Political Developments - April 2019

1. Syria: ISIS’ last bastion falls

ISIS’ last holdout at Baghouz fell on March 22 into the hands of the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are allied with the US in Syria. Though several thousand extremist fighters and family members had already left Baghouz, the SDF has in its custody a number of foreign militants whose countries have disowned them.

There are fears that a large number of Arabs have melted back to their homes, particularly in Iraq, and could reignite domestic violence. There is also speculation in Arab media that the extremists’ custodians, the SDF and the US, might deliberately try to relocate militants to the Pak-Iran border to destabilise Iran and to the Iraq-Syria border to challenge Iran’s outreach to Syria and the Mediterranean.

At the heart of the convoluted regional scenario is Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is anxious to move his forces east of the Euphrates and decimate the SDF, which he sees as partners of the outlawed dissident Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But he enjoys no support: The US still maintains a small detachment of its troops to deter him, while the SDF has promised Syria’s “second great war” in case the Turks attack.

Turkey’s allies — Russia and Iran — also oppose this move. Both are committed to Syria’s unity and would like to address Ankara’s security concerns by encouraging the Kurds to engage with the Assad government and negotiate for themselves an autonomy package enshrined in a new constitution.

On the other hand, Turkey remains reluctant to address the matter of Idlib. In September last year, it agreed to separate the extremists from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the former Jabhat Nusra, from the “moderate” opposition, so that this last bastion of rebel control would go back to the Damascus government. Instead, in January, the HTS overwhelmed Turkey-backed “moderates” and took control of the town.

Turkey’s game-plan appears to be to get HTS declared a “moderate” group and integrate it into the National Liberation Front (NLF) that it has put together to fight the SDF and to maintain its presence in northern Syria. So far, HTS has resisted Turkey’s blandishments.

With the new agreement, Russia has injected itself into the Idlib cauldron through patrolling by its troops and airstrikes on HTS targets. This has created fresh problems for Turkey, as its various allies are threatening to leave the Turkey-sponsored “moderate” coalition and take up arms against it and the Assad government.

If the situation deteriorates, there are concerns that the Astana peace process might come apart. This would lead to a fresh round of fighting across Syria, reminiscent of the early days of the conflict, and could even involve Syrian troops confronting the SDF if the latter fails to re-join the national mainstream.

Over the last year or so, Turkey has sustained its interests in Syria by being a partner in the Astana process and also repeatedly obtaining US support by holding out the prospect of deeper political and military ties with Russia. This era of brinkmanship could be ending.

The Donald Trump-Erdogan arrangement in December, under which all US troops in Syria would be withdrawn and Turkey would police the north of the country, including the Kurdish-held territories, seems to have fallen through, with the US showing no signs of early withdrawal. Again, the US has warned that the Turkish purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia would mean its exclusion from the development of the F-35 jet aircraft and the denial of the Patriot missile system.

As if the situation were not complicated enough already, US President Trump announced last week that the US recognized Israeli “sovereignty” over the occupied Golan Heights. This has elicited strong words from Erdogan, thus becoming one more issue that divides the NATO partners.

The US policy on Syria has gone through numerous contortions over the last year, swinging from aggressive long-term deployment to hasty withdrawal. As of now, the US remains sensitive to Turkey’s concerns in Syria. US envoy James Jeffrey said recently that the US would back a “safe zone” in SDF-occupied territory along the Syria-Turkey border, which would be patrolled by Turkish troops and those of its NLF allies. The SDF has declared this “unacceptable.” Again, the SDF is aware that the mere 1,000 US troops that might ultimately be deployed in northeast Syria could hardly protect their interests across one-third of Syrian territory that both the Turks and Assad might attack.

Not surprisingly, SDF leaders have now started talking of their core “Syrian” identity, the absence of any animosity for the Assad government, their limited trust in the US, and their interest in an autonomous multi-ethnic enclave in northeast Syria guaranteed by Russia.

Clearly, ISIS’ demise has brought Syria no clarity about its future.

2. Iraq: Rouhani’s visit to Baghdad

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq on 11-14 March — his first visit as head of state to the neighbouring country. There have been several high-level Iranian visits over the last few months, including those of the first vice president, the oil minister, the head of the central bank, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who came in January.

Zarif also came to Baghdad a few days before his president and described the presidential visit as a “new chapter,” a “new start” and “historic.” He referred to “historic commonalities” between the two countries and said the visit would convey a “message of regional cooperation,” given that Iraq was “an important pillar of regional security.”

The Rouhani visit was meant to upgrade Iran’s relations with Iraq beyond their military dimension into the areas of politics, security, energy and economic ties. It was also aimed at ensuring that Iran-Iraq ties would remain substantial just as US sanctions are restricting Iran’s market access globally and Washington has heightened its hostile rhetoric and initiatives.

The visit fulfilled Iran’s agenda in ample measure. Several agreements were signed in the areas of energy, transport, agriculture, industry and health. The two countries are completing a 48-mile railway line from Khorramshahr to Basra, which will bring Iranian goods to the Iraqi port for domestic and regional distribution. They are also looking at a rail connection from Iran to Iraq that would then link up with the Syrian system and go as far as Latakia on the Mediterranean.

The two countries already have a $12 billion bilateral trade, which they will seek to expand to $20 billion. Energy has brought the two sides very close, with Iraq buying Iranian gas and electricity, despite US sanctions. For fear of rousing popular anger, Iraq cannot allow disruptions to power supply like those that caused widespread protests last summer.

As ties deepen, the two countries will explore more ambitious proposals, such as a joint bank and a free-trade zone at the border, as well as addressing long-simmering issues such as defining the border in some areas and jointly developing oil fields along the frontier.

The highlight of Rouhani’s visit was his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf, the first meeting between a sitting Iranian president and the senior cleric, who has played a decisive role at crucial moments in Iraqi politics. Al-Sistani stressed the importance of “balanced and moderate regional and international policies in this region to avoid further tragedies and damage.” With this meeting, he also boosted the status of Rouhani and Zarif in Iran’s own contentious politics.

Iran is not the only significant player in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has also built close ties with a wide array of Iraqi leaders across the sectarian spectrum, as affirmed by the recent visit to Riyadh of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Saudi Arabia’s ties with Iraq also have a strong economic content, covering transport links and, uniquely, the development of a million hectares of Iraqi farmland for rich agricultural produce.

The Kingdom views these ties as being founded on the two countries’ Arab identity and it would like to bring Iraq into a regional Arab security system. A writer in Al-Hayat, Hamid Al-Kifai, has stressed that these links are valuable in themselves and are not directed at any other country in the region. However, the Kingdom will certainly seek to balance Iran’s influence in Iraq.

The US is the other major player in Baghdad. Here, the situation is more confusing. On Feb. 3, US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would stay on in Iraq to “watch Iran.” This united Iraq’s politicians in outrage and President Barham Salih pleaded with the US not to “overburden Iraq with your own issues.”

US troops in Iraq are said to number 5,200 and, according to US sources, are primarily used for training and intelligence support. But many Iraqis are not convinced about the numbers and limited role, believing that the US is looking at a long-term military presence to confront Iran.

Iraq, after decades of conflict, is desperately seeking normalcy, in which it could consolidate its political and economic institutions and address the urgent matters of national reconciliation, reconstruction, poverty alleviation and comprehensive development. It does not wish to be caught in the vortex of regional competitions.

Hence, not surprisingly, Iraqi commentators are firmly insisting that their blood-soaked land now be given the chance for peace. Salih has said that his country should be an “arena for consensus and reconciliation among the countries of the region.” He promotes the vision of an integrated economic sphere — based on railways, pipelines and free-trade zones — which would make Iraq “the bridge between the region’s economies.”

Clearly, Iraq is seeking a chance at peace. But, given the sharp divisions in the region, there are grave doubts that it will be given this opportunity.

3. Yemen

(i) Yeminis commemorate fourth anniversary of war: Tens of thousands of Yemenis who support the Houthis marched through Sanaa on 25 March on the fourth anniversary of the war and chanted slogans against Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against the Houthis, and the United States which backs it. They also blamed US ally Israel for destroying the country. 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed Saudi Arabia and its allies for rejecting peace.  “On the eve of the war’s shameful fifth year, a reminder that it’s not too late to stop the nightmare that this war has become,” Zarif said on Twitter. The coalition accuses Iran of supplying the Houthis with arms, including drones and missiles. Iran and the Houthis deny the accusations.

Last December, the United Nations negotiated an agreement in Stockholm to try to begin a process to de-escalate the war, beginning with a cease-fire in the northern port of Hodeidah. The port is the main entrance for 70% of the food and medicine for the country. Under the Stockholm agreement, a cease-fire in Hodeidah was to lead to the Houthis' withdrawal from the port. It was vague about who would take charge. The UN is still pressing for a withdrawal, starting with two smaller ports nearby.

The Houthi leadership says the rebels will not turn the ports over to the coalition’s control. Instead, the Houthis have reiterated their threats to attack Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with missiles. In addition to the long-range missiles, the Houthis fire short-range rockets, mortars and drones across the Saudi border. Riyadh said this week over 70,000 “projectiles” have struck the kingdom in the last four years.

A little before the fourth anniversary commemoration, Kim Sengupta wrote in The Independent: “The much-publicised Stockholm agreement, which was supposed to pave the way to end the carnage of the Yemen war, has had such little effect that the number of civilian casualties has actually gone up significantly in some parts of the country since the deal was signed three months ago.”

He pointed out that in just two areas, Hajjah and Taiz, the figures for those killed, 164 and 184 respectively, have doubled in that time. Around 788 died across the country since the meeting in Sweden – 318 of them through indiscriminate shelling. More than 1,600 homes, 385 farms, 47 businesses and 13 schools were hit in the same period.

(ii) Saudi-led coalition in Yemen using forces from several countries: On 28 March, Tom Stevenson wrote in Mideast Eye: “Four years since its intervention in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition continues to draw on military resources from across the Arab and wider world, backed by western-built weapons and technical expertise.”

The collection of nation states formally committed to the coalition has remained relatively stable since 2015. Among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar joined the coalition at its inception. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan also agreed to join in support of the Saudi campaign. Pakistan has contributed 1,000 soldiers to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s armed forces, though they are said to be deployed at the Saudi-Yemen border, not in Yemen itself. Qatar, which was expelled from the coalition with the onset of a major diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2017, has withdrawn its participation.

The US, UK and France have provided substantial support to the coalition. The United States offered “logistical and intelligence support” at the outset of the campaign and went on to establish a joint US-Saudi planning cell. The US has also provided aerial refuelling to the Saudi and UAE air forces.

In 2017, the Trump administration approved the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia. Washington has deployed a modest contingent of military personnel on the ground in Yemen as part of ongoing operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which holds on to territory in Hadhramaut governorate and on the southern coast, and militants linked to the Islamic State group. The US conducted 36 declared air strikes in Yemen in 2018.

The UK has supplied arms worth almost $6.5 billion to the Saudi coalition. The British army has supplied aircraft and maintenance to those aircraft throughout the campaign. Patrick Wintour wrote in The Guardian that UK’s special forces were perhaps training child soldiers in the Saudi-led coalition and that several of them might have been injured in an exchange of fire with Houthi fighters. UK foreign office minister Mark Field has said he will have these allegations investigated.

Foreign military forces have also been incorporated into national and subnational military divisions in Yemen. Around 400 Eritrean soldiers are currently believed to be embedded with the UAE armed forces. Sudan has provided the largest number of foreign troops to the coalition. Approximately 14,000 Darfur militiamen have been fighting in Yemen in tandem with local militia. These Sudanese fighters have been drawn principally from the Rapid Support Forces, a tribal paramilitary group aligned with the Sudanese government and previously known as the Janjaweed.

In addition to foreign military forces, the Saudi-led coalition also includes private military contractors, usually viewed as mercenaries. The largest contingent are Latin American mercenaries made up of fighters from Colombia, Panama, Chile and El Salvador under the general direction of Oscar Garcia Batte, a former Colombian special operations commander.

While sporadic conflicts continue across the country, two major sieges, of Hodeidah and Taiz, form the major fronts at present. The main Houthi stronghold in the northern Saadah governorate has faced more Saudi air strikes than any other part of the country since the war began. Since November 2017, the coalition has also enforced a naval blockade of all Yemeni ports, worsening the humanitarian crisis.

However, after four years of war, there are no signs of a military resolution. According to the UN, 80% of Yemen’s 24 million people need humanitarian assistance and 10 million are close to starvation.

4. Saudi Arabia

(i) Khashoggi murder in US media: Writing in the Washington Post on 30 March, six months after the Khashoggi murder, David Ignatius said: “The U.S.-Saudi defense and intelligence partnership has been rocked. The future of the relationship is on hold, pending answers from Riyadh.” He then added: “The Khashoggi story is a lesson in how U.S.-supported intelligence and special-operations capabilities can be misused by other countries. That’s the starkest conclusion that emerged from this reporting.”

Ignatius says that some members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group that was sent to Istanbul to carry out the murder received training in the United States. One of the Saudi contacts involved in planning a major training project was Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the Saudi deputy chief of intelligence, who is under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Istanbul operation.

(ii) US nuclear technology for Saudi Arabia: The US Energy Department has issued at least six authorizations for Saudi Arabia under Section 810 of the Atomic Energy Act, which allows US companies to provide nuclear technology or technical assistance to foreign countries. The Energy Department has refused to disclose to Congress which companies have received the authorizations and what technology they may have transferred to Riyadh.

Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act requires a formal agreement to transfer US civil nuclear technology to another country. Under that section, Congress can vote down any agreement. However, the House Oversight Committee has learnt that former Trump administration officials had tried to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia without such an agreement.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has repeatedly expressed concern over Saudi Arabia’s refusal to agree to an agreement that would preclude it from enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium on its soil — precursors to a potential nuclear weapons program. Last year Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called on the Trump administration to revoke all 810 agreements with Riyadh and suspend civil nuclear negotiations.  


April 3, 2019 

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About the Author

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed

Former Ambassador of India to Saudia Arabia, Oman and UAE, monitors developments in the West Asian region.  

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1974. Early in his career, he was posted in a number of West Asian countries such as Kuwait, Iraq and Yemen and later, between 1987 and 1990, he was Consul General in Jeddah. He also held positions in the Indian missions in New York, London and Pretoria. He served as Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2000-03; 2010-11); Oman (2003-04), and the UAE (2007-10). He was also Additional Secretary for International Cooperation in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2004-06. In July 2011, the Saudi Government conferred on him the King Abdul Aziz Medal First Class for his contribution to the promotion of Indo – Saudi relations. After retirement from the Foreign Service in 2011, he worked in the corporate sector in Dubai for three years. He is now a full-time academic and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University. He has published three books: Reform in the Arab World: External Influences and Regional Debates (2005), Children of Abraham at War: the Clash of Messianic Militarisms (2010), and The Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring (2013). He writes and lectures frequently on Political Islam, the politics and economics of West Asia and the Indian Ocean and energy security issues.