Political Developments - March 2018

1. Syria: Turkish armed forces, backed by their Syrian opposition allies, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), entered Syria on 20 January, and a month later were making slow progress in their attempt to take the northern Syrian town of Afrin from the Kurds under the mis-named “Operation Olive Branch”. At least 31 Turkish soldiers have been killed and several hundred injured, and scores of battle vehicles destroyed. Its Kurdish enemies are already gleefully referring to the campaign as Turkey’s “Vietnam”.

The Syrian government, Iran and Russia seem to have condoned the Turkish incursion, though Syria has publicly criticized it. Syria and Iran welcome the attack on the Kurds and the deepening divide between Turkey and the US. Russia backs Turkey as its partner in the Astana/Sochi peace process and welcomes its estrangement from the US.

The US is caught between supporting its Kurdish allies and not alienating Turkey, its long-standing NATO partner. Turkey, however, has taken a tough public position with the US on the Kurdish issue, bitterly recalling US assurances in 2016 that Manbij, 100 km from Afrin, would be cleared of Kurdish forces. This has not been implemented, leading President Erdogan to threaten a march on Manbij, where several hundred US soldiers are stationed, setting up a direct military confrontation with its NATO ally. To placate Turkey, the US is said to have agreed to a 30 km “safe zone” at the border that will break the contiguity of the Rojava, the Kurds’ western homeland along the Turkey-Syria border.

In a dramatic twist, there were indications for some days that Syrian government forces could be deployed alongside the Kurds to resist the Turkish incursion. On 19 February, Syrian media said "popular forces" would arrive in Afrin "to support its people's stand against the Turkish regime's attack". A senior Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, told Reuters news agency that government soldiers would be deployed at some border positions.

But later, a spokesman of the Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG), Nouri Mahmoud said "There is no agreement. There is only a call from us for the Syrian army to come in and protect the borders." Turkey also formally warned Syria to keep out of this conflict. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Turkey's operations were going ahead as planned and it would be a "disaster" if Syrian troops were to intervene. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Russia's Vladimir Putin that Damascus would face "consequences" if it struck a deal with the Kurds.

The Syrian scenario grew more complicated when, on 10 February, Israel shot down an Iranian drone, and then, in its retaliatory attack on Syria, lost an F-16 aircraft, its first loss of a plane in combat since 2006. It responded with massive firepower on Syrian and Iranian assets, with the fighting coming to an end only after a phone conversation between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

A writer in the Egyptian Al Ahram believes that, with the downing of the Israeli F-16, a new “balance of deterrence” has been achieved in the region. Israel no longer has unchallenged control of the Middle East airspace and is also vulnerable to a barrage of Iranian/Hezbollah missiles that would cross its defence systems and inflict considerable damage.

While the US is still struggling to safeguard its interest to maintain a regional presence based on its support for the Kurds, it lacks the commitment and capabilities that Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia possess. In this situation, the real losers in Syria are likely to be the Kurds, let down once again by their dependence on an unreliable partner.

East Ghouta: On 25 February, Syrian government forces launched a fresh ground and air offensive against rebel positions in the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta, in defiance of a nationwide ceasefire ordered by the UN Security Council. Fighting erupted on several fronts in what was seen as a possible last-ditch bid by Syria’s president to eliminate opposition resistance in Ghouta, near Damascus, before the 30-day ceasefire can be enforced. The total number of those killed has risen to 530, including over 130 children.

The Syrian attacks took place a day after the UNSC issued a unanimous ceasefire resolution. The two main rebel factions in Ghouta – Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – said they would implement the truce and facilitate aid access; but they also vowed to respond if attacked.

Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, said the fight against “terrorism” would continue regardless, noting the ceasefire excluded named organisations such as Islamic State and an al-Qaida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the al-Nusra Front. “Our government will reserve the right to respond as it deems appropriate in case those terrorist armed groups are targeting civilians in any part of Syria with even one single missile,” Ja’afari said.

2. Saudi Arabia: Through a series of royal decrees on 26 February, King Salman discharged dozens of officials across the government, bringing in a new chief of staff for the Saudi military and new officials for security and economic policy. A number of younger princes were named deputy governors and a woman was appointed deputy labour minister.

Those changes included a new chief of staff, Gen. Fayyad al-Ruwaili, new leaders for the air defence and land forces, and a royal endorsement of a road map for developing the Defence Ministry. Three younger princes — sons of Talal, Ahmed and Muqrin, senior royal family members — were named deputy governors. One of those, Prince Turki bin Talal, is a brother of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s most famous investor, who was detained recently in what the government called a crackdown on corruption.

The lone woman among the new appointees, Tamader al-Rammah, who was named deputy minister of labour, is not the first woman to hold such a rank in the kingdom but she is the only one to do so now. Her appointment adds to recent efforts to bring more Saudi women into the work force and to reduce societal restrictions on them.

In an interview to US correspondent David Ignatius, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described the wide-ranging changes in policy and personnel being pursued by him as “shock therapy”. The crown prince said he had public support, not just from restless younger Saudis but from the royal family. He rejected criticism of his domestic and regional policies and argued that the changes are essential to finance the kingdom's development and combat its enemies, such as Iran.

The Prince described the latest changes as an effort to install "high energy" people who could achieve modernization targets. "We want to work with believers," he said.

Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia: Reuters reported on 15 February that the Pakistani Army is sending soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Expected to number around 1000, they are said to be on a “training and advice” mission. This follows Pakistan’s earlier reluctance to send its troops to the kingdom for possible deployment in the Yemen conflict. Pakistani sources have clarified that these troops will not be deployed outside Saudi Arabia.

Though there is no official explanation for this change of heart, it is being speculated by commentators that this might be an attempt by the Pakistani armed forces to repair their ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power centre in the country. It would also bolster the position of the Riyadh-based retired Pakistani general, Raheel Sharif, who on paper heads the “Islamic Military Alliance” but has no forces under him.

More immediately, the announcement relating to the deployment of Pakistani troops in the kingdom came just a few days after Saudi Arabia joined Turkey and China in a move to block a U.S.-led attempt to place Pakistan on an international terror-financing watch list, in a rare disagreement between Riyadh and the Trump administration.

Separately, on 26 February, the Pakistani defence minister Khurram Dastgir said that Pakistan was training 10,000 Saudi defence personnel.

Saudi-Israel ties: In a sign of warming Saudi-Israel ties, officials from the Israeli aviation industry told journalists that Saudi Arabia had reportedly granted approval to Air India to fly direct from Delhi to Tel Aviv using its airspace. On 7 February, Air India said it was planning direct flights to Israel, and had sought permission from Saudi Arabia to fly over its territory, which would reduce flight time by more than two hours. Though the kingdom has officially denied the report, if the air route is confirmed, it would mark the first time Saudi Arabia would allow commercial flights to fly to Israel using its airspace, and would mark a significant shift in strategic policy that has shaped the region for decades.

3. Iran: Taking advantage of the agitations in Iran in December-January, President Rouhani is pursuing major economic reforms in his country. He has increased pressure on Iran’s armed forces, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, to divest from the economy, and has made moves to overhaul the banking sector, where illicit lenders wiped out the savings of small depositors, helping stir the unrest.
In recent weeks, he has repeatedly called on state entities to unload their assets and make way for the private sector. The Revolutionary Guard, in particular, maintain a sprawling network of businesses in everything from energy, infrastructure to telecommunications, and play an extremely influential role in the economy. Last month, Defence Minister Amir Hatami said in an interview that Khamenei had assigned the General Staff of the Armed Forces to oversee the exit of Iran’s military forces from “irrelevant economic activities.”

Rouhani, too, has taken on the unregulated lenders, whose spread he blames on his predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani announced last month that he had instructed the Central Bank to stop issuing permits to new private banks. In a televised interview, he also said the Central Bank has spent roughly $2.5 billion to bail out depositors.

But even as he has stirred hopes for reform, a string of economic and political crises has threatened to hinder progress.

In recent weeks, Iran has experienced continued unrest. Women have staged demonstrations in Tehran and other cities to publicly remove their headscarves, which they are legally required to wear. Earlier this week, five security forces were killed in the capital following clashes with members of a Sufi order, who had gathered outside their leader’s home over fears he would be detained. Workers and pensioners have continued to stage small-scale protests for unpaid wages and benefits, including at major construction firms, a sugar factory and outside the ministry of labour.

In parliament, reformists and conservatives alike have pushed back against Rouhani’s proposed budget for the Iranian fiscal year. That budget, which was leaked to the news media in December, envisioned steep cuts to state subsidies and was a spark for the unrest.

4. US effort to bridge the GCC divide: On 27 February, the White House announced that U.S. President Donald Trump discussed Iran’s “destabilizing activities” and other security and economic issues in separate telephone calls with senior Saudi and Emirati leaders. The statement added that he thanked them for highlighting ways that Gulf Arab states “can better counter Iranian destabilizing activities and defeat terrorists and extremists.”

President Trump has accelerated his diplomatic efforts to broker peace among Arab monarchies, starting with an upcoming series of White House visits by leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE in March. These separate meetings are expected to lead to a peace deal over Qatar in late spring at a summit in Washington or Camp David and thus once again unite the GCC countries against Iran, the US’s principal enemy in the region. Other issues to be discussed are the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the conflict in Yemen, and Iran’s funding of terror throughout the region.
Separately, Qatar appears to have provoked Saudi ire when its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said on 16 February that West Asian states should put their differences behind them and forge a security pact modelled on the European Union in order to pull the region back from the brink.

Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubeir responded tersely: “We already have a structure in place,” referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Saudi minister added: “It is our hope that the Qataris will do the right thing and stop their support for terrorism... Should they do so, they will become a welcome member of the GCC and we can move forward to improve the security for all of us.” Qatar was clearly referring to a regional cooperative security arrangement that would include Iran, a proposition that is totally unacceptable to the kingdom.


March 3, 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.