Political Developments - March 2019

1. Saudi Crown Prince in Pakistan and India: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Pakistan and India on 17-18 February and 19-20 February, respectively. These visits took place just days after the suicide attack on CRPF personnel at Pulwana in Jammu and Kashmir in which 40 persons were killed. The Pakistan-based jihadi organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for this terrorist attack. This attack overshadowed the prince’s visit to the two South Asian countries. For each country, it now became important, largely for reasons of domestic politics, that the visiting prince show understanding and support for its own narrative and, hopefully, a criticism of the other side.

The joint statements that were issued in the two capitals were carefully scrutinised by the media.

The Saudi-Pakistan joint statement: In this joint statement, the crown prince applauded the efforts of Prime Minister Imran Khan “for dialogue with India” and added that “dialogue is the only way to ensure peace and stability in the region to resolve outstanding issues”. Both Indian and Pakistani observers saw in this a rebuke to India for refusing dialogue with Pakistan.

The other reference to which Indian commentators paid a lot of attention was the assertion that the two leaders “underlined the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime”. This is a clear reference to the Indian effort, consistently foiled by Chinese opposition, to get Masood Azhar included in the UN list of terrorists.

For the rest, the document said very little. Though defence is perhaps the principal feature of the bilateral relationship, it was dismissed with just one sentence, with the leaders expressing “satisfaction (with) their strong defence and security ties” and “to further enhance cooperation in this field to advance shared objectives”. These “shared objectives” were not elaborated.

Similarly, on Afghanistan – where both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are deeply involved, the statement only said that they agreed on “the importance of the political settlement and promoting peace and stability” in the country.

Not surprisingly, the statement made much of the Islamic factor: Pakistan applauded the “leadership and positive role” of the kingdom in addressing the issues facing the “Islamic Ummah”, while Saudi Arabia merely lauded Pakistan’s “important positions” in the Islamic world and its “efforts for regional peace and security”.

The Indo-Saudi joint statement: The statement in Delhi was issued very late in the day, just an hour before the crown prince left for Beijing. Pakistan was mentioned in para 34 of the statement, which made three points: one, it spoke of the importance of “regional stability and good neighbouring (sic; should read “neighbourly”) relations”. Two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was appreciated for his “personal initiatives to have friendly relations with Pakistan”; this is clearly meant to balance the earlier Saudi praise for Imran Khan’s efforts for dialogue with India.

Thirdly, it said that “both sides” agree on the need for “creation of conditions” for the resumption of “comprehensive dialogue” between the two countries – this happily reflected the Indian view on dialogue with Pakistan. The Saudis also pleased India on the UN list matter by agreeing on the “importance of comprehensive sanctioning of terrorists and their organisations by the UN”.

The joint statement had several positive features for India: in line with earlier joint statements, it was detailed and comprehensive and clearly took the relationship forward in specific areas of mutual interest. It focused on giving substance to the burgeoning “strategic partnership” between the two countries.

Thus, it paid considerable attention to matters of energy, trade and investment, with the Saudi side enthusiastically accepting that there are investment opportunities in India “worth $100 billion”. The process of bilateral dialogue was also institutionalised: A Strategic Partnership Council has been set up at apex level to monitor progress, while a ‘comprehensive security dialogue’ will take place at the level of national security advisers to deal with counter-terrorism.

However, regarding regional security cooperation, the Indian statement was as coy as the Pakistani document. There was a casual reference to the leaders’ discussion on “the security situation in West Asia and Middle East”, though this should have been the principal concern of the two leaders.

Similarly, while the Pakistani statement had a brief reference to Afghanistan, the Indian document did not refer to Afghanistan at all. Given the significant behind-the-scenes role Saudi Arabia has played to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and the high stakes India has in the outcome of the peace process, this would have occupied the two leaders for a large part of the hours they spent together.

The reason not to go public with the content of their discussion could be that the negotiations the Taliban are involved in at various platforms (Doha and Moscow) are at a critical stage, and there is considerable uncertainty over how things will pan out. The positive development is that India and the kingdom are talking to each other for the first time on this sensitive subject and, in time, could work closely to promote the unity and stability of Afghanistan within the framework of a democratic order.

Iran was the elephant in the room during both visits but was not mentioned in either statement. Pakistan’s reference to the kingdom’s “leadership and positive role” in the Muslim world would hardly be liked in Tehran, nor would the latter appreciate the “strong defence and security ties” between Pakistan and the kingdom to promote “regional peace and security”.

In the Indian statement, the allusions to Iran are clearer. In para 23, Saudi Arabia describes itself as “the world’s most reliable supplier of oil and gas” and in the next para, affirms that it will meet India’s growing needs “and substitute for any shortages that may arise as a result of any disruptions from other sources” – a clear reference to sanctions on Iran.

Again, in para 36, the two countries “renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy”. Here, while India has Pakistan in mind, Saudi Arabia is looking at Iran. This is made clear in the very next sentence, where the two leaders call for the denial of access to “missiles and drones” to those who commit terrorist acts – a reference to Iran supplying missiles to the Houthis in Yemen.

Assessment: The ‘winner’ in these South Asian encounters was most probably Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two major South Asian countries have clearly conveyed to him that the Khashoggi murder, however heinous it might have been, is at the end of the day a domestic matter and will not impinge on their ties with the kingdom.

In Pakistan, it was important for Riyadh to shore up Pakistani military backing against Iran. Thus, the crown prince’s most important discussions were not with Imran Khan but with the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. For this, the ground had already been prepared by the visit to Pakistan of former army chief General Raheel Sharif, who is based in Riyadh as the head of the so-called ‘Sunni NATO’ – a joint force made up of military detachments from Sunni countries.

Though this force exists largely on paper, the kingdom is anxious to have the assurance that Pakistani forces will be available in the event of a conflict with Iran. This assurance would have been given by Bajwa, perhaps in the confidence that such a cataclysmic conflict will not actually take place. There is no way Pakistan can move too far from Iran and confront Iran on sectarian basis; this will be a sure recipe for domestic sectarian contentions. Thus, though coming months will often see meetings between the Saudi and Pakistani armed forces, there will be little change on the ground.

2. Indian external affairs minister addresses the OIC foreign minister’s conference: As external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj addressed the foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Abu Dhabi on 1 March, there was a palpable sense of history and pervasive consciousness that the OIC was not just opening a new chapter in its relationship with India, it was also at the cusp of reinventing itself. The Indian minister understood well the significance of the moment and rose to the challenge of the occasion.

Her address was marked by an extraordinary graciousness towards the forum that had unceremoniously expelled India at its inauguration in 1969 and, over the past three decades had allowed itself to be used by Pakistan to heap unrestrained abuse and calumny upon India. In fact, even as Pakistan chafed at India’s intrusion as the “guest of honour” into its exclusive preserve, it convened just before Ms Swaraj’s landmark speech an emergency meeting of the OIC’s “contact group” on Jammu and Kashmir. True to form, this group trotted out the words that Pakistan had inscribed — it “strongly condemned the recent wave of repression, brutal killing of innocent Kashmiri civilians” by the Indian security forces and of “Indian threats to regional peace and security”.

But the Indian minister refused to be provoked. Unperturbed, she applauded the OIC’s “key role in shaping our world”, recalled its “roadmap for prosperity and development”, and expressed India’s support and solidarity “in your quest for stability, peace, harmony, economic growth and prosperity for your people and the world”.

The minister’s remarks resonated with the history, values and interests of the entire assemblage. She began with references to India’s close ties with Islam and Muslim civilisation but noted that India’s Muslims were an integral part of India’s diverse but harmonious culture and had categorically rejected the allure of extremist violence.

She spoke at length about the substantial ties that India has developed with individual member-countries of the OIC — a shared history of the anti-colonial struggle, joint shaping of global institutions, joint trade ties of $230 billion, new links opened up by connectivity projects being promoted by India to Central Asia, deep security and strategic ties with the Gulf countries, and shared concerns relating to contemporary global challenges, such as climate change.

She noted that the international order was changing. Asia is emerging as a major influence in international economic affairs and large sections of the global community now have access to affordable technologies and can enjoy the benefits of “freedom, opportunities, connectivity, education and prosperity”.

She then came to the core of her message — that all these achievements are threatened by “the terrible face of terror”. She described its wellsprings as a “distortion of religion”. But she rejected the security approach to combating this scourge and instead advocated using “the strength of our values and the real message of religions”.

She gave central importance to engagement and dialogue across faiths and cultures so that moderation, harmony and respect for pluralism could inform our world order. She extended India’s hand of partnership to the OIC, placing at its disposal India’s “markets, resources, opportunities and skills” and, above all, the promotion of bridges across cultures to achieve understanding and accommodation.

Finally, she noted that the OIC, now 50 years old, was making a “new beginning” and that “the choices you make... will have a profound impact on humanity”.

It is too early to say whether this address marks a “new beginning” in India’s ties with the OIC. Though the Abu Dhabi declaration did not specifically refer to Kashmir, some other things have not changed. The OIC secretary-general, in published remarks, added lines that he had not uttered at the plenary — he now referred to “bloody events and transgressions” against the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and called for “restraint and peaceful resolution of conflicts, in line with international legitimacy resolutions”; however, India was not specifically named in this statement.

Again, Pakistan pushed through two resolutions — on the Kashmir issue and on India-Pakistan relations. These referred to human rights violations by India, called for a “plebiscite” in Kashmir and saw the Kashmir issue as the “core dispute” between Pakistan and India. They also sought “third party mediation” by the international community. Another Pakistan-sponsored resolution referred to the destruction of the Babri Masjid and “forced conversions” of Muslims in India.

These resolutions have a very dated reek about them, as if they are being tiredly pushed through to complete a formality, with little expectation that anything will come of them. Quite appropriately, India responded dismissively, pointing out that Jammu and Kashmir “is an integral part of India and is a matter strictly internal to India”.

The UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, said what was important was that India had been able to deliver a “positive, strong, dedicated speech” at the OIC platform. The OIC, he said, had sent “a very clear and positive sign to India... that the OIC appreciates the relationship with India and looks forward to strengthening such a relationship with India”. He looked forward to full membership for India.

The invitation to India to address the OIC foreign ministers affirms the shift in balance of influence within Islamic counsels from Pakistan to India — 50 years after Pakistan had succeeded in getting India evicted from this Islamic forum, India was now the “guest of honour”, while its foreign minister was absent.

India is speaking of contemporary achievements and challenges — of technology, equitable economic growth and social justice, and of uncertainty, tensions and violence engendered by conflicts within and between societies. Pakistan appears mired in a time warp, talking mechanically of plebiscites and mediation, as if 70 years have not passed since this verbiage was trotted out.

Above all, India speaks of commitment to moderation, accommodation, pluralism and multi-culturalism. Pakistan instead is synonymous with faith-based doctrines of hate, revenge and violence, and sponsorship of organisations that wreak havoc upon the innocent and the vulnerable in the name of their belief system.

The choice before the OIC is clear — does it seek a “new beginning”, or does it wish to remain in the quagmire of outdated postures and animosities … and continued irrelevance.

3. Syria
: As the conflict in Syria entered its eight year this month, on 1 March the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the start of their “final assault” on the last ISIS enclave at Baghouz, at the Iraq border. This enclave is believed to have about 400 fighters, though they could even be a thousand, along with about 5000 civilians.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), about 50,000 persons, including 5000 ISIS fighters have left their havens in east Syria over the last three months. These are of diverse nationalities: though most come from Iraq, others are from Russia, other Arab states and even the Philippines. While the Iraqis, mainly from Anbar province, are expected to go home through the porous border, the others are seeking escape either to Turkey or even to Idlib, presently dominated by Hayat Tahreer al Sham (HTS), the former Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra.

As the SDF launches its final assault on Daesh at Baghouz, other manoeuvres are taking place among the principal players to ensure their interests in this endgame scenario. President Donald Trump continues to sow confusion and uncertainty, causing bewilderment equally among his antagonists and his senior officials. Having announced in mid-December the immediate withdrawal of the 2000 US troops from Syria, he modified the time-frame to April or May under pressure from his officials. He then said US troops would be stationed in Iraq to monitor Iranian activity, evoking strong Iraqi statements asserting national sovereignty.

Then, in a partial reversal, he said on 22 February that 400 US troops would remain in Syria. It is now believed that 200 of them will be in Syria permanently as part of a multinational NATO force numbering 800-1500, mainly from Europe. Their role appears to be to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and to prevent Turkey from maintaining a military presence in north Syria to monitor Kurdish activity.

This clearly contradicts the arrangement Trump and Turkish President Erdogan had arrived at in December in which Turkey would maintain its troops in north Syria to prevent ISIS from reviving itself. The other 200 US soldiers are expected to be at the Al Tanf crossing with Iraq to prevent the “Shia superhighway” linking Tehran with Damascus and Beirut.

Amidst this uncertainty, the three partners in the Astana peace process – Russia, Iran and Turkey – are attempting to shape their interests. The fourth summit of the Astana process at Sochi on 14 February reflected both the competing interests of the three partners and the compulsions that drive them to work together. All three welcomed the departure of US troops as contributing to “stability and security” in Syria. They also agreed on the early return of refugees and the restoration of services.

After this, their differences became clear: Turkey wanted an endorsement of its proposal to set up a “safe-zone” in the north, patrolled by its troops, to control Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. But both Russia and Iran, believing this would threaten Syrian unity and integrity, insisted that the areas vacated by the Americans be occupied by Syrian government forces. Russia also offered that its military police would patrol the border to check Kurdish militant activity.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani spoke up for the Kurds saying that “Kurdish rights should be ensured in the future of Syria”. Russia meanwhile is encouraging the Kurds to engage with the Assad government. To ensure sustained Iranian support amidst these uncertainties, on 25 February Bashar al Assad paid his first visit to Tehran in eight years.

ISIS fighters who escape from Syria are expected to re-locate to western Sahara, Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Some observers believe they could also come to the Pakistan-Iran border under Pakistani patronage to attack Iranian targets. This is a congenial space for extremists, while the government might seek to ingratiate itself with the Americans through an aggressive anti-Iran posture.

4. Iran

Resignation of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: Zarif submitted his resignation as foreign minister on 25 February after being deliberately excluded from all events surrounding the visit to Tehran of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Iran commentator Trita Parsi believes that by resigning Zarif was taking a calculated risk. Trump's withdrawal from the Iran deal has given the opportunity to hardliners in Iran to attack the Hassan Rouhani government. Increasingly, they were seeking not only to block his efforts to keep Iran inside the deal and press Iranian banks to adopt international transparency standards, but also to block any future diplomatic efforts with Washington.

After his performance at the Munich security conference last month -- which once again boosted his popularity and even forced Iranian hardliners to grudgingly praise him -- Zarif saw his opportunity. He announced his resignation publicly to maximize the likelihood of a public outcry in his favour.

Within 24 hours, the Tehran Stock Exchange was plummeting and 150 members of Parliament issued a letter urging Rouhani to reject Zarif's resignation; all the while Rouhani was sending emissaries to Zarif to return and insisting that the resignation was "against national interests."

Even key conservatives praised Zarif. The commander of Iran's Quds Forces, Qassem Soleimani, publicly lauded Zarif as someone who "has always been supported by the top officials, especially the Supreme Leader." Less than two days into the drama, word was out that Ayatollah Khamenei believed that Zarif's resignation was not "expedient," signalling his support for Zarif as well. Zarif is now serving as foreign minister per the insistence of the Supreme Leader himself, providing him with much-needed protection against Iran's anti-diplomacy hardliners.

Zarif's strengthened position signals to the Trump administration that its attempt to frustrate the Iranians into exiting the nuclear deal -- which could potentially pave the way for military action against Iran -- is failing. In other words, Zarif's presence deprives international hardliners of the pretext for war they have been so desperately seeking.

Attack in Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan: On 13 February, there was a suicide attack on Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan- Baluchistan, the second in two months. The assault on a bus carrying the guards back from patrols on the province’s border with the troubled Pakistani region of Balochistan killed 27 people and wounded 13 others.

This attack coincided with the Warsaw Conference (details below). While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied at the conference that the US had any interest in promoting regime-change in Iran, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, addressing a rally outside the Warsaw conference organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile group that is hostile to the Iranian regime, told the protesters who waved Iranian flags and giant yellow balloons emblazoned with the words, “Regime Change” that “we want to see a regime change in Iran.” 

Jaish-al-Adl (the Army of Justice), a Pakistan-based splinter group that traces its roots to Saudi-backed anti-Shiite groups with a history of attacks on Iranian and Shiite targets, has claimed responsibility for the attack. The group says it is not seeking Baloch secession from Iran. Instead, it wants to "force the regime … to respect the demands of the Muslim Baloch and Sunni society alongside the other compatriots of our country." In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards blamed the attack on "mercenaries of intelligence agencies of world arrogance and domination," a reference to Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.

5. Yemen: Nearly two months after signing the Stockholm Agreement on 13 December, the internationally recognized government of Yemen headed by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebel group agreed to terms for implementing a narrow but critical part of that accord: the “redeployment” of their forces in certain parts of Hodeida province. Although these steps represent only a part of an already-narrow agreement, the UN is cautiously hopeful that they will be the first in a series of confidence-building measures ultimately leading to full peace talks.

Signed on December 13, the Stockholm Agreement had focused on three issues:

(1) redeploying forces in Hodeida,
(2) creating a mechanism for prisoner exchanges, and
(3) beginning discussions on implementing a ceasefire and opening humanitarian corridors in Taiz province.

Despite its limited focus, the document was significant because it was the first agreement between the contending parties in two-and-a-half years.

As the weeks passed and the parties met, the UN continued its hopeful narrative that the Hodeida ceasefire was holding and talks were progressing.

Yet media outlets on all sides were painting a different picture. Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam blamed the government for evading its obligations. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition fighting on the government’s side released data on Houthi ceasefire violations —numbering 1,400 by February 14—and suggested that the rebels were “intentionally hindering the implementation to gain time to build their military capabilities.”

Despite the delays, the parties managed to come to a narrow agreement on what the UN is calling “Phase 1” of the Hodeida withdrawal. This latest agreement does not cover the second phase of the withdrawal, prisoner exchange mechanisms, or Taiz.

Several issues remain unresolved. First, no one has specified the “local forces” that are supposed to assume responsibility for security in Hodeida port and city as the parties withdraw. The government worries that that Houthis will leave behind “local” personnel that are secretly loyal to them, as they have done in the past.

Second, the exact timing of the redeployments remains unclear. Initial reports suggested they should begin early this week. Access to Red Sea Mills is a start, but the port withdrawals appear delayed. Predictably, both sides are blaming each other.

In the meantime, the UN convened its third High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen this week in Geneva. The organization asked for $4.2 billion—its largest appeal ever—for the 24 million people suffering there, and initial reports suggest it has raised at least $2.6 billion. Yet money is only part of what is needed. Humanitarian corridors, port access, safe passage on key roads, and significant demining efforts are necessary to get aid to the people who need it, and each of these measures hinges on the parties reaching and implementing agreements regarding Hodeida and Taiz.

6. The Warsaw Summit: On February 13 and 14, officials from over 60 governments gathered in Warsaw, Poland, for a US-organized “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.” From the start, it was obvious that Washington and many of its allies viewed the event as primarily designed to strengthen the international coalition to confront Iran on issues – notably missile development and destabilizing regional policies – not dealt with in the nuclear deal, which Washington withdrew from in 2018.

But, as the conference wound down, it was doubtful whether any of its ambitious goals had been achieved; indeed, it seems that in some ways the event demonstrated more weakness and division than strength and solidarity.

Ever since Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, Washington has been trying to develop a broad international coalition to pressure Iran to come back to the negotiating table and eventually agree to much tougher restrictions on its nuclear activities, missile program, and regional policies. The Trump administration has been strongly encouraged in these efforts by Israel and several Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Those governments participated enthusiastically, with Israel even dispatching Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the real target for that part of the agenda were the European countries that are continuing to try to ensure that the JCPOA can survive and function despite US opposition. Their determination was recently demonstrated by the creation of the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges, a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate payments from Iran to European companies and other multinationals in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, bypassing the US banking system and avoiding US sanctions.

These European countries – particularly Britain, France, and Germany – as well as the European Union’s administration were distinctly cool to the Warsaw agenda. Only Britain dispatched its foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, to the conference, and he made it clear that he was primarily attending to participate in the meeting of the “Yemen Quad” – the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – to discuss the conflict in Yemen.

There is no evidence that the United States, Israel, or Gulf Arab countries made any progress in wooing important European states away from their efforts to salvage the JCPOA or adopt a more confrontational attitude toward Iran.


March 6, 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.