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2020 Forecast: Revealing the Future of the Middle East

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Authors: Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) and Shehab Al Makahleh*

“When I thought I had already reached the bottom, they knocked from below.”-Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

This quote of the polish aphorist and poet of the 20th century, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, serves as a perfect epigraph to this in-depth 2020 forecast and ideally characterises the last 5–6 years of the developments in international relations and the crash of most of the “cautious optimism” that has ever been expressed within this period. Pessimists are the winners of the epoch in terms of prediction. Every time it seems that things can not get any worse, they actually get much worse. Thaws in conflict and progress that might take place on individual tracks are unreliable, uncertain, weak and very temporary. Additionally, they frequently end up with no concrete and significant results.

The system of international relations remains relatively chaotic. Nonetheless, there are stand-alone attempts to systematise it in a way or another at certain regional levels, especially while talking about security issues and the need to tackle the growing security challenges. The establishment of collective security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the reformation of collective security in Europe were discussed frequently in 2019. Emphasis was made on the clear understanding in global decision-making circles that the ongoing earthquake can only be weathered with minimal losses if there are attempts to keep at least some of its fragments relevant and solid. However, none of the players can put words into real action due to growing contradictions, even between “natural” allies. These contradictions keep growing as old paradigms are collapsing under the pressure of disillusionment and new challenges created by ill-management and populism.

These rising divergences with growing contradictions and decrease of common ground between international players will lead to a rise in confrontation. At the same time, the parties will be running out of diplomatic or non-violent approaches to deal with the contradictions, while pushing for decisive steps could spark violence.

General Global Overview

The year 2020 will be the most challenging and dramatic year since the beginning of the 21st century. It will be crucial in terms of shaping the world for the upcoming 20–25 years, laying the foundation for the emergence of a new system of international relations through the collapse of the elements of the latter one.

The rise of protest activities marked 2019. This tendency will gain momentum in 2020, leading to the collapse of individual governments and coup d’états, as well as plunging countries into the chaos of rising protest activities. This affinity will not be only limited to the rugged regions but will be standard for well-developed countries as well. Global confrontation will be on the rise, making international relations more explosive than ever before. Tension within societies is rising, while the governments are incapable of tackling them timely and properly, as they follow outdated principles poorly adapting to the dynamically changing world. Plus, according to statistics, there are already specific markers alarming that the world economy is moving quite fast to the new financial crisis that will impact all economies.

The heat in the Middle East will rise not only in terms of climatic changes but as well due to explosively increasing challenges in the regions, most of which are unsolvable.

The upcoming year will be more violent, and there is a high probability of triggering new global conflicts.

One of the main areas of global developments will be the Middle East. The Middle East was finalized 2019 with many countries on the brink of economic and political volatility.

Since the youth form more than 70 per cent of the population in the Middle East, increased access to the Internet and social media networks will provide them with direct information from the source. This will put some despotic regimes in the region at stake, as new mechanisms of demonstrations and protests will be orchestrated beyond governments’ capacities. Intelligence bodies in these states will fail to control digital media where the activists will call for rallies to save the jobless youth, fight gender parity and secure the rights of minorities, accelerating social and political transformation.

Middle East 2020: Political and Economic Forecast

Governments and institutions will face significant challenges in the coming few years, mainly in 2020–2021 as the world order and global trends undergo a major restructuring process. It is expected that all Middle Eastern regimes will experience snowballing tensions with mounting types of terrorism and the ability of strong, asymmetric and non-state actors to negatively affect the world order and the global balance of power.

Moreover, the social contract between Middle Eastern communities and governments would collapse and fail as people will call for meeting further their economic and social needs, security and prosperity (at a time when populism is rocketing in the West), thus threatening the whole world order. The tension between the ruling elites and citizens will reshape regional political geography.

With conflicting principles of superpowers, the Middle East will undergo a high risk of conflict in spheres of influence between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and other rising regional powers which seek to play a pivotal role in local and global affairs, attempting to shape the multipolar world.

The persistence of conflicts and the absence of real effective political and economic reforms will not reduce poverty as oil prices are not expected to return to the oil boom levels, forcing governments to limit cash payments and subsidies.

Social media is likely to become the key source of revolutionary activities and off-line coordination again, forcing the governments to shut down the Internet as an instrument of cracking down the protest movements. Though taking into account growing public dissent, these measures will become less effective and in the opposite will become dangerous and counterproductive, leading to broader civil uprising.

Polarisation vs Pluralisation in the Mena

Tenacious social and economic disparities over the coming years will inexorably be cemented by empowering sectarian, ethnic, ideological, regional and tribal identities. This might lead to a new wave of the Arab Spring, similar to what was witnessed in the cases of Syria and Libya, as well as Yemen. In the cases mentioned above, regional powers supported by global forces acted to instigate differences to reap more benefits. This was done by dividing these countries in order for the industries and economies of some of these regional and global powers to flourish. By 2021, it is also expected that the Islamic camp, which groups Muslim nations, will be fragmented, bringing about other Islamic camps in the Far East and Central Asia, as well as Africa, to compete with the Islamic camp led by Saudi Arabia. Thus, the competition will not be limited to a confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, but we will also see the growing power struggles within the Sunni political-religious camps (Turkey — Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Nigeria and Indonesia). Another split will be between countries backing moderate Islam and those claiming to support moderate Islam, but in reality funding extremist cells.

In 2020, the assiduous fading of state bodies in many Middle Eastern countries will craft favourable environments for strengthening domestic and international collective identities. By the same token, despotic political regimes still ruminate miscellany as key to power and feebleness. Such undemocratic Middle Eastern governments will proceed further with the unstated or uncluttered split of minorities, disregarding the opposition blocs and activists.

Proxy Wars and Protest to Escalate in the MENA

The conflict between Saudi and Iranian agents will continue in some countries in the Middle East. Although the Iranians proved to be more skilled in this competition, the Saudis count on American support. Washington will continue to escalate pressure on Iran using Europe as a springboard for further sanctions on Tehran and Iran would probably consider future moves using its proxy agents similar to Abqaiq refinery attack in Aramco.

Political instability will continue to hit the Middle East region. While the protests in Iraq and Lebanon will continue to achieve their goals with international support. Many demonstrations will be fuelled in other Middle Eastern states starting from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and some Gulf nations. As pro-Iran forces control Iraq and Lebanon, Tehran is likely to persuade its allies to make some concessions. This will require the efforts of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps to intervene when ordered.

Thus, three main focal points will prevail in 2020:

First: the impact of global economic trends on domestic politics; the influence of regional power struggles on unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. In many ways, these dynamics are interconnected and feed into one another. However, evidence of increased contact with Russia by countries like Egypt and Jordan should be taken in the context of the US disengagement from the region, which began during the Obama administration, and concern about the Trump administration’s disorganised, chaotic foreign policy. Furthermore, if the US administration announced the “long-awaited for the deal of the century”, this would push many Middle Eastern countries which have no peace deal with Israel to reconcile and naturalise ties even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved based on the Arab Peace Initiative (adopted in Beirut Arab League Summit).

Therefore, the Middle East will witness demonstrations in a number of countries, but without a regulatory framework to bring about regime change. Besides, economic conditions will aggravate, leading to more tensions.

The Three Core Sub-Regions of the Middle East

The Fertile Crescent (The Levant and Iraq)

Some experts believe that different paths will prevail in the sub-region of the Middle East: North Africa, the Gulf and the Fertile Crescent (the Levant and Iraq). The focus will be on resolving the Syrian crisis with the victory of the Assad regime and allies. Yet, Russian-Turkish ties will be affected by Russian-Syrian-Iranian intervention near the Turkish border. The threat that this would impose on the Turkish armed forces could spark a proxy war in Syria or at least in the North-West of the country.

Lebanon and Iraq would undergo a state of great internal turmoil that could either consolidate Iran’s power in both countries or lead to civil war by forming a techno-political government that consists of both former politicians and technocrats.

Having become the battlefield of the US and Iran, Iraq is risking to plunge in into severe instability and insecurity due to regional and international intervention in its internal affairs. It has been evident that when the Iraqi parliament asked the Americans and the international coalition to withdraw from Iraq, the Americans delinked the request, in a sign that whenever American military bases are present in countries, such states will have no independence or sovereignty to say no to the American who have the upper hand in these countries politically, economically and militarily. As Iraqi example shows, with the Americans threatening Iraqi government with sever sanctions Baghdad does not withdraw its request to the international troops to pull out of Iraq, it is clear that the first penalty on Iraq would be imposition of economic and financial sanctions that would badly affect economic activities and cause many financial and political issues in a bid to twist the arms of politicians and decision-makers in Iraq to reconsider their relationship with Iran and to ask Iranian troops to pull out of Iraq rather than asking the Americans.

In Iraq, there is little prospect of establishing a stable and popular government that can address the population’s genuine social and economic concerns, put an end to corruption and limit any foreign presence and interference in the country. Instability will generate violence; government hardship will fuel discontent and could herald the return of terrorist activities in Iraq as many countries prefer the country to be under the continued threat of jihadism, guaranteeing Iraqi’s allegiance to the West and the the US in fearing the repetition of the scenario of a strong Iraq of 1980s when the Iraqi army was one of the top ten world armies and used to have a say in political roadmap of the Middle East region, mainly in the GCC states.

Experts forecast that Jordan’s 2020 outlook will be promising as it is not involved in regional tensions. Although Jordanian diplomacy keeps walking the Middle East tightrope policy, the country closely monitors extremist factions and terrorist group leadership which seek to restore their power and evolve into a stronger caliphate relying on social media networks to recruit members and launch attacks. Jordanian Israeli bilateral relations will be tense because of Israel’s intransigence concerning the Palestinian issue, East Jerusalem and the expectation that the Israeli government would annex the Jordan Valley, exerting more pressure on the Palestinians in this region to move to Jordan, causing huge burdens on the Jordanian regime.

Syria will see national reconciliation due to internal and external dynamics paving the way for this end. Yet, Syria will not return to its pre-2011 state, as the Syrian regime will think twice before planning and acting to serve the people, businesses, and new generations which have lived the war and offered sacrifices. In the meantime, Moscow and Tehran will try to make sure that their interests in Syria are not shaky after all the sacrifices both countries have made to protect the regime and keep Syria united. The draft constitution proposed will be approved based on the partial decentralisation of power, which could lead to the return of many refugees from European and Arab countries.

North Africa

North Africa will have significant turbulence, and many North African states will be on the verge of violence starting from Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Western Sahara due to the flow of terrorist fighters from other African states. The only two countries that would be safe from terrorism and violence in north Africa are Morocco and Tunisia. In contrast, others will face waves of terrorist activities emanating from Mali, Nigeria and Somalia and Chad. The second version of the Arab Spring will spark in Lebanon and Iraq, then move to Algeria and Egypt for political and economic reasons. The outcome of regional and international interference and intervention in the Libyan affairs would backfire on its neighbours and further terrorist groups will arise, benefitting from international and regional rifts and disputes to settle down key conflicts in Africa where Iran, Turkey and some GCC states will have a proxy war that would split some of these countries based on conflicts of interests.

The GCC

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will continue to focus on tensions between some of their countries, Iran and Turkey. All of this depends on who will win in the coming American presidential elections in 2020. The next round of Israeli elections in March 2020 will help the GCC states take their final say about their political interests once Benjamin Netanyahu become the prime minister of Israel.

Yemen

The primary conflict in the Gulf now is Yemen, and the way to end it is problematic for the parties involved since the war in Yemen is not de-escalating as the gap between the warring parties remains wide and, in some respect, unbridgeable. Yemen will continue to be a war zone, and the Houthis will act to have the upper hand in north Yemen, rejecting any dictated agendas to resolve the conflict as their war with other parties and countries is a “to be or not to be”. KSA and the UAE will try through some agents to target the leader of the Houthis Abdul Malek Al Houthi to abort the dreams of the Houthis to have their political and military power in Yemen and in the region. Simultaneously, the Houthis will increase their targets in both KSA and UAE and this time by targeting entities of civic services to convey stronger messages to their leaderships.

Kuwait

In Kuwait, there is a new government, and new parliamentary elections will be held in 2020, paving the way for the country to have further democracy. Yet, the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would reflect on Kuwait as the Kuwaiti community is divided between both regional powers. Regarding the Sultanate of Oman, the country will continue to act as a bridge between Tehran and the GCC countries, the European countries and the US, working actively with Riyadh to put an end to the war in Yemen. However, success depends on how much effort the new Sultan Haitham bin Tarek can put into resolving these regional tensions: the Yemen war and Iranian-Saudi tension and whether he is going to follow the path of the previous Sultan. The new Sultan of Oman is to a great extent a replica of Sultan Qaboos’ policies.

Qatar

The Qatar crisis will be not solved as the recent meeting in Riyadh for the GCC was attended by the foreign minister, and there are no indicators that the dispute will be settled any time soon due to Doha’s steadfast stance. Moreover as the recent regional developments indicate that Qatar is trying to approach Iran at the expense of its GCC neighbours in order to be an alternative business hub if war erupts between Iran and the US with its other GCC allies. Furthermore, Qatar intensifies its contacts with Iran and broadens its cooperation in a bid to advocate itself later on as a mediator between Iran and other parties. And this will likely strengthen Qatari position in the region in 2020.

UAE and KSA

Any military intervention in the Gulf, if any, will not probably start before 2020 due to the many international events and meetings in the GCC countries. The UAE will host the World Expo in 2020, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host the G20 in Al Khobar at Aramco’s compound which it considers as an important playground to promote for itself and its modernisation in the framework of its 2030 Vision it is implementing with much effort. The year 2020 also marks the start of the countdown to the implementation of reform programs in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for 2030 (Kuwait is 2035 and Oman 2040) based on the achievement of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations Development Program. All of these programs hinge on the stability of the Gulf region, as any regional war would destroy all these plans and projects.

Kuwait

The health of Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah is in critical condition and this would increase the rift over the coming ruler of Kuwait in 2020–2021, leaving all options open for the Islamists to have a big say at the political scene of the country. Though the country is deemed one of the most advanced in the Gulf region politically as the emirate has an elected parliament with true democracy and free press, many neighbouring countries turn Kuwait into a satellite state. This will mark the coming era which will witness many Kuwaiti liberals, calling for safeguarding the country from any foreign interference.

Bahrain

As for Bahrain which is almost connected in its domestic and foreign policies with Saudi Arabia, it is slated that Manama will proceed further with the current trend of policies which would affect its relations with other GCC states at a later stage including those with Oman and at a later stage with Iraq due to the strong connections between Iraqi military groups with those in Bahrain whom Bahrain would accuse of tampering with its security and stability.

Other Key Players

Israel

Some important geopolitical trends in the region will be marked by March 2, 2020, with a new round of Israeli elections which would decide the future government of Israel. Indicators from Israel reveal that once Benjamin Netanyahu wins in the coming elections, he will announce the annexation of the Jordan Valley to Israel and this will adversely affect Israeli-Palestinian relations and Israeli-Jordanian relations, as this move violates the terms and articles of both Oslo (Palestinians and Israelis) and the Wadi Araba Agreements (Jordanians and Israelis). This would be at a critical time the threats of a regional war with Iran that would break out any moment as of summer 2020 after the American and western sanctions on Iran weaken the political regime and turn the Iranians against their rulers. thus, some GCC states will find it suitable to announce open normalisation of ties with Israel regardless of any Israel announcement with regard to the annexation process of the Jordan Valley as part of the so-called «Deal of the Century». The result will have an impact on the speed of development of relations between Israel and the GCC nations; Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority will feel marginalised or betrayed by other Arab states. Furthermore, Iranian comportment in the Gulf region (the increasing activities of Iranian naval forces) and Hezbollah in Lebanon will be taken seriously by Israel due to reluctance of the US administration to take military action against Iranian forces as Hezbollah will act even if by carrying out limited skirmishes that would lead to kidnapping some Israeli soldiers for further political and military concessions from both the Americans and the Israelis.

Iran

After the downing of the Ukrainian jet by Iranian forces, Iran has lost its fora and relatively privileged positions which Tehran has gained after killing of Qassim Soleimani which was a violation of international law. With the downing of the jet, Iran has lost the pretexts to act against any military provocations from other countries, fearing international outrage.

The general elections will be a sideshow for the vast majority of the population. But a more conservative and hard-line group will likely return to parliament to form a majority unless external interference is resorted to in order to affect people’s will, leading to further demonstrations and protests not only against the regime but also against its political elites and the Republican Guards who mostly control the country’s economy. On the other hand, there would be pro-government demonstrations and this would lead to direct clashes between both camps.

Furthermore, the so-called reformist/centrist/pragmatic camp would have a chance if regionally and internationally supported to change the pendulum of politics, especially after Iran has announced its pullout of the nuclear deal. Thus, the Western countries would find it easier to negotiate with a reformist camp rathe than to a rightist. Tehran and Washington are unlikely to make rapid progress, such as removing all sanctions in time. Therefore, the pressure of sanctions will continue to shape the Islamic Republic’s policies at home and abroad, and Tehran’s failure to protect its vulnerable population from harsh sanctions will lead to more unrest, violence and the erosion of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy. The sanctions have primarily secured the regime’s policies, and this is unlikely to change in 2020 if there are no improvements in Iran’s economic conditions and a radical change in the mindset of the American administration.

Turkey

Turkey’s sway in regional affairs will increase. Turkey will continue to play the double Dutch foreign policy cunningly between both Western and Eastern camps to secure their national interests domestically and externally. Turkish President Recep Erdogan will continue his repressive policy against any Kurdish state by the borders with Turkey as this will have problematic political developments. Yet, the political landscape in Turkey will be very critical with the Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s Ekrem Imamoglu, Ali Babacan (who was former prime minister) and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu will nominate themselves for presidential elections against Erdogan in the coming elections.

Erdogan is playing all political games with regional and international powers that serve him and his party. He is cautious when dealing with Russia, but in 2020 Russia will become Turkey’s key ally, though Ankara had been keeping Moscow before as Plan B for next scenarios against any American threat against political regime. Cooperation of Moscow and Ankara will intensify shaping a kind of alliance that limits Western opportunities to have an upper hand in regional affairs.

With Iran, Erdogan is also benefitting from the energy market, using the sanctions imposed on Tehran. With Syria and Iraq, he seeks to keep pushing for buffer zones to keep his borders clear and to distance Kurds from the Turkish borders. With the approval of the Turkish parliament to send troops to Libya to support Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj, the Turkish seek not to lose their final base in North Africa to other regional powers, considering that the loss of a presence means the loss of influence. Furthermore Turkey states clear that it is ready to step against the US and play its own geopolitical games freely and independently. Besides, Ankara made it clear that it is ready to play a «bigger» and more significant role in regional affairs than ever.

Conclusions

The expected re-election of US President Donald Trump will continue to have profound implications on the Middle East, and the inability to predict Western actions in the region and the profound absence of a coherent policy will affect regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Israel. Thus, the Gulf is slated to explode even without war on Iran because the whole region is divided based on each country’s national interests which contradict other states. Regarding the civil war in Libya, security will aggravate in the country, mainly in Tripoli, unless an agreement is reached among militant groups in addition to Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, the USA and Russia. The impeachment process of US President Donald Trump and the US role in the MENA region would determine the future of conflicts in many countries starting from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and the future government in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, Turkey and Iran. It is also expected that many MENA capitals will witness protests that would change the balance of power in the region. The outlook of the MENA in 2020 reveals that there will be a Sunni-Sunni split similar to the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

*Shehab Al Makahleh President of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center, Founder of the US-based Geostrategic and Media Center

From our partner RIAC

Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) Political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. President of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club

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Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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