Category Archives: Regional Politics

All Middle Eastern priorities to change with Saudi move

David Hearst writes

The Saudi decision to start the new year with mass executions bore the hallmarks of a calculated move. Riyadh doubtless anticipated that the Basij would do to Saudi diplomats what had been done to previous representatives of governments who had incurred the Ayatollah’s wrath. The Saudis were prepared to cut diplomatic relations, and ensure that other Arab states followed suit.

Not for the first time in recent months, an Iran which prided itself on anticipating the next step of its enemies and on outsmarting them, found itself wrong-footed by the Saudi move. Just as it was when Riyadh announced its military offensive against the Houthi takeover of Yemen, Iran still worked on old assumptions that Saudi Arabia moved cautiously and behind a bead curtain.

Here, however, the kingdom has played a different role. It has declared open season on the regional conflict with its Persian neighbour. This marks more than just one rung up the ladder of hostilities from its current stance of fighting proxies like the Iranian-backed Houthis, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Hezbollah.

Hostility is overt. It brings regional division to centre stage. Challenging the military and political influence that Iran has grown accustomed to wield in Syria, Yemen and Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 has now become official Saudi policy. Very little of the spectrum of bilateral relations are left intact, bar the offer to host Iranian Muslim pilgrims at the Hajj. Considering what happened at the Hajj last year, that too is now in doubt.  All trade and air travel between the countries has now been cut.

For good or for ill, in sickness and in health, Saudi Arabia under King Salman has become an assertive regional force, prepared to back its interests with hard power. It has defined regional allies in Turkey and Qatar. It faces defined regional enemies in Iran and Russia. It is forcing other Arab states to choose sides. Bahrain and Sudan did so on Monday, while the Emirates downgraded their relations with Iran.

It would be interesting to learn how much notice Riyadh gave Washington of Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s statement. Probably even less time than the decision to launch an attack on Yemen. Saudi Arabia no longer waits for the approval of its chief military patron and supplier. Like other US allies in the region, it is used to acting on its own.

The move spells the end, for now, to the Syrian ceasefire talks and possibly also Yemeni ones as well. The fallout from this weekend is unlikely to stop there. There is every indication that Riyadh will go on the offensive to restrict Iran’s re-entry to global markets, after its nuclear deal with Washington. Saudi Arabia will keep the price of oil at record lows, even at the cost of aggravating its own balance of payment crisis. It has already inflicted damage on the solvency of Russia’s foreign trade bank Vnesheconombank, which needs $18bn to start lending again.

If this was planned, why was the plan carried out now? Forty-five of those executed were Saudi nationals, alongside a Chadian and an Egyptian. Forty-three were Sunnis, many of them al-Qaeda figures who had been on death row for periods stretching back to 2004. Their execution was a card Riyadh could have played anytime since the last wave of al-Qaeda bombings in 2012. Why was it played now, what political messages were sent and to whom?

Saudi Arabian rulers have faced two historic sources of internal dissent: the Shia minority, many of whom live in the Eastern Province, and Sunni jihadis. But only one of those sources makes the regime shake. Most analysts agree that Shia protests do not have the same ability. Of the 43 Sunni prisoners executed, the state media focused on Faris al-Shuwail al-Zahrani.

He was described as the ideologue behind a series of attacks on expats, police stations and oil plants which killed hundreds. In executing a “preacher of takfir”, the regime took on its ideological rival. In Wahhabi Salafism, only a state preacher can practise takfir, that is, declaring another person an infidel. This would have reassured the Sunni majority. But there was a message, too, for them. In a year in which the fuel subsidy is being lifted, overtime in state-run institutions is being cut, and everyone will have more taxes to pay, including a form of sales tax, the message is that no protest will be tolerated.

Externally, the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was certain to touch off protests abroad, as Iran had done so much to highlight his case. On cue, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, and Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi cleric, both reacted. According to the internal communique seen by The Independent, the head of Riyadh’s security services ordered police forces in the country to cancel any holidays scheduled for early 2016 and urged them to exercise “maximum precaution” until further notice.

The prospects of substantive Syrian talks had already been dealt a mortal blow by the alleged Russian air strike that killed Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaish al-Islam. Alloush signed up for the Saudi peace process when other Syrian militia leaders walked away. In killing Alloush, Russia was showing, on Assad’s behalf, that it could fashion the negotiating environment by selecting which interlocutors lived. Alloush’s killing did less to the balance of forces on the ground outside Damascus than it did to Saudi determination to stop this.

Now the prospects of talks are dead. Instead, Saudi Arabia is cultivating a deepening security relationship with Turkey. Billions of dollars of contracts for advanced Turkish weaponry are rumoured to be in the offing as a result of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest visit to Riyadh.

The intensity and lethality of the combat in Syria that escalated when Russian warplanes began bombing largely opposition targets from the air are now set to escalate from the ground as well. As the front lines have changed little, this only means the conflict will be prolonged. Any talk of civil war winding down in local ceasefires now looks like the optimistic prattle of the past.

For at least one of the intervening powers, Russia and Iran on one side and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other, Syria will become an Afghanistan – a war from which one foreign power will have to beat an ignominious retreat. Saudi Arabia, whose foreign policy is popular among the majority-Sunni population of the region, is confident it will not be the one doing that.

This can only entrench conflict in the region in 2016. If 2015 was violent, this year is set to become even more so. The Saudi move will be as much a challenge for Egypt. Until now, the Saudi paymasters of the Egyptian military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tolerated the cold response Egypt gave to Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Syria. How much longer that will be the case with the Egyptian rapprochement to Russia and Iran remains to be seen.

Whichever way you cut it, this is not a move from which any side can back down quickly. There are high stakes internationally, and each player in this conflict feels it has already invested too much to shove the machine into reverse gear. Each government feels vulnerable internally. There is little leeway for compromise. Ultimately, a balance of power has to be drawn between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That will now be achieved in an international test of wills played out in a region bristling with weapons and wielded exclusively by people who know how to use them.

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Syria: Where reason is crushed in the rush to war

David Hearst writes

The First World War started over less. Jets from Turkey, a member of NATO, shot down a Sukhoi 24 fighter from Russia, a state with around 7,700 nuclear warheads, over Turkey’s border with Syria.

The circumstances and location of the shooting are, of course, in dispute. The Turks say it was over their air space, that they warned the Russian pilot 10 times in five minutes, and that they downed the plane “under rules of engagement”.

The Russians say their plane was in Syrian air space and the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, called its destruction “a stab in the back from the accomplices of terror” – meaning Turkey.

Needless to say, this did not come out of the blue. The territory where the Su-24 and its two pilots came down was in a border area controlled by Turkmens who are fighting for the overthrow of the Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad. Only last Friday the Turkish government summoned the Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov to protest at the “intense” Russian bombing of Turkmen villages close to the border.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, issued a detailed statement warning that the continued bombing of Turkmen villages could have serious consequences. He said: “Nobody can legitimise attacks targeting our Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish siblings there via claiming to have been fighting against terror.”

Thousands of Turkmen have fled the bombing, and Turkey has been pressing for a meeting of the UN Security Council to protect the minority.

The insanity of intervention

This is only the latest chapter of insanity that is now foreign intervention in Syria. The club of interveners grows by the week. Last week it was France seeking revenge for the attacks on Paris. This week parliament in Britain may overturn its well-rehearsed objections to a bombing campaign in Syria.

What’s going on in Syria is collective, multilateral madness. The Russian, Iranians and Hezbollah are fighting all opposition forces to shore up Assad. Shia fighters in Iraq are welcoming the Russian bombing campaign, having been bombed, they claimed, by the US near Ramadi. The US are providing air cover and special forces units on the ground to back the advance of Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish groups, but they will not advance further than their own territory.

The $500mn US “train and equip” programme collapsed after many of their Syrian fighters called Division 30 were captured by Jabhat al Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

The Jordanians have withdrawn support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades including the Southern Front group, which launched a series of offensives in June on the Syrian government’s positions in Daraa. The Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Amman said the attacks were chaotic and ineffective, but says it reached an agreement with Russia not to bomb the Southern Front.

Turkey is fighting the PKK-aligned PYD in northern Syria, while joining Saudi Arabia in backing Jaish al-Fatah, “the Army of Conquest”, which includes in its command structure Jabhat al-Nusra.

What a perfect time for Britain to join the throng. Defying all evidence on the ground, David Cameron claimed in Paris on Monday that “the world was coming together” in its fight against the Islamic State. It was his firm conviction that the UK should join the airstrikes in Syria, and even before a vote in parliament, he revealed that Britain had offered France the use of the RAF base in Akrotiri in Cyprus.

Like Putin whose support for dictatorship in the Middle East is unwavering, Francois Hollande has made France a fully paid-up member of neo-conservative interventionism. He is talking and behaving exactly as George W Bush did in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings. In fact Hollande is the new Bush. He is even going as far as establishing a French version of the US Patriot Act.

Before even the facts and the numbers of those who planned the raids in Paris on 13 November are known, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on France Inter: “We must fight against Islamism which is a pathology of Islam.”

French fighters could be searching for a wide range of targets in Syria since Islamists – Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood – constitute the biggest single electoral bloc in most Arab countries. A Washington Institute poll found support for the Brotherhood running at about 30 per cent in the very Gulf states which have been doing their utmost to suppress it – the Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

A new cycle of madness

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the bitter memory of 14 years of catastrophically misjudged warfare in the Middle East have been jettisoned: the body counts; the civilian casualties from NATO airstrikes; the resurgence of the Sunni-Shia divide; the fracturing of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen; the interventions that Bush and Blair could start but never manage to finish; the inability to build a new state in the ruins of the old.

When Bush declared his “war on terror”, the foreign (mainly Arab) militants fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan numbered 800. A young Jordanian from al-Zarqaa called Ahmad Fadhil al-Khalayleh had just 80 followers at a camp in Herat. In time he became known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and – like the Americans – moved his war to Iraq.

In 2015, and eight years after his death, there are between 20,000-30,000 fighters following Zarqawi’s Takfiri sect in Iraq and Syria. Their reach on social media is much wider.

Stanley McChrystal, the one time US counter-insurgency star in Afghanistan who infamously boasted that he could “unpack democracy from the back of a Chinook”, claimed that IS reaches a daily audience of 100 million on social media.

The voices of reason are being drowned out in the call to arms. A sensible and well researched report by the Foreign Affairs Committee arguing why bombing Syria would be a disaster is being ignored, while its chairman Crispin Blunt has sadly switched sides in the debate.

It said there should be no extension of British military action into Syria unless there was a coherent international strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIS and of ending the civil war in Syria: ”In the absence of such a strategy, taking action to meet the desire to do something is still incoherent.”

It considered that the focus on the extension of air strikes against IS in Syria was “a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitators of ISIS’s rise.

“We are not persuaded that talks involving all parties would be any more of an incentive for people to join ISIS than allowing the continuation of the chaos and conflict.” These conclusions are more valid after the Paris attack than they were before it.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader who is pilloried and disparaged every working day, has been the subject of opprobrium – not least from his own party – for saying the obvious. Namely that Britain must not be “drawn into a response that feeds a cycle of violence and hate” following the Paris attacks.

Corbyn said: “The dreadful Paris attacks make the case for a far more urgent effort to reach a negotiated settlement of the civil war in Syria and the end to the threat from Isis. It is the conflict in Syria and the consequences of the Iraq war which have created the conditions for Isis to thrive and spread its murderous rule,” he added.

“For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process.”

No one is listening to him. History, recent history, tells us the West’s response to terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, Casablanca, London, and now Paris have a been an endlessly self-repeating disaster, spreading the flames, collapsing states, supporting dictators whose only mission in life is self-preservation, crushing any form of democratic expression, making war on moderates and extremists alike, and enlarging the ISIS fan club.

And the news is, we are just about to relive the whole cycle of the last 14 years – anger, revenge, mindless air strikes, civilian deaths and ultimately defeat and withdrawal all over again. Corbyn was right on Iraq in 2003 and he is right on Syria now.