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JCPOA: Forward Into the Past

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In the last few months, the U.S.¬–Iran confrontation has been rapidly and steadily plunging the Middle East into the atmosphere of an impending armed conflict. The main stumbling block for Tehran and Washington is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the two states differed in their assessment of its terms. Iran believes that by becoming a party to the JCPOA it has already made significant concessions by voluntarily curtailing its sovereign right to develop a nuclear sector. Under the provisions of the nuclear deal, Iran undertook both to limit the pace of producing enriched uranium and plutonium and to grant IAEA officers broad access to its nuclear facilities. On the whole, Iran perceived these steps as a concession in the name of peace and the country’s economic prosperity. Donald Trump, on the contrary, views the Iran deal as a giant misstep by the Obama Administration. In his opinion, his predecessor both missed the opportunity to curb Iran’s policies in the region and helped lift sanctions from a state that the United States has recognized as the principal global sponsor of terrorism. Consequently, after many promises, the United States withdrew unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018 and then resumed the regime of harsh sanctions against Iran. From the point of view of the Trump administration, the JCPOA cannot be confined to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear area only. On the contrary, the deal should extend to all of Iran’s activities that are directed against the interests of Washington or its allies. Additionally, Donald Trump also stated that the very restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programs were highly unreliable and allowed Iran to secretly build up its nuclear potential. Consequently, from the point of view of the current U.S. leadership, the JCPOA should be revised and re-negotiated to be concluded on terms that would be more advantageous for Washington. Naturally, this cannot possibly sit well with Tehran, which already believes itself to be the affected party.

What Does Iran Want?

Iran was quite satisfied with the JCPOA. Naturally, it had to make concessions to the West and restrict its nuclear program, but in exchange, the harsh sanctions were lifted from Iran, which gave it new opportunities for trade and investment. However, the change of power in the US laid bare a new obstacle in the way of Iran’s politics: a new president in the United States means a new political course for the country. Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections put an end to the United States’ participation in the JCPOA and forced Iran to think about whether it is economically expedient to participate further in the nuclear deal. It both jeopardized the JCPOA and struck a major blow to the reputation of President Hassan Rouhani in particular, and of the supporters of Iran’s moderate politics in general. The current situation means that Iran agreed to make concessions to the West and never received what it had been promised. Despite its flexibility and tractability, Iran is again under harsh sanctions. And most of the country’s main trading partners comply with them. Thus, one of Iran’s most significant demands for the new deal should be to revise the mechanism for withdrawing from the deal in order to make this step as difficult as possible. One of the main reasons why Iran refuses to enter into talks with the United States is that Tehran does not believe Washington is prepared to follow through on the commitments it undertakes. Listing the reasons why Tehran does not accept Washington’s invitation to launch talks on a new JCPOA, Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, among other things, said, “In the final stage, after receiving all the immediate advantages, the U.S. breaches their own promises: they forget their strongly verbalized promises. This is the U.S.’s method of negotiating. Now should we negotiate with such a sham of a government? Why should we negotiate? The JCPOA was a clear example. Even though I was very strict about it – yet, the red lines were not respected. Still, the other party acted in such a manner. So, it is impossible to negotiate with this government.” It is clear that this time, mere promises on the part of the United States will be insufficient to conclude an agreement, even if these promises take the form of the provisions of a new treaty. As far as Iran sees it, the United States can promise much, but without definite guarantees, there is virtually nothing that keeps it from breaking its word just as easily and dismantling the agreement. Thus, the new agreement should stipulate guarantees against the easy unilateral withdrawal by any of the parties from the treaty. Naturally, it is difficult to envision a mechanism that would completely rule out the possibility of breaching the commitments while at the same time not infringing upon state sovereignty, but the system of withdrawing from the treaty can be made significantly harder. In particular, the withdrawal should not depend solely on the executive branch.

It appears that this goal may be achieved by “tying” the treaty to the national body of laws in each state that is a party to the deal. For as long as the JCPOA is enshrined solely in a resolution of the UN Security Council, its provisions, despite their binding nature, still remain within the limits of international law. Experience shows that, if this is the case, it is very easy for a President of the United States to declare that his country shall unilaterally cease to comply with its commitments under the treaty, as there are no impediments to this at the national level. However, any international treaty can be incorporated into the national legislation, thereby making the application of domestic procedures of amending legislation a mandatory condition for amending the treaty. Thus, the new deal can include a provision that the treaty comes into force only after it has been ratified by each party. In this case, each state that is party to the treaty will be bound by its domestic system of amending legislation, and such a system usually involves complicated parliamentary procedures. Such a system would create a counter-balance for the executive represented by the president, as it would restrict the executive powers to withdraw from the nuclear deal. This may inspire confidence in Tehran that changes in power in the United States will not radically affect Washington’s membership in the new deal. Consequently, Iran can be certain that this time, its concession will not be in vain.

What Does the United States Want?

The Trump administration represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a list of demands for Tehran which, once fulfilled, should lead to the sanctions being lifted. The list included 12 items (a 13th was added later on) calling upon Iran to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria; cease supporting such organizations as HAMAS and Hezbollah, etc.; grant the IAEA unqualified access to all its military facilities to conduct inspections; abolish its ballistic missile program, etc. Naturally, it is quite difficult to picture Iran complying with even a half of these demands, as it will seriously hurt the Middle East strategy the country has been building for the last 40 years. Thus, if the chance to find a compromise does appear, then the most serious concerns of the Trump administration regarding Iran’s politics should be addressed, otherwise, no deal can be concluded. Clearly, the greatest threat coming from Iran is the prospect of it developing nuclear weapons. When it comes to the nuclear deterrence with regard to Iran, two factors are important for the United States: the possibility of verifying compliance on the part of Iran with its obligations and the term of the JCPOA’s validity. At the same time, the demands of the United States concerning the provisions of the new treaty largely depend on the true intentions of the Trump administration. In that regard, at least two scenarios are possible.

The First Scenario

Donald Trump wanted to conclude a more advantageous deal on his terms, but since Iran proved to be intractable, he wants to reinstall at least those restrictions that had been agreed upon under the JCPOA in order to avoid having to solve the problem by force. In this case, Trump will have to both convince Iran to enter into talks again and draft a new deal in such a way as to “save face” in front of his voters and the global community in general. First, he needs to show that his entire “maximum pressure” campaign was not fruitless and did indeed prompt Iran to enter into talks with Washington. Second, Trump cannot just bring back the original JCPOA. A major part of Trump’s presidential campaign hinged on harsh criticism of the “nuclear deal,” which he called “terrible.” However, if Trump is willing to bring back the main JCPOA restrictions in order to conclude a new treaty, that would not be a political fiasco for his administration. It would suffice to make certain cosmetic changes that would be presented as significant concessions on the part of Iran and a victory of the “maximum pressure” strategy. In this case, the criticism of the JCPOA that underlay Trump’s electoral campaign should be used as a starting point. First, it is a fixed-time deal. Second, from the point of view of the U.S. administration, it allows Iran to secretly enrich uranium and further improve its nuclear program. In both areas, superficial restrictions may be introduced that are presented as radically new rules of the game for Iran. For instance, the IAEA can be granted some additional rights to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. Naturally, we are not talking unqualified access to all military facilities, since Tehran finds this utterly unacceptable. It is, however, possible to reduce the time of advance notification that IAEA officers must give Tehran of an upcoming inspection at a particular facility. Introducing a new term of validity for the treaty would appear to be more complicated since Iran would never agree to the restrictions being indefinite. One option could be to extend the treaty by stipulating a period of gradual easing off of the IAEA’s monitoring of the nuclear program.

The Second Scenario

The Trump administration continues to assert the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” strategy and still hopes to force Tehran to engage in talks on Washington’s terms. If the Trump administration continues to believe the “maximum pressure” strategy is a success, concluding a treaty will hinge on Iran making significant concessions. The question is what “red lines” Washington will draw for itself and what it is willing to offer Iran in exchange for the concessions required. If the United States continues to stick to its 13 demands, offering nothing but the lifting of the sanctions in exchange, the prospects of a new treaty are doomed, and it is highly probable that, sooner or later, Iran will start to work diligently on the development of its nuclear program. In this case, the only solution to the problem is the use of military force against Tehran. Trump’s readiness to start a new war in the Middle East is doubtful, especially since abstaining from needless conflicts is a key element of the politics of the current U.S. president. Consequently, the only way out of the current predicament is to look for a compromise that Iran could agree to and that could help Trump minimize the damage to his reputation as a competent president.

It is quite clear that the JCPOA if taken as an instrument of a comprehensive settlement of all threats coming from Iran, is far from perfect. It does not set any restrictions on Tehran’s military activities in the Middle East, it is a fixed-time deal, and it cannot prohibit Iran from extending financial and military aid to its regional allies. Nevertheless, the JCPOA did guarantee the main thing – that Tehran could not obtain nuclear weapons, the prospect of which far outweighs all other threats emanating from the country. Thus far, there is no alternative to this agreement, and no replacement appears to be in the offing. Despite the harsh economic sanctions and the real threat of an open military conflict with the United States, Tehran is firmly holding its ground and does not intend to engage in talks on Washington’s terms. At the same time, Iran continues to hide aces up its sleeves in the event that further negotiations take place as the country gradually resumes its military nuclear program. Sooner or later, the emerging situation will force the Trump Administration to make the difficult choice between the JCPOA and a new war in the Middle East. It is hard to say which is the preferred option for Washington, but it still seems that a bad peace is better than a good war.

From our partner RIAC

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The leading causes behind today’s unstable Iraq

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Nawshirwan Mustafa, Southern Kurdistan’s leader, writer, historian and a prominent head of the region’s leading opposition party who passed away four years ago had in one of his books portrayed Iraq to be “The museum of nations”. In the book “Rotating in circle, the inner side of the events: 1980-1984”He inscribed that the country is a hub of numerous nations including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians as well as numerous religious groups as of Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidis, etc. In other words, he believes that Iraq was initially comulsively constructed irrespective of the intentions of who lived in it in a manner that met the economic and political interests of the superpowers of that era. By era, he is referring to post ottoman period that was succeeded by the creation of a number of states incorporating Iraq in 1932.

Those various nations and groups have always caused clashes and challenges for the country known as an Arab state to an extent that since it’s inappropriate formation, It has never had a long term political, security and economic stability if we are to ignore social aspects. The country had always hosted war, coup d’état and crisis, conquered countries and countries conquered it.

Surpassingly, if we now encounter someone from any ethnic and/or religious folk, they would reveal their keen on owning a state, a region with its parliament, president and military. We should therefore wonder how come in a such non-homogenous country, with multiple ethnicities (each owning their cultural and accentual traits), and multiple religions, their people can be tolerant, preserve peace, embrace diversity, thereby become democratic for which the United states invaded it.

In a state where is forcefully annexed, we should not be astonished that it will always remain divided, living together will be a serious challenge, and worse than all, external powers will utilize the diversity of the ethnicities as they had always done and the outcome of these are what we are witnessing now.

Consequently, we notice that in Iraq occurs sectarian conflicts, Al-Qahida emerges, ISIS appears, almost each party is associated with a foreign agenda (the latter phenomenon somehow is in Kurdistan as well based on analytical descriptions). On the other hand, a recognized US think tank believes that Iran has always been intervening in Iraq alongside bolstering different militias.

Moreover, according to political analysts, Turkey is also a recognized player in the country. In the excuse of Turkmens, securing borders and ties with a few political factions, it treats Iraq as if it is still a former colony of their elder empire. The United States in addition will never evacuate it as it invested in it with a war that estimates its cost to be four trillion dollars. We may not have space to highlight other industrial western countries as well who consider Iraq as a tray covered with cakes due to its unique natural resources, each trying to take a peace from it.

Among numerous evidences for the geopolitical divisions of the country, the most recent one to be spotted is those soldiers of the Militia group known as “Hasaib Ahl Alhaq”, an externally backed and trained group whom in a recorded video threatened the government of Iraq to release their soldiers who were caught by the administration of the new Iraqi premier Mustafa Kadhmi. The soldiers the group was calling their freedom were five men caught and incarcerated by the Iraqi government following the strategic agreement signed between the United States and the Iraqi government, a deal that limited the authority of the paramilitary groups in Iraq and contained some other military and security points.

The aforementioned fighters were caught for their involvement in an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad on December 20 of last year. In the video they shouted, called for the freedom of their friends and revealed that they were religious fighters, fought against American imperialism and is now ready to fight as well. They also spoke out that “any touch on a religious fighter is a touch on every one of them, they are only awaiting order from their leader ‘Qais Xaz Ali’.” Qais is the leader of the group ‘Hasaib Ahl Alhaq’.

That incident was huge in Iraq, took the attention of the mass media outlets, social media and the people to an extent that same night the prime minister went out to the streets of Baghdad driving a car himself, giving the message that Iraq is safe and they save the security of the country.

The stability of any country relies on the security and military forces. Lack of stability can ruin life and the people pay huge prices. The toughest challenge of the series of the post 2003 Iraqi governments were their failure in spreading security and stability for the country. As a result, the region became a stadium of civil war, the birth of terrorist groups as well as the international interventions. Kadhmi’s government has been enormously repeating that they would secure the country, and bring about a stable and calm life for Iraqis, but they are yet to do so.

The military groups that were highlighted above are known to be one of the essential factors for why we are witnessing an unstable, corrupted and ruined Iraq. They are armed, militarily trained, financially supported and do not obey the government, making it almost impossible for the government to control and disarm them. The Sunni religious groups on the other hand are also to take a great share for the political, security and economic flaws of their country. Sunnis are still seriously concerned for the loss of their power before the invasion and are dreaming of taking it back. More importantly, they have always been marginalized by the majority Shiite based governments, resulting in their backlash of bolstering groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida.

To conclude, to save Iraq from those unfavorable catastrophes and providing it with a structure of a proper, peaceful, and stable country,  we would go back to the beginning of our writing and that is the root from which the country is constructed. Iraq is a forcefully combined country, created without taking into account the real intentions of its diverse ethnic and religious groups. The European colonial powers of that era-post ottoman period- designed its borders with a pen according to their political and economic interests. Therefor, ever since its creation, the country had been hosting political conflicts, coup d’états, civil war, terrorism, anti-homogeneity, conquerence and invasion. The Kurds say whatever you plant, you will cultivate it. Indisputably, it is that annexation and combination that resulted in a such politically, economically and socially unstable Iraq and only recreating the country on a foundation that reflects the intentions and considerations of its own entities can cure it from those challenges. US president elect Joe Biden is known to be the owner of the project of dividing Iraq into three regions: Sunnis, Kurds and Shites. He believes that implementing such a project would save Iraq from those struggles that the country had been suffering from for years!

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Middle East futures: Decade(s) of defiance and dissent

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If the 2010s were a decade of defiance and dissent, the 2020s promise to make mass anti-government protests a fixture of the greater Middle East’s political landscape. Protests in the coming decade are likely to be fuelled by the challenges Middle Eastern states face in enacting economic and social reforms as well as reducing their dependence on energy exports against the backdrop of a global economic crisis and depressed oil prices and energy markets. Complicating the challenges is the fact that youth that often constitutes a majority of the population have lost or are losing confidence in government and religious establishments at a time that social contracts are being unilaterally rewritten by political elites.

Pressure on the Middle East’s autocratic rulers is likely to increase with the departure of US President Donald J. Trump, a staunch supporter of strong man rule and the coming to office of President-elect Joe Biden. In contrast to Trump, Biden has suggested that he would emphasize democratic values and freedoms. In doing so, Biden could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Autocrats get some things right

The second decade of the 21st century has been bookended by protest. The decade was ushered in by protest across the globe, from student rallies in Chile to Occupy Wall Street to fuel price demonstrations in Jakarta. The 2011 popular revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats grabbed the headlines and provided drama.

The 2010s ended with similar drama. Protests in Chile resulted in a vote for a new constitution. A coalition of opposition parties challenged the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. Racism and the killing of people of colour by police sparked massive protests in the United States not seen since the 1960s. And like ten years earlier, demonstrators toppled Arab leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, uncertain whether this would secure the aspired change.

The 2020s promise to be no different, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. A global public opinion survey conducted by Edelman, a US public relations firm, in the United States, Europe, and Asia showed a significant drop in trust in governments as a result of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the worst global economic downturn in decades. Saudi Arabia, alongside Japan, were the two countries that witnessed only a minimal drop.[i][1]

Nevertheless, global mismanagement of the pandemic has hit hard in countries that are wracked by war, like Syria and Libya, nations with perennially weak economies that host large refugee populations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, and Gulf states, which have seen energy prices tumble with prospects dim for a quick recovery of oil and gas markets. Shifts towards greater autocracy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere bode ill at a time in which populations with a youth majority are not necessarily clamouring for greater freedom but are increasingly gloomy about governments’ ability to deliver jobs and other public goods.

Delivery was already a daunting task prior to the pandemic. The World Bank reported that the number of people living below a poverty line of US$1.90 a day in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment had more than tripled from eight million in 2011 to 28 million in 2018 and that the extreme poverty rate had doubled from 3.8 per cent in 2015 to 7.2 per cent in 2018.[ii][2]

Facing significantly dimmed economic prospects, the region’s autocrats, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, have, nonetheless, so far relatively successfully managed the political and social environment they operate in, judging by the responses to recent public opinion polling.[iii][3]

Both men have to varying degrees replaced religion with nationalism as the ideology legitimising their rule and sought to ensure that various countries in the region broadly adhere to their worldview.

“I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Prince Mohammed) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision… On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who oversees the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s polling in the region.[iv][4]

The two crown princes’ similar worldviews constitute in part a response to changing youth attitudes towards religiosity evident in the polls and expressed in mass anti-government protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The changes attach greater importance to adherence to individual morals and values and less focus on the formalistic observance of religious practice as well as a rejection of the sectarianism that is a fixture of governance in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Saudi religious ultra-conservatism.

The problem for rulers is that the moorings of their rule potentially could be called into question by a failure to deliver public goods and services that offer economic prospects. At the same time, social reforms needed to bolster development go hand in hand with the undermining of the authority of religious establishments. Increased autocracy that turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots has fuelled youth scepticism not only towards political elites but also religious institutions.

For rulers like the Saudi crown prince, the loosening of social restrictions – including the disempowerment of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment and greater professional opportunities for women, and in the UAE a degree of genuine religious pluralism – are only first steps in responding to youth aspirations.

“Youth have…witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today,” said Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein in a commentary on the latest Arab Youth Survey,[v][5]

Youth put a premium on reform

Middle Eastern youth attitudes towards religion, religiosity and religious leadership mirror their approach towards material concerns. Their world is one that focuses on the individual rather than the collective, on what’s in it for me? instead of what’s in it for us?. It is a world that is not defined by ideology or politics and does not see itself reflected in the values and objectives espoused by elites and governments. In their world, the lingua franca differs substantially from the language they were raised in.

Two-thirds of those polled by the Arab Youth Survey believe that religious institutions need to be overhauled. They question fundamental religious concepts even if they define religion as the most important constituent element of their identity. “The way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth, who can now see through it,” Alhussein said.[vi][6]

“Arabs know what they want and what they do not want. They want their basic needs for jobs, education, and health care to be attended to, and they want good governance and protection of their personal rights,” concluded James Zogby an Arab-American pollster with a decades-long track record of polling in the Middle East and North Africa.[vii][7]

Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, another pollster, and international affairs scholar Lawrence Rubin concluded that the youth in post-revolt Sudan had soured on the idea of religion-based governance because of widespread corruption during the region of toppled president Omar Al-Bashir, who professed his adherence to religious principles. Robbins and Rubin cautioned, however, that religion could return as the catalyst for protest if the government fails to cater to youth aspirations.

“If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from Sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting Sharia as a means to achieve these objectives,” Robbins and Rubin warned.[viii][8] It is a warning that is as valid for Sudan as it is for much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Saudis empathetic to protests

Asked in a recent poll conducted by The Washington Institute whether “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries,” a reference to the past decade of popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, Saudi public opinion was split down the middle. 48 per cent of respondents agreed, and 48 per cent disagreed.[ix][9] Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, appear less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be empathetic to protests should they occur.

Saudi attitudes towards protest take on added significance in an environment in which governments in the energy-rich Gulf have seen their ability erode to invest in infrastructure and cradle-to-grave welfare states. The need to diversify economies away from dependence on oil and gas exports to create jobs against the backdrop of depressed energy prices and markets as a result of the global economic downturn means changing expectations and rewriting social contracts that offered economic security and well-being in exchange for the surrender of political and social rights. In May 2020, The Dubai Chamber of Commerce provided a foretaste of problems to come. Based on a survey of 1,228 CEOs, the chamber warned that a staggering 70 per cent of businesses in the emirate expect to close their doors within the next six months.[x][10] Analysts added to the gloomy prospects by reporting that non-oil growth in the UAE pointed toward a contraction of the economy.[xi][11]

The challenges Gulf and other Middle Eastern states face are compounded by the pandemic and a painful, protracted and complex road towards economic recovery, coupled with the toll of debilitating regional conflicts. They are also complicated by an apparent conditional willingness to accept belt-tightening and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts.

“If it’s temporary, one or two years, I can adapt. My concern is that more taxes will be permanent – and that will be an issue,” said Saudi government worker Mohammed according to a report by Bloomberg after his USD 266 a month cost-of-living allowance was cancelled and sales taxes were tripled as part of painful austerity measures announced by finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.[xii][12]

Mohammed’s words were echoed in a rare pushback against the government by columnist Khalid Al-Sulaiman, writing in the Okaz daily newspaper, one of the kingdom’s tightly controlled media outlets, who wrote: “Citizens worry that the pressure on their living standards will outlast the current crisis. Increasing VAT from 5% to 15% will have a big effect on society’s purchasing power and will reflect negatively on the economy in the long term,”[xiii][13]

The surveys leave no doubt that even before the economic crisis sparked by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the Middle Eastern youth was first and foremost concerned about its economic future. Asked what had prompted the wave of protests in 2011, 2019 and 2020, respondents pointed to unemployment, personal debt and corruption. 35 per cent of those polled in the latest Arab Youth Survey reported that they were mired in debt compared with 15 per cent in 2015.[xiv][14] A whopping 80 per cent said they believed Arab regimes were corrupt.

“This evinces a realization that the past decade of revolutions has borne rather bitter fruit: civil war, humanitarian distress, the rise of powerful extremist elements, and the collapse of governing restraints… Today, rather than seeking to change the world, most Arabs (especially the younger generation) demonstrate that mere improvements in their material condition would suffice,” said Middle East scholar Michael Milstein.[xv][15]

Voting with their feet

If the surveys suggest one thing, the streets of Algerian, Sudanese, Lebanese and Iraqi cities suggest something else.[xvi][16] Protesters in those four countries appeared to have learnt lessons from the failed 2011 revolts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In contrast to 2011, protesters in 2019 and 2020 refused to surrender the street once a leader was forced to resign. Instead, they maintained their protests, demanding a total overhaul of the political system,[xvii][17] which led to the formation of a governing transitional council in Sudan and a referendum on a new Algerian constitution.

Feeling outmanoeuvred by the military and political elites, Algerians voted with their feet. While the new constitution won in the referendum with a two-thirds majority, less than a quarter of eligible voters cast their vote.[xviii][18] “Algerian youths do not see the ‘New Algeria’ that lives in the president’s speeches. Activists are jailed for social media posts and memes, and the entire nation feels abandoned by both the political establishment and the traditional opposition,” cautioned Algerian scholar Zine Labidine Ghebouli.[xix][19] In Sudan, the jury is still out on whether the council will satisfy popular demand. In Lebanon and Iraq, the protesters also insisted on the removal of the sect- and ethnic-based political structures that underpin the two countries’ political systems.[xx][20]

Like in Algeria, protesters in Lebanon and Iraq confronting police violence and the impact of the pandemic was at an inflexion point. That was graphically visualised in late October 2020 with the reopening of a key bridge in Baghdad and the clearing out of tents from a sit-in in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-establishment protest movement that erupted a year ago to demand basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.[xxi][21]

Few doubt that the combination of repressive law enforcement, politics rather than engagement and a public health crisis at best buys elites a reprieve. The writing is on the wall, with intermittent protests erupting in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iran and war-ravaged Syria. “For political transformation to happen, you need a generation,” noted Lina Khatib, head of London-based think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.[xxii][22]

The question is not whether another wave of protest will occur, but when and where.

“The most dangerous people in any society: “When you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don’t have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues,” said former CIA acting director Michael Morell.[xxiii][23]

“The essential situation is that this mass of citizens has reached the point of discontent but (of) desperation and therefore has done the only thing it sees as available to it other than immigrate, which is challenging their state openly in street protests. Something has to give between these two forces,” added veteran journalist and Middle East scholar Rami Khouri.[xxiv][24]

Give and take seems, however, for now, a way off. The immediate reality is a stalemate. Protesters have demonstrated their ability to topple heads of government but have so far failed to force elites, determined to protect their perks at whatever cost, to address their fundamental concerns, let alone surrender power. Aggravating the stalemate is the breakdown in trust between significant segments of youth populations and governments as well as traditional opposition forces fuelling demands for reforms that replace existing elites rather than exploring ways of finding common ground.

“Arab governments’ long suppression of the development of inclusive, democratic, and effective institutions has left a vacuum of leadership among regime and opposition forces alike. That vacuum is acutely felt today… with no trusted institution in the region who could carry out people’s rightful demands for more effective management of their countries, the endgame is unclear,” said Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan.[xxv][25]

In a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into Central Asia, trends and developments no longer are sub-regional. They reverberate across what increasingly looks like the Middle East’s expanding borderlands as was evident in the 2020 Caucasus war between Armenia and Turkey- and Israel-backed Azerbaijan with Iran walking a fine line despite its empathy for the Armenians. Russian security forces and analysts predict that the fallout of the war is likely to compound a combustuous mix that will spark social unrest in the North Caucasus.

Aslan Bakov, a prominent political analyst from the Kabardino-Balkaria region, warned that Muslim civil society groups were likely to lead anti-Russian protests, taking local authorities as well as the government in Moscow to task for mismanaging the pandemic and reducing financial support of the North Caucasus. As a result, the region suffered a higher Covid-19 related death rate per capita of the population and has seen employment rates soar as high as 40 per cent. Muslim non-governmental organizations have stepped in where increasingly authoritarian local governments have failed to deliver, fuelling widespread lack of confidence in state authority. Describing the situation as “ideal conditions for a social explosion,” Baskov cautioned that the unrest could escalate into ethnic and border conflicts in a region in which frontiers have yet to be definitively demarcated.[xxvi][26]

A catalyst for reinvigorated protest?

Much like US President Jimmy Carter’s support for human rights in the 1970s boosted popular resistance to the Shah of Iran and helped pave the way for the Islamic revolution,[xxvii][27] President-elect Joe Biden, with his emphasis on democratic values and freedoms,[xxviii][28] could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Supporters of a human rights-driven foreign policy juxtapose the emergence of an anti-American regime in Iran with the rise of post-revolt democratic leaders in Chile, the Philippines and South Korea. US President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Biden struggled almost a decade ago with how to handle the 2011 popular revolts.

Critics accuse Obama of enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to gain executive power in the aftermath of the revolts. The rise of the Brotherhood sparked a counter-revolution that led to a military coup in Egypt and civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

“The cases of Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines, along with a few others, are often cited…by foreign policy elites arguing that American human rights advocacy needn’t come at the expense of American interests. And yet, as we can see in…harsh Monday-morning quarterbacking of Obama’s policy toward the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, for example, this argument still faces a steep uphill climb,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East scholar who coordinated US democracy and human rights policy as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Cofman Wittes was referring to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader who was forced to resign in 2011 after 30 years in office.

Biden has pledged to “defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.” Biden was referring to Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist.[xxix][29] Biden has also said he would convene a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office as part of an effort to confront authoritarian regimes and promote elections and human rights. The summit would be attended not only by political leaders but also including civil rights groups fighting for democracy.[xxx][30]

Campaign promises are one thing, enacting policies once in office another. As a result, the jury is out on how a Biden administration will handle potentially sustained protest in the Middle East and North Africa. To be sure, taken together the most recent surveys of public opinion paint a picture of a youth that has shifted in much of the region from optimism at the time of the 2011 revolts to deep-seated pessimism if not despair about its future prospects and a lack of confidence in the ability and/or willingness of most governments and elites to cater to its social and economic needs. That makes predictions of civil unrest all the more real.

Fact is also that the lesson of the last decade for the coming one is that political transition sparked by waves of protest is not a matter of days, months or even a year. It is a long, drawn-out process that often plays out over decades. 2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent, with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic centrepiece.

The 2020s is likely to be a decade in which protests may produce at best uncertain and fragile outcomes, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain an immediate upper hand. Fragility at best and instability at worst is likely to be the norm. To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake. No doubt, that is a tall order.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient.


[i] [1] Edelman, 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, January 2021, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf

[ii] [2] World Bank Group, Poverty and Shared Prosperity  2020: Reversals of Fortune, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/34496/9781464816024.pdf

[iii] [3] ASDA’A BCW, Arab Youth Survey, 2020; Arab Center Washington. https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/findings.html / Arab Opinion Index 2017-2018, 2018, http://arabcenterdc.org/survey/2017-2018-arab-opinion-index-executive-summary/

[iv] [4] Interview with the author, 14 October 2020.

[v] [5] ASDA’A BCW, A Voice for Change, 2020, 2020, p. 44, https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/downloadwhitepaper/AYS%202020-WP_ENG_0510_Single-Final.pdf

[vi] [6] Ibid.

[vii] [7] Interview with the author, 24 August 2020.

[viii] [8] Michael Robbins and Lawrence Rubin, Sudan’s government seems to be shifting away from Islamic law. Not everyone supports these moves, 27 August 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/27/sudans-government-seems-be-shifting-away-sharia-law-not-everyone-supports-these-moves/

[ix] [9] David Pollock, Saudi Poll: China Leads U.S.; Majority Back Curbs on Extremism, Coronavirus, 31 July 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/saudi-poll-china-leads-u.s-majority-back-curbs-on-extremism-coronavirus

[x] [10] Natasha Turak, 70% of Dubai companies expect to go out of business within six months due to coronavirus pandemic, survey says, 21 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/21/coronavirus-dubai-70percent-of-companies-expect-to-close-in-six-months.html

[xi] [11] Al Jazeera, Egypt and Saudi business conditions improve, while UAE’s worsen, 3 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/3/bbegypt-and-saudi-business-conditions-improves-while-uaes-wors

[xii] [12] Vivian Nereim and Sylvia Westall, Crisis Austerity in Oil-Rich Gulf May Test Political Balance, 2020.

[xiii] [13] Khalid Al-Sulaiman, Will the Finance Minister Do It?  (هل يفعلها وزير المالية ؟!), Okaz, 1 September 2020, https://www.okaz.com.sa/articles/authors/2026288, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/austerity-experiment-in-oil-rich-gulf-may-falter-post-crisis?sref=3XwG50X1

[xiv] [14] ASDA’A BCW, 7th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Masteller Arab Youth Survey, 2015, http://arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/whitepaper/en/2015-AYS-White-Paper.pdf

[xv] [15] Michael Milstein, Ten Years Since the ‘Arab Spring’: Despair Has Not Become More Comfortable, 27 October 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/arab-spring-despair-comfortable

[xvi] [16] James M. Dorsey, The Tumultuous Decade: Arab Public Opinion and the Upheavals of 2010–2019, 2020, New Books Network, 5 September 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-tumultuous-decade-arab-public.html

[xvii] [17] James M. Dorsey, 2019 was a decade of defiance and dissent. The 2020s are likely to be no different, 1 January 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/01/2019-was-decade-of-defiance-and-dissent.html

[xviii] [18] Al Jazeera, Algerians back constitutional reforms amid low voter turnout, 2 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/2/low-voter-turnout-hits-algeria-referendum-amid-boycott-calls.

[xix] [19] Zine Labidine Ghebouli, Requiem for a Revolution, , Newlines Magazine, 1 November 2020, https://newlinesmag.com/essays/requiem-for-a-revolution/

[xx] [20] James M. Dorsey, Countering civilisationalism: Lebanese and Iraqi protesters transcend sectarianism, 1 November 2019, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2019/11/countering-civilisationalism-lebanese.html

[xxi] [21] Al Jazeera, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square cleared, Jamhuriya Bridge reopened, 31 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/31/iraq-clears-tahrir-square-a-year-after-mass-protests-began

[xxii] [22] Jared Malsin, Middle East Protesters Try to Avoid Mistakes of Arab Spring, 2020.

[xxiii] [23] CBS News, Biggest factor in U.S.-Middle East relations is perception that U.S. is withdrawing, 6 January 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-factor-in-u-s-middle-east-relations-is-perception-that-u-s-is-withdrawing/

[xxiv] [24] Wilson Center, Ten Years of Pan-Arab Protests: Understanding the new Dynamics of Change, The Wall Street Journal. 20 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/middle-east-protesters-try-to-avoid-mistakes-of-arab-spring-11579530280

[xxv] [25] Marwan Muasher, Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?, 30 October 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220

[xxvi] [26] Paul Goble, Year 2020 in Review: Pandemic Exacerbated Problems Across North Caucasus and Set Stage for More Conflict, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 5 January 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/year-2020-in-review-pandemic-exacerbated-problems-across-north-caucasus-and-set-stage-for-more-conflict/

[xxvii] [27] Tamara Cofman Wittes, Iran’s revolution and the problem of autocratic allies, Brookings, 24 January 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/irans-revolution-and-the-problem-of-autocratic-allies/

[xxviii] [28] Joss Harrison, There are signs that as president, Joe Biden could adopt a proactive human rights approach similar to Jimmy Carter’s, LSE US Centre, 3 July 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/07/03/there-are-signs-that-as-president-joe-biden-could-adopt-a-proactive-human-rights-approach-similar-to-jimmy-carters/

[xxix] [29] JoeBiden.com,  Anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder – Statement by Vice President Joe Biden, 2 October 2020, https://joebiden.com/2020/10/02/anniversary-of-jamal-khashoggis-murder-statement-by-vice-president-joe-biden/#

[xxx] [30] JoeBiden.com, The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century, Undated, https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/

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Middle East

Reigniting Chaos in Syria

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Syria has been the nexus of brutality and terror for almost a decade now; with more than 6 million natives who have already fled and numerous displaced over the territory itself, the region casts a ghastly shade that has only turned grimmer with time. Although the conflict seemingly raved its catastrophic footprint in early 2000, the root cause arguably always ends up to be the infamous ‘Arab Spring’ that actually tuned the Syrians against their very own regime. Something to compare and contrast that communal unity acted in Iraq’s benefit back when USA invaded the territory to avenge the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 while casted a fiasco in Syria when invaded in 2014. Large scale protests and rampaging violence gradually morphed into a series of relentless efforts to first deter Bashar Al-Asad’s efforts to first peacefully and then collaboratively resolving the raging unrest. Some would say it was inspired by the historical besiege of Libya and the subsequent execution of the Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi as an ensue of that revolution yet Bashar Al-Asad proved a far more tensile force to overthrow. Such tumultuous turn of events, lead Syria to first economic sanctions followed by severe isolation in the global community opposing and downright rejecting Assad’s actions to curb the political tremors. Yet intermittent interventions, both implicit and explicit, by the western powers and their counter-parts have defined the region more as a battle ground of mercenary motives instead of mere efforts to safeguard human rights and ensuring regional peace.

Since 2011, three core actors have remained active in skirmishes that have more oftener than not transformed into battles of gore and toil and sometimes even full-fledged wars that have not only dismembered the expanse of over an 185,000 kmof land into mounds of dust and rubble with terror now crawling over the lanes but have even shuddered the immediate vicinity. With the downfall and perpetual dissipation of ISIS, losing much of its occupied land to active contenders, Assad’s militia and Kurdish forces remain the helming competitors along with a smattering of other oppositions like Jaish al Fateh and Nusrta Front. The conflict between the Kurdish forces backed by the US regime against ISIS and then eventual betrayal on the Turkish front had been a matter of contentions in the latter part of 2019; Kurds making it abundantly clear to harness the borders they surmise to be rightly theirs while Turkish policies, especially under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been outright fearless and needless of any other inference regarding their austere stance over the issue; claiming their bordering territories and inferring stern response in case of any dissension caused by the Kurds.

However, the outlining threat in the recent time can be perceived at a novel yet a totally realistic stage, where proxy wars no longer remain the ground reality of armed unrest in Syria. This notion has arisen since harsh words were exchanged between Moscow and Ankara; the metropolis’ of the neighbouring giants: Russia and Turkey respectively. A glimpse in the historical scaffolding of the entire Syrian conflict, Russia has always backed Assad’s regime despite its initial block over Syrian policies revolving over strategies to deal with the blooming protests in the early tremors of the Arab Spring who’s effects had started to resonate in the entire Middle East following up on Ground 0, Tunisia. The vantage point of Russia, however, shifted when the political paradigm was drastically nudged by the terror-driven escalation of ISIS after severe US blunders and baffling retreat from Syria that even threatened the sovereignty and security of the region following their besiege of the state of Raqqa, establishing ISIS as a looming concern, thereby aligning the aims of both Russian reign and Assad’s regime, ultimately inciting a continued alliance. Turkey, on the other hand, being the northern neighbour to Syria also contended as a root protagonist in economic isolation of Assad’s government, imposing stringent financial sanctions that tightened the bottlenecks and eventually led to the deterioration of their financial virility that already staggered after sanctions and embargos placed by both EU and USA.

This conflict that permeates in the north-western terrain of Syria lilts an innuendo that a spark may be brewing between the two nations. The besieged province of Idlib exudes the source of the strife; an area that has witnessed countless Turkish troops slain by Assad’s forces in cross-border disputes; close to seven Turkish soldiers were recently killed in a thorough retaliation of Syrian forces in the de-escalation zone, much to Turkey’s dismay. However, the Russian involvement in backing the Syrian government in their dissent in Idlib and heavily bombing of the territory with artillery servers as a link to presumably leading a head-on conflict between Russia and Turkey; hinted by Erdoğan that any effort made in the region will not go answered, clearly warning the Russian forces to avoid any transgression that could cause fatality to their personnel. The people of Syria, blended with the rebels, look in the eye of a dead end; bombardments to deter the tyrants have shredded their innocent bodies similar to the incursions in Eastern Ghouta and with no one on their side but with ulterior incentives, they are left with no choice but to see Turkey as a savior. To any sane mind, however, its not really a complex interface of modes and interests involved. With clash of alliances, historical narrative of both the world wars fought, coherently brings about the model of war despite a never-ending argument at whim. Without contesting any theory by any analyst, its imperative to gauge at the systematic progression of the tensions flowing yet not mitigating. Turkey being stranded from its western allies and Arab assistance in wake of the murder conspiracy and being locked in a bound-to-doom NATO relation with Russia, the outcome of this steady conflict can bring about equal amount of damage yet in lesser of a decade and more pandemic effects.

Recent Israeli airstrikes targeted the Iran-linked elements in Syria. One of the biggest attacks even in at least half a decade period of relative dormancy in the region hint at the start of something gruesome. The attacks pointed Iran-backed sites like Al-Bukamal in intensity, riddling the city that acts as a focal point to Iran’s influence over and beyond the borders of Baghdad and Damascus, as well as paving way to militants from the fore stretch of Lebanon. The attacks reportedly served as an active Israeli position against the Irani militants and revolutionary guards, casting a heavy presence in the core hit areas of the province of Dair al Zor, claiming 57 casualties. The attack assumes a step-up stance of Israel picking up from a cold targeted strike within Iran, months back, eliminating the crucial scientific figure of Iran, that earned promises of retaliation both from the military leads and the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These attacks nurture an underlying message of Israel following on the shadow war footsteps dictated under the premiership of Mr. Donald Trump. Now, with his nefarious exit from the presidential office following the riots at US Capitol and Mr. Biden’s ascension to power just days away, Israel insinuates its true deterrence of Iran’s growing influence and hostility in the expansive areas of Southern, North-western and Eastern regions of Syria. With US intelligence cultivating the Israeli position in Syria while Iran enriching its plans of Nuclear power along with backing militias under the lead of Lebanese force of Hezbollah, a possibility of another proxy clash is re-emerging in the peripheries of Syria. Now as Israel continues to welcome Arab nations to set camp around Syria to end Tehran’s influence, US faces a tough choice in over a decade to either exit the war before it even flames or repeat their interference regretted since the Arab Spring to jump headfirst into another round of decade long destruction.

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