Political Developments - January 2019

1. An overview and some prognosis: At the end of 2018, West Asia remains as contentious and violent as it was last year, and its outlook remains as uncertain as before.

The ongoing conflicts in West Asia emerged from a deep sense of strategic vulnerability in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the current decade in the wake of the Arab Spring. The kingdom then perceived Iranian influence across West Asia as a “Shia Crescent” that embraced Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran itself, and then swung southwards to Yemen. In the face of this challenge, Saudi Arabia abandoned its moderate foreign policy and robustly confronted Iran in the theatres of its influence — first in Syria and later, from 2015, in Yemen.

Over the past two years, the kingdom was encouraged in its confrontations by the full backing extended to it by US President Donald Trump, who shares Saudi Arabia’s visceral hostility for Iran and is committed to reducing Iran’s influence in West Asia. Trump shaped a formidable alliance of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia to confront Iran and its allies in Syria and then take the battle to the home front to effect regime change.

But, this game-plan was thwarted by the entry of Russia in the West Asian scenario in 2015 — initially as a military ally of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then as the principal diplomatic arbiter in regional politics. Russia ensured President Assad’s military successes against the rebels and now over the last two years leads the Astana peace process, with Turkey and Iran as its partners.

Turkey initially supported the Saudi effort at regime change in Damascus but made a U-turn two years ago when it saw its sworn enemies, the Syrian Kurds, consolidate themselves across the Syria-Turkish border, with full American support. Faced with this “existential” threat, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed his alliance with Russia and made it clear to the United States that his troops, already positioned in a wide enclave in north Syria, would cross the Euphrates to disperse the Kurds and disrupt their territorial gains.

President Erdogan then took full advantage of the ruthless murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that took place in Istanbul on October 2 and accused the kingdom’s effective leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of masterminding the gruesome killing. (See below for an update)

Though the crown prince continues to enjoy support from Mr Trump and his influential son-in-law Jared Kushner, large sections of the US political establishment and the media are now hostile to the kingdom and are even questioning the value of the seven-decade-long US-Saudi ties.

Erdogan appears to be promoting Turkey as a major role player in regional affairs. But besides asserting a revival of neo-Ottoman influence in the region that was once part of the old empire, Erdogan is also challenging Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Islamic world. Erdogan is likely to promote the Turkish brand of Islam that would be broadly based on the activist and accommodative doctrinal platform of the Muslim Brotherhood, which will herald the long overdue reform in West Asian politics, while stigmatising Saudi Wahhabism as the harbinger of intolerance and extremism.

On December 19, President Trump complicated the regional scenario by announcing the withdrawal of the 2,000-odd US troops in Syria. Trump’s security officials had made it clear over the last few months that these troops, ostensibly retained to fight the remnants of the Islamic State, would remain to oppose Iranian influence in Syria while ensuring that Russia was not the sole major power in the region. (See details below)

The immediate impact of President Trump’s announcement has been to unravel the US alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran — now the latter will have a free hand to consolidate its presence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and even realise its “land-bridge” from Tehran to Beirut and Damascus.

The announcement will also test the resilience of the Saudi-Israel alliance on Palestine, with the crown prince likely to be wary of backing Mr Trump’s plan that seems to provide maximum advantages to Israeli interests, while permanently extinguishing Palestinian aspirations. Having been let down by their US ally, both countries will have an incentive to work with Russia in Syria, while hoping that President Vladimir Putin will restrain Iran’s bellicosity. Saudi Arabia will also increasingly turn to Russia to coordinate energy policies.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking at difficult times. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing corruption charges and national elections next year, could plea-bargain himself out of prison, the Saudi crown prince, largely discredited abroad, will find himself under considerable pressure at home: he could face serious challenges to his leadership from the divided royal family and will be critically dependent on his father to remain crown prince.

The Kurds, dreaming of their Rojava, western homeland, have received a body blow; they can now expect to face the wrath of the Turks, experiencing one more betrayal in their century-old history.
Russia will remain the sole major power in West Asia to shape the contours of regional politics. In partnership with Iran and Turkey, it will accelerate the peace process in Syria, though it will face daunting challenges from the divided opposition and the armed militia. Again, taking advantage of the largely discredited Saudi Arabia, Western leaders can be expected to push for a peace process in Yemen, though Saudi opposition could still make the endgame very murky.

The US-sponsored sanctions regime will make life for ordinary Iranians very difficult but will do little to weaken the regime. Iran hopes that European support will moderate some of the harsher aspects of the sanctions, particularly relating to energy exports and banking transactions.

Thus, the winners next year will be Russia and Turkey, while Iran, facing hard times at home, will use adroit diplomacy and creative initiatives to dilute the impact of sanctions, as it waits for the Trump administration to become more dysfunctional and increasingly lose credibility and influence.

2. The Khashoggi murder: Two Turkish journalists with the Daily Sabah have published a book on the Khashoggi murder. The book titled, Diplomatic Atrocity: The Dark Secrets of the Khashoggi Murder, came out on 28 December. The writers seem to have obtained considerable support from official Turkish sources as they put together various aspects of the crime. Thus, the book provides detailed information about the arrival of various Saudi teams in Istanbul – one to carry out a preliminary reconnaissance, a second to commit the murder itself, and a third to sanitise the consulate premises before the arrival of the Turkish investigation team. The book provides some new information and corrects some details published earlier.

The writers have also speculated about the reasons that impelled the Saudi crown prince to sanction the murder: a Saudi dissident based in Canada, Omar Abdulaziz, has told the writers that Khashoggi was more than a critic of the Saudi government. He was working on a joint project named the "Army of the Bees" with Abdulaziz.

This social media army would mobilise Saudi dissidents to expose the realities of the kingdom against the trolls that backed the crown prince on social media. Khashoggi personally invested in the project by giving $5,000 to Abdulaziz, promising he would find more funding from other Saudi dissidents. Given the stature and influence of Khashoggi, the Saudi government began to see the journalist as a serious threat, Abdulaziz has claimed, which led to his gruesome murder.

The writers conclude that almost all the facts relating to the murder are now available with the exception of one important detail: the location of Khashoggi’s body.

3. Cabinet re-shuffle in Saudi Arabia: On December 27, Saudi Arabia announced new appointments in the name of King Salman that substantially alter the makeup of the Political and Security Affairs Council, the key decision-making body chaired by the defence minister and crown prince Muhammad bin Salman:

(i) On the security front, the Harvard-educated Royal Court official Musaid al-Aiban has been appointed to the revived position of national security adviser.
(ii) Prince Abdullah bin Bandar, a cousin of the crown prince, has replaced a peripheral royal as minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, one of the kingdom’s main military forces.
(iii) Former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf is now the new foreign minister, replacing Adel al-Jubair, who has been named minister of state for foreign affairs.

Key economic portfolios remain unchanged, with Khalid al-Falih staying on as energy minister and Muhammad al-Jadaan remaining finance minister.

Official spokespersons have denied that the changes are in response to any specific developments, stressing that cabinet changes take place every four years.

The appointment of the veteran and respected finance minister, Ibrahim al Assaf, as foreign minister has been viewed as an attempt to strengthen the credibility and effectiveness of the foreign office in the wake of the bad press after the Khashoggi murder, while leaving the articulate Adel al Jubair to focus on presenting the kingdom’s positions before western audiences. Al Assaf has played down al Jubair’s obvious demotion by saying that the two will “complement” each other.

These changes confirm that, contrary to speculation in some quarters, King Salman has affirmed his support for the crown prince and provided him with new personalities to back him at home and abroad.

4. Withdrawal of US troops from Syria: On 19 December, Trump surprised his senior officials and the international community by announcing that US troops in Syria, numbering about 2000, would be brought home. These troops, located in northwest Syria, in territory occupied by the Syrian Kurds, were supposed to remain there for the foreseeable future, as conveyed publicly by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser John Bolton, on several occasions over the last few weeks. They had made clear that the US military presence was aimed at confronting Iran in Syria and the region and ensuring that the US would balance Russia as the major power shaping regional developments.

The Trump announcement was preceded by a telephonic conversation between the US president and Turkish President Erdogan on 14 December in which the latter is believed to have questioned the rationale for retaining US forces in Syria after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS); Erdogan told Trump that Turkish forces would clear the region of the remnants of IS elements.

Following Trump’s announcement, Mattis submitted his resignation to the president, making public his deep disagreements with the president on several issues. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote in the 20 December letter. “Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours.” The letter so irked Trump that he insisted that Mattis leave his post immediately rather than remain till end-February that Mattis had mentioned in his resignation.

US commentator James Durso has explained that Trump “was never comfortable with America's too-little, too-late intervention in Syria, a place Washington is not convinced is very important”. Stephen Walt, a frequent Trump critic, has noted that “Trump did the right thing…But true to form, he has done it in the worst possible way. There seems to have been no advance warning or interagency preparation for the decision, which means that the timing, arrangements, and broader implications have not been gamed out in advance.”

Russia responded cautiously to the US announcement. Putin in public remarks criticised the absence of western support for the Astana peace process, but stressed the importance of Russia-US military, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation in Syria.

Iranian response has also been cautious. Three days after the Trump announcement, the foreign office spokesman said: “From the start, the entry and presence of American forces in the region has been a mistake … and a main cause of instability and insecurity.”

The reason for caution in Iran, according to commentator Hamidreza Azizi, is that it is not yet sure if the move will lead to any changes in the US strategy of minimizing Iran’s activities in the region, including in Syria. Just one day after Trump’s decision, Rodney Hunter, the political coordinator of the US mission to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council that Washington “will use all instruments of [its] national power to press for a withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces” from Syria, a reiteration of US’ traditional position.

The US military withdrawal will leave Iran and its allies, the Hezbollah, the Shia militia from Iraq and other Shia militia from Afghanistan and Pakistan, with an effective military presence in Syria. It has also raised questions about the Al Tanf and Al Bukamal crossings on the Iraq-Syria border that are important for Iran’s planned “highway” from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to the Mediterranean.

Again, in the Erdogan-Trump telephonic dialogue, the Turkish president appears to have persuaded Trump to abandon the Syrian Kurds in favour of affirming the alliance with Turkey that had been jeopardised by the US backing for Kurdish territorial consolidation at the Turkey-Syria border. The Kurds will now have to review their future in Syria, most probably concluding that they will have to work with the Assad regime to safeguard their interests. What is still unclear is the nature of Turkey’s ties with Russia and Iran and, specifically, what role it will now play in the Astana peace process.

Turkey will face several new challenges: now, Russia, Iran and the Assad government will strongly oppose continued Turkish military presence in north Syria, with Assad being anxious to assert his sovereignty over all Syrian territory and Russia likely to promote a rapprochement between Damascus and the Kurds.

A new phase in the Syrian contentions is taking place with regional powers positioning themselves to maximise their interests. Thus, GCC countries have begun to re-engage with the Assad government in an attempt to dilute Iranian influence: the UAE will reopen its embassy in Damascus shortly, while Bahrain and Kuwait will follow soon thereafter. These GCC countries will seek to wean Assad away from both Turkey and Iran, emphasising now his Arab rather Shia identity by holding out the prospect of Syria’s re-admission into the Arab League and even promising funding for the country’s reconstruction.


January 1, 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.