Political Developments - February 2019

1 Syria: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to Moscow on 23 January with high expectations. He sought President Putin’s backing for a Turkish assault on the Kurds east of the Euphrates, the setting up of a “safe-zone” going 32 km into northern Syria, and the take-over of the Kurdish town of Manbij after the US soldiers leave.

He did not get Russian support on any of these points. Putin made it clear that Syrian unity and sovereignty demanded that the Kurds be accepted as an integral part of a federal Syria. Till this was achieved, a buffer-zone could be set up at the Syria-Turkey border, but it should be patrolled by Syrian government forces – not Turkish troops – till the new constitutional processes were in force. For the same reason he also opposed the Turkish take-over of Manbij.

Putin reminded Erdogan about the unfinished business relating to Idlib: the extremists from the Hayat Tahreer al Shaam (HTS, the erstwhile Jabhat Nusra) have beaten the Turkish-sponsored Free Syrian Army and taken control of 70 percent of the town. For Putin, the defeat of these terrorists has the highest priority.

Putin then sprang a surprise: he recalled that the Turkish-Syrian Adana treaty, concluded in October 1998, was still effective and guaranteed Turkey’s border security. In public remarks, Putin said that this topic had been discussed “thoroughly, fully and actively” by the two leaders. A day later, Erdogan told a Turkish audience: “After our meeting with Putin we understand much better the need to bring the Adana Accord back on the agenda, and to concentrate on it with determination.”

In terms of this agreement, Syria had agreed to end its support for the dissident Turkish Kurds from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or allow its territory to be used for any activity against Turkey’s interests. The agreement had also provided for close security cooperation between the two countries, including telephone links between senior security officials.

Though Russia and Turkey are allies in the Astana peace process, they have differing perceptions on the Kurdish issue. Unlike Ankara, Moscow does not view members of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) or its political body, the Democratic Union Party (DUP) as “terrorists”. It also opposes Turkey’s military takeover of Manbij, even providing its own forces to carry out joint patrols with YPG militants in that town.

The revival of the twenty-year-old Adana agreement, that has been non-functional for the last eight years, suggests a new Russian game-plan for Syria that could re-shape the security scenario in that war-torn country. As conflict is winding down, Putin is pursuing a two-track approach to ensure long-term stability in the country – promoting Kurdish interaction with the Assad government and Turkish engagement with Damascus.

This should yield benefits to all the principal parties in the Syrian imbroglio: the Assad government will be able to assert control over territory presently under the Kurds, while the Kurds will enjoy considerable autonomy in their “homeland” as part of a broader federal arrangement.  Turkey will get the border security it desperately needs on the lines of what it had obtained in 1998: the Adana agreement had enabled it to apprehend the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and thus strike a heavy blow at its domestic Kurdish insurgency. This will of course require close cooperation with Damascus.

However, while Putin may have initiated a fresh approach to promoting peace in Syria, eight years of conflict have brought in several players into the national quagmire with diverse interests and deep distrust between them.

Thus, Turkey has asserted that Adana allows it to send its troops into Syria to fight terrorists. This is disputed by the Assad government which has pointed out that the agreement allows Turkish forces to come only 5 km into Syria and its operations have to be co-ordinated with the Syrian government. Damascus has announced its adherence to Adana but has also reminded Turkey that under Adana it has reciprocal obligations to ensure Syrian security by not harbouring hostile elements and occupying Syrian territory.

The Kurds would like to see their safe-zone free of all foreign forces and sanctioned consensually by the principal players in the country – Russia, the US, Iran and Turkey – and accommodate the diverse elements in the Syrian scenario, including Syrian and Kurdish opposition parties.

The US on its part would like to see the safe-zone patrolled by its European allies, besides Turkey, though no European country has come forward so far.

US officials have also floated the alternative idea of patrolling being done by the “Rojava Peshmerga”, ie, the Kurdish fighters from Barzani’s group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is close to Turkey but would be unacceptable to Syria and to Russia. The US would also like to enforce a “no-fly” zone across northern Syria, which is opposed by Turkey as it could hamper its future military operations in the region.

In coming weeks, Syria could see a concerted attack on Idlib by Syrian government forces, with Russian air support, and quiet dialogue between Turkish and Syrian officials. Peace in Syria is distant, not elusive.

2 Saudi Arabia

(i) UN to investigate Khashoggi murder: A UN expert on executions travelled to Turkey  on 28 January to lead an “independent international inquiry” into the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

Agnes Callamard, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said she would evaluate the circumstances of the crime and “the nature and the extent of states’ and individuals’ responsibilities for the killing”. She will report on the findings from her five-day visit to the UN Human Rights Council in June. Callamard said the inquiry was being conducted at her request and that she would be accompanied by three experts, who have forensic expertise among other skills. She declined to name the experts for now.

On 24 January, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said it was time for an international investigation and that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had ordered preparations to be made. Cavusoglu claimed that some western countries were trying to cover up the Khashoggi murder, and said the route to justice may lie through a UN-led international investigation.

The CIA has concluded that Khashoggi’s murder was probably ordered by the powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his death has left the US scrambling to provide cover for the kingdom, relations with which have been a bedrock of American foreign policy under Donald Trump.

Saudi Arabia has refused to cooperate with Turkey, and is conducting its own judicial proceedings against 12 suspects. The case is not held in public so the evidence and defence being mounted is not known.

(ii) The Kingdom ends crackdown on corruption: Saudi investigators have recovered assets worth more than $106 billion in an anti-corruption crackdown ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the royal court announced on 31 January. The crackdown began in November 2017 when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered suspects detained at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. The government summoned 381 people, although some appeared only as witnesses to give evidence. Settlements were reached with 87 people who confessed to the charges against them.

The funds seized “are in the form of property, companies, cash and other assets surrendered by senior princes, ministers and top businessmen who were under investigation”, according to local press reports. The crackdown was formally ended by King Salman, after the anti-corruption committee set up by the crown prince submitted its report to the King.

(iii) Investment opportunities in the kingdom: Saudi Arabia aims to attract private sector investments worth $427 billion over the next decade through an industrial development programme aimed at diversifying the economy, Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on 26 January. Investments will be made through the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program (NIDLP), one of the programmes set out under Vision 2030, a wider reform strategy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and intended to wean the economy off hydrocarbons and create jobs for Saudis. Falih said the kingdom would soon announce projects worth $ 18.5 billion that are “ready for negotiations” under the NIDLP to boost industry, mining, energy and logistics. At a later stage, it plans to announce projects in the military, chemicals and small businesses industries worth $50 billion.

Transport Minister Nabeel al-Amudi said that NIDLP would launch 60 initiatives in the logistics sector, including five new airports and 2,000 km of railways, and aims to attract more than 135 billion riyals of investments.

Under Vision 2030 the kingdom aims to have the private sector operate much of its transport infrastructure, including airports and sea ports, with the government keeping a role as regulator.

At the World Economic Forum at Davos, Saudi Arabia signalled to the international business community to move on from the Khashoggi murder and participate in the country’s business opportunities. Riyadh sent a large delegation to the World Economic Forum, including Economy Minister Mohammad Al Tuwaijri and Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan as well as recently appointed Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf, a Davos veteran. The head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, Yassir Al-Rumayyan, was at Davos, along with private sector executives like billionaire businesswoman Lubna Olayan. Saudi officials scheduled roughly 100 meetings with policy makers and business people in Davos.

(iv) Saudi Arabia to invest in Pakistan: According to news reports in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is expected to sign memoranda of understanding committing to invest $10bn in Pakistan during a possible visit to Islamabad of the Saudi crown prince in February. Investments by Saudi Arabia could include a new oil refinery through state-owned Saudi Aramco, power generation with renewable energy, as well as in petrochemicals and mining. According to Finance Minister Asad Umar, the deals could amount to “the biggest foreign investment in Pakistan’s history.”

3 Yemen

(i) Fighting at Hodeida: Clashes involving heavy weapons broke out in and around Hodeida on 24 January, just a day after a UN envoy's visit to try and salvage a UN-brokered truce. The fighting, which went on for about three hours, is thought to be the biggest breach yet of a fragile ceasefire in the city reached in UN-sponsored talks in Sweden last December.

The fighting took place one day after UN Envoy Martin Griffiths left Yemen after a two-day visit in which he sought to salvage the Hodeida truce, which includes the withdrawal of forces from the Red Sea port city. The Houthis control most of Hodeida, while government forces are deployed on its southern and eastern outskirts.

The Yemen conflict has killed at least 10,000 people since a Saudi led military coalition intervened in support of the beleaguered government in March 2015. Human rights groups say the real death toll could be five times as high. The war has pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine in what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

(ii) US congressmen oppose Yemen war: Republican and Democratic senators and representatives said on 30 January they were re-introducing a war powers resolution that passed the Senate by 56-41 in December, amid anger at Saudi Arabia over civilian deaths in Yemen and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey. The lawmakers - an alliance of progressive Democrats and Republican constitutional conservatives - deplored the “humanitarian disaster” in Yemen but also said they wanted Congress to reassert its constitutional authority to decide whether the United States should be involved in military conflict.

The United States has supported the Saudi-led air campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen with mid-air refuelling support, intelligence and targeting assistance. Opponents of the resolution are reluctant to risk disrupting the strategic U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, seen as an essential counterweight in the Middle East to Iran. The Embassy of Yemen in Washington issued a statement opposing the resolution, saying it would “deliver a massive victory to Iran” if Washington were to stop supporting the coalition.

December’s Senate vote was the first time either chamber of Congress backed a resolution to withdraw U.S. forces from a military engagement under the War Powers Act. That law, passed in 1973, limits the President’s ability to commit U.S. forces to potential hostilities without congressional approval.

The measure never went further in December because the Republicans who then controlled the House of Representatives did not allow a vote in that chamber before the end of the year. However, the measure’s sponsors insisted it had helped lead to a ceasefire in Yemen that began in December. “Sometimes we underestimate how much influence we have,” Democratic Representative Ro Khanna said.

4 Iran: The Trump administration is pushing to re-open a special investigation into the military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear work. But it’s not gaining traction among the international officials who can make it happen. American officials have been increasing pressure at the International Atomic Energy Agency in recent weeks, threatening new sanctions and advocating for more aggressive inspections. This is a rare setback for the Americans at the IAEA, whose inspectors have been instrumental getting earlier UN sanctions applied against Iran. The episode illustrates the rising difficulty American officials face in convincing allies to follow the U.S. on Iran.

The envoys at Vienna heard details of what National Security Adviser John Bolton called “substantial evidence” that Iran lied to IAEA inspectors. The basis for Bolton’s allegation was an analysis by two long-time opponents of the Iran deal -- The Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Institute for Science and International Security. Using new data supplied by Israel, part of a larger cache allegedly stolen from Iran last year, the Washington-based researchers have claimed they identified a previously unknown Iranian nuclear facility, along with gaps in IAEA reporting.

The revelations require the IAEA to “reinvigorate its investigation of Iran’s past, and possibly on-going, nuclear weapons program,” according to documents distributed at the meeting. The U.S. wants more information reported about the sites being inspected and is threatening sanctions on IAEA technical cooperation projects with Iran.

“There is a sense that the administration is frustrated that their campaign to renegotiate the deal isn’t working,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “What we see is the U.S. maximum pressure campaign is heating up even further. There has been a concern that the U.S. and some other countries want to precipitate an inspection crisis. But there’s been resistance to this. The deal’s stakeholders feel they have a good grip on what’s happening in Iran.”

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran is ready to re-start its enrichment program using more advanced technology if the agreement fails. The country is considering manufacture of nuclear fuel used in naval propulsion systems, implying it may ramp-up uranium enrichment levels closer to the purity needed for weapons.

5: Mike Pompeo sets out President Trump’s vision for West Asia: On 10 January, in his speech titled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo extolled the Trump administration’s actions across the region cementing ties with traditional, albeit authoritarian, friendly governments, taking on the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and imposing tough new sanctions on Iran.

He delivered a scathing rebuke of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies, accusing the former president of “misguided” thinking that diminished America’s role in the region while harming its long-time friends and emboldening Iran. Pompeo said Obama had been naive and timid when confronted with challenges posed by the revolts that convulsed the Middle East, including Egypt, beginning in 2011.

Pompeo blamed the previous administration’s approach to West Asia for the ills that consume it now, particularly the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and Iran’s increasing assertiveness, which he said was a direct result of sanctions relief granted to it under the 2015 nuclear deal. He said Obama ignored the growth of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon to the detriment of Israel’s security and not doing enough to push back on Iran-supported rebels in Yemen.

Since Trump’s election, however, Pompeo claimed this was all changing. “The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,” he said. “Now comes the real ‘new beginning.’ In just 24 months, actually less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes.”

“President Trump has reversed our wilful blindness to the danger of the regime and withdrew from the failed nuclear deal, with its false promises,” Pompeo said. Since withdrawing from the nuclear deal last year, the administration has steadily increased pressure on Tehran and routinely accuses the nation of being the most destabilizing influence in the region. It has vowed to increase the pressure until Iran halts what US officials describe as its “malign activities” throughout the Mideast and elsewhere, including support for rebels in Yemen, anti-Israel groups, and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course,” Pompeo said.

Rob Malley, who was Obama’s national security council director for the Middle East and is now at the International Crisis Group, said hearing Pompeo’s speech was like “like listening to someone from a parallel universe” in which the region’s shortcomings were ignored. “In that parallel universe, the Arab public probably will receive it enthusiastically,” he said. “Back on planet earth, they will see it for what it is: a self-congratulatory, delusional depiction of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.”

Arab commentator Emile Nakhleh has noted: “Those who had wishfully hoped that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Cairo speech would enunciate a new Trumpian doctrine toward the Middle East were sorely disappointed. The speech was no more than a mean attack on former President Barack Obama and a warmongering harangue against Iran. It was devoid of any serious analysis or thoughtful, constructive scenarios for the region.”

Nakhleh added: “The clearest example of Pompeo’s ignorance of the recent history of the Arab world is the absence in his speech of any references to the deficits of freedom, human rights, and education that Arab intellectuals and thinkers have identified in their annual reports since 2002. Obama was aware of those deficits and said that America would engage with the Arab world to alleviate them. Pompeo, by contrast, urged his audiences to believe him when he says that “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” As if that’s enough to give Arab youth a hopeful future or a decent life of dignity and prosperity.”

February 4, 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.