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Running hot and cold: Gulf balances on the edge of war and peace

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With war and peace hanging in the balance, tensions in the Gulf are running hot and cold.

Saudi and Iranian leaders are this week walking back from the brink, signalling that they want to avoid outright military confrontation and manage rather than resolve differences.

In fact, there is every reason to believe that neither Riyadh nor Tehran has a vested interest in a definitive solution of the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple problems.

The trick for men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is to find a controllable way of maintaining their potentially existential bitter rivalry without fighting what could be a devastating regional war.

To do so, both men appear to be making the right noises against the backdrop of an evolving US policy that is forcing Saudi Arabia to rethink its almost decade-long, often reckless and assertive go-it-alone foreign and defense policy and Iran to seek ways to level the playing field.

The Anti-Iran Alliance is not just faltering, it’s crumbling. Bolton is gone; Bibi is going; MBZ has struck his deal with Iran; MBS is not far behind,” tweeted Council on Foreign Relations distinguished fellow and former US Middle East negotiator Martin S. Indyk.

Mr. Indyk was referring to former US national security advisor John Bolton and embattled Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu while identifying United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his Saudi counterpart and namesake, Prince Mohammed, by their initials.

Signalling a change in tone, Saudi Arabia has gone quiet on its investigation into responsibility for last month’s attacks on key Saudi oil facilities after earlier stopping just short of blaming Iran.

Prince Mohammed has meanwhile welcomed potential face-to-face talks between US President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Rouhani, saying “absolutely… This is what we all ask for.”

Prince Mohammed’s remarks were tempered by Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir who spelled out the kingdom’s demands.

Without clarifying whether these were a pre-condition for talks or issues to be discussed, Mr. Al-Jubeir’s demands included “ending Iran’s involvement in the affairs of other countries; stopping support for terrorist organizations; abandoning the policy of destruction and sowing conflict; and freezing the plan to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic-missile program.”

In response, Iran insisted that Saudi Arabia freeze its multibillion-dollar arms purchases from the United States, stop its intervention in Yemen and end discrimination against the Shiite Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia.

The chances of the two countries accepting the other’s conditions are virtually nil.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rouhani, with France, Iraq and Pakistan seeking to mediate, has kept the door open for talks with the United States which withdrew last year from the 2015 international agreement that curbs the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and has since imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran.

Addressing the Iranian cabinet this week, Mr. Rouhani termed a four-point plan put forward by French president Emmanuel Macron “acceptable.”

The plan calls for the United States to lift sanctions on Iran and allow it to freely export its oil and collect revenue in return for an Iranian commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons and help ensure Gulf security.

Mr. Macron’s proposal includes a US$15 billion credit line that would enable Iran to export oil and would also restore the P5+1 framework of signatories of the nuclear accord, France, Britain, Russia, China, Germany and the US.

Like with Mr. Al Jubeir’s demands, the question is what comes first, the chicken or the egg.

Mr. Trump sees lifting of sanctions as the outcome of talks while Mr. Rouhani has insisted that sanctions be removed prior to negotiations.

To step up pressure, Iran has been gradually breaching the terms of the accord and increasing tensions that bring the region closer to the brink of war in a bid to position negotiations as the only alternative.

Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh put the changing mood on public display at a Russian energy conference chaired by President Vladimir Putin when he described his Saudi counterpart, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, a son of King Salman, the Saudi monarch, as “a friend.”

“Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman has been a friend for over 22 years,” Mr. Zanganeh said.

The two men were later seen holding hands together with Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Mohammed Barkindo and speaking on the sidelines of the conference in the first such encounter since the attack on the oil facilities.

The new mood could over time, against the backdrop of mounting Gulf doubts about the reliability of the United States’ regional defence umbrella, make a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a multilateral security architecture more attractive.

The Russian proposal is built on the notion that security in the Gulf would be better served by an architecture that downplays regional rivalries rather than accentuating them as part of the US umbrella that is rooted in the Saudi-Iranian divide and designed to protect the conservative Arab monarchies against the Islamic republic.

The Russian approach theoretically could accommodate the survival strategies of both the Iranian regime and the Saudi ruling family.

Upholding Iran’s revolutionary façade requires the existence of an imperialist foreign threat that also gives a lease on life to the vested economic interests of hardliners grouped around the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Saudi Arabia, figuring that it needs at least six years to develop its natural gas potential to the degree that it can compete with Iran, home to the world’s second largest reserves, may want to see an Iranian regime that is weakened and possibly destabilized, but not on the verge of collapse.

Said Saudi foreign policy scholar Yasmine Farouk: “Time is of the essence. This moment in the Middle East’s international politics offers incentives and deterrents that Saudi Arabia can leverage in its negotiations with Iran. The longer the kingdom waits, the less influence it will have on the final outcome of its conflict with Iran, and on any future multilateral framework for security in the Gulf.”

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

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Has Assad succeeded in overcoming the Syrian crisis?

Mohamad Zreik

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A series of revolutions swept through the Arab region. The first torch was from Tunisia when protester Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself in opposition to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This wave of revolts led to the overthrow of many Arab regimes and leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries. There has been a state of destruction, displacement and economic collapse in the countries affected by the revolutions, a lot of killing, torture and political division, as well as the penetration of terrorist groups in the Arab world.

The revolution began in the form of peaceful protests, but soon developed using violence between the Syrian army and opposition groups. Over time, the Syrian opposition was divided into a peaceful opposition aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime through diplomatic means and the armed opposition, which was divided into several factions: the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, as well as other armed factions.

This difficult situation brought the Syrian regime into a stage of internal popular and military pressure, which led to a request for military assistance from Russia. Russia responded to Assad’s request and defended the Syrian regime in earnest. Russia, which had good relations with the Libyan regime, did not veto the UN Security Council in favor of the Gaddafi regime. In the Syrian crisis, however, Russia and China have vetoed the UN Security Council in favor of the Assad regime, and they defended the Syrian regime in international forums.

Russia, which has historical ties with the Syrian regime, regards Syria as an extension of its strategic interests in the Middle East. Evidence of this is the presence of Russia’s military base in Syria, which is Russia’s only military base in the Middle East. Iran also stood by the Syrian regime in its war, and there was constant coordination between the Syrian and Iranian leaderships. On the other hand, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and replace the existing regime with a new regime. The United States has repeatedly threatened military intervention to strike the Syrian regime, but the American threat has always been matched by a Russian willingness to retaliate, creating a balance of power on the Syrian battlefield.

Russia’s active support of the Syrian regime and its allies’ support led to Assad’s steadfastness, despite widespread international dissatisfaction with this outcome. Syria’s political position has not yet changed, but the Syrian-Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance has been strengthened. Many military analysts believe that what happened in Syria cannot be repeated with other countries. The most important reason is Syria’s strategic geographic position and the need for a regime like Assad to govern Syria for the time being.

The Assad regime has not collapsed, but there has been an internal and international resentment that did not exist in the past. This is expected to happen because of the nature of the Syrian regime’s alliances and the division of the region between an eastern and a Western axis. But the Assad regime has been able to withstand and maintain its position in the face of the severe crisis in Syria.

The Syrian regime must work hard to involve the Syrian opposition in government and form a government that includes all strata of Syrian society so as not to feel a large segment of the Syrian people injustice, and must increase the margin of freedom in the country. These steps should change the perception that prevailed towards the Syrian regime, and lead to its acceptance internally and internationally in the next stage.

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Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.

So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.

Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.

Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.

Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.

By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.

While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.

In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.

The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.

Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.

A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus.

Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”

In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.

RDIF and the kingdom’s counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.

The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.

Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack

Silvia Fornaroli

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The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.

Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.

On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.

It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”

The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and  often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.

Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.

On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States  — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”

Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.

Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.

At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.

In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.

Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.

The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.

On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies:  “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.

Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.

If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.

In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.

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