Political Developments - August 2018

1) Syria: government forces advance in the south: After the success of the government in retaking Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra and finally Ghouta, and securing its capital, the southern campaign began in mid-June as the Bashar Assad regime, already in control of 60 percent of the country, moved to take back the remaining parts from rebel hands.

The south, consisting the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and Sweida, has more than one million residents of different denominations. The main rebel forces are from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is said to have about 20,000 fighters, though there is a sprinkling of extremist elements across the region. Over the last year, the south was relatively peaceful due to the de-escalation zone put in place by Russia, Jordan and the US, although rebel activity, including the supply of arms and training, was coordinated from a Military Operations Command (MOC) located in Jordan.

The attack was preceded by hectic diplomatic activity, when “rules” relating to the offensive were agreed to by the principal players and the government. The most important interactions were between Russia and Jordan, Israel and the US.

Jordan conveyed that it wanted the south cleared of rebels. It is already hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees and wants them to return home. Jordan is also keen that the Nasib post on its border with Syria is reopened so that it can obtain the $400 million it gets annually from customs duties and other taxes from cross-border traffic. In return, Jordan agreed to close the MOC, thus ending military and logistical support to rebels in Syria.

Russian diplomacy also successfully obtained Israel’s backing for the attack. It accepted the Israeli condition that the offensive be conducted only by Syrian government forces, with Iranian forces and militias backed by Iran not involved. Russia also seems to have accepted that Iranian and Hezbollah forces would be at least 70 km from the Israeli border.

The US' public and private postures were different. On June 14, the State Department said the US would take “firm and appropriate” measures if the Assad government violated the de-escalation zone.

However, within a week, the rebel groups received an official US letter that clarified: “You should not base your decision (to fight) on an assumption or expectation of military intervention from our side.”
Given this diplomatic support, government forces, with solid Russian air and ground support, have had little difficulty in making rapid advances, amidst reports of fierce fighting and of large numbers of rebels accepting the government’s amnesty offer.

On July 16, the first convoy of Syrians displaced from Daraa reached the Idlib countryside in northern Syria: nine vehicles transported 430 people, including 213 men, 140 children and 77 women. Most of the displaced are militants from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their families, in addition to civilians and activists from the towns and cities of the southern Daraa province and Daraa city. The FSA factions had reached a cease-fire agreement with regime forces mediated by Russia on July 6 in the opposition-held areas in Daraa. Under the deal, FSA factions agreed to hand over their heavy weapons. Those opposing the agreement would go to Idlib in northern Syria.

Northern Syria: As the fighting continues in the south, northern Syria is also experiencing uncertainty. Having supported the Americans in the battle against Daesh, the Kurds now find the US anxious to maintain close ties with Turkey. Not only did it allow Turkey to take Afrin from the Kurds, it has also concluded a “road map” with the Turkish government to cleanse Manbij of Kurdish fighters, who are viewed by Turkey as affiliates of its own dissident Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and hence “terrorists.”

The other concern the Kurds have is that a new Arab force could be set up in their region, funded and mobilized by regional Arab states and backed by the US. Sensing another big power betrayal, the Kurds have rediscovered their Syrian identity and have begun an engagement with the Assad regime, commencing with a meeting with a high-powered government delegation in early June.
A prominent Syrian-Kurdish leader has even said that the Kurds would resist eviction from Manbij with the help of Syrian government forces. Noting the changes in the ground situation in favor of Assad and Russia, they are now calling for a negotiated settlement of all Syria-related matters.

However, at month-end US-Turkey ties took a nose-dive on an unrelated matter – the detention in Turkey of US pastor Andrew Brunson. In a July 26 tweet, President Donald Trump threatened “large sanctions” over the continued detention of the pastor. Trump wrote: “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

This is the harshest ultimatum to Turkey in recent memory and sent the Turkish lira falling sharply against the dollar. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a tweeted initial response was defiant: “No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception."

2) Palestine: On 9 July, a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo in response to an Egyptian initiative to pursue reconciliation between the Palestinian factions – Fatah and Hamas – which have been estranged since 2007, with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas the Gaza strip. Egypt has made it clear to Hamas that, without reconciliation, it will close the Raffah crossing, the only lifeline for Gaza’s two million residents who live in an open-air prison.

On the same day, Israel announced the closure of the Kerem Shalom crossing through which goods are trucked into Gaza, affirming once again how much at Israel’s mercy the Gazans are.
Recent developments in Palestine are directly related to the US-initiated “peace plan” to address Israel-Palestine issues, described by President Trump as the “deal of the century” and more recently as the “ultimate deal”. This deal is being promoted by his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

The deal lost much of its credibility among Palestinians after Trump recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem in a high-profile ceremony on 14 May, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. While the ceremony was on, Israel soldiers killed 60 Palestinians and injured over 2000, as their “Great March of Return”, going on since 30 March, now reached its last day. All told, Israeli forces killed 135 marchers and injured 14,000 of them.

At the end of June, Kushner visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Israel to promote the “ultimate deal”. Since no details of the peace plan have been officially announced, regional media has been awash with speculation, possibly based on background briefings and/ or calculated leaks.

Most reports suggest that the Palestinian “state” will have limited sovereignty over some parts of the West Bank and all of the Gaza strip (subject to disarmament by Hamas), with Israel exercising security responsibility over the West Bank and the border crossings. In a fresh development, it now appears that Israel will retain the Old City of Jerusalem, but three to five suburbs will be given to the Palestinian “state”, which will have Abu Dis, a town east of Jerusalem, as its “capital”. This Palestinian state and Jordan will be joint custodians of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.

However, other reports have painted a very different picture of the scenario put together by Kushner and Netanyahu. It now seems that, rather than address peace-related matters, the focus will be on providing economic development and employment opportunities to the Palestinian community. Thus, Egypt’s Raffah area abutting Gaza there will have an airport, a seaport, a power plant and a desalination plant. Again, a major industrial free-zone will be set up in the Sinai, which will encourage economic upliftment in an under-developed area that is prone to extremist activity and will also provide employment to the Palestinians in Gaza.

This variation of the peace plan does not speak of a Palestinian “state”, however limited its sovereignty might be. It envisages instead that Gaza will revert to Egyptian control, while the West bank, minus the Israeli settlements, will be returned to Jordan.

The US has exerted considerable pressure on the Palestine Authority and even some regional leaders to back these ideas. Following Trump’s decision in March to deny $ 300 million in aid to the Palestine Authority (PA), Israel and Australia announced significant deductions in assistance to the PA, leading to severe cuts in salaries paid to government employees.

As of now, Kushner and his president have found no takers for their plans. The Arab leaders whom Kushner met saw no merit in what he proposed and, instead, re-affirmed the Arab peace plan calling for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines and the setting up of a sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They also rejected the idea that a plan could be imposed without the consent of the Palestinians themselves.

Arab commentators have noted that what Kushner was offering was not a peace plan, since Israel is just not interested in any plan that would put limits on Israel’s territorial aggrandisement. Hence, what Kushner has come up with is a “crisis management” effort that would provide economic incentives to the Palestinians as a substitute for a political settlement, thus ending Palestinian demands once and for all.  A Palestinian writer saw the Kushner initiative as a “declaration of war on the Palestinian people and their rights”.

The Kushner plan is clearly aimed at forcing the Palestinians to accept a deal that would improve their living conditions (made onerous by calculated Israeli and US actions) in return for giving up their national identity and legitimate aspirations. This fresh challenge has propelled a new sense of purpose among the Arab states to deny US machinations and has impelled the Palestinians to promote their unity and mobilise themselves for a fresh resistance.

3) West Asia after the Helsinki summit: In the run-up to the July 16 Helsinki summit that brought US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first bilateral face-to-face dialogue, affirming Russian President Vladimir Putin’s central position in West Asian affairs, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, reached Moscow on July 9.

Netanyahu, on his third visit to Moscow this year, was reported to have offered his backing for Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Damascus in return for the full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria. More immediately, he accepted the entry of Syrian government troops into the south, provided that non-Syrian troops were kept about 80 km from the Israeli border.

Velayati had a broader and more complex agenda. He needed expressions of robust Russian support for the Iranian economy, following the re-imposition of US sanctions. Velayati appears to have obtained the economic support he had wanted: he announced Russia would be investing $50 billion in Iran’s oil and gas sector, which was confirmed by Russian officials. He added that Mr Putin would be visiting Iran to take forward the Syrian peace process. The Russian energy minister has said Russia would accept “oil-for-goods” arrangements with Iran in terms of which Russian goods would be supplied in return for Iranian oil, which Russia would then sell in the international market.

After the summit, all parties can now say they gained something from Russian diplomacy. Israel got the 80-km Iran-free cordon sanitaire it wanted at its northern border. Besides promises of economic support that Iran had obtained earlier, at Helsinki, there was no mention of Iran’s eviction from Syria.

Putin has also agreed to work with western powers by merging the Russia-led Astana peace process (partnering with Iran and Turkey) with the peace initiative of the “small group” -- consisting of France, Britain, Germany, Jordan, the US and Saudi Arabia -- which French president Emmanuel Macron has been seeking for a year, though there is no firm indication that the US supports this proposal.

A new development relating to Syria was the agreement between the summiteers to address Syria’s humanitarian crisis, including the return of refugees from neighbouring countries, which would be a boon for European countries coping with the influx of refugees. Trump backed Putin unconditionally, saying: “If we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis ... I think that both of us would be very interested in doing that.”

Two days after Helsinki, Russia announced the establishment of the ‘Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees’ which will “monitor the return of Syrian refugees to their places of permanent residence” and the delivery of humanitarian aid and construction material. According to Washington Post, Russia has already has sent formal proposals to Washington for joint U.S.-Russia efforts to fund reconstruction in Syria and facilitate the return home of millions of Syrian refugees.

The most interesting feature of Putin’s public remarks, made in the context of Israel’s security concerns about the occupied Golan Heights, was his recalling of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 338, which had been passed by the security council in October 1973 and had ended the Syria-Israel military confrontation.
Putin called for “full compliance” with this resolution, saying this would bring peace to the Golan Heights, promote peace between the two countries and provide security to Israel. He added that Mr Trump had paid “special attention” to this matter.

Some Israeli and Arab commentators see this reference merely as restricting Iran’s presence in Syria. This is a very narrow perspective. It would be useful to recall that the three-line Resolution 338 had pointedly called for the immediate and full implementation of the earlier UNSCR 242 and the initiation of negotiations between the Arab and Israeli sides to establish “a just and durable peace in the Middle East”.

Putin’s reference to resolutions from a bygone era makes sense only if we go beyond Syria and see it in the context of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Palestine and his conviction that Middle East security and long-term peace requires addressing the Palestinian issue effectively.

The timing of the reference is important. It is a pointed rebuff to the Trump-backed “ultimate deal” being promoted by his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, in tandem with Netanyahu (details above). Thus, by rejecting the Kushner plan, Putin has joined the Arab leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Jordan, whom Kushner had visited recently. They had then firmly conveyed to the US emissary that Palestinian rights were not negotiable and that they stood by the Arab peace initiative that called for Israel’s vacation of occupied territories and the setting up of a sovereign Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The passage by the Knesset on 19 July of the “Basic Law” that declares Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has clearly defined Israel as an “apartheid” state on ethnic and religious basis. It complements the Kushner plan in seeking to destroy Palestinian presence and identity in their own homeland. Amidst the divisions and conflicts across the Middle East, Arab leaders and people have remained united on the Palestinian issue. This unity will be severely tested in coming times.

4) Iran: July witnessed a war of words and sabre-rattling between the US and Iran. It began with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani telling Iranian diplomats: "America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars. Do not play with the lion's tail or else you will regret it." President Trump responded on 22 July in capital letter tweets saying: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

The Iranian foreign minister dismissed the president’s threats, but the head of the Al Qods militia, General Qassem Suleimani got into the act and said that President Trump would regret waging a war that would “destroy all that he owns.” “You may begin the war, but it will be us who will end it,” Soleimani said. He added that the Red Sea, a critical waterway linking the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean basin, was “no longer secure” with U.S. military assets stationed in the area.

His remarks came just one day after Saudi Arabia announced it was suspending oil shipments in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, because of what authorities said was a missile attack on two Saudi oil tankers by Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen (details below).

To further complicate matters, on 27 July, the Australian media network ABC quoted government officials as saying Donald Trump could be ready to order a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, perhaps as early as next month, and that Australia is poised to help identify possible targets. Australian defence facilities would likely play a role in identifying targets in Iran, as would British intelligence agencies.
But a senior security source emphasised there was a big difference between providing accurate intelligence and analysis on Iran's facilities and being part of a "kinetic" mission. "Developing a picture is very different to actually participating in a strike," the source said. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had no reason to believe the US was preparing for a military confrontation.

However, Trump continues to baffle most observers: on 24 July, he said the United States was ready to make a "real deal" with Iran. "Iran is not the same country anymore, that I can say," Trump said and added: "We'll see what happens, but we're ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration which was a disaster."

Commentator on Iran, Trita Parsi, fears that a shift from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder as compared to the North Korea scenario and that Trump's “reckless threats could trap the United States in yet another war”. He notes in this context that Trump believes that pressure on Iran will push the latter toward negotiations and that US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia advocate conflict rather than diplomacy, while Trump’s principal advisers want regime change rather than an agreement.

Iran’s economic difficulties: A Washington Post report of 27 July has said that Iranian leaders are trying to contain a deepening economic crisis that is slashing the buying power of Iranians. On 25 July, President Hassan Rouhani replaced the head of the country’s central bank, who had come under harsh criticism for failing to stem a steep drop in Iran’s currency. The unofficial value of the Iranian rial has roughly halved since the start of the year, to 95,000 to the dollar. Trade in the official rate, unavailable to most Iranians, is a major source of corruption. Again, ninety members of parliament have signed a petition to impeach the economy minister.

Iranians say they are worried about being able to pay rent or buy food. Inflation is running at 12% and the price of imported items such as medicine is up markedly. Iran’s oil exports have dropped 8% in the past two months, and youth unemployment stands at around 30%.

BMI Research, a sister company of Fitch Ratings, predicts 1.8% economic growth in 2018, down from the 4.3% growth it projected before Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Obama-era deal that imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.

On August 6, new U.S. sanctions will target Iranian purchases of US dollars, among other things, and on November 4, sanctions on Iranian oil and foreign financial institutions dealing with Iran’s central bank will come into effect.

5) Yemen: On 26 July, Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih said that, according to the official spokesman of the Alliance for the Support of Legitimacy in Yemen, two giant oil tankers belonging to the Saudi National Shipping Company, each carrying two million barrels of crude oil, was attacked by the Houthi militia in the Red Sea after crossing the Straits of Bab El-Mandeb. The attack resulted in minor damage to one of the two carriers. There were no casualties or spillage of crude oil into the sea which would have led to an environmental disaster.

Falih said that the Kingdom would temporarily and with immediate effect suspend all shipments of crude oil passing through the Bab El-Mandeb until navigation through the Strait is safe, stressing that the threats of the Houthi militias against the crude oil carriers affect the freedom of international trade and maritime navigation in the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb and the Red Sea. The Houthis said they had attacked a Saudi warship rather than oil tankers.

An estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil are shipped daily through Bab al Mandeb that connects the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea off the coast of Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea.

The halt of oil shipments could provoke an escalation of the conflict, with external powers intervening in a bid to assist Saudi Arabia and the UAE in defeating the Houthis and dealing a blow to Iran’s regional presence. Commentator Ellen R. Wald has pointed out: “The Red Sea is a very important shipping lane. If there is a major disruption, European powers, Egypt and the United States would all have reason to intervene. They have significant interests in protecting the freedom of the seas through the passageway. An international intervention against the Houthis may be just what Saudi Arabia wants.”

James Dorsey has noted that international criticism of the Saudi conduct of the war is mounting as a result of its devastating human cost. Voices in the US Congress, the British parliament and other Western assemblies as well as human rights groups calling for a halt of arms sales to Saudi Arabia are growing ever louder.

The armed services panels in the US House and Senate have released joint defence legislation that demands that the Pentagon tell Congress whether US or Arab coalition forces have violated federal law or Pentagon policy. Another provision restricts mid-air US refuelling of coalition aircraft if the UAE and Saudi Arabia fail to demonstrate efforts to support United Nations-backed peace talks, resolve the growing humanitarian crisis, and cut down on civilian deaths.

In response to criticism of the war in the US, the UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba has written to congressional leaders that the Saudi-led Arab force fighting in Yemen is giving the Iran-backed Houthi rebels “the greatest possible opportunity” for a peaceful withdrawal from the strategic port of Hodeidah. Otaiba also emphasized that the Saudi-led coalition had stockpiled enough food to feed 6 million Yemenis for a month if the port, which is the thoroughfare for three-quarters of humanitarian aid entering the country, is disabled.

The war has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis and left more than 22 million people –three-quarters of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid. At least eight million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and one million are infected with cholera.

6) China offers financial support to West Asia: On 10 July, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged a package of $20 billion in loans and about $106 million in financial aid to West Asian nations, as part of what he called an “oil and gas plus” model to revive economic growth in the region. This is part of China’s heightened engagement with the region in recent years as Arab nations play an important role in Xi’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) for logistical connectivity linking China with Eurasia by land and the Indian Ocean littoral countries by sea.

Development was key to resolving many security problems in the Middle East, Xi told a gathering with representatives of 21 Arab nations in Beijing. “We should treat each other frankly, not fear differences, not avoid problems, and have ample discussion on each aspect of foreign policy and development strategy,” he said. He urged “relevant sides” to respect the international consensus in the Israel-Palestine dispute, and called for it to be handled in a just manner to avoid regional disruption.

China would offer aid worth 100 million yuan ($15 million) to Palestine to support economic development, besides providing a further 600 million yuan ($91 million) to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, he added. A consortium of banks from China and Arab nations, with a dedicated fund of $3 billion, will also be set up, he said. The loans will fund a plan of “economic reconstruction” and “industrial revival” that would include cooperation on oil and gas, nuclear and clean energy.

China, which has traditionally played little role in West Asian conflicts or diplomacy, despite its reliance on the region for energy supplies, has been trying to get more involved in resolving long-standing disputes. China says it sticks to a policy of “non-interference” when offering financial aid and deals to developing countries, which, coupled with development, can help resolve political, religious and cultural tension.


August 1, 2018

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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.