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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Does he want to become president again?

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Recently, there have been media reports about the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to reenter big-time politics. Many observers believe that Ahmadinejad, who served as president of the Islamic Republic from 2005 until 2013, intends to run for the country’s top civilian job in May 2021, a move allowed by the Iranian constitution.

The ex-president has spent the past few months visiting the country’s various regions, speaking at meetings and rallies and being active on Twitter and Instagram popular among Iranian youth. He even has his own website – http://ahmadinejad.ir/.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also been making himself visible internationally, with personal messaged sent over the past few years to Presidents Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron. Recently, he sent a missive to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, urging him to end conflicts in the Middle East, including Yemen, and offering himself as a potential mediator in any peace process. He has sent similar messages calling for an end to the war in Yemen also to Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Shiite movement Ansar Allah (Houthis) currently in control of northern Yemen, and to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Speaking at a June 2020 rally in the northern province of Gilan, Ahmadinejad sharply criticized President Rouhani for approving a 25-year plan for cooperation between with China. The ex-president slammed the bilateral accord as “a secret deal with a foreign side against the interests of the country and the nation,” to a thunderous applause from the gathering.

There is no denying the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has supporters who root for him during his visits to the provinces, especially now that, amid the   socio-economic problems largely resulting from hard-hitting US sanctions, the liberal reformers, led by President Hassan Rouhani, have been ceding ground to radicals and conservatives, who stand by the principles of the Islamic revolution and the precepts of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. These “principlists” include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who since leaving office in 2013, has shown himself as a critic of the policies of his successor, President Hassan Rouhani. The ex-president supported all anti-government actions (but not before he stepped down seven years ago!), and remains opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, signed in 2015.

Ahmadinejad is particularly popular in small towns and rural areas, and for a good reason too, because his biography, as well as his populist rhetoric and image, appeal to a certain segment of the Iranian population.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in October 1956, into the family of a poor blacksmith in the village of Aradan in the country’s northeastern Semnan province. His father, Ahmad, was a deeply religious Shiite Muslim, and his mother, Khanom, was a Sayyida, an honorable title given to those believed to be direct bloodline descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The family moved to Tehran when Mahmoud was one year old. He was raised as a devout Muslim. Still a child, he already knew the Koran by heart, and at school he quickly gained the reputation of a hardworking and capable student.

In 1976, the would-be president entered Tehran’s prestigious University of Science and Technology, successfully graduating with the diploma of a transport engineer.

During his student years, he actively participated in the anti-Shah youth movement of a radical Islamic hue. After the Shah’s overthrow, Ahmadinejad, then a third-year student, joined the ultra-conservative Islamist Organization for Strengthening the Unity of Universities and Theological Schools. According to unconfirmed reports, he took part in the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. In 1980, he volunteered for the Iran-Iraq war as part of the IRGC and took part in a series of sabotage operations in northern and eastern Iraq. In that same year, he married his fellow student Azam al-Sadat Farahi, a mechanical engineer.

Upon his discharge from the army, he took up the career of a professional politician. In the late 80s, he headed the administrations of various cities in West Azerbaijan Province. In 1993 he was elected governor general of the newly-formed Ardabil Province, while simultaneously serving as an advisor to the Minister of Culture and Education of Iran, until the liberal reformer Mohammed Khatami removed him in 1997, whereupon he returned to teaching.

During that time, Ahmadinejad often visited the holy city of Qom to meet with Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, a radical representative of the Iranian clerical elite. Ayatollah Yazdi eventually became his spiritual mentor and played a significant role in his political career.

Six years later, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to politics, and in 2003, the Tehran Municipal Council elected him as city mayor. As mayor of the capital, he rolled back most of the liberal reforms implemented by his predecessors, tightened censorship, enforced Islamic morality, ordered the closure of all of the city’s Western fast food outlets, tightened Islamic norms in clothing and everyday life, instructing women to comply with the Islamic dress code, and men in public service to grow beards and wear short-sleeved shirts.

In June 2005, Ahmadinejad was elected president after running a populist campaign focused on social justice. In June 2009, he was re-elected for a second term in a tough tug-of-war with his political opponents. Ahmadinejad’s campaign rivals refused to accept his victory, claiming that electoral fraud had occurred during the voting. Anti-government protests and demonstrations, known as the “Green Movement,” ensued, but were suppressed.

For fairness’ sake, it should be noted that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has always maintained an ascetic lifestyle both in everyday life and in the positions of power that he held. He has never been embroiled in any corruption scandals – a rarity in modern-day Iran.

Observers, who have been following Ahmadinejad’s activities, point to several surprising or shocking details of his life both as a politician and a high-ranking official, such as:

  • as president, Ahmadinejad took the bus to get to work;
  • his wife, Azam al-Sadat Farahi, worked as a cleaner in a Koranic school;
  • when asked by the US TV network Fox News what he usually said to himself when looking in the mirror in the morning, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied: “Remember that you are nothing more than a simple servant.”
  • when Ahmadinejad first entered the presidential office, he surprised many by giving the pricey Persian carpets hanging on its walls to one of Tehran’s mosques and replacing them with ordinary cheap carpets;
  • upon his election as president, his property declaration included a 1977 Peugeot 504 car and a small house in one of the poorest districts of Tehran, inherited from his father 40 years earlier;
  • President Ahmadinejad also impressed his staff by bringing his breakfast to work in his briefcase every day, consisting of several cheese and olive oil sandwiches made by his wife;
  • during his tenure, any Cabinet minister, before being appointed to his post, was to sign a document, which, among other things, included a pledge not to enrich himself and make his and his relatives’ bank accounts open to public scrutiny;
  • after his resignation, Ahmadinejad refused the presidential pension, saying that he had worked not for a pension, but for the good of the people;
  • In his spare time, he likes to graze sheep and to help street sweepers with their job…

Well, this could have been just for show, and still…

Pro-Ahmadinejad propaganda was playing up his asceticism and fairness, comparing (just as a hint though, because no one can be compared with the Imam!) his modesty and fair-mindedness with those of the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Then what are the characteristic features of the policy of President Ahmadinejad, the man who for eight years held the second highest position in the Islamic Republic of Iran?

To answer this question, one needs to know exactly what country the president inherited in 2005 and the processes leading up to the situation, which then existed in Iran.

One should keep in mind the revolutionary upheavals, economic experiments of the Iranian version of military Communism and the impact of the eight-year Iranian-Iraqi war that by the close of the 1980s had left the country in a state of socio-economic decline. The potential of the harsh system that distinguished Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic regime had been exhausted and this is something Iran’s clerical leadership realized full well. The very economic survival of the Islamic Republic was on the line now and speedy reforms were sorely needed.

It was at that critical point in time that pragmatists came to power – first, Hojat ol-Islam. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989 – 1997), then – Hojat ol-Islam  Mohammad Khatami (1997 – 2005).

During the 16-year presidency of these two prominent leaders, despite all the contradictions and mistakes, deviations, failures and miscalculations, Iran gained strength, becoming a leading power in the Near and Middle East. Spiking oil and gas prices certainly helped, as oil export revenues quadrupled from $11 billion in 1998 to $40 billion in 2005.

The national economy was looking up, investments were flowing in, and democratic reforms were on the rise. On the foreign policy front, Iran was emerging from the semi-blockade and self-isolation, opening up to the outside world, which had gradually improved the country’s image internationally. This certainly facilitated Iran’s involvement in the political and economic processes going on in the world, in a boost to the national economy.

However, for all the socio-economic gains of 16 years of reforms, they threatened the very foundations of the Khomeinist ideology, which they were supposed to save and strengthen. The reforms (whether their architects and builders wanted it or not) were actually taking the country and society away from the strategic course laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini.

This is something the radical conservative Iranian clergy and their secular associates simply could not allow. To maintain their power they sought the revival of Khomeini’s ideas in a bid to reverse the policy of the two previous presidents.

Rafsanjani and Khatami – these two “Moors” of Iranian politics – had done their duty though, saving and strengthening the regime. They could go now, making way for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Formally speaking, President Ahmadinejad is a secular man, an engineer, but at the same time he sincerely considers himself a soldier and a direct messenger of the Messiah – the 12th hidden Imam Mahdi, and claims to be in constant mental contact with him.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first actions as president showed that he was firmly on the path laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini. Naturally, a return to the political and ideological fold of orthodox Khomeinism is impossible without the elimination of any sprouts of liberalism, especially when it comes to ideology. True to the precepts of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad banned Western music and movies, suppressed any signs of non-Islamic culture and essentially extended all the restrictions that he had previously introduced as mayor of Tehran, now on a national scale.

During his eight years in power, President Ahmadinejad, a native of the IRGC, did a lot to increase the Corps’ political and economic sway. Directly and indirectly, Ahmadinejad granted preferences to the IRGC in order to boost its commercial business assets. The Corps’ commercial role is particularly evident in at least 229 major holdings and civilian companies. The IRGC dominates the country’s construction, energy, petrochemical, mining, engineering, transport, telecommunications, trade, insurance and banking sectors.

As a result of the IRGC’s economic expansion, initiated by Ahmadinejad, by 2015 the Corps already controlled 25% – 35% of the national economy and 25% of all capital. Nowadays, it is not only a powerful military-political, ideological and intelligence organization, but a significant financial and economic establishment too.

The defense industry, also under the auspices of the IRGC, received a big boost during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In particular, the rocket industry has made a major headway in the development of new combat systems, including for launching satellites. In 2009, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, Iran placed in orbit its first space satellite Omid (Hope) launched by a two-stage Safir-2 (Messenger-2) booster, thus joining the club of space-going powers.

The Iranian nuclear problem remains the most important factor influencing the situation in and around the Islamic Republic. Back in 2003, in an effort to solve this problem, President Khatami initiated “nuclear negotiations” with Germany, France and Britain, which were supervised from the Iranian side by the incumbent President Rouhani. Under President Khatami, Iran signed the Additional Protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Although this document, which gives the IAEA additional access to Iranian nuclear facilities and provides for surprise checks, was not ratified by the Majlis, Khatami issued a directive, first to comply with its requirements, and, secondly, to suspend the country’s uranium enrichment work. This was done until 2006.

During the first months of his presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nixed all the positive results, achieved by his predecessor, President Khatami, in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.

The country was now ramping up its nuclear ambitions. Mastering modern technologies, Iran had advanced so much in its IRGC-supervised nuclear program, that it was now able to create its own complete nuclear cycle,  primarily an industrial infrastructure for uranium enrichment, which became a cause of serious concern by the whole world. While in the early 2000s Iran had only 164 centrifuges, by 2013 their number had increased to almost 20,000.

The international community responded to this by ratcheting up pressure on Tehran, demanding that it ensure full transparency of its nuclear program and prove its entirely peaceful nature. The UN Security Council adopted six resolutions, four of which introduced sanctions against Iran.

Under Ahmadinejad Iran began to slide back into isolation. Unlike his predecessors, Rafsanjani and Khatami, Ahmadinejad stubbornly refused to seek any compromises and opted for a policy of confrontation, relying on a demonstration of force, both globally and on a regional level. The political tension around Iran sometimes escalated into military confrontation. Responding to outside provocations, the Ahmadinejad administration has repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which resulted in large US and allied naval concentrations close to Iran’s borders and pushed the situation to the brink of war. Meanwhile, the military tension around Iran continued to impact the political and economic situation inside the country and the regional security system as a whole. Quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, Ahmadinejad then said that “the Zionist regime must be wiped off the face of the earth, and with the help of divine power, the world will soon live without the United States and Israel.”

President Ahmadinejad policy resulted in a cool in relations with the EU countries, which had traditionally been among the main trade and economic partners of Iran. Most other countries around the world were equally wary of building closer partnerships with Tehran.

The President increased the scale of Iran’s military and political activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf countries.

The resulting international isolation and the actions of Iran’s opponents dealt a heavy blow to the Iranian economy, which by the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency presented a very serious problem. Despite the fact that during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in power Iran had earned $1 trillion 200 billion, half of that as oil revenues, this did not prevent the country from sliding into a crisis.

The economic crisis did not come as a result of Western sanctions alone though. Under President Ahmadinejad reformers and moderate conservative traditionalists were being gradually phased out from the state apparatus with radicals actively taking over all the three branches of power in the country.

All this was seen by many as an attempt by Ahmadinejad to limit the power and influence of the first generation of Islamic revolutionaries and the clergy and to create a new political and business elite by promoting the current and former relatively young employees of the IRGC to government posts, and to provide state assistance to IRGC-affiliated companies and organizations.   This led to the security forces’ increased interference in the political life of the country – something Ayatollah Khomeini warned against in his political testament.

Simultaneously, Ahmadinejad sought additional powers as president and was trying to weaken parliamentary control over the executive branch and other power agencies, much to the chagrin of traditionalist conservatives who hated to see any weakening of their positions.

Ahmadinejad’s all-stops-out ambitions were apparently the reason why his relations with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei strained in the final years of his presidency, which ultimately led to the political isolation of Ahmadinejad and his associates after 2013, and prevented him from running again in 2017.

However, the situation in and around Iran has since changed very significantly. The virtual collapse of the JCPOA, aggressive US sanctions, falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic that hit Iran hard have set the stage for a political comeback by anti-Rouhani “principlists,” who scored a crushing victory in the February 2020 parliamentary elections, winning 223 out of 290 seats in the Majlis.

The moderate speaker Ali Larijani left the Majlis, replaced by IRGC General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. His two deputies are former members of Ahmadinejad’s government. According to observers, 60 members of the new Iranian parliament are people close to Ahmadinejad.

Almost all the most important positions are now in the hands of radicals, some of them seen as potential presidential candidates, such as Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who heads the most radical conservative camp in Iranian politics, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (NSC) Rear Admiral of the IRGC Ali Shamkhani, and Secretary of the Council of Political Expediency, former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, General Mohsen Rezayi.

There may be other conservative presidential hopefuls now in the making, of course, but the abovementioned politicians are unlikely to exchange their high-ranking positions for the “lose-lose” post of president. After all, it is clear that the current economic crisis in Iran will not end any time soon and voters will inevitably fault the president for this. In addition, the conservatives want to prevent anything that might damage the popularity of Ebrahim Raisi, who is reportedly being groomed by them for the position of the country’s next Supreme Leader.

The situation apparently favors Ahmadinejad, with many local analysts noting that “the general trend in domestic politics increasingly resembles the methods and style of Ahmadinejad.”

Reformist politician Hossein Khanizadeh believes that Ahmadinejad will run for president: “With the election of the 11th parliament, Ahmadinejad’s supporters are negotiating with the Guardian Council (GC)  about his possible participation in the elections.” An unnamed ally of the ex-president clarified that “the issue is past mediation and is now in the stage of direct discussion. Ahmadinejad has met with a number of GC members to discuss his candidacy for the presidential elections.”

That being said, many in the conservative camp have fresh memories of President Ahmadinejad’s waywardness. Conservative lawmaker Yakub Reza-zadeh flatly rejects the possibility of the ex-president’s participation in next year’s elections. He believes that Ahmadinejad has no place on the political stage after he repeatedly voiced his disobedience with the Supreme Leader.

“When Ahmadinejad decided not to follow the recommendation of the rahbar – Ayatollah Khamenei – and took part in the 2017 elections, Ahmad Janati (the head of the GC) said that this would lead to unrest. How can a person who does not obey the orders of the leader of the revolution and provokes unrest in the country become president again? ” Reza-zadeh wondered.

With the presidential election nine months away now, the conservative-radical bloc is quite likely to put forward a new candidate. As of now, the candidacy of ex-President Ahmadinejad looks pretty real.

The only reason why the author has analyzed in such great detail the personal traits of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his policies as president is because if he is elected again, this would undoubtedly determine the main trends and features of the country’s foreign and domestic policy, which, in turn, would result in an across-the-board metamorphosis of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is something we need to prepare for.

The future of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his participation in the 2021 presidential race certainly depends on the decision by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and, of course, on how the situation in and around Iran will develop in the coming months.

From our partner International Affairs

Senior research assistant at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, candidate of historical sciences

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UAE-Israel relations risk being built on questionable assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People behind the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

More accountability needed

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

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

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

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

No end to the violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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