Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

The coming war against Iran is pushed by some Arab rulers rather than Israelis who are benefiting from the state of rivalry and enmity between a number of Sunni Arab countries against Iran, blaming Tehran for threatening their countries and interfering in their internal affairs. By the same token, US President Donald Trump has announced his country's withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran early May 2018 and he will not accept any amendments to the pact as he insists on changing the whole deal to include Iranian ballistic missiles.

After years of breakneck and ruthless fighting, Syria and Iraq are slowly stabilising after defeating most of the terrorist groups in both countries. However, the international influence in the Middle East brings massive problems to the region: high level of tension between Iran and Israel, hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and stability of oil prices, terrorism, and political rift between old regional allies. Chaos will continue in the region and it will rather escalate with no signs of plummeting as the international and regional powers are not willing to bring veneer of order to the region, which will lead anarchy after stability in some countries which started to breathe a sigh of relief. Will international powers keep fueling Sunni-Shiite infighting? Will Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen be in ruins?

The answers come from the meetings of American administration regarding forming a new alliance against Iran to impose new sanctions on the country and to force the international community to abide by what the US wants. This justifies his recent appointments of the three hawkish officials to his administration: Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, Gina Haspel as CIA director and John Bolton as National Security Adviser. The three of them are against Iran and the nuclear deal as well. Thus, they will seek to implement what Israel wants, represented by its far-right government, which is planning and working hard to prevent Iran from developing its military industries and overthrowing its political regime. Unfortunately, there are Arab countries that  share aggressive intentions of the US and Israel. They  purchased American weaponry for hundreds of billions of dollars, normalising ties, forgetting the Israeli-Arab conflict by labelling it as Israeli-Palestinian issue, ignoring US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Bringing back Bolton to power poses a high risk as it pushed the US to war edge. The hawkishness of the two other officials will also lead to one or two regional wars in the Middle East.

The US and Israel as well as a handful of Arab states do not hesitate to ally with Israeli government’s expansionist policies. These countries have been behind the destruction of Iraq in the 1990s and they are the ones who highly contributed to the destruction of Syria, Yemen and Libya, neutralizing Egypt and alienating it from national role to confront Arab real enemies overseas.  Since 1973, we have not seen a true Arab battle against Israel. The reason is, that many Arab states, even those which have no normal ties with Tel Aviv, have sought neutrality in the Arab Israeli conflict for their own survival, regardless of the fierce war Iraq had to undergo against Iran and the hundreds of thousands in death toll in both sides and the volume of destruction in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen for these “friendly" to Israel Arab countries  in order to thrive and to avoid any setback on their economies. No one would ever believe that such cities and states would develop without the Iraqi sacrifices against Iran at that time which the Iraqis are paying until now. It is the same countries which push forward for prolonging the war in Syria, Yemen and Libya as well as other places in the Middle East as this serves the economies of those who are lobbying for the “Century Deal” at the expense of Arabs: Christians and Muslims.

For many Arabs, Iran is not the enemy of Arabs; it is the enemy of the minority of Arabs, who are under the influence of the West. Israel believes that Iran is its enemy which Tel Aviv seeks to destroy before Tehran becomes a major power that would threaten Israel’s presence in the region. Why do some Arab rulers conspire against Arabs? Who will benefit from a devastating war in the region? What gains will get the Arabs who will be involved in the battle against Iran or Syria, if pushed to by the West and Israel? What happens if Iran wins the battle?

Observers believe that Arabs will not achieve anything useful from any regional war against Iran and its alliance or Turkey and its coalition. Supposedly, if a war breaks out between Israel, the US and its Arab allies against Iran, the end will be that the Areb countries would be further divided to be better controlled and monitored by Israel and its Western allies, where oil and gas resources will be fully controlled by these countries for decades to come. However, if Iran wins the war, the first victims will be those countries which have taken part in the aggression against Iran and its allies. By then, new demonstrations in the region will arise against Arab rulers who have destroyed their countries’ economies and armies for the sake of foreigners and who mortgaged their states’ wealth and natural resources to their enemies.

Arabs are a nation plagued by some failed rulers who cannot read the international developments and threats correctly, and who prefer to cooperate and ally with the enemies of the nation. The greatest enemies of the Arabs are some Arabs who conspire against their peoples for the sake of their enemies who have no morals and who do not respect their promises.

In Munich Security Conference which was held February 2018, most Arab governments have demonised Iran and considered Tehran a greater enemy; their behind-the-scenes collaboration with Israelis against Iran has become an uncluttered secret. The West including the US along with Israel are aligning with some Arab because oil is a crucial concern and a top priority. Thus, demonising Iran or any other country other than Israel at this time is very fruitful as this will be a credit for the Americans and their allies in the West to abuse the Arabs and abuse their resources to the last single penny.

Is it likely that the Middle East will be redrawn, but this would happen in the coming ten years with the creation of an independent Kurdistan state even if Turkey and Iran fight against that tooth and nail. The next era will witness not only partition of countries that witness infighting, but also those which will witness chaos in the coming years dividing countries whose areas are millions of square kilometers into various states. The Arab world will continue cracking further and Arabs will be seeking shelter in other countries in waves of immigrants.

Article published by Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/the-21st-century-more-cracks-in-arab-countries/

Photo credit: Felipe Dana/AP

Published in Tribune

Disputes in the Middle East cannot be resolved unilaterally. They can only be tackled collectively, through integrated regional and international cooperation. This applies to challenges such as the Palestinian cause, terrorism, Arab-Iranian conflict and other lesser predicaments.

Some political observers believe that the Arab-Iranian dispute should be addressed even before the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Since 1967, the Middle East has been a hub for the worst military conflicts and wars.

About 22 percent of world’s conflicts have been concentrated in the region during the past three decades. When the eight-year Iraqi-Iranian went on from 1980 to 1988, both countries lost more than 2 million soldiers.

UN statistics reveal that about 40 percent of the total number of those killed in armed conflicts have fallen in the Middle East since 1980 until the end of 2017. Such conflicts have complicated the political scene and have led to further chaos when the Arab Spring erupted in some Arab republics.

Up to 72 percent of world war toll and military conflict fatalities have been reported in the Middle East. Moreover, the Middle East has the highest levels of terrorist attacks since 2003. Incidents of terrorism increased by 50 percent, leaving many countries behind owing to their impact on economies.

Iran and Arab states are heading toward direct regional conflict that would drive Israel to intervene by targeting some strategic sites in Iran to turn balance of power

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

Balance of power

Many states harbor a strong belief that their main enemy is Iran as it tampers with the stability of Arab countries. This started with Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. Since no conflict can take place without the pretext, if the root cause is to be resolved then changing the balance of power and the regime in Iran are a must.

As Iran was eying Iraq since 1980s, after regime had changed in Tehran in 1979, a conflict broke out which saw in the Iranian expansionist policies a strategy to rule over the whole region.

The first Iranian step was to control Iraq after American pullout because Iraq is in the north of the Gulf and Iran is located to the east of the Gulf States. 

This is likely to pose a major threat to Gulf states as Iraq is geographically and strategically located between three major powers: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Turkey and Iran.

Iranians have sought to play the Iraq card first before moving to play other cards which include sectarianism, the cards of Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Iran believes that an Arab-Iranian model can be created through the Iraqi gate, with the support of others – such as Russia, Syria – without reaching a compromise between Arabs and Iranians in such a conflict.

There is a firm belief that the Iranian regime should be changed in order for the country’s policies to be changed accordingly. Hence, changing the regime of the Vilayat al-Faqih may be considered a regional and international necessity before the possibility of confluence of Iraq and the other Gulf states in the form of an alliance or to form a new regional system.

No peace deal

But why all previous wars have ended with no peace deal or surrender agreement? The Iran-Iraqi war ended on August 8, 1988 with a truce but without a peace or surrender agreement being signed. The same applies to the two wars against Iraq.

Thus, the answer is simply tacit which bears the seeds of a war that would erupt any moment. Should this happen, Iran will be forced to leave Iraq and Syria to protect its borders.

Iran looks at Arabs, whether Sunni or Shiite, from a heritage perspective. It considers the GCC a springboard backed by the West to besiege Iranian revolution.

On the other hand, Gulf Arabs regard the Iranian revolution as an existential threat. This was exemplified by Khomeini who called on Arabs in the Gulf to stir up revolution.

Iran and Arab states are heading toward direct regional conflict that would drive Israel to intervene by targeting some strategic sites in Iran to turn balance of power. The month of May is very critical where the future of the Middle East region will be at stake. 

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/05/11/Disputes-over-Iraq-and-Syria-Strategies-and-ramifications.html

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 10 May 2018 18:09

Russia makes a play for the Middle East

Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

The competition between the United States and Russia in the MENA region will be determined after the end of the Syrian conflict.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is caught between the hammer of the US and the anvil of Russia. Russian-American competition has re-emerged in the region ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his country into a global player in the 21st century. The show of power started with Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 and has since expanded.

It is difficult to predict the relationship between Moscow and Washington vis-à-vis the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and the rift between Sunni Arab states and Iran. The trajectories of each conflict are the factors that will determine the relationship between Arabs and Moscow on one hand, and Arabs and Washington on the other. 

The presence of international powers in MENA is nothing new. Both Russia and the US have been in the region as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries during the time of the Ottoman Empire. In the Gulf, the Americans cemented their relations with Oman in 1833, which led to the inauguration of the American Consulate in Muscat in 1838. However, the US affiliation with the Middle East is different from that of the Russians. Americans entered the region before there was turmoil, while the Russians arrived shortly after. Yet both countries have tried to exploit the current situation of unprecedented sectarianism and discernible regional and international competition. The Russians, however, know that America’s influence is far stronger.

Russians have always looked for access to warm waters. This has been their dream since Peter the Great in the 17th century. On the other hand, the Americans have military bases in the Middle East, mainly in the Gulf region. For example, the US Navy base in Juffair, Bahrain, was established in 1971 and was the first American installation in the region. 

At the time, the Soviet Union had fallen far behind in the Middle East as it was focused on consolidating its gains in Eastern Europe and on rebuilding its empire following World War II. When Western countries established NATO in 1949 to ensure their security, the Soviets established the Warsaw Pact in 1955 for the Eastern Bloc. Soon after, the Americans helped form the Baghdad Pact in 1955 in attempts to thwart the Soviet influence in the Middle East. Since then, the Americans have dominated the region.

Putin Puts Russia on the Global Stage

The return of Russia as a global power is largely attributed to Putin. To achieve this goal, he had to vie for Russian interests and to challenge the American presence in the Middle East. Former US President Barack Obama tried to take a step back from the turmoil in the region as he shifted US foreign policy to focus on Asia. Putin exploited this by consolidating Russian interests in the MENA region because of its proximity to the Russian frontier.

Starting with the “counterterrorism operation” in 1999, Putin regained control over Chechnya. Then he had to confront NATO on Georgia in 2008. These situations were a warning to Washington and its allies: Moscow is back on track to become a global power, and Putin is different from former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Accordingly, Putin’s decision to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came after he considered the collapse of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime under a NATO-backed civil war in 2011. Known for taking action, Putin came to the military support of Assad in 2015 as retaliation for the West’s role over unrest in Ukraine the year before.

Rivalry in the Middle East

Putin has pledged to challenge Western interests in the Middle East. Many countries in the region have started to regard Russia as an ascending power that can play a pivotal role in resolving regional issues. Recent visits to Moscow by the Jordanian monarch, the Saudi king and the Qatari emir, among others, are a clear signal that Russia is back on the block.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has visited the US on recent occasions for talks on arms deals, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took a trip to Moscow in February where discussions included military cooperation. Many from the Middle East are heading to the Kremlin to buy Russian weaponry, including the S-400 air missile systems.

All of this is a sign of Russia’s influence. Russian ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council have also progressed significantly in spite of the diplomatic crisis over Qatar. The rivalry between Iran and some Sunni Arab states has pushed Russia into the driver’s seat as the Americans negotiate mega arms deals — mainly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The American-Russian rivalry over the Middle East chessboard will be determined shortly after the end of the Syrian conflict. By then, there will be one of two scenarios: Either the Americans will have regained the influence they once had or it will be the Russians who take over.

Article published in Fair Observer: 

Published in Tribune

The 21st century presents Arabs with many challenges that affect their existence and identity for many years to come. Many scholars are now concerned about how to maintain their  cultural identity without being dependent on the West who have the upper hand in terms of influence regarding educational and media systems due to the pervading globalisation which cannot be stopped or controlled.

Though many Arab intelligentsias have written many articles and books about the need for independence in the face of the West’s superiority; however, the risks of westernisation of Arab and Islamic culture are uncontrollable and the influence will be directed against Arab-Islamic heritage and national cultural identity. Though globalisation can be viewed as positive, many scholars consider it negative as a sign of colonialism and cultural invasion, which threatens people’s identity and cultural individuality. Thus, the creation of Daesh in Iraq and Syria as well as al-Qaeda aimed not only to destroy the two countries’ armies but rather to destroy their cultural and historical heritage which leads to deconstructing national identity as well. Why Daesh has destroyed historical sites in Iraq and Syria?

The Arabs and Muslims are living in the middle of the world. Thus, they are under the influence of power polarisation or polarity. One would notice that Arabs at present are living in a state of displaced, intellectual dispersion, cultural disparity or a state of cultural reliance.

Nowadays, the youth are thinking of recreating the old glory and dignity of the caliphate era as they consider they have lost their identity in the so-called “conflict of civilisations”. They wanted to reconstruct a new state which unify them all under the slogan of Islam. This has been the trap for many of them by Daesh and al-Qaeda which have netted a web that misled the youth who fold-blindly followed the path of radicalism to revive the era of the caliphate.

Arabs and Muslims, mainly the youth, due to the high levels of unemployment, are thinking crystallising an ideological and intellectual project that accommodates them to revive their ancient glories. This message would overlap between Arabs and Muslims in terms of originality and modernity because many of the youth, if asked, would say that the past of the Arabs and Muslims was much better than the present era as they were influential and had a say and now they are influenced and have to obey what other nations dictate on them. Thus, they believe the way out is by getting back to the foundations of Islamic religion, though it is restricted by many conditions and determinants in our today’s world to better shape their political and economic future.

In other words, Muslims and Arabs are torn apart between Islamic identity and modern identity. They seek to follow the Islamic teachings and no to relinquish modern civilisation’s blessings. The principle of Islamic identity is one of the Islamic principles. It has enabled the nation's prosperity. Thus, to understand how the young seek extremism, one should know why they follow the teachings of Jihadist leaders in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere.

In Samuel. P. Huntington's thesis “The Clash of Civilizations”, the West will try to rule the world by permeating their notions and morals in other countries.  Thus, the rejection to these plans comes from the young generation in the Arab and Muslim worlds as they are not bound to adhere to Western soul and ethics. Such rejection leads to a state of radicalism and a state of counter-acting against the interests of the west in the Arab and Islamic worlds or anywhere else. What turns the young Arabs and Muslims to be extremists then terrorist is the conflict between the West and their civilization in various terms including culture, economy, military, political and educational systems, values, beliefs, norms and traditions in addition to religion. Such difference are conducive to counteractions which would drive them to act against interests of the West, to insulate their communities from being penetrated by other civilizations not only the West, and to work on producing arms and weaponry that would create a deterrent power against any external threat such as the case with Daesh and al-Qaeda which both have their tactics and techniques to produce local-made arms.

Thus, linking historical identity with national interests is very significant to determine the moral perspective of extremists’ strategies and their way of thinking. Though political relations of conflicts, alliances and understandings between nations in the 21st century are important, Daesh and its affiliates as well as al-Qaeda and its affiliates do not consider this very important as long as they believe in unity of destiny and beliefs.

What Arabs and Muslims are facing now is their cultural identity issue at the global level. Jihadists realised that the main source of conflict in the next new world will not be political ideology or economics alone but also cultural. That is why they destroy all the ancient sites in the countries they take over. Therefore, the major conflicts will take place, according to the beliefs of these fanatic groups, between nations and groups belonging to different civilizations. It is a battle of civilizations to draw the new borders.

The outbreak of the so-called "revolutions" of the Arab Spring, which erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, and the resulting identity struggle in an unprecedented manner, have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the migration of millions of citizens from their countries of origin to Europe, fleeing the inferno of “searching for an identity”, which none of those fighting for has a clear understanding what he is fighting for or who is he fighting.  Syria may be a model for the bloody identity struggle, exacerbated by the battles of the superpowers and their deep rivalry over political influence.

In the end, there are social, cognitive and religious situations that may remain in the structure of a society and culture, and may provoke some clashes from time to time. However, at a historical moment and for multiple reasons, it could lead to a sudden abrupt transition from a state of equilibrium to a situation of bloody conflict between multiple parties in a bid to search for an identity.

Extended version of the article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1295386

Published in Tribune

Who benefits from a chemical attack such as the one reported to have taken place in Douma last weekend? Is it Russia or Syria? Hardly. It was already clear that any such attack would provoke a tough response from the US and its allies — direct military involvement in Syria with the aim of punishing Bashar Assad, his forces and allies, and ultimately toppling the regime.

The alleged attack raises many questions, the most important being the timing; there was no reason for the Assad regime to carry it out. The Syrian and Russian armies had recaptured most of Eastern Ghouta. Russia was in talks with the militant group Jaish Al-Islam over a deal to allow their fighters to leave Ghouta for Idlib. Civilians trapped in Ghouta had been released. 

Videos reporting the supposed attack do not stand up to scrutiny. One shows a reporter filming as he goes down into the shelter where it took place, but without taking any precautions or wearing any protection. Later, another White Helmet appears with a mask, and says the place is full of gas. Is this logical? Then the White Helmet puts on a mask, but with his bare hands, in ordinary clothes and with his neck uncovered. If there was a chemical attack, how is this possible? 

The White Helmets also reported that most of the victims of the attack were in an underground shelter. But Assad was accused of dropping barrel bombs filled with toxic gas. If this were true, most of the victims would have been at ground level. In addition, Russian military personnel in Douma were not affected by any kind of chemical poisoning, and an investigation by the Russians found no traces of chemical weapons. 

An investigation should be carried out first by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other independent international bodies. The stakes are enormous because for Assad to carry out such such an attack would be to commit suicide. He is surely not naive enough to fall into this trap.

There are genuine concerns about what happens next. Any military retaliation without a detailed investigation, on the sole basis of reports from the White Helmets, would be an attempt to change the course of recent developments in Syria, and deprive Russia and Turkey of their achievements on the ground.

The ramifications are enormous, and the price of military intervention may be too much to bear. The examples are clear: The military intervention in Iraq cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and led to the emergence of Daesh. The operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa also cost thousands of civilian lives. We can hardly calculate how many lives would be sacrificed if the West’s aggressive declarations were followed through, or how long that road to hell would be. 

A full-scale attack, as was the case with Libya, would lead to terrorist and extremist gangs spreading all over Syria and the region, leading to chaos and anarchy. Furthermore, we would stand on the brink of a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers, Russia and the US. Nobody would be able to count the innocent victims of such a confrontation.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1283061

Photo credit: Anadolu

Published in Tribune

Sino-Russian relations have been historically quite close, as the countries have shared the same vision of the need for multipolarity and diversity while looking to counter US dominance. Facing increasing competition from the US, China considers promoting regional economic partnerships as a key strategic priority. Moreover, the improvement of China’s recent ties with its regional partners has added extra assets to its economic integration. Meanwhile, Russia is also looking to counter US dominance by constructing a multipolar world of equals and fair play. And here the two countries have “found” each other.

China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is aimed at further opening up to other countries and speeding up domestic reforms, is deemed an effective approach to integrating into the global economy. The partnership with the 10 ASEAN countries — Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — as well as India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand would give China the flexibility to counter the American trade measures against its economy.

China views the American shift toward the Pacific region — as Washington increases its influence through economic activities and through military and political cooperation, in addition to a rise in anti-China rhetoric — as a major threat to its sovereignty.

The history of China’s dreams of ending US dominance started in the late 1990s with a book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” written by Chinese generals Liang Qiao and Wang Xiangsui. The main idea is that China can defeat the US, despite it being technologically superior and a more developed country, by avoiding traditional means of warfare. It proposed a variety of means that could be used to defeat the US, including lawfare, economic warfare, and network warfare. The book had a big impact in the US and, nearly 20 years after its publication, we can see that America and its Western allies have adopted many ideas of unrestricted warfare, developing them in accordance with new opportunities, technological breakthroughs and the peculiarities of the modern world.

The trade war launched by the Trump administration is being used as leverage and an instrument of exercising power, rather than for protectionism of the American economy. The aggressive rhetoric against China and exchange of tariff hikes on certain products and goods are raising the heat in bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington. The US is officially considering China a threat to its national interests. In keeping with Asian traditions, China is keeping its door open for talks until the very last moment, but it is unlikely this generosity will be appreciated by the US. 

Taking into account that the two powers have the same perceptions of how the world must be shaped, their alliance is promising to be fruitful and will cause many headaches in Washington.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) 

Understanding that the US has practically declared war on China using non-military means will bring Russia and China closer together. Taking into account that the two powers have the same perceptions of how the world must be shaped, their alliance is promising to be fruitful and will cause many headaches in Washington. Both China and Russia have repeatedly declared that they are trying not to mix politics and economics, but are trying to form a new kind of relations. There is therefore an urgent need to reset relations and establish permanent channels of communication based on the interests of both countries.

Russia and China have in recent years demonstrated agreement in the UN on many issues, including Syria, to the great disappointment of the US. But Sino-Russian cooperation in Syria goes far beyond the hall of the UN Security Council, as they successfully cooperate on the ground. China has deployed its limited special forces contingency to back the Syrian army and is active on many fields nowadays without the need for pompous announcements on its philosophy and foreign policy approaches.

China and Russia oppose the deployment of the US missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula, as it is deemed to be jeopardizing their national security and damaging the strategic balance in the region. The decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is part of the global anti-missile shield that Washington wants to serve US superiority. The move, which was said to be for protecting South Korea from North Korea, is undoubtedly directed against both China and Russia. At the same time, Russia and China have merged their satellite tracking systems into one global navigation giant.

Russia now awaits a visit by the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, who postponed a trip to Moscow last week. In the framework of the growing US-China tensions, this visit will boost Sino-Russian cooperation. The agenda promises to be huge and will cover most fields of bilateral and global interest. China’s new Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe is already in Moscow and has declared that the visit by the Chinese delegation is aimed at showing the US the strength of bilateral ties and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. He explained that he made Russia his first port of call in his new role to demonstrate China’s will to deepen the strategic cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. Wei also stressed that China is ready to show full-scale agreement with Russia on most of the issues on the global agenda.

Russia and China, despite their differences, are now moving closer together to counter the US and reshape the world.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1279186/columns

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 15 March 2018 23:09

Jordan’s new regional role

Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

It is significant for a Syrian opposition member to take a photo with a top American official. When the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a meeting in Jordan’s capital, Amman, with the head of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, Nasr al-Hariri, and an accompanying delegation on February 14, the photo, which went viral, signaled how Jordan is set to play a major role in the outcome of ongoing conflicts in the tumultuous Middle East. Indeed, the meeting suggested that Amman is emerging as an increasingly influential actor following the decision made by US President Donald Trump last year to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Thus, the American official’s visit to Amman was well-received in the Hashemite Kingdom where the leadership is eyeing a new role in Syria. This new role is in line with Jordan’s current one in the American-Russian pact vis-à-vis the de-escalation zones. Washington sent Tillerson days after US Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Amman. King Abdullah II voiced Jordan’s concerns and trepidations about the ramifications of Trump’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which many Jordanians fear will undermine stability in the Hashemite Kingdom.

The Jordanian monarch’s message reached Washington, which sent Tillerson to Jordan for primarily three main reasons. The first was to strengthen US-Jordan relations in a host of domains from security to economics and mil-mil cooperation. The second was to signal support for Amman’s new role in the Syrian crisis as a host of the moderate Syrian opposition which embraces the idea of finding a political solution to the seven-year conflict. The third was to back Jordan’s role in talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Although Tillerson’s message to the Jordanians (and other Arabs too), which he made through his meeting with the King of Jordan, was that the Trump administration’s position on Jerusalem is not currently effective and will take years to crystallize. Yet the top American diplomatic chief’s message failed to assuage King Abdullah II’s concerns as the monarch’s fears pertain to the loss of Hashemite custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

In an effort to persuade Washington to embrace a different position toward Jordan, Amman has had to pursue two goals. The first has been to grow closer to Muslim countries that oppose the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, chiefly Turkey, and to a lesser extent Qatar and Iran as well. The second has been to accept America’s decision but secure assurances from Washington that Jordan remains a key partner of the US in the Arab world. Thus, Amman is seeking to diversify its alliances vis-à-vis deeper relations with Ankara, Doha, and Tehran without burning any bridges with America.

As Jordan is undergoing a tough economic crisis, the Jordanian government’s image has suffered at a sensitive juncture in the Hashemite Kingdom’s history. Unquestionably, the renewal of American financial and military support to Amman came at an opportune time, offering Jordan’s political leadership an opportunity to salvage its reputation. The Trump administration’s support for Jordan will help American foreign policy decision-makers approach complicated and multifaceted conflicts in the Middle East in which Amman’s diplomatic efforts will prove valuable.

Tillerson’s visit to Amman was on the eve of King Abdullah’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While meeting with America’s chief diplomat, Jordan’s monarch conveyed his understanding that Putin holds the key for resolving the Syrian crisis. King Abdullah II, who has the American backing, talks to the Russians in his capacity as a liaison between regional powers and Russia.

By hosting such a meeting with Tillerson and the moderate Syrian opposition, Jordan is carefully treading the Middle East’s geopolitical fault lines. Amman seeks to reward Turkey for its stance on the status of Jerusalem without crossing any ‘red lines’ in terms of moving to close to Iran and/or Lebanese Hezbollah while still keeping some options open with respect to Jordanian-Iranian relations within the context of Jordan’s understanding that Tehran is an actor to contend with in the future of Syria and the region at large. In sum, Amman is looking East without sacrificing its alliances with Western powers, chiefly the United States. At this juncture, Amman has found itself dealing with four key actors in Syria: Russia, the Syrian opposition, Turkey, and the United States.

Yet what remains to be seen is how Amman’s embrace of these four actors impacts Amman-Damascus relations. Most likely, this role that Jordan plays will undermine the prospects for any rapprochement between Jordan and Syria with Jordan’s northern border likely remaining closed until further notice. Another important variable worth observing is how much the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states choose to financially support Jordan amid this period of economic stress in the Hashemite Kingdom. By turning to Turkey for a closer relationship, Jordan is unquestionably angering the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab states that have a negative perception of Turkey’s increasingly bold foreign policy in the region.

Without any oil and beset by the destabilizing effects of different conflicts on its borders, Jordan remains highly vulnerable to the impact of continued warfare in Syria and pressures from many actors that are vested in pressuring Amman to play different roles in the Middle East. Cautiously, the Jordanian leadership is keen to avoid aligning too closely with any coalition or axis for fear that Amman will lose flexibility as developments unfold quickly in the region.

Article published in International Policy Digest: https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/03/13/jordan-s-new-regional-role/

 

Published in Tribune

The situation in Syria is heating up, as the international powers play an expanding geopolitical game on the Syrian chessboard. The sequence and timings of recent events raise many questions. The situation in Eastern Ghouta is developing in the same way it has for the past several months without attracting much attention from the international community. However, following continuous violations of the de-escalation zone by militants, targeting residential neighborhoods in Damascus, both Russia and Syria have intensified operations in the area.

The situation is aggravated by the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked groups and militants using civilians as human shields; a common tactic in civil wars.

The media reaction was started by activists on the ground, reporting through text messages and WhatsApp about the calamitous situation in Eastern Ghouta. However, it seems nobody was paying attention to the fact that Damascus is also populated by civilians, and the constant shelling of the city is causing death and destruction. It seems as if not all lives matter to the international community.

The international coverage of Eastern Ghouta shows how biased and subjective media coverage is compared to what Afrin is undergoing at present; just because Turkey, a Western ally and a NATO member, is acting against the Kurds, whom Ankara labels as terrorists. Thus, it is apparent that the West needs Ankara right now more than Turkey needs the West. This justifies why the latter does not denounce what the Turkish army is doing in Afrin, while blaming the Russian and Syrian armies for their role in Ghouta. Turkey looks the potential winner in the tug-of-war between Russia and the West, as both need Ankara in the war against terrorism. The losers here are the Kurdish people, as they appear to be mere pawns in the geopolitical game.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the conflict as, instead of solving the crisis, all the players prefer to engage in geopolitical games using their pawns on the ground.

– Maria Dubovikova

After long debates at the United Nations Security Council, the members unanimously voted for a resolution requesting a one-month armistice in Syria. As expected, the armistice is not working. The international media reported a probable chemical attack in the suburbs, after which the UK threatened to strike Damascus, as if Western powers have the right to strike any country they want. When the British and Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 after suspecting that Iraqis were producing biological and chemical weapons and long-range missiles, the reports were proven to be false. Launching such strikes on Syria now could bring about the same result.

The UK and the US are picky in their reporting. They forget how many people have been killed in Iraq or how many were killed recently in Deir Ezzor. They channel their news coverage to serve their own interests by distorting the image of other nations.

Attempts to ease the humanitarian status have been disrupted by militants. It is common knowledge that Ghouta is suffering from starvation and illnesses, and civilians, spending most of their time in basements, want to get out from the suburb. However, the militants do not let them out, forcing families (who reach the checkpoints, seeking to leave Ghouta for safety) to return. The rebels are using the civilians in their own media game and abuse them as human shields.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson laid responsibility for the disastrous situation in Syria on Russia. His tone was clear, and the direction everything is now moving is becoming clear as well. It seems that American procrastination over a political settlement in Syria is aimed at partitioning the country. This violates the US-Russian agreement and thus Moscow will be forced to counter US efforts to divide Syria and will play the game until the end, including not allowing the Americans to have a base there.

Meanwhile, the risk of a clash between the US and Russia over Syria is on the rise. The consequences of such a scenario are hard to calculate, but Russia is undertaking diplomatic measures to avoid such risky developments. Moscow is calling on the Western powers to use their influence on the rebel groups. Russian demands are simple: Once the rebels stop shelling the city, the strikes will be stopped. The terrorist groups should also leave the area, as there is no way they will be accepted as a part of cease-fire talks or any agreement. Had this been achieved already, humanitarian missions could have gained access to the affected areas sooner. All of this can be achieved through international cooperation and the proper exercise of pressure on the militants on the ground.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the Syrian war, as all countries prefer to play geopolitical games instead of solving the crisis, using their pawns on the ground regardless of how many people are killed. All countries should stop being Machiavellian in their deeds and decline the motto “the end justifies the means.”

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1263946

Published in Tribune

The Valdai Discussion Club — the main expert discussion platform in Russia — last week held its annual conference on the Middle East. It was the most representative Middle Eastern Valdai in history, as it was attended by two foreign ministers (Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and Iran’s Javad Zarif), the deputy foreign ministers of some Middle Eastern countries, former top-level politicians and leading experts and advisers from all over the globe.

The conference, which was titled “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on all Fields,” focused on the major regional conflict knots like Syria, Palestine and Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Iran. Russia’s role in the settlement of these crises was discussed but was not the cornerstone of the conference.

The conclusions that can be made following the two days of debate are as follows: Russia is standing strong on its positions and is serious about its intention to settle the Syrian conflict through international institutions, alongside supportive formats like the Astana process and the Sochi congress. But Moscow is deeply concerned by the activities of the US in Syria. Lavrov, answering a question on what more Russia can do to improve the current situation, said it is not about what Russia can do but what the US should not. There is a high level of mistrust between Moscow and Washington that threatens the whole settlement process in Syria. 

Russia initially blocked the United Nations Security Council resolution on a ceasefire in Ghouta, mostly because of its doubts about the intentions of the US and its allies. Russia also stood firm on the exclusion of terrorist factions, such as Al-Qaeda and Faylaq Al-Rahman, from the ceasefire. The tendency to present Al-Qaeda-linked groups as merely militants or rebels started last month and has gained momentum. 

What does provide hope for the region’s future — and underlines Russia’s potential as a negotiator for peace — is that every year Valdai gathers in one hall representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, the Kurdish community, the US and others, and encourages them to talk openly.

 – Maria Dubovikova

Russia is calling on the international community to work together on the Syrian conflict settlement. It will work closely on the establishment of the constitutional committee that was approved in Sochi. But it has become clear Russia will face severe problems with the Assad regime, as the declaration approved at the conference was modified by Syria — to remove the paragraph on the UN’s dominant role — with no coordination. The speech by Bashar Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban made everyone feel that Damascus is far from understanding the real situation and is absolutely unwilling to negotiate. Russia is facing a series of problems in dealing with Damascus and this will be the main challenge to its bid to establish a constitutional committee with the UN’s support.

Meanwhile, Zarif called for peace talks and the establishment of a regional security system: A mechanism that would allow the region to openly discuss its challenges. Avoiding the topic of Tehran’s expansionist policies in the region, Zarif highlighted Iran’s readiness to cooperate and negotiate. Iran slammed Israel for its policies, backed by the US, which was not surprising, but the speeches by Israeli representatives really were different. 

This can be summed up by one passage by former Israeli Foreign Minister Dore Gold, who summed up his speech regarding Israeli support for an independent Kurdistan by stating that the occupied Golan Heights are and will remain Israeli territory. Parrying the statement that such declarations violate international law, he answered that territories annexed following a war of aggression are illegal, but territories annexed as a result of a war of self-defense are a totally different story. Israel, blindly backed by the US, is getting tougher and more impudent and that will, sooner or later, have severe consequences for the regional powers. While Palestinian representatives are giving strong signals that greater Israeli oppression will only produce greater resistance, what is typical for both sides is a total unwillingness to listen to one other.

The Yemeni and Libyan conflicts have stalled. We can point to the problems and even draw ideal world solutions, but there is no chance we will succeed in implementing any of them. Russia is trying to facilitate a peace settlement in Libya after being asked by the Libyans to be more involved in the conflict, but Yemen is not its playground. On Libya, there is intense cooperation between global powers, but Yemen seems to be a forgotten war that nobody cares much about.

The speeches at the conference seem to suggest relations are degrading toward further escalations and confrontations. The problem in all these cases is like so much in the region: We are all speaking but not talking. We hear but do not listen. The Middle East is ruled by fear and mistrust and that engenders new phobias and misleads individual players and their global allies. But what does provide hope for the region’s future — and underlines Russia’s potential as a negotiator for peace — is that every year Valdai gathers in one hall representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, the Kurdish community, the US and others, and encourages them to talk openly. 

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1254091/opinion

Published in Tribune

The moment his plane landed in Moscow on February 15, Russian media broadcast the king while saying: “I am always very delighted and warmed by the opportunity to see my dear brother, President Putin, as a friend, a dear friend of his as well as a friend of Russia ’, with this statement King Abdullah II started his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The wording is very important at this time as the king expressed the Jordanian fears of a comprehensive regional war with non-conventional weapons which some countries have and would use at certain points and areas if war breaks out.

Some western diplomats frankly expressed their interest in the royal visit to Moscow, saying that the main reason is a Jordanian farsightedness of a comprehensive war in the region that would involve not only regional but rather international powers, adding salt to the Middle Easterners’ wounds. Putin knows that Jordan’s strength is through pre-emptive and tactical upkeep of working diplomatic ties with players across the region. Both Jordanian and Russian leaders know that their mutual interest lies in further cooperation at the highest levels.

The Syrian conflict

King Abdullah has succeeded to maintain affable, and somehow purposeful ties with many countries involved in the Syrian conflict. Amman is the only conduit of collaboration between Washington and Moscow in Syria. However, this has driven Jordan into many challenges starting from balancing out its policies with various regional and international players in the Syrian war.

The king, who was the first to warn against an Iranian or Shi’ite Crescent in the region from Tehran to Beirut in 2004, has tried to persuade the Russian president who has strong ties with Iranian leaders, to contain the escalation by the Jordanian, Syrian and Israeli borders to avoid any future war as this will drag every country in the region to war which can start any moment but no one would be able to put an end if it breaks out.

The king was not only conveying a Jordanian message to Russia to foil all attempts to escalate tension near Jordanian northern borders, but also a regional message that war is in the offing and that the ramifications would be destructive for all parties. Thus, the Jordanian monarch has tried to receive Russian support, as Russia is an effective player in the Syrian conflict.

King Abdullah is sure that Iran would not accept to leave Syria after all its military and financial aid with a perception among Iranian leaders that they were the ones who backed Bashar Al Assad. The drone incident and the downing of the F-16 last week reveals that only Russia can control all players on the ground including Iran.

When King Abdullah has realized what a further escalation means if Iran, Syria and Israel get into war, conducive to major explosion in Syria and turning it into a full-fledged war at the regional level, he listed this new development to his agenda as the visit was prepared few weeks ago.

‘Bang bang’

The Syrian “Big Bang” will turn the region into a state of anarchy. Any war in Syria means that the region will turn into states fighting against each other to delineate the borders, which will cause more bloodshed and mayhem that we do not know when and how it will end.

The historical heritage of Jordan over the holy sites in Jerusalem has made Amman very sensitive to any changes or transformations of the status of the holy city. 

– Shehab Al-Makahleh 

The Jordanian monarch tried to persuade president Putin that it is necessary to convince the Iranians to be involved into indirect negotiations with Israel in order to avoid any regional war that will incur heavy losses on all countries and would lead to instability of the Middle East for decades to come, fueling more fanaticism and terrorism in the region which will be crossing borders to other countries.

The king himself believes that Russia is the only party that can influence Iran because of the Russian military presence in Syria on the one hand and because the missiles used to protect Syrian airspace are Russian-made .Jordan needs Russian cooperation to buttress its own susceptibilities and predispositions.

The predicament of Jerusalem

The Jordanian monarch has sought through this visit to gain momentum and support from Putin who is an advocate for the Jordanian guardianship over the holy sites in East Jerusalem.

On the eve of his trip to Moscow, the king received U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. King Abdullah reiterated the strength of the US-Jordanian ties in spite of the Jordanian rejection of American President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Few days ago, Jordan has secured a five-year American aid pledge.

The historical heritage of Jordan over the holy sites in Jerusalem has made Amman very sensitive to any changes or transformations of the status of the holy city. This is the main reason for the rift with the USA since December 2017.

For Jordan, there was no alternative to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. It is regarded as the only solution for ending the conflict. In this regard, Jordan seeks not only American backing but also a Russian support.

To sum up, Jordan has been playing with its cards to bring about peace to the region through resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and putting an end to the Syrian war, as well as countering terrorism. This cannot be accomplished without a backing from Moscow and Washington as dominant powers in the region as both capitals are the ones that can shape the future of the Middle East. The visit of the king to Moscow has been successful and he has received very positive signals from the Russian leadership to sustain the stability of the kingdom and avoid any endeavors to drag the Middle East into regional war.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/18/Did-Jordan-king-visit-Moscow-to-avert-disaster-in-the-region-.html

Published in Tribune
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