Political Developments - January 2017

1. Overview of on-going military conflicts

Iraq and Syria

Two raging conflicts in West Asia- in Iraq and Syria could be reaching endgame. In the case of Iraq, operations against the Islamic State (IS) "capital" at Mosul commenced from end-October, with the Iraqi coalition making quick progress and surrounding Mosul by mid-December. The forces began a pause in the military action on 21 December, described by the ranking US general on site as an "operational re-fit". There are reports of fierce engagement with IS militants and that the Iraqi military may have sustained heavy casualties.

The second phase of the fighting began on 29 December, with troops attacking Mosul from the east and southeast. While there is every likelihood that Mosul will fall in the near future, it is the aftermath that will determine the future shape of Iraq: if there is large-scale sectarian blood-letting, then Iraq in all probability will revert to the sectarian carnage that overwhelmed the country after the US invasion, with retaliatory attacks by extremist elements. Alternatively, if sectarian violence is controlled, Iraq could move on to the route to establish an accommodative political order.

In Syria, government troops, backed by heavy Russian air support, captured Aleppo on 13 December after a four-year effort that has been marked by accusations of human rights abuses on both sides. However, while this is a setback for the rebels, fighting is expected to continue in other towns, particularly Idlib. However, there are reports in the Arab media that the extent of support from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for the rebels has reduced considerably and is now largely confined to media support.

The complicating factor in both Iraq and Syria is the fact that the Kurds in the two countries, taking advantage of the civil strife, have expanded their territorial control over what they believe are traditional Kurdish lands. In Iraq, they have asserted a claim over Mosul once it is liberated; in Syria, they have captured most of their "Rojava", western homeland, along the Turkish-Syria border. These developments, viewed from Ankara, suggest that a contiguous Kurdish territory is being consolidated in Iraq, Syria and Turkey itself.

To thwart these Kurdish aspirations, Turkey has militarily entered both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, it has projected itself as the champion of the Turkoman people and Sunnis in general, and has stated that it will not allow the Kurds to claim Mosul or attempt to change the demographic character of the region that has been traditionally dominated by the Turkoman and Sunnis.

In Syria, its forces have disrupted the contiguity of Kurdish lands by occupying a 90-km front at the border and then moving into Syria to about 55 km, thus creating a "buffer zone" for itself.

Turkey has also abandoned its five-year support for the rebels in Syria, in alliance with the GCC countries, and has moved close to Russia and Iran. Russia, taking advantage of the presidential transition in Washington, has initiated its own peace process by inviting Turkish and Iranian foreign and defence ministers for a peace conclave at Almaty, a meeting that does not include the US, the UN or any Arab country. This peace process is expected to support the continued leadership of Bashar al Assad in Syria and increase military and political support to the beleaguered regime.

On 29 December, President Putin announced that a nationwide ceasefire would commence from the midnight of 30 December, following talks between Russia, Turkey, the Syrian government and the opposition National Coalition, made up of “moderate” rebels, including the Salafi militia, Ahrar Al Sham; the ceasefire does not include ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra (now calling itself Jabhat Fatah Al Sham). Russia has also indicated that the ceasefire would be followed by peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, and that other participants such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan would also be invited. Russia has also clarified that the peace process would “supplement”, not replace the UN process.

There are media reports that Iran is not happy about the ceasefire and the peace process. It is said that Assad and Iran, after the capture of Aleppo, had wished to fight Ahrar Al Sham, but Russia made it clear that Aleppo would be the last battle and the last victory. Russian sources are confident that Iran will be brought on board at the right time.

While there are no indications from official sources about the content of the peace plan, non-official Russian sources have said that Syria would be divided into autonomous regions in a federal structure and that Assad would step down before the next presidential elections and make way for a more acceptable Alawi candidate. Russian officials have also made clear that Russia will control the peace process, with no involvement of the Obama administration, though there would be place for the Trump government once he takes over.

Yemen

The situation in Yemen remains murky. After announcing the setting up of a Supreme Political Council, made up of adherents of the Houthis and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthi movement at the end of November announced the installation of a government which would consist of members from “all walks of the political spectrum who are anti-aggression”, a clear rejection of Hadi and his Saudi supporters. The official statement added that the new government was needed “to arrange the domestic situation and face the aggression economically, militarily and politically”.

The initiative of the Houthis has come in the background of the rejection of the proposal of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, to set up a national unity government by the Hadi group, though it had been accepted by the Houthis and appeared to enjoy US and Saudi support. This has put a set back to the nascent peace initiative and condemned Yemen to continued fighting in which about 10,000 people have already been killed. According to UN sources, several million Yemenis are facing starvation.

Expressing its displeasure with Saudi attacks in Yemen which have led to numerous civilian casualties, the US block the sale to Saudi Arabia of 16,000 precision munitions kit, valued at $ 350 million. US officials have criticised the Saudi military for poor targeting which caused a “high rate of civilian casualties”, including the bombing of a funeral hall in October in which over a hundred people had been killed. Partly to assuage western concerns, Saudi Arabia announced on 19 December that it would not use British-made cluster bombs in Yemen.

In order to assert his credibility, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi at end-December paid a visit to the southern Hadhramout province from where Al Qaeda militants had been evicted earlier this year by UAE and US Special Forces. Hadi declared that this “liberation” would be the model followed by his forces to liberate the rest of the country from the Houthi-Saleh alliance. He also laid the foundation stone of a natural gas power plant to ease the power situation in the region.

Amidst the political and military uncertainty, the Islamic State proclaimed its presence in Yemen with a suicide bombing in Aden in which 48 people, mainly security personnel, were killed.

2. Implications of the Trump presidency

During the election campaign, president-elect Donald Trump had been very hostile to the nuclear agreement, even saying that his first as president would be to rip up the deal and renegotiate better terms. After his election victory, he appointed senior officials who have a long record of hostility to Iran. However, both Trump and his officials have also not been flattering about Saudi Arabia either, with the national security adviser, General Michael Flynn even voicing severe criticism of Islam itself.

The Kingdom, while deeply concerned about the implications of the Trump prAesidency for its interests, has taken comfort from Trump’s visceral animosity for Iran which, they believe, will shape a new US approach to West Asia which will exhibit far greater understanding of the security concerns of the GCC countries vis-à-vis Iran, concerns that are shared by large sections of the US political establishment.
Besides the Iran factor, two other reasons that could form the basis for improved US-Saudi ties are: (a) the country’s ambitious economic reform programme, as envisaged in the “Vision-2030” document, and (b) the view in the Kingdom that, given his business background, Trump is less likely to be concerned about Saudi religious and cultural practices.

 

January 2, 2017

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About the Author

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.