Shehab Al Makahleh

Shehab Al Makahleh

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

In today’s speech president Trump announced his decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem without giving details about to which part of Jerusalem, but it is expected to be moved to East Jerusalem. His declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel will have a very negative effect on the peace process, and may even freeze it for the time being, opening the gates for extremists and radicals who will start working underground and even openly. They will be having hubs and will be harbored by many people. In the past they were working secretly and now they will be overtly operating against American and Israeli interests throughout the world. This deal between the Americans and Israel could not happen without an Arab approval of what is called the “Big Deal”, which means that the Palestinians would be having their own capital in Abu Dis, which is located near Jerusalem city. This could not have happened without this kind of deal, without some Arabs. The Palestinians will not be having their own independent state, which they were dreaming of in 1995 when they signed Oslo agreement. Back then the White House already believed that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, even though the other presidents of the US did not have the courage to announce it since then. But Donald Trump announced it without even thinking of any consequences and repercussions that would happen. That is why before he announced it, he asked the military, American Marines, to be ready for any outcome that would take place in the Middle East or anywhere in the world.

 

 

Photo credit: Renewer/Fotolia

 

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

It looks like that the international community has taken the final decision to put to an end the seven-year war in Syria with intensive conferences in the pipeline in November and December to reach a political settlement that secure the return of refugees to their homeland. However, both superpowers are right now strategically making counter moves, as Russia regards Iranian troops in Syria supportive and ancillary to the Russian forces and the Syrian army while the US considers Iranian troops, particularly those close to Jordan and Israel an existential threat to both countries.

Upcoming conferences in Astana, Riyadh, Sochi and Geneva prove the two superpowers had agreed on the final formula of the Syrian conflict. Albeit this could not have been achieved without the coordination of Moscow and Washington on the means to end the bloodshed and to silence the cannons, mainly with the Americans confirming that the future of Bashar Al Assad will be discussed after the transition period, while Russians insist on the principle that only Syrians have the right to select their leadership.

The forces involved in the Syrian conflict are now more aware that the war in Syria will be determined by the battle in Southern parts of Syria for its strategic importance today. The talk between Putin and Trump about the political agreement in Syria without prejudice to the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means that there is a complete change in the American and Arab position regarding the terms of the future negotiation between all parties.

The expansion of the “de-escalation zone” in the south of Syria means that there is a tendency to resolve the Syrian crisis for fear of its repercussions on neighbors - Jordan and Israel - who are concerned about the expansion of Iranian forces and its factions along the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

 

Competition and enmity between Russia and the United States still exist in spite of some breakthrough politically in some areas. The United States is opposed to the fundamentalist presence in power, supporting the opposition, trying to impose economic sanctions on the regime, trying to drain the regime and its capabilities in the crisis, as well as isolating and exhausting Russia and seeing the Syrian crisis as a quagmire that will trap Russian forces

Shehab Al Makahleh



Jordan has asked both the United States and Russia to pay more attention to its security concerns. This was raised by King Abdullah II in an interview with the Washington Post in April 2017. He was also the first to warn in 2004 of a Shiite crescent extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria.

Riyadh is hosting a meeting for about 140 members of the Syrian opposition on November 22-24 at a time when the United Nations prepares to convene a new round of Geneva meetings between Syrian opposition and the government on November 28, and Russia announcing the postponement of the Sochi meeting from mid-November to December. All these are indicators that regional and international powers are striving to reach a settlement as the Middle East cannot stand another bloody year due to so many sectarian grudges that would be aggravating regional stability.  

Riyadh meet crucial 

The coming Riyadh meeting is very important as it will help pick about 80 members to represent the Syrian opposition to the coming Geneva meeting or to Sochi. A unified opposition will be stronger and will help better negotiate the future of Syria.

The 8th round of the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva will focus on the next phase of Syria as the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said at the end of October that the “talks had reached a moment of truth”.

Turkey and Russia have agreed to focus on a political solution in Syria underlining the close coordination between the two countries that have played key roles in the Syrian conflict. That was clear in a joint statement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Teyyep Erdogan in Sochi on November 13, 2017. Moreover, the American President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart agreed during the Asia-Pacific Summit in Vietnam that “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria,” calling on all parties to take part in the Geneva process.

It is known that the three countries now are arranging the next scenario for Syria, as they are the three guarantor countries which brokered a ceasefire in Syria.

The recent expansion of the de-escalation zones in Southern Syria by the Jordanian borders aims to pave the way for a political transition and the announcement of a new draft constitution before Jordan and Syria sit to discuss opening the two crossing points: Jaber- Naseeb and Ramtha-Dera’a which have been a lifelinefor both countries.

The Russians started to defend Syria to keep it unified and to keep the Syrian government in full control of the whole territories to avoid any regional spillover.

Competition and enmity between Russia and the United States still exist in spite of some breakthrough politically in some areas. The United States is opposed to the fundamentalist presence in power, supporting the opposition, trying to impose economic sanctions on the regime, trying to drain the regime and its capabilities in the crisis, as well as isolating and exhausting Russia and seeing the Syrian crisis as a quagmire that will trap Russian forces.

Russia has expressed its concern that Assad will become a playing card for Iran, which has become a major knot for the Russians and a card in the conflict in Syria. Moscow has realized that Tehran was sharing Russian interests in the region, which emerged, especially after the Russian call for the integration of Iranian militias into the regular Assad forces. However, Iran also cooperated with Turkey in this context, which contributed to the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement, enhanced by mutual visits and the development of economic relations in the field of gas.

When Turkish Prime Minister said that: “Turkey is Iran;s gateway to Europe, and Tehran is our gateway to Asia, and this guarantees us exceptional possibilities in the field of transport and logistical support,” by then the concerned regional and international powers had to take such statements into consideration that both countries will be joining efforts to have their joint agendas at the expense of other regional countries.

The question that arises is: Are we witnessing a solution for the Syrian conflict by year-end, or will this process last longer? The answer is in the coming three conferences which will be held before the end of the year and only a political solution will be suitable for the coming era.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/11/17/The-Syrian-conflict-between-the-American-anvil-and-the-Russian-hammer.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostilities in certain locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal reached late June, that went into effect in July, on establishment of de-escalation zones in Eastern Ghouta and South Eastern Syria aimed to help end up the six-year war in the Arab country.

The new de-escalation deal would cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta and South East regions of Syria by the Jordanian-Iraqi borders is slated for signing by the end of August–mid September 2017, and would pave the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

On August 2, 2017, Syrian government forces and armed opposition leaders have agreed to a ceasefire north of the city of Homs. The de-escalation zone created there will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

Moscow is now in direct contact with the Americans, following series of meetings in Europe between security and military officials from both sides, to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Jordan – the areas which are deemed important by both the Syrian government and the Russians.

Experts from the United States and Russia are holding consultations on the expansion of the umbrella of de-escalation zones in four regions in Syria.  The truce on Homs, Al Waer neighborhood, has been announced August 2, 2017 after intense talks in a European capital between both Russians and Americans while the third truce will be announce later this month after Astana meetings. The expected date of the third truce will be around mid-September and will cover Eastern Ghouta. Syrian armed opposition factions have begun evacuating the last district they control in the city of Homs under a ceasefire deal reached with the government.

The Russians have already completed negotiations with Jordan on the monitoring of the recently established de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, and on the Amman Declaration which is on its final stages before being announced this month in Astana.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented on American President Donald Trump’s statements on the efforts to reach a “second truce” in Syria, saying: “The Russian side is in contact with American partners about setting up de-escalation zones in Syria, and other topics for discussion in the context of Astana peace negotiations on Syria.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jordan’s King Abdullah II late July had a phone conversation which covered many regional issues including the means to address the Jordanian concerns regarding settlement of the Syrian conflict.  Both leaders have discussed the measures taken by Russia so far to monitor the de-escalation zone in Southern Western parts of Syria and the Jordanian role to bring about a cease-fire in the war torn country, especially in the context of the implementation of the memorandum signed by the representatives of Russia, Jordan and the United States on 7 July, 2017 giving due importance to territorial integrity of Syria without calling for a regime change in pursuance with provisions of UN Resolution 2254.

The deal of ceasefire in northern Homs would not have been reached without a major Syrian army ground offensive to the north of the city backed by Russian air strikes.

The two sides of conflict: the Syrian army and the armed opposition have reached a dead-end in their in futile war, and now there is a there is a rising will amongst both sides to calm down the situation,  particularly in places where it is clear that one party has the upper hand over the other. In this context, the Syrian army has the upper hand and the general mood in general is that no one is winning in Syria.

The northern part of Homs is known as “Al Waer” which was a thorny neighborhood for the Syrian government for more than 6 years and it is known as the cradle of the Syrian demonstration against the regime.

However, the warring sides seem to be interpreting other details differently nowadays, especially with the withdrawal of Al Nusra fighters from the borders with Lebanon to Idlib and the withdrawal of Al Waer fighters to Idlib as well, turning Idlib into a center of extremists and armed opposition by the borders of Turkey.

As per the recent agreement on the withdrawal of the armed opposition from Al Waer, this neighborhood will return to state control, cleared of weapons, and fighters who chose to stay will have their legal status settled.

For Jordan, such an agreement is very important to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis and eradicate terrorism, ensuring border security and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as Syria’s security and stability are of strategic interest for the region. However, the new ceasefire in Al Waer is another test and a challenge to Russia and the USA, mulled as a turning point and a precedent that the two countries are seeking to build on to resolve the Syrian conflict.

The Astana meeting between the opposition and the Syrian government was concluded in May 2017 with recommendations to set up four de-escalation zones in Syria to help solved the Syrian conflict.

More than 2.5 million people are believed to be living in the general area of the four zones which span the southern provinces of Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida.

A meeting of leaders of the Southern Front militias was held with American, Russian and Jordanian experts in the Jordanian capital Amman end of July to discuss a truce in southwestern Syria. Another meeting was held also at the sidelines of the Russian-American meetings between Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh to discuss the next step that lead to a transition government.

Iran, Russia and Turkey have agreed to resume the next round of Syrian peace talks in Astana in late August following their decision to continue discussions on creating four de-escalation zones in Syria.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/08/new-important-deal-looming-for-eastern-ghouta-and-south-east-syria-by-jordanian-iraqi-syrian-borders/

 

A meeting on August 7 between King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas established a joint crisis committee to follow up the Israeli violations at Al-Aqsa Mosque and evaluate the past and expected Israeli violations in Jerusalem.

This committee’s significance is to avoid the eruption of a third Palestinian Intifada that would be a result of excessive power by enforced by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

The royal visit to Ramallah was marked as “a sign of rejection of Israeli recent movements because Jordan is the sole custodian of the Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem,” stated King Abdullah.

“If a third intifada is coming, no one this time can stop it and it will spillover, not only affecting Israelis and Palestinians but rather affecting the whole region”, said a senior Jordanian officials who preferred to be anonymous.

The official said that “the Joint Jordanian Palestinian Crisis Committee’s major objective is to monitor any Israeli measures to change the identity of the holy city including installing metal detectors as this would be a pretext to ignite a third upheaval in the west bank that would have its repercussions on other countries in the Middle East”.

Members of the joint committee are security officials from both Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority, the official added.

They will be tasked to follow up on any further violations by the Israelis against Al Aqsa Mosque and to avoid any bids to change the identity of the holy shrines in Jerusalem.

“This committee will be in charge, as its members, are mainly of security and intelligence background, will help coordinate between the three parties in order to avert such violations that would negatively affect the peace agreements with Israel”.

The actions taken by Israel at the holy site in Jerusalem has led to demonstrations in Jordan, which resulted in the killing of two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy in Amman.

The perpetrator was received as a hero by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. His office, furthermore, distributed a video showing him welcoming the guard as a hero and has fueled Jordanian anger.

King Abdullah’s outrage was clear with him castigating Netanyahu, blaming the prime minister for exploiting the incident for “personal political gains”.

King Abdullah further stated that bilateral ties between Amman and Tel Aviv now rely on how Netanyahu would react regarding this issue, given the fact that Israel’s relations with Jordan were further strained with the recent expropriation of Palestinian lands in Jerusalem.

Jordanian officials have warned in meetings with Israelis and Palestinians that any acts that threaten the situation in the holy city would have grave consequences for the region as a whole.

Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs, Mohammad Momani, stated that Israel should reverse any unacceptable measures against Al-Aqsa Mosque and avoid any instigations leading to the deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/08/18/A-joint-Jordanian-Palestinian-crisis-committee-to-avoid-a-third-intifada.html

Photo credit: AFP

Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Iraq’s influential Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, paid an unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia on July 28 and 29, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other senior officials. The meeting took place before the crown prince accedes to the throne, in order to draw up the coming relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Sadr’s rare visit raised concerns in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which has refrained from commenting on the trip.

The charismatic cleric has recast himself as the upholder of Iraq’s democratic process and a bulwark against the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias. The visit comes at a time when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are worsening. Would the visit of the Shia cleric, a member of an influential Shia family and son of the prominent Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, help defuse tension between Baghdad and Riyadh?

The timing of the visit is crucial to Iraqi politics. Sadr has returned as a leader in charge of uniting Iraqis under one umbrella, his office said. However, some Iraqi sources believe the visit to Saudi Arabia shows that Sadr has come on the Iraqi political scene to lead, not to linger in his Najaf office to receive followers.

The visit can be perceived as an attempt to consolidate his support and reap the fruits of his involvement in the coming parliamentary elections in April 2018, as Iraq would not have a government without him. Sadr is crucial for many Iraqi leaders as he heads a political bloc with almost 10% of parliamentary seats and has great influence on both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. His persistence to bring about change by bridging gaps between Iraqis is not welcomed by many in government, who are controlled by Iran.

The cleric and his followers are making deals in an attempt to enter positions in Iraq as mediator between Iraqis, Iranians and Saudis. Sadr is now delegated by Saudis to play a role in Iraq to serve Saudi interests and to return Iraq into its Arab fold by playing a role in bridging the differences and gaps between the three countries. That explains why he received $10 million from Saudi Arabia and the promises the kingdom has given him to build up the consulate in Najaf.

The question that arises is the following: Is Riyadh leaning toward Sadr, or is he leaning toward Riyadh at Tehran’s expense?

Sadr’s appearance as a powerful national leader could have some advantages, as seen by Saudi Arabia, because of his newly-minted nationalist stance that has made him a potential bulwark against Iranian influence. This became clear in his April 2017 statement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling on him to step down. Right now there is tension between him and rival Shia factions, especially after his militias clashed with the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, which is concerned with Iran’s influence not only in Iraq but also across the greater Middle East, wanted someone like Sadr to step into the Iraqi field to draw up its relations externally and to organize domestic affairs. This started with the invitation from Prince Mohammad. Saudi Arabia, and mainly its crown prince, views Sadr as a man of the people who is a fervent Iraqi nationalist and federalist, upholding the democratic process by non-violent means. Sadr, who is an advocate of the quota system in parliamentary elections, believes this method can ensure that Iraq’s main ethno-religious constituents — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds — share power.

Some Iranian commentators and political analysts warn that Saudi Arabia is playing games by courting Sadr to influence Iraqi politics — especially after Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Riyadh in June — which could threaten Iranian interests in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis called on the Iraqi prime minister by giving him a chance to either reconsider his policies toward Iran and bear the consequences that Iranian control of Iraq’s politics and its resources would carry, including the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis, or to U-turn toward his Arab brethren in order to proceed with regaining stability in Iraq.

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

Since the Saudis received no positive response from Abadi, they thought of other alternatives, Sadr being one. Some view the cleric’s visit as a concession from the Saudis to Iran, especially as a result of Qatar and the Islamic Republic growing closer at the expense of Riyadh’s influence amid the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rift over Doha.

Sadr is known for shifting alliances in order to remain in a position of power and influence. He proved this in February 2016, when 100,000 of his followers demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad, calling for government reform and for building bridges with Sunni tribes and politicians. He is famous for shifting political positions in the past, including stopping militant activity against the United States, turning against the government in Baghdad and speaking out against Assad.

Among Iraqi politicians, reports circulate that Saudi Arabia is attempting to control Sadr. Some journalists suggest the kingdom will be monitoring what he does after returning to Iraq and what his plans would be in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Some argue that Sadr would serve as a stepping stone for Saudi Arabia into Iraq, where the cleric could help Riyadh put pressure on the Shia-led order in Baghdad to distance Iraq from Iran.

Officials have not, thus far, disclosed details surrounding Sadr’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. However, among those who are close to the cleric, there are suggestions that Sadr may have gone to the kingdom to seek financial help from Riyadh in preparation for Iraq’s elections in 2018.

Another important Shia cleric on whom Saudis pin high hopes is Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was the largest party in the country’s Council of Representatives from 2003 until 2010. He is exiting his bloc to create the National Wisdom Party, an umbrella group of Shia and Sunni political parties — a new political movement in the country. This would be a reason for Sadr to set up his own front, benefiting from his close and strong ties with other Sunni leaders in Iraq and the GCC states.

SERIOUS DIALOGUE

Sadr’s latest visit to Riyadh was the second since 2006, when he met with the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. With Riyadh’s latest invitation, it turned out that Saudi leaders have resorted to dealing with Baghdad in order to either change the political scene in Iraq or to ask Sadr to use his connections and channels of dialogue with Iran to melt the ice between Riyadh and Tehran. Riyadh is seeking to have a stable Saudi Arabia without any external interference from Iran, and it also wants Iraq to be back to its Arab track, away from Iranian influence. Once the seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections are secured by Shia and Sunni moderates or those pro-Saudi Arabia, the war game with Iran will change in favor of Riyadh.

The Saudi government has also extended invitations to other Iraqi Shia leaders, who have not yet made a decision whether or not to visit Riyadh. Iraqi politicians close to these leaders believe that Mohammad bin Salman aims to improve his image among the Shias in the country by inviting the clerics from Iraq to mediate between him and Iran, as Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is known for its dissent against the Saud rulers.

The invitation has come after Sadr’s April statement calling on Iran’s ally, President Assad, to step down to avoid further bloodshed in the Syrian conflict. Sadr has also avoided using any hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Arab states. In May, he urged Tehran and Riyadh to start a “serious dialogue to bridge their difference and gaps for regional stability.” He also called on the two to “care for their peoples — regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity — and engage in serious dialogue with a view to restoring regional peace and security.”

Regardless of the outcome of visit, the most important is that it came at a critical moment and would be an inspiration for further sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq after the defeat of Daesh (Islamic State) in Mosul. Once the war against terrorism is over in Iraq and Syria, it could pave the way for a potential war between sects in Iraq supported by regional powers, as some countries in the Middle East have started to gain power shortly after the demise of Iraq. Once issues of terrorism are resolved, this might mean that the Iraqis could return to wielding control over neighboring countries, politically and militarily. Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Article published in Fair Observer

Photo Credit: thomas koch / Shutterstock.com

Without a hint that a GCC-Qatar rift tearing apart the fabric of the regional stability and cooperation resolution is anywhere in sight, ill and aged Saudi king Salman via a royal decree, Wednesday morning declares his 31-year-old son, Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) a new crown prince. Naming of the young crown prince along with a number of other young appointees, completes important leadership shift to a new generation in a country with more than half of population under the age of 25, and a desperate need for social, political and economic reform.

In parallel, the former crown prince, 57-year-old King’s nephew, Mohamed bin Nayef was stripped of all official functions, including the interior minister post where he was in charge of the country’s security and the anti-terrorism efforts.

Although the international media has presented the event as breaking news, currently occupying the media space across the globe, informed sources in Washington and Riyadh say the move was expected, adding that more change is on the way at the top of the Saudi government.

Another important event featuring Saudi royals escaped public attention, due to media occupation with the Riyadh Summit outcomes, the ongoing Saudi-led Qatar crisis, and lastly the new crown prince appointment, and the expectations of the economic and political changes his ascent to the first successor to the Saudi throne would bring to the country, region and globally. The missed event is a brief yet hugely significant Saudi future King’s visit to Russia, China, Japan, France, the UK and the US in the past few months meant to initiate a new phase of the soon-to-be Saudi King’s relationships with these countries, all UNSC members, with the exception of Japan.

During Russian visit last month Bin Salman is believed to have sought Russian support after successfully gaining American backing in terms of his economic and political pursuits in the region ― namely the GCC Iranian- Qatari standoff, and the anti-terrorism efforts in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. In Moscow the just appointed Saudi crown prince was expected to cement several significant agreements with the Russian president, but the visit fell short of expectations, followed soon after with the breakout of Qatar crisis.

There are speculations that Saudis asked Russians to cease their support for Iran, and the Syrian government, but Russians did not warm up to the idea, unlike the Americans, so the visit was abruptly cut short.  Such a visit at the beginning of Muslim Holy month of Ramadan last month, on the heels of the Riyadh Summit where Saudis sought to prove to the American president Trump their de facto leadership of the Muslim Sunni world.

As for Mohamed bin Salman, his power and influence both within the Saudi royal family and across the Atlantic has grown significantly in the past few years. As a defense minister, Mohamed bin Salman spearheaded the war on Yemen, and is the chief ideologist of the GCC anti-Qatari campaign.

The young, tremendously ambitious crown prince is also credited with the recent mega-billion arms deal concluded with US president Trump during Riyadh Summit, and the securing of American support for the Sunni collation against Iran.

Bin Salman is also the chief proponent of the ambitious economic reform plan Vision 2030, launched in 2016 with the aim of diversifying and modernizing country’s oil dependent economy.

According to sources close to Israeli military intelligence, the new crown prince has strong links with the Israeli top military, intelligence and political brass and as such plays a key role in US president’s plan for building friendly relations among Arabs and Israel. This link to Israel was made evident through the rekindled crisis with Qatar, when some important figures in the Israeli leadership have joined Saudi condemnation of Qatar and its support for ‘funding and supporting terrorism’ and the Saudi-Israeli common arch-enemy – Iran.

Bin Salman is also known for his mentee relationship with the de facto ruler of the UAE, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed. Both UAE and Saudis seek to curb Iranian and Qatari influence in the region. While the conflict with Iran and Qatar, for most part is presented as the political and ideological in nature ― the two being accused of fomenting and abating extremism and terrorism in the region and beyond ― that storyline is only part of the truth.

It is noteworthy mentioning that Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field and both together and individually represent political and economic rivals to the Saudi regional leadership role. Firstly, Iran is considered key political rival to the Saudi regional dominance, both due to its influence among the region’s Shia Muslims and its growing importance as the energy supplier.

Secondly, Qatar, although insignificant in terms of size of its territory is important as the home to the largest US military base in the region, as well as the key regional and global exporter of the natural gas. Moreover, some of the Qatar’s financial institutions, such as its national bank, are the wealthiest in the region, thus a direct threat to the cash strapped Saudi economy staggering under the weight of protracted low-oil price crisis, augmented by the completely misguided and unwinnable war in Yemen.

Add to the combustible mix a massive amount of money ― which according to some estimates is likely to surpass a trillion dollars ― just poured out of the country’s thinning reserves into the American struggling economy ―  Qatar’s cash reserves seem like a perfect gift to the ‘aggressive and ambitious’ Saudi crown prince.

Quite unexpected, amid the unprecedented diplomatic rift between the two countries, is the congratulatory cable sent by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim to Mohamed Bin Salman upon his high appointment, viewed by some politicians and analysts as an icebreaking attempt to restart soured relations between KSA and Qatar and to open a new page of bilateral relations based on mutual respect rather than on dictatorship of agendas or preset doctrines.

Two big questions now lingering on many analysts’ minds are whether the aging Saudi king will soon step down and hand the mantle to the young son, and whether the son would use the just acquired US weapons and the Sunni support to carry out a blitzkriegon the small, annoying brotherly Arab nation, or choose a path of peace and reconciliation.

In both cases, young crown prince – soon to be king will be facing two grave dangers – both to his own and the country’s future – one internal and the other external.

Will he be able to consolidate the internal power soon enough to ensure his ambitious reform policy is carried out and the country’s economy put back on the path of growth to quell the likely internal dissent?

Will he be able to curb his own inflamed passions and stop short of another disastrous war campaign, this time against a very different enemy, be it either Qatar or Iran?

Photo credit: SPA

Following the Pentagon’s June 14, 2017 statement on a military deal regarding a squadron of 35 F-15 jets delivery to Doha, expectations are ramping up for a cluster of tranquility in the Gulf diplomatic mess which could have paved the way for a military confrontation between four countries against Qatar, as they blame Doha for funding and supporting terrorism in the region.

The total amount of the deal is not just US$ 12 billion – the price of the announced 36 jets, as additional 36 jets are to be agreed upon later on – making the deal worth more than US$24 billion.

Jets manufacturer Boeing in a statement on its website said: “This is a very important deal for preserving the production of this sort of planes and creating 60,000 job opportunities in 42 American states.” This means that the money acquired through the Qatar deal helps Americans proceed with their business as the production of the jets was at risk due to lack of demand.

The American president has fuelled the threats against Doha by his strongly-worded warning, where he accused Qatar of being a “funder of terrorism… at a very high level,” calling on Qatari government to “stop immediately supporting terrorism”.

Shortly after the deal was closed, the President Trump’s tweets of a few days earlier in which he said that “Qatar has a history of backing terrorism at a very high level, and must be punished” as well as other in which he insisted that “the isolation of Qatar is the beginning of the end for terrorism”, the tweets have completely disappeared from his Twitter account. Moreover, they were succeeded by other statements praising Qatar as a strong US ally, while stressing that the warplanes deal represents a big step towards ‘consolidating’ strategic and security cooperation between the two countries.

Earlier, US president Trump has expressed Washington’s support for Bahraini, Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati anti-Qatar coalition. This has been made clear during recent White House press conference when he announced that along with “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people”, he decided [that] “the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding”.

The already complex Gulf crisis was further complicated with the subsequent US fighter jets deal with Qatar and the ensuing joint US-Qatari military exercise that have together sent counter-signals to the four-state alliance, effectively contradicting the US Secretary of State’s conciliatory request delivered in a calming tone to the countries directly involved in the rift.

Though the American Secretary of State is preparing a meeting for the Saudi, Qatari and Emirati officials in Washington, Trump seemed angry with the Qatari officials, mainly the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim, for turning down an invitation to visit the US, under suspicion that the invitation was a trap similar to the one his grandfather fell into, when while on a visit in Egypt and the UAE, his son Hamad carried a coup that dethroned him.

Was then the American Qatari multi-billion jet deal a placebo or a relaxant to the belligerency against Doha from its neighbors?

As the deal is still to be considered by the Americans and their officers since the jets won’t be instantly handed over to Qatar, the deal is said to be absorption of the American anger as the US has about 10,000 troops in Al Udaid base in Doha, which would act as a springboard spearheading any coup schemata.

With the UAE ambassador to Washington statements that there would be no military intervention in Doha, this has double meaning from diplomatic and political viewpoints as history has proved it a long time ago. When diplomats speak about something, the opposite takes place.

It was evident from the outset of this crisis that it would get increasingly serious amidst expectations for further escalation, especially after a number of GCC officials started paying visits to the UK and Russia. The latter being under radar to gauge whether Russia would side with the four-states’ alliance or Doha, due to the huge economic benefits it would gain through yet unannounced agreements with Qatar.

It is speculated that Russia is considering taking control over the world natural gas industry. Once Russia wins over Qatar, as it has already done with Iran, more than 80 per cent of world gas production would be at its disposal. Was this recent rapprochement between Moscow and Doha the real reason for the uproar between Doha and its Arab brethren rather than ‘funding and supporting terrorism’? Will this crisis set the Middle East region partially or wholly ablaze?

The Qataris are now playing politics, as far as the F-15 deal is concerned. The deal has helped the American administration secure an additional US$ 12 billion injection into its military industry. It remains to be seen whether it will help Doha to disentangle itself from the brotherly ambush.

These are all chess pieces moved around adeptly by the superpowers, at the suitable time, especially after the 55 Arab and Islamic states alliance meet up in Riyadh Summit last month. As to who will make the check mate move to end the game is anybody’s guess at this point.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/06/the-future-of-the-gcc-ignited-brouhaha-in-the-region-between-the-us-and-russia/

Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN /Getty Images

Few days ago Russian president Putin stated Russia’s readiness to supply Turkey with advanced S-400 air defense systems. Turkey’s spat with the EU and growing discord with the NATO may be reason behind Turkey’s demand for Russian weapons. For its Arab neighbors the key question is whether this move is aimed against the newly proposed ‘Arab NATO’ or just a Turkish self-defense response following Washington’s arming of Syrian Kurds.

Erdogan may fear meeting the fate of his neighbors in Iraq and Libya, both former US allies, and preparing for the plan B ― turning eastward.

A number of factors, including its growing alliance with Russia and Iran, may have forced Turkey to look to boost its defenses independent from its traditional Western, NATO allies. Diplomatic spat with Germany over refugee deal, strained military relations over Incirlik base, last year’s failed coup, recent American arming of the Syrian Kurds ― all are seen by Turkey as Western moves against its sovereignty. Disliked as he is in the West, with current set of circumstances surrounding his country, Turkish president is wise to strengthen ties with Russia, a country with which the country shares borders and many interests, and most importantly, a reliable ally as witness in Syria and Iran. This is especially important considering that despite Turkey’s being an extremely important Western ally, Erdogan himself is considered a political persona non grata in the US ― the fact that only pushes him further into Russian arms.

While some Arabs may consider the move as targeting the recently announced ‘Arab NATO’, the move actually has different aim. The Arab NATO for now exists only on the paper, and even on the paper not all its signatories are in agreement on all of its stated goals. Moreover, the actual formation timeline is questionable and depends on the pace that Trump administration and Pentagon would take to deliver the weapons they have just sold to the Saudis, and the internal dynamics of the alliance in the making, and its individual members that have widely different military capabilities. As the NATO itself seems to be in disarray, the formation of its Arab equivalent is even more quizzical ― especially as a Trump project.

Erdogan is buying Russian S-400 because he fears that should the war in Syria and Iraq escalate, and the US pushes for the Kurdish state, Turkey itself would be subject to territorial loss. The shifting alliances and abandoning of allies is not a novelty in the American foreign policy, on the contrary ― it is something of a rule rather than the exception, and Erdogan seems to have grasped the possibility of this scenario being replayed with him at the helm of Turkey, and is trying to avoid ill fate of his neighbors.

At this stage Turkish president probably fears the destiny of Iraq’s long time ruler Saddam Hussein whom America first supported against Iran, then labeled dictator and finally deposed in the most gruesome way.

Erdogan has been already widely described in the Western media as a villain and a dictator. There was an attempted military coup last year, which he believes was directed (and likely aided) by the US. From this vantage point, Erdogan is justifiably cautious.

Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Turkey’s Patriotic Party (Vatan), believes that the Erdogan “got caught on the hook” by Washington.

In an interview with Russian Sputnik Turkey, he said “An attempt to divide Syria or Iraq would mean an attempt to divide Turkey. Moreover, this is also an attack aimed to shatter Erdogan’s power. Washington’s tactic is to isolate Erdogan in the international arena”. The only way for Turkey to “avoid a territorial division” is to “develop cooperation with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran,” he believes.

The pressing question then is, if Turkey is seriously reconsidering its alliance with the West and turning towards Russia and Iran led regional block, what is the future of NATO Incirlik base? What role would Turkish base in Qatar play? What with the US base in Qatar, should Qatar too change priorities and form alliances with Russia and Iran?

Amidst a serious and deepening rift between GCC countries and Qatar, Turkey’s key ally in the Gulf, there’s a possibility that the announced purchase of Russian systems might end up in the Gulf peninsula nation should the US decide to move its base, and Turkey decides to fill the void, as it already has a military base in the country.

International isolation and campaign of demonizing both Turkey and Qatar seem to have counter-effects. Instead of pushing them apart this strategy is pushing two once major Western allies firmly and inevitably into the Russian embrace.

Trump’s truly big (arms) deal with the Saudis has so far only managed to divide the Arab Gulf states. The security the deal promised to deliver seems further now than ever. Was it a genuine mistake by the inexperienced Trump administration, lack of strategic forethought or something more sinister, and who are the real villains in the Middle East?

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/06/russia-ready-to-supply-turkey-with-s-400-but-why-does-turkey-need-it/

Photo credit AFP

Page 1 of 2