this deterioration in relations, as well as a perception of an immediate attack on UAE’s interests.  Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological proclivities have received a zero-tolerance treatment from Abu Dhabi, which has supported Southern separatists in Yemen and has had disagreements with Saudi Arabia over cooperation with the Islamist brigades within the Coalition. Furthermore, UAE has spared no expense in lobbying efforts and backing think tanks in the West to counter Qatari and Turkish backing of the spread of ISlamist ideology, whereas Saudi Arabia has taken a step back from involvement in these ideological battles.

By contrast, Dubai has had a sizeable Iranian community and while UAE has sided with Saudi Arabia against Iran politically, its trade relations with Iran are lively and ongoing. UAE was one of the eight countries to receive a temporary waiver for oil trade with Iran from the United States; the exports from UAE to Iran are four times the number of imports.  UAE considers Iran a threat; it has largely withdrawn its forces from Yemen in response to the increasing tensions in the Gulf and to secure its own citizens from any potential attacks by Iranian forces. However, ultimately, countering Turkey and Sunni ISlamists in Syria may simply have been more of a political priority, and if Assad did not present a direct threat to the Arab states, from UAE perspective, having modest political presence in the country could be beneficial to ensuring that other Emirati interests in countering additional primary threats could be protected.

By the same token, Emirati and Bahraini presence in Syria could be the bridge to keep Saudi Arabia informed and its interests observed if only by proxy. In either case, this minor presence inside the country might not ultimately make much of a difference, particularly if Syria remains outside the Arab League and otherwise largely isolated by the coalition members. From the Western perspective, however, these pragmatic differences that ultimately may not matter all that much on the strategic level of countering primary threats by the ATQ may signal to the West a deepening rift within the Quartet, which makes formulating coherent policy by the White House, already fraught with internal controversies  and contradictions, still more difficult. If, for whatever reasons, some of the Arab partners are staunchly opposed to any convergence with Assad, whereas others find any compromise with Turkey unacceptable while limited dialogue with Assad appears to be not only within reason, but essential to making progress, no matter what the White House ends up doing in Syria, one or more of the parties will be dissatisfied with the outcome.

Recent clashes in Aden expose and exacerbate fissions inside the Arab Coalition, alarming the West

Yemen further complicates the situation. UAE withdrawal, although allegedly coordinated, has been largely interpreted by the Western press, the cadre of analysts, and the political establishment as a significant difference, if not a rift, among the Coalition members. Increasingly, from Western perspective, Saudi Arabia appears to be isolated, and the war, at least in the manner it is being handled today, hopeless and chaotic. Although the Trump administration has recognized the dangers from various non-State actors inside Yemen, as well as Iran’s role in backing the Houthis, the White House has not deemed it necessary either to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, even after multiple, and in some cases, lethal attacks on Saudi civilian sites, nor has it pushed for a new AUMF that would allow combat troops to counter Hizbullah and Houthi forces in addition to Al Qaeda and ISIS.  While the White House appears to count on the Saudis to settle the issue, the situation is complicated by the UAE-backed separatists who have intervened in Aden, demanding independence.

The Houthis, at the same time, demanded the expulsion of the Sunni Islamist fighters and separatists as reported in The Daily Star on August 15, 2019. The talks over managing and settling the new conflict in Saudi Arabia appear to be thwarted by the refusal of the various parties to compromise on the solution. The Islamists, from the Saudi perspective, appear to be a necessary lesser evil to counter the Hizbullah trained Houthis; furthermore, the Yemeni government has taken a step back , with the Saudis shouldering most of the burden.  UAE has attempted to mediate between the Southern Transitional Council writes Bel Trew for The Independent on August 14, 2019, and the other parties in an attempt to avoid further violent clashes.

However, so long as the separatists feel they have backing there appears to be no reason for them not to continue taking advantage of the seeming splintering among the allies to push their own agenda.  The optics of it all are chaotic, and the only party benefiting is Iran, which thrives on mayhem and divisions among anyone who opposes Tehran’s agenda. The natural question of course arises is why would UAE continue backing a group that clearly has less of an interest  in broader agenda of the coalition than pushing for its own bid that could only strengthen Iran’s goal.

The Houthis which largely reside in the lesser developed Northern part of Yemen seek continuity into the South. Dividing the country which had been held together, albeit imperfectly, under Ali Saleh, would not change the goals of Iran, the Houthis, or the various other terrorist groups on the ground, and would only create additional political complexities on top of the existing military and humanitarian difficulties. Furthermore, the unseemly vision of UAE forces clashing with the Saudi-backed forces in Aden and elsewhere are already being exploited by Iran for propaganda value and to create additional tensions and distrust between UAE and KSA.

Contradictory Coverage of the UAE Meeting with Iran Underscores the Role of Information Warfare

Putting aside these considerations for a moment, it is worth examining the dynamics between UAE and Iran outside Yemen. Of course, the meetings between the officials were spun very differently by the pro-Iran media and former Obama officials, now firmly ensconced in the Western foreign policy establishment, and the Gulf responders.  Much of the Western media covered the story as a political rapprochement between Iran and UAE, a political and diplomatic victory to Tehran, and a heavy blow to KSA, which is being stabbed in the back in the midst of a crisis. as reported by Washington Post on July 31, 2019. The Gulf press, on the other hand, disputed the version of significant maritime security agreements that would position UAE as having bought off its own safety in exchange for throwing Saudis under the bus, and instead pointed out that the meetings were routine and focused on relatively trivial fishing issues that do not affect the larger calculus nor change the nature of the relationship.

See for example Khaleej Times coverage on July 31, 2019. One can argue whether such coverage is merely a face saving measure by the ATQ in light of this turn of events; a cynical viewer could even make claim that UAE withdrawal from Yemen had less to do with the apparently hopelessness of the situation or the threat emanating from Iran than with some secret backchannel dialogue with Iran, which would preserve or even grow the trade relationship between the countries in exchange for the PR victory UAE would grant Iran by withdrawing its relatively small forces from Yemen (without necessarily ceasing its backing for the Southern forces). That interpretation would make sense if indeed the more significant nature of the meeting between the two countries were confirmed. However, following the Aytollah Khamenei’s public support for the Houthis, UAE officials publically linked Iran with the Houthis, which Iran had previously denied as Arab News points out on August 14, 2019.

Furthermore, the Emiratis and the Saudis accused Qataris and Turkish media of deliberately fabricating non-existent details to advance Iran’s agenda of creating divisions where there are not any, and fomenting tensions between the close allies, which have consistently pushed for diplomacy and opposed military confrontation with Iran as Radio Farda reported on August 3, 2019. Regardless of what is actually going on behind the scenes, however, neither version of events ultimately answers the question of what exactly Iran is hoping to achieve through this chain of events. Of course, it may have achieved a propaganda victory against the ATQ through the gossipy coverage which exploits or creates differences between UAE and KSA.

How does Iran benefit from the controversy over UAE meeting?

Certainly, whatever the actual reason for UAE’s withdrawal, it is to Iran’s advantage to have fewer people opposing the HOuthis in Yemen, particularly if they do not also change the strategy to become more effective in countering the ground forces with the intimate knowledge of the land and far greater information warfare skills. And most definitely, even a very minor meeting with Emirati officials, sends a strong signal to the rest of the world that Iran is a “reasonable” country that looks to cooperate with its neighbors if not major issues than on routine ones, and that the view of it as a regional aggressor with nothing of value to offer to the region is at the very least exaggerated. In other words, even if from a practical perspective it made sense for the Emiratis to meet with Iranians and to address diplomatically whatever is possible to address, it very likely was a mistake to agree to do so during a public visit to Iran rather than in some neutral and benign location.

The most likely view of the situation by Iran is as follows: regardless of UAE’s interests in the matter, it is clear that Iran has its geopolitical agenda of dominating the region and rebuilding the Persian empire, however long that will take. UAE, most likely, is not its primary target, as Iran has been consistent in pushing for the creation of a “Shi’a crescent”, and UAE simply would not fall into that category. Furthermore, at the current juncture, Iran needs all the financial help it can get, and attacking its trading partner’s territory does not make sense until such point as Tehran has secured its positions sufficiently elsewhere. Attacks on tankers will not warrant much of an international reaction, but a direct attack on UAE could be altogether different.

Likewise, Iran has no intention of stopping Houthi or Iraqi militia attacks against the Saudis; if anything, for the first time Iran’s reach to its proxies is sufficiently strong that it can now coordinate among these different bodies without facing much of a response from the US or anybody else.  However, creating and fomenting distrust among all allies, and making the White House confused and cross with all the parties involved, ruining any possibility of creating some version of an Arab NATO, and ensuring that no coordinated political action, such as a blockade, can be taken against its own interests is the most likely aim of all of this maneuvering.  The meeting with UAE may not have been of much strategic value in and of itself; particularly if Iran had no intention of attacking UAE to begin with, securing maritime agreements would be rather a symbolic and useless step. All agreements can be violated in a blink of an eye if Iran so chooses, as some have discovered through the folly of the nuclear deal.

However, creating the optics of a meeting and a dispute has furthered the tribalist differences Iran has long since alleged against its rivals, ensuring  that any future steps in the Gulf area may not encounter an unanimous response, because some may feel more invested in preserving a potential symbolic defense than others. If UAE believes that the rapprochement with Iran, even a minor one, is to its benefit in protecting it from physical harm, it will be less likely to be vocal in pushing for additional measures against Iran, and could be even used to oppose further tough actions by the United States, if it ever chooses to launch a military strike for instance.

UAE may not view the situation that way at all; for all anyone knows, the sole point of that expedition was to determine that Iran, once again is playing games, check off this last-resort attempt at peacemaking from the list, and go on business as usual in close coordination with Saudi Arabia. But UAE’s intentions here are irrelevant to Iran; most of this charade is aimed at generating panic among the Gulf masses and to for the benefit of the West, that will now be less sure of its Arab allies because they appear to be splintered, hedging their bets in light of Trump’s relative inaction, or else untrustworthy even towards each other, as some are already alleging. Iran may have engineered the entire situation for the benefit of the West and to create further distrust in the Arab allies and their ability and willingness to advance effective anti-Iran agenda and their overall worth to the United States.

Qatar meeting with Iran may underscore Qatar’s support for Iran agenda in Yemen

As for the meeting with Qatar?  FM Zarif, recently sanctioned by the United States, notably visited with Qatari officials right after visit by a Houthi official as reported by The National, on August 11, 2019.. NOt only is Iran flagrantly demonstrating the depth of its relationship with the Houthis, but it is now fairly open about Qatar’s support not merely for some trade with Iran  in light of the boycott by the ATQ, but Qatar’s support for Iran’s political positions and agenda in the region, which includes the backing of the Houthis. The de facto finance minister of the Houthis was killed during the factional clashes in Sanaa, but the HOuthis blamed his death on the US. Houthis, too, appear to be experiencing infighting. One of their leaders may have been killed during a power struggle. Qatar, which is right across from Iran has a front row view of the attacks on the Emirati and Saudi tankers; it also shares a gas field with Iran.

Despite Qatar’s stated concerns over Iran’s supposed threat, none of Qatari sites or tankers have been attacked by Iran or any of its proxies. Left out from the background to the meeting is  that Qatar has retained ties to both the Houthis and the Islah (ISlamist) brigades in Yemen, funding and backing both sides of the war, though ultimately the ISlamists are hostile to Saudi and Emirati interests in Yemen, writes Samuel Ramani in Al Monitor on November 19, 2018. Qatar’s support for the anti-Houthi Islamists has not appeared to have alarmed Iran, because this step ultimately only creates further friction between the Saudis and Emiratis and further advances Iran’s agenda. In other words, Iran is happy to have a fifth column inside the Arab Coalition, without which, nevertheless, countering the Houthis is unimaginable for lack of sufficient forces with knowledge of the physical landscape, especially after withdrawal by many of the other former Coalition members (including Egyptians, Moroccans, and Sudanese, and now the loss of most Emirati fighters).

However, the meeting with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has not raised much interest in the Western press, primarily because it is a dog bites man situation and there is less controversy to be explored. The meeting very well may have been planned to coordinate the agenda on Yemen, and certainly on the information warfare campaign in smearing the Arab Coalition members, and setting them up against one another. It is a shame that none in the press have stepped away from sensationalism to ask deeper, more troubling questions about this steadily growing relationship and Qatar’s apparent support and approval of Iran’s backing of the Houthis and their terrorist activity. Instead, they have focused on exploiting perceived divisions and fueling attacks against the allies in Yemen, with the hope of undermining their mutually important relationship and their partnership with the US. 

UAE and KSA should ignore such provocations; instead of playing into the hands of adversarial propaganda, they should issue joint statements emphasizing common goals on the ground; then quietly sit down and hammer out the challenges that have prevented them from unifying behind the same forces. As mentioned above, there is already evidence that much of that has been caused by miscommunication and social pressures of various types, rather than any bad intent or blind unwillingness to embrace the strategically sound positions.  However, if there is anything to be learned from these episodes is that Iran is a ruthlessly deceptive and calculating manipulator which will go to any lengths to clear its path to dominance, and that no matter the priorities and the political differences, the members of the ATQ should not fall for its dirty tricks.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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UAE-Israel relations risk being built on questionable assumptions

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A year of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has proven to be mutually beneficial. The question is whether the assumptions underlying the UAE’s initiative that led three other Arab countries to also formalise their relations with the Jewish state will prove to be correct in the medium and long term.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed laid out the strategic assumptions underlying his establishment of diplomatic relations, as well as its timing, in a conversation with Joel C. Rosenberg, an American-Israeli evangelical author and activist, 18 months before the announcement.

Mr. Rosenberg’s recounting of that conversation in a just-published book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East, constitutes a rare first-hand public account of the Emirati leader’s thinking.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting on his conversation with Prince Mohammed is largely paraphrased by the author rather than backed up with quotes. The UAE’s interest in building good relations with American Evangelicals as part of its effort to garner soft power in the United States and project itself as an icon of religious tolerance, and Mr. Rosenberg’s willingness to serve that purpose, add credibility to the author’s disclosures.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting, wittingly or unwittingly, has laid bare the potential longer-term fragility of the relationship that is evident in Prince Mohammed’s timing for the UAE’s recognition of Israel as well as the assumptions on which the Emirates has argued that relations would contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What emerges is that the UAE and Israel have a geopolitical interest in cooperating to contain Iran and militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that are associated with the Islamic republic. They also reap economic benefit from the formalisation of a relationship that has long existed de facto.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the implication is that public support for the relationship could prove to be fickle even though comment on social media in a country that tightly polices freedom of expression was dominated by supporters of the Emirati government.

Prominent Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla described the public backing as “a show of support for the government rather than a show of support for ‘normalization’ (with Israel) as such.” Mr. Abdulla was speaking in May as Israeli warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip in a conflict, sparked by protests in East Jerusalem, with Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the territory.

He noted that “no matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you.”

It was this sensitivity that persuaded Prince Mohammed that the door would close on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel without a solution to the Palestinian problem if then Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu were to go ahead with his plans to annex parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

“The only way to stop Netanyahu from grabbing what the Emiratis saw as Palestinian land was to go full Godfather and make Bibi an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname.

A proposal by the Trump administration that the UAE and other Arab states sign a non-aggression and non-belligerency pact with Israel without establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state gave Prince Mohammed the opening to push his plan.

“MbZ was open to the idea, but he now realized it would not be enough to pull Netanyahu away from his desire to annex large swaths of the West Bank. The only way to get what he wanted, MBZ recognized, was to give Netanyahu what he wanted most – full peace, full recognition, full normalization. But MbZ would have to move fast” to pre-empt the Israeli prime minister Mr. Rosenberg summarised, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Quoting then Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, rather than Prince Mohammed, Mr. Rosenberg regurgitates hopes publicly expressed by Emirati officials that the establishment of diplomatic relations would reinvigorate moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The establishment of diplomatic relations promised to be “a 360-degree success, one that goes beyond trade and investment,” Mr. Rosenberg quoted Mr. Gargash as saying.

Emirati economy minister Abdulla Bin Touq said the UAE hoped to boost trade with Israel to US$1 trillion over the next decade. Emirati officials were further banking on the fact that strong cultural and people-to-people ties – absent in Israel’s initial peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s – would put flesh on a skeleton of Arab-Israeli relations and ensure that Israel refrains from acts like annexation that would upset the apple cart.

Mr. Netanyahu’s successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has put those hopes to bed. He has unequivocally rejected the notion of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, refused to negotiate peace with the Palestinians during his term, and suggested that the improvement of social and economic conditions would satisfy Palestinian aspirations.

That could prove to be a risky bet given a shift to the right in Israeli public opinion, the growing influence of conservative religious segments of society, and the fact that some 600,000 Israelis who populate settlements built on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem make a two-state solution de facto impossible. That would leave a one-state solution as the only solution.

For that to work, Palestinians would have to buy into Mr. Bennett’s approach that is informed by the concept of “shrinking the conflict” that seeks to marginalise the Palestinian problem, put forward by Micah Goodman, an Israeli academic who chose to build a home in a West Bank settlement.

“Twenty per cent of Israelis are on the extremes, for either withdrawing from the territories or annexing them,” Mr. Goodman says. “The remaining 80 percent who don’t want to rule over the territories or relinquish them don’t have a way to talk about the conflict, so they just don’t think about it. Which is the tragedy of the Israeli center.”

Shrinking the conflict, rather than solving it, is what Mr. Goodman calls “replacing indifference with pragmatism.” He suggests that initiatives such as the creation of corridors between Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank and a border crossing to Jordan “up to the level that the Palestinians feel they are ruling themselves, without the capacity to threaten Israel” would tempt Palestinians to buy into his concept. Mr. Goodman’s plan would ensure, in his words, that Palestinians “don’t get anything like the right of return, a state or Jerusalem.”

Prince Mohammed appears, based on Mr. Rosenberg’s account of his conversations with the UAE leader and other Emirati officials, to have adopted the approach.  

“MbZ believed that by breaking the mould and making peace with Israel without giving the Palestinian leadership veto over his freedom of movement, he could open the door for other Arab countries to see the benefits and follow suit,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote.

Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco were quick to follow the UAE’s example. Some 300 Iraqi tribal and religious leaders, activists and former military officers called last week for diplomatic relations with Israel in a gathering in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

“Just as we demand that Iraq achieve federalism domestically, we demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords internationally. We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel and a new policy of mutual development and prosperity,” said Wisam Al-Hardan, a spokesman for the group and onetime tribal militia leader that aligned with the United States to fight al-Qaeda in 2005.

Mr. Rosenberg noted that “as more Arab states normalized relations with Israel, MbZ and his team believed it could create the conditions under which the Palestinians could finally say yes to a comprehensive peace plan of their own with Israel.”

That may prove to be over-optimistic. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Palestine Authority would withdraw its recognition of Israel and press charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court if Israel did not withdraw in the next year from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and lift the 14-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The assumption underlying Prince Mohammed’s hopes that Palestinians as well as Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon for that matter, would ultimately fall into line, creates a false equation between most Arab states and those bordering on Israel or under Israeli occupation.

Most Arab states like the UAE have existential issues with Israel that need to be resolved, which makes public opinion the potentially largest constraint on recognition of the Jewish state. There is no doubt that for Palestinians the issue is nothing but existential. The same is true for Jordan that has historic connections to the West Bank and whose population is more than half of Palestinian descent.

Similarly, Lebanon and Syria host large numbers of Palestinian refugees. Syria, moreover, has its own issues with Israel given the latter’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967.

Improving the social and economic conditions of the Palestinians are unlikely to satisfy their minimal needs or those of Israel’s immediate neighbours. Not to mention what the accelerated prospect of a de facto one-state solution to the Palestinian problem would mean for an Israel confronted with the choice of being a democratic state in which Palestinians could emerge as a majority or a Jewish state that sheds its democratic character and claim to be inclusive towards its citizens.

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Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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