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Monday, 11 December 2017 16:23

Trump's declaration and the Palestinian response

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December 9, 2017 was the 30th year anniversary of the first Intifada. So far, the Palestinian responses of yesterday took three tracks: Diplomatic, nonviolent, and violent. Here is a description of each, and I will close with some conclusions.

The diplomatic track included two crucial steps that were taken immediately: One is cutting the relations with the US administration, and the declaration by Azzam Al Ahmad, member of the central committee of Fateh, that President Abbas will not meet Mike Pence on December 19 in Bethlehem as was scheduled. The second was about submitting a complaint to the UN Security Council by the PLO Mission to the UN against the USA. It is said that point 3 of the article number 27 of the UN Security Council does not allow the USA to use the veto right against a complaint submitted against it. It is also said that nevertheless if the veto will be used, then the next step will be about going to the UN General Assembly to make a resolution under the “United for Peace” clause, which will be an obligatory resolution. 

The nonviolent track expressed itself through the hundreds of demonstrations that took place yesterday in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

At the same time rockets were launched to Israel from Gaza, this time by Al Qaida and ISIS-affiliated groups. Hamas called for an Intifada without defining clearly its tools, while the Islamic Jihad and the PFLP called for struggle against the Israeli occupation by all means. 

These three tracks have the following significance: 

The new diplomatic track of cutting contacts with the Americans, if it continues, will mean the end of counting on negotiations as the path to the Palestinian statehood, and going instead to the path of popular resistance (as it was called by Jibril Rajoub in his recent interview with Al Arabiyya), and motivating the Arab world and the international community to take steps against the Israeli occupation and to pressure the United States by using all the diplomatic and the legal means in that direction.

The nonviolent track will be, like it or not, confused with the violent ones. The reasons for this confusion is manifold. In this regard, they are not only about the inability of the Palestinian young people to be fully rational when they are in a mood of rage and anger, but there is something deeper that has to do with the full collapse of trust in the political process of negotiations and its bitter harvest over the last 26 years since the Madrid Conference. Accordingly, it is time for the political leadership to plan and lead a full and continuous nonviolent campaign. 

In order for the leadership to be able to convince its people to do so, it will need international support by giving it some concrete results to present to its people, such as more recognitions for the Palestinian State, building Palestinian facts on the ground in area C and East Jerusalem, rebuilding Gaza, creating free access between Gaza and West Bank, and finally taking care of the dignity of the Palestinian refugees until their right of return issue is solved. The non-achievement of these steps will create the conditions that are conducive to growth of violent extremist groups in both West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinian refugee camps in the Arab neighbouring countries as well.

Article published in Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/trump-declaration-and-the-palestinian-response/

The assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is likely to have tremendous repercussions for the country’s conflict and its future, which is expected to be split in terms of loyalties and political ideologies, aggravating the humanitarian issues. The Yemeni scene is undoubtedly complex and the future cannot be determined with any certainty because of overlapping interests and the fact it is closer to a regional and international conflict than merely an internal one.
It is believed that Yemen now needs a person who represents the overwhelming majority of its citizens, regardless of their age and political affiliation, to save the country from further bloodshed.
One should recall that the rift in the Saleh-Houthi axis started a few days before Saleh’s death. Before the assassination, thousands of Houthis and supporters of Saleh gathered in Sanaa, leading to bloody clashes near the Saleh Mosque. The rift and subsequent clashes reveal how fragile political alliances are in the region. No external party can help solve the issue if there is no domestic will to end the conflict and save the lives of the people.
Saleh has left behind a thorny issue that cannot be solved, and no one will be able to bear this very convoluted legacy. He was the president who unified Yemen in 1990, with many wars against the Houthi movement following the killing of Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi in 2004.
During the Arab Spring, which erupted in 2011, Saleh was ousted after 33 years. This led to the war that has destroyed the country’s infrastructure and seen the death toll rise in the past few months. Saleh’s cooperation with the Houthis was a secretive concordat in the beginning, but it was later fully announced. Nevertheless, this coalition was for fake political purposes rather than for true and honest reasons, due to the many contradictions between Saleh and the Houthis in ideology and interests.
A few days before the assassination of Saleh, the Houthis installed billboards on the streets of Sanaa depicting their leader and defending his right to rule the country. Such political moves show a kind of monopoly of power, at least in North Yemen. This led to the recent escalation between Saleh and the Houthis and the exchanges of criticism, with each of the two former allies plotting to eliminate the other at any cost.

Yemen needs a person who represents the overwhelming majority of its citizens, regardless of their age and political affiliation, to save the country from further bloodshed.

Maria Dubovikova

With the death of Saleh, Yemen will be the new battleground of regional and international powers, turning the whole country into a fireball or a new frontier. The Bab Al-Mandab Strait’s importance as the southern gate to the Red Sea has substantial importance in the new world order, which seeks natural resources from Africa. Yemen is regarded as a confrontation field between the superpowers, who strive to set up and then promote their military manifestation and power.
It is difficult to envisage how events will unfold in the coming weeks, as the crisis has already dragged on for nearly three years. No one could have ever imagined the Houthis would ambush Saleh until his mission was over.
No one knows how this recent rapprochement between Saleh and the Arab coalition came about, nor the conditions of their pact. However, Saleh gambled his political career and his life by agreeing on a “political divorce” from the Houthis. It is recognized that the last-minute deal between Saleh and the Arab coalition overturned the balance of power and this switching of allegiances led to the Houthis’ decision to liquidate him at any price, putting an end to his political activities and to his manoeuvers to restore his political party’s power. It appears now that his move was too late.
For Russia, it is important to see Yemen as stable and in peace. The Russian government wants to see Yemenis having dialogue without any external influence on decision-making. Moscow is very much concerned about who will take the help of the General People’s Congress, who will keep the party intact and who will open channels of communication with other parties and with the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. As Yemenis were shocked by the killing of Saleh, the Russian government is hoping that Yemenis manage to tackle this issue to start a new phase and restore peace.
The Houthis may have primarily gained the most from Saleh’s assassination; however, this might not be accurate as many developments could happen at any time and loyalties may change, leading to a rising scale of hostility toward the Houthis.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1205421

On December 5, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, announced that provincial and parliamentary elections will be held on May 12, 2018; yet, many domestic events and regional developments would delay the elections as the Iraqi community is undergoing many societal and economic as well as political hardships.

As the date of Provincial Councils and the House of Representatives elections is approaching, some Iraqi leaders started to call for further procrastination due to two reasons: The first is the bad financial situation in the country, and the second is the that more than four million displaced Iraqis have been sheltered in various places of Iraq which are not part of their original constituencies. They will not be able to return to their homes in the coming few months. That would force the government to announce the postponement.

However, the pace of political events in Iraq is at present accelerating especially after the defeat of ISIS at a time the activities and movements of political blocs and parties started to set up the platform for the upcoming elections. Though the year is closing its final chapter with many turbulent incidents in North Africa, the Levant, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraqis are highly affected by the regional powers, steering the outcome of the political scene in Iraq for the coming years.

Despite the lack of an appropriate environment to hold such elections due to logistic and technical hardships, the political conflict has intensified in recent weeks and reached unprecedented levels, with some visits of shuttle tours of some politicians to the provinces where they announced they would start their electoral campaigns.

Corruption and terrorism

Some politicians resort to the public to gain political support and others resort to blaming other political figures for the failure of Iraqi economy and its political achievements. In Iraq, the process of forming blocs and electoral lists is supported by regional players. After his success in liberating Iraq, al-Abadi, started to gain more confidence and people started to trust him more. The war on ISIS has lasted three years, but the war on corruption needs more than that to liberate the state and purge it because corruption is not only political, but administrative and financial. Thus, war on corruption is more difficult than the war on a terrorism. And any political figure who will have these slogans on his election campaign would gain many votes that help him form the government.

Whether the elections will be held on the scheduled date or not, Abadi, depending on his victory over ISIS and his attempts to counter corruption, will be able to free Iraq of uni-polarity and dominance of one party.

Shehab Al-Makahleh

Iraq is now a relatively in a good security situation compared to previous years, which has been culminated with opening its borders with Jordan and the resumption of flights to Iraq from various countries. Abadi's visits to some neighboring Arab countries has helped Iraq regain its stability and its security amidst calls that Iraq restores its pre-1991 status at the regional level, which has been in the orbit of the Arab countries rather than Iran. Under al-Abadi, Iraqi is regaining its Arab identity; yet, there should be many changes at the political spectrum in order for Iraq to be off Iranian control which includes amongst other things a new block that entails both Sunnis and non-Sunnis including Shiites and Christians as well as other minorities in order to change the Iraqi political map.

The Iraqi political parties are holding their conferences in preparation for the electoral process. The question here is: Are political figures quitting major Iraqi blocs or defecting due to their dismay over old blocs’ performances. Are the new political figures going to succeed in convincing the Iraqis at the ballots?

Iraq's Sunnis have been badly affected in the past few years and at present many of them are facing challenges, stemming from strained ties with Baghdad and the sectarian tensions caused by the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Front. To many observers, Sunni population are detached from Sunni leaders in Baghdad, granting Abadi a better chance to win in the coming elections as he is regarded by many Sunnis and Shiites as a compromise between various blocs.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finds himself isolated from the rest of Iraq's political blocs. Badr bloc has recently announced it will run as one independent party. Representatives of the Popular Mobilization Front, known as “Al Hashd Al Sha’abi”, are running for the elections as well. Badr, Iraq's largest militia group which is led by Hadi Al Amiri, is establishing a political coalition to take part in 2018 elections.

The early preparation of these blocs and political lists is a clear tough competition between political parties and blocs with the opportunities of al-Abadi to win for the second term as he is supported by Arab and other countries against his rival leader former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other opponents. The competition between all these forces will be reflected on the nature of political life in Iraq. The coming government of Iraq will get rid of the concept of hegemony and control of Iraqi political decision, paving the way for building the new Iraq without any foreign interventions into its domestic affairs.

Whether the elections will be held on the scheduled date or not, Abadi, depending on his victory over ISIS and his attempts to counter corruption, will be able to free Iraq of uni-polarity and dominance of one party, opening the door wide open for other parties and blocs to joint in efforts to build Iraq.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/12/09/Will-Iraq-s-upcoming-elections-be-dead-on-arrival-.html

Photo credit: Johan Spanner for The New York Times

Saturday, 09 December 2017 20:31

Will Yemen’s sectarian rift continue to widen?

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Article by Sheab Al Makahleh and Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova).

Peace and stability in Yemen is likely to succeed only when all major players and the five permanent United Nations Security Council members take honest and true measures to end the bloodshed in this poor country, which pays the bill of other countries’ rifts and disputes and has been transformed in a battlefield of their interests.

The roots of Middle East armed conflicts are as multifarious and effervescent as the region’s social fabric. Modern challenges mirror heirloom of imperial dominance and ruthless despotism. They also echo changes in political perceptions and in relationships with political communities. Fierce non-state actors exploit legitimate complaints to fan the sparks of violence.

Since the inception of the Arab Spring in 2011, Yemen has been under the focus of global players and media. The conflict has been developing in a dramatic scenario, turning into the complicated civil war, tearing the country in all dimensions, following new and old lines of schism. Yemeni humanitarian situation was already acknowledged by the international community as a true humanitarian catastrophe, to stop which international community needs at least ceasefire agreements and start of political process. But the attempts to reach any agreement between main belligerent parties, until now have been collapsing. And it seems that the chances to reach any are totally vain.

With the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after more than 40 years of political life, 33 years of ruling the country, it is slated that the war between the Houthis and the General People’s Congress Party will open a new chapter in the Yemeni tragedy. The true war is just about to start. The reasons for the Houthi distrust of the former Yemeni president was his “contradictory” alliances: once with Saudi Arabia and later with the Houthis and then back to the Arab Coalition. Thus, the military conflict will be multifaceted in Yemen: The Houthi-Saleh, the Houthi Muslim Brotherhood (the Yemeni Reform Party), the Saleh-Muslim Brotherhood.

Amidst this shift in Yemen politically and militarily, the scene looks gloomy as the Houthis will be openly backed by Iran and other key players in the region while the legitimate government of Hadi will be backed by the Coalition and Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party. The U-turn in Saleh’s position towards the Houthis was based on an advice from the UAE to rehabilitate the forces of the Congress Party to reach a result in order to put an end to war at any cost.

With the solution of the Syrian conflict in the offing, two dynamics will define political change in Yemen for years to come. The first is identity, faith and race. The second is the young generations of Yemenis who are more than 75 percent of the population, living in poor conditions that would aggravate their future dreams and would make them victims for other countries’ political agendas and Islamist ideologies.

Peace and stability in Yemen is likely to succeed only when all major players and the five permanent United National Security Council members take honest and true measures to end the bloodshed in this poor country, which pays the bill of other countries’ rifts and disputes and has been transformed in a battlefield of their interests. The Saudi-led coalition has to reconsider its approach to the Yemeni conflict, as the continuation of the current policies or even intensification of the military actions will only aggravate the situation, enhance the Houthi resistance, strengthen the Iranian involvement without bringing the conflict to an end.

The coming few months are heating up in Yemen because there is no comprehension of the difficulties of reforms due to rival identities which derailed the political approach stemming from suspicious interference from regional countries which try to export their domestic rifts and issues to other states, turning the hotspots into proxy wars destabilizing the region and having far-going consequences. Since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the same scenarios recur in various forms because of major players exporting their internal difficulties to their neighbors to avoid any domestic repercussions.

The picture is vibrant. Yemen is riddled with turmoil, gushes of violence and autocratic governments amidst intervention of some regional powers. Thus, it is blatant that Yemenis have an uphill battle to fight and to reach settlement themselves without listening to external factors and other countries’ demands, all of which have agendas to dictate and achieve in Yemen at the expense of Yemenis. Dialogue is the only way to stabilize the region, stop the deepening Shia-Sunni divide and stop the spread of proxy wars, as the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is getting moved into other countries, like Syria and Lebanon.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/will-yemen-rift-continue-to-widen/

Photo credit: Hani Mohammed/AP

President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem represents a crucial change in the American policy. This change can be described as a shift from the previous biased mediator position to the new position of the partner of Israel in its plans towards the Palestinians.

 This shift is not only a violation of the international law and the UN resolutions regarding Jerusalem, but also a violation of the 1993 Declaration of principles, signed in the White House and known as the Oslo Accords. According to that Agreement (Article 5), Jerusalem as a whole, including its East and West parts, will be subject to negotiations between the two sides. The agreement also warned against any procedures to be taken unilatarely in a way that would prejudice against the permanent status issues including Jerusalem. President Trump unilaterally decided to go beyond this Oslo commitment and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel before an agreement about its borders and its division between the two sides. This is a crucial violation.

 

Process-wise, this move to unilateralism goes against the multilateral/international concerted efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it will give the Israeli government additional motives to increase its unilateral steps to change the landscape of Jerusalem in a way that will leave no place and no space for the East Jerusalem Palestinians in the city. They will face more and more ethnic cleansing and forced migration. Different means will be used in this regard such as evacuation of the Bedouin neighborhoods around Jerusalem, ousting Palestinian communities from the city (such as Kufur Aqab, and Shufat Refugee camps), and identity cards confiscation. 

 The response to this American move might take one of two shapes: the first is to give President Trump a chance to develop the “ultimate deal” and present it to the parties in the coming months. Those who adopt such a position say that President Trump referred in his speech to the two-states solution, the preparation for the deal, and that the borders of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem will be decided by negotiations. That is in addition to his call for preservation of the status of the Holy places in Jerusalem.

The second argues that the hopes on the Americans to present a solution is over after 26 years of trial and error in the negotiations since Madrid 1991 conference till today. As such, this response calls for adoption of another path: to get to the Palestinian State in the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. It includes creating a Palestinian nonviolent campaign for independence, establishing Palestinian facts on the ground, especially in area C, Gaza and East Jerusalem, linking Gaza and West Bank together, promoting the Palestinian people’s unity, stuggling for more international recognition of the State of Palestine, and suing occupation in international courts.

The second looks to be a path for the creation of a new momentum towards Palestinian statehood. It advocates that the Palestinians should start this path, and then to ask the international community to support it as a path to their national emancipation.

As such, the second position argues the hit can be transformed into an opportunity for the Palestinians to get their right of self-determination in their independent state.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/trump-s-decision-on-jerusalem/

Photo credit: Mohammed Zaatari/AP

Sunday, 03 December 2017 17:30

China’s new role in Syria

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What is China’s incentive for a greater involvement in Syria? The new Chinese involvement in Syria would lead to a further competition between the Washington and Beijing. China will deploy troops in Syria as Beijing is very concerned about the amounting number of militants of Chinese-origin (the Turkmenistan’s or the so-called Uighur) that have joined Daesh in both Syria and Iraq though China does not interfere in any country unless it has economic benefits. The Chinese Ministry of Defence is considering to send two units known as the "Tigers of Siberia" and the "Night Tigers" from the Special Operations Forces to fight terrorist factions in Eastern Ghouta (Suburbs of Damascus) as some of these fighters hold the Chinese nationality and they would pose a high risk on China once they return. Chinese Special Forces will soon head to Syria to participate in countering terrorism of the “Islamic East Turkestan Movement” from Xinjiang in the Damascus countryside.

An estimated 5,000 Chinese militants are fighting alongside various insurgency groups in Syria. China's involvement in military operations against Daesh is due to Chinese  own interests in Syria economically and politically as well in spite of the country’s doctrine of defense sufficiency not to intervene in other’s affairs. Their role in Syria has many facets including sending Special Forces to act against those Chinese Muslims who fight in Syria and because Beijing is afraid of these fighters to get back to China with their extremist, terrorist and Jihadist ideology. Moreover, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syrian infrastructure.

China does not want Syria to become a haven or a hub for Uighurs to launch terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and interests overseas. Driven by the August 30, 2017 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Krgyzstan, which was planned by “Islamic East Turkestan Movement” in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, was an justification for the Chinese to be in Syria as the movement’s acts will not stop at this point but would rather be aggravating due to the end of the Syrian conflict. For some analysts, the involvement of the Chinese and the Russians in Syria is Similar to that of the intervention of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001 to deny al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against any US targets.

Though the Chinese statistics show that there are 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from China fighting among Daesh and other terrorist groups in Syria, the Chinese army has taken this decision quite late which reflects that the main objective for getting involved in the military acts against extremists and terrorists in Syria is economic.

China which seeks to obtain economic benefit from the Syrian crisis has received earlier a number of the Syrian government representatives who asked for further Chinese economic support for Syria which resulted in the announcement of more than US$6 billion in direct investments.

After the demise of Daesh in Syria, Beijing will be investing in Syria heavily to take over oil and other resources. However, politically, China will endeavour to coordinate actions with all parties concerned in the Syrian issue including Russia and the USA.

Last week, there were Chinese-Syrian talks in Damascus where Al-Assad's advisor Buthaina Sha'aban on November 23 held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on countering terrorists from the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" in Eastern Ghouta region after being spotted in the countryside of Damascus.

Since the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" group has committed more than 200 terrorist acts in China in the last few year, China is looking for finishing them off in Syria before they get back to China where they would act against the government in a bid to stir revolution that may endanger China’s economic development and progress.

China is reliant on on Central Asia and Mideast energy sources, and volatility in these countries; thus any control by Salafist regimes affiliated to Uighur intimidates China’s power supply and the so-called “Eurasian One Belt One Road”(  (OBOR)  project which connects more than 60 countries with the Chinese Xinjiang functioning as bridgehead China’s trade strategy.

Xinjiang, which is located in Northwest of China, is restless and susceptible to violence and anarchy. The Chinese government, blames disorder on radicalism and violent separatist movements, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement where more than 10,000 armed Chinese police marched through Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, last February in a show of force.

Sources are quite sure that Chinese military advisors are already in Syria, paving the way for the troops to act as combat drones have been shipped from China to Syria’s Humaimeem Airbase in Lattakia, North West of Syria, to be used to counter-terror capabilities. The Chinese will send more troops if the Americans send other military forces to Syria; in other words, China’s involvement hinges on American conduct because China will not allow the US to corner the arm of Beijing by harboring Chinese terrorists for future acts against Chinese interests in Syria, or elsewhere. The coming few weeks will witness many meetings between Chinese and American military and security officials due to the involvement of the Chinese forces in Syria. Though the Chinese involvement is to safeguard their power energy to ensure their trade superiority worldwide, the Americans would not allow the Chinese to win in the Syrian conflict against the Chinese fighters for future considerations because China has become a global actor in various fields including trade and military, depending on energy from the Middle East region. Once China is in Syria, this means it will have more active role in the Mideast and in Central Eurasia, affecting American strategic interests.

 

Shortened version is published by Arab News

Will the US move its major airbase in Qatar (al-Udeid) to another in Jordan’s Azraq city and will China replace the US airbase in Doha? A report in the US military’s daily Stars and Stripes claims that the Pentagon wants to pump in $143 million into upgrades at the Muwaffaq Salti Airbase in Azraq, more than any other overseas Air Force operational site, which implies that the US is planning to leave al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar for various considerations.

In February 2015, Washington and Amman had signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding in which the US vowed to pay $1 billion in military aid to Jordan every year until 2018 because it considers Jordan an irreplaceable partner in the Middle East. This US admiration for Jordan dates back to 1957 when Washington regarded Amman’s role as pivotal for ensuring security and stability in the region.

While the US has mainly focused on the military significance of Jordan, the latter’s role in the region will be critical in the coming decade following the recent setback in US relations with Turkey, and the fact that Washington is upset with Qatar’s position on countering terrorism that is one of the factors in its decision to shift its airbase in al-Udeid to Jordan.

In May this year, US President Donald Trump announced his plan to allocate $500 million for upgrading American airbases overseas. The budget of the Defense Department submitted to Congress includes $478 million for Air Force “military construction,” of which $207 million is meant for foreign facilities in the Middle East, including bases in Incirlik Airbase in Turkey and the Muwaffaq Salti Airbase in Jordan that the US uses for operations against the ISIS. The other $271 million is allocated for a number of airbases and airports in NATO member states.

 

The move from al-Udeid and Incirlik to Jordan may not be an easy transition for the US as it may entail enormous logistical hassles

Shehab Al-Makahleh

The Muwaffaq Salti Airbase is 55 kilometer from Amman (35 miles south of the Syrian border) and close to Iraqi borders as well. It has been used for military air operations. The earmarked amount will be used for paving the airfields, building shelters for aircraft and dormitories for pilots and crew.

Military reports from Jordan reveal that the aforementioned airbase has been used by Americans for flying US-built MQ-9 Reaper drones to strike targets in Syria and Iraq. The airbase, also known as H4, houses various platforms which belong to Royal Jordanian Airforce.

Since al-Udeid is host to a forward HQs of United States Central Command (CENTCOM, the HQs of the United States Air Forces Central Command - USAF), No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group RAF, and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF, shifting to the Jordanian airbase may not happen soon. It is noteworthy that the number of US soldiers at al-Udeid Airbase is more than 10,000.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing at the Muwaffaq al-Salti Airbase for the so-called a Life Support Area (LSA), which include supporting facilities and new infrastructure. The Jordanian airbase will undergo speedy expansion of storage facilities to enable the military to support cargo and personnel recovery operations at the base.

On July 12, US President Donald Trump said that the US was ready to relocate from al-Udeid, and that “If we (the US) ever had to leave, we would have 10 countries willing to build us another one (airbase), believe me, and they will pay for it”.

German troops

Meanwhile, Germany has been negotiating with Jordan for months over pull its troops out of Turkey to the Muwaffaq al-Salti Airbase. The decision of German military to move its troops from Incirlik to Muwaffaq al-Salti Airbase comes in the wake of political and diplomatic squabbles between Turkey and Germany over a number of issues, including differences over the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe and the Turkish government’s support for Islamists in Germany.

Even NATO is now considering moving out of Turkey as Ankara has moved closer to Moscow and the US is also said to have almost taken the decision of giving up its airbases in Incirlik and to gradually shift base to Jordan. Will China replace the US in Doha?

Meanwhile, Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun and Qatari Major General Sa’ad al-Khulaifi met on 27 September at the INTERPOL summit in Beijing, where they discussed cooperation on combating terrorism and signed a deal to increase their coordination in this regard.

Given the fact that Doha-Beijing ties have been strengthening in various spheres recently (such as in the fields of energy, banking, security and military), China has started considering Qatar as an attractive destination for cooperation in the area of defense. China is a major importer of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG). Thus, Beijing seeks to secure this source of energy which is very important for Chinese industries development and expansion.

It is reported that China’s military is eyeing Qatar’s al-Udeid base as the US plans to ultimately vacate it. To China, Qatar is important because it is the only Arab country that is connected to Islamist non-state actors and the fact that Doha can negotiate with them easily, especially with East Turkestan Islamic Movement of Xinjiang. Thus, China considers Qatar as a useful partner in the Arab world.

The move from al-Udeid and Incirlik to Jordan may not prove to be an easy transition for the US as it may entail enormous logistical hassles and infrastructure development.

However, the Americans as well as NATO member states have started rethinking the role of Ankara and Doha in the region, especially after a Turkish military base is being set up in Doha. However, if Americans leave al-Udeid, China seems to be ready to fill in the void.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/12/01/If-US-shifts-airbase-to-Jordan-can-China-fill-the-void-for-Doha-.html

yrian government representatives arrived in Geneva on Nov. 29 — a day late — for the latest round of negotiations aimed at resolving the country’s civil war. The meeting began Nov. 28, but representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delayed their arrival reportedly until they were assured there would be no discussion of removing Assad from power.

The rebels, however, still insist any settlement must include Assad’s departure.

There are many, many cooks in the kitchen trying to serve up their own resolution to the nearly seven-year war. The United Nations is sponsoring the talks in Geneva — this is the eighth round — but related meetings have taken place in other locations.

Moscow is participating in the negotiations and has shifted its focus from military activities to finding and implementing a political resolution to the conflict. Russia hosted a trilateral summit last week in Sochi in an effort to calm Turkey and Iran after the United States and Russia agreed earlier in November that there is no military solution in Syria. Russia’s summit also allowed for a meeting of minds ahead of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that Russia plans in Sochi. The congress is tentatively scheduled to be held sometime between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, during the break between the first and second stages of the Geneva talks.

Also last week, Saudi Arabia hosted a preparatory three-day meeting of opposition parties in its capital. Moscow praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unite the opposition for the Geneva talks and to help draft a new Syrian Constitution. Moscow sent Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia's special envoy to Syria, to the meeting.

During those talks, the various opposition groups chose Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, to lead them in negotiations. He had filled the same role at previous talks in Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan.

The 36 opposition representatives at Geneva include eight from the Syrian National Coalition, five from the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, eight independent delegates, four each from the Cairo- and Moscow-based platforms, and seven from military factions. 

The armed opposition delegates will represent Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Yarmouk, several Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and the Free Tribes’ Army, a confederation of tribal militias trained by Jordan.

Hariri took over the High Negotiations Committee from Riyad Hijab. Before Hijab resigned Nov. 20, he made it clear that under his leadership, the High Negotiations Committee had been pressured into making concessions that favored Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hailed Hijab’s resignation as “the retreat of radically minded opposition figures from playing the main role.” However, Hariri reaffirmed his stance that a transitional governing body should be established without Assad. Hijab also said Russia’s proposal to host the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi will not contribute to the political process, as talks on Syria should be organized under UN auspices 

At first glance, one might expect the many separate summits and meetings to force Assad and the opposition to bring the armed conflict to an end. Arab and other countries have extended their seemingly warm welcome to Russia’s efforts — if the attempts are really aimed at reforming the system and preparing the ground for Syrian fair elections in the future.

However, the “if” matters most. Russia’s military intervention in the war in 2015 tipped the scales in favor of Assad’s regime, and Russia has strongly backed Assad's remaining in power. For these reasons, opposition representatives have said the upcoming Sochi congress amounts to “the regime negotiating with the regime.”

Also, many opposition representatives object to the inclusion in their ranks of what they call “puppet opposition” groups that are considered quite loyal to the regime and Syrian intelligence. Syria faced demonstrations against the groups’ participation in negotiations, as they have nothing to do with the Syrian revolution. 

Nevertheless, the representatives were included in the “unified” delegation in Geneva, even though decision-making on behalf of the opposition requires an approval from 75% of the delegates. Some representatives of the opposition believe the “puppet” groups will help the regime block any proposals it doesn’t like.

The Syrian regime has wielded considerable negotiating power at the Geneva talks as, on the one hand, it enjoys the support of Iran and Russia and, on the other hand, Syrian forces mounted successful military operations in eastern Syria. The regime quite clearly is ready to enter into a dialogue with the opposition and even take it back into the country — but only if the opposition agrees to abide by any conditions imposed by the authorities.

Regardless of all the divisions and disagreements, the pro-government coalition remains relatively united both militarily and politically. The forces that oppose the regime, on the contrary, are still splintered. Moscow is well-aware that despite large-scale international support, the opposition is being pulled in different directions by its various allies. Russia has been ruling the roost as the country that managed to uphold and protect Syrian state institutions and impose its rules of the game in the absence of Washington's clear agenda in Syria, the Saudi-Qatari crisis and internal problems in the Gulf region in general.

Russia is approaching a Syrian settlement with a “healthy skepticism,” which, by the way, appeals to the masses. Most Russians are quick to equate any FSA group with the Islamic State and continue to believe in the legitimacy of the ruling regime. The prove-that-they-are-not-terrorists stance toward the armed rebels allowed Moscow to carry out strikes against moderate opposition groups, only to recognize them as such during the talks. That was followed by the emphasis on Moscow's ability to seek and accept a compromise and hold a dialogue with all the parties to the conflict, regardless of the voting outcome. Moscow, thus, stressed its readiness to recognize any politician the Syrian people will vote for, be it Assad or his opponents.

I would like to be in the wrong here, but the current momentum has Assad as the sole victor in the civil war, while ostensibly factoring in the opposition's sentiments. But his Nov. 20 visit to Sochi shows there is no equal, full-fledged rival to the authorities among the opposition forces. In this sense, holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress — even though it allows Kurdish participation — implies granting equal voting rights to the puppet opposition.

Moscow’s stance is also apparent if we consider its attitude toward the de-escalation zones. Russian diplomats recognize the legitimacy of local councils as civil administrations of the opposition-controlled territories, and military negotiators are ready to work with them on the ground. However, the punishment mechanism for violations has remained unilateral. Essentially, the opposition, as a defeated party, is granted some concessions in the form of the de-escalation zones to avoid further operations and prevent new bloodshed. At the same time, the de-escalation zones are largely meant to gently and gradually reintegrate the opposition and bring it under the control of the regime. Perhaps this accounts for Moscow’s statements that, to date, governmental forces control more than 98% of the territory, including the de-escalation zones and the areas run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/syria-opposition-meeting-geneva-assad-russia.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Martial Trezzini

Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:53

The End of ISIS is in Sight. What is Next?

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Article by Shehab and Maria al-Makahleh

Given that the last strongholds for ISIS (known as Daesh in the region) in Raqaa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq have fallen, it is likely the group in its current territory-based form will gone by the end of 2017.  Only weeks ago, Daesh was allowed to leave central Syria before the Syrian Army closed the 5-kilometer gap between Al-Raqqa and Homs. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian Air Force, had liberated over 90 percent of the country’s territory. 

Fortunately, there has been a plan for this moment.  The Americans and the Russians—the main power brokers in the conflict– have been in direct talks regarding the future of Syria since 2015; indeed, everything is on the table regarding a transitional phase, the presidency, and even the future governing body. According to leaks and news reports, the two sides have agreed on that the president and transitional governing body shall exercise executive authority on behalf of the people but in line with a constitutional declaration. As for the president, he or she may have one or more vice presidents and delegate some authorities to them. This draft will be proposed during the Geneva Conference at the end of November.

As for the transitional governing body, it reportedly will serve as the supreme authority in the country during the transitional phase. According to drafts we have seen, it is proposed to have 30 members: 10 appointed by the current government, 10 from independent individuals named by the UN Secretary General and 10 by the opposition. The chairman will be elected from among the independent members by simple majority. This representative structure—which includes representatives from Assad’s government—stems from the recent visits to Damascus by officials from the European Union, Russia and the United States.

According to American sources, an important provision of the new constitution would be Presidential term limits. The proposed article states that “The President of the Syrian Republic shall be elected for seven calendar years by Syrian citizens in general after free and integral elections. The president might be re-elected only for one other term.”

The involvement of the Assad government in these deliberations should surprise no one. Former American ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford stressed in a recent article published in Foreign Affairs that “The Syrian civil war has entered a new phase. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has consolidated its grip on the western half of the country, and in the east. By now, hopes of getting rid of Assad or securing a reformed government are far-fetched fantasies, and so support for anti-government factions should be off the table. The Syrian government is determined to take back the entire country and will probably succeed in doing so.”

After Daesh, Syria still matters, and not only because of the scale of the humanitarian crisis there. Major political trends in the Middle East tend to happen because big countries want spheres of influence in geostrategic locations.  Russia has an interest in Syria, for example, as a Middle Eastern forward operating base, for access to warm water ports, and more generally, to check U.S. influence. The U.S. (and its allies) see in Syria a country cleared of Daseh that must now be “held” to prevent the regrowth of the terrorist caliphate, as a bulwark to protect neighboring Israel, and to maintain the free flow of oil.

In other words, the big countries that represent such geostrategic players such as Syria aspire to influence and change the geopolitical situation within her borders to improve their own strategic position and enable them to gain cards in the Middle East region.

But Syria is not merely a proxy battlefield for the big powers. With the end of Daesh in sight, Syria has a chance to reclaim her sacred sovereignty, which as the basis of the international order gives it the ability to control what happens inside its own borders. The upcoming constitutional process is an opportunity to restart and reconnect the Syrian people to its institutions, which should in turn serve them and only them. It should not be lost.

Article published in Foreign Policy Association: https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2017/11/28/end-isis-sight-next/

Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:48

Daesh defeated, but what comes next?

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After the demise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the question on everyone’s mind is: What comes afterward?
History has proved that defeating the symbols of terrorism has little impact on the phenomenon of terrorism itself, or its ideology — the international community, after all, heralded the defeat of terrorism after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
What happened in Syria and Iraq should be a wake-up call for everyone. The answer to the terrorist threat must be global. Battling against the influence of extremists is part of the nightmare that Muslim populations — tormented by anguish and uncertainty — are suffering daily, with many killings everywhere. The war on terrorism will not end with the defeat of terrorist factions; the many-headed hydra of terrorism will breed more of them from those who are marginalized in their communities, those who are unemployed, and those who have their own, more personal, reasons for becoming terrorists.
Daesh is on the brink of collapse on all military fronts; its cells are likely to continue with bombings and assassinations, but the terror group is no longer able to occupy land or open new fronts.
But after all the blood, displacement and destruction in Syria and Iraq, how will things look on various levels when Daesh is finished?
Perhaps all the bloodshed can lead to a serious reasoned response.
Since the 1960s, decision-makers have not placed terrorism at the top of their priority list. There are various reasons for this: Arms sales are one of them. Terrorism is not perpetrated only by those who have their hands stained with blood. Terrorism starts with dialogue and discourse, notions and concepts; then it expands into a sense of hatred, rejection and exclusion of others before turning into murder. The more extremist the education is, the more bloodshed humanity will witness.
The world must eradicate the circumstances that gave rise to the incubation of extremist ideologies and must neutralize the role of deviant clerics. The role of fighters may end when the fighting does, but the role of artists, intellectuals, the media and civil society can formulate new concepts and breathe life into them without directly interfering with social customs and traditions.

Many of its fighters have fled to many different countries, carrying with them Daesh’s ideology, and waiting for the chance to try again.

Maria Dubovikova

For example, many of the countries most-ravaged by terrorism lack any theatrical movement — the kind of thing that can, through satire and comedy, mix education with entertainment.
These countries should also initiate employment programs and plans to rescue the poorest families from their tragic realities. And perhaps the most important step that must be taken by these countries is to create new education programs for children based on a new vision. They also need to provide young people with sports and social clubs, instead of relying solely on mosques as a gathering place for youth. Of course, mosques and religion can play an important role in the transmission of morals and ideals, but those who would use religion to disseminate hatred and sectarianism must no longer be allowed to do so. Indeed, sectarianism should be officially criminalized through the UN.
One of the major obstacles to defeating terrorism is the rehabilitation of those who have been radicalized. Once they are trapped in the web of terrorism and extremism, it can be very hard for them to extricate themselves from it. A road map must be prepared to accommodate them and lead them back to normality.
Daesh has come to an end as a state; its dreams of a caliphate destroyed. But many of its fighters have fled to many different countries, carrying with them Daesh’s ideology, and waiting for the chance to try again.
After all that Daesh and other terrorist groups have done, and after all the condemnation of their bloody actions, can we now hope that terrorism will not return with other groups under other names? Or is that something we can no longer aspire to?

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1200191/columns

Photo credit: AFP

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