Political Developments - May 2018

1) US-led air attacks on Syria: US forces, backed by France and the UK, launched air attacks on selected targets in Syria in the early hours of 14 April in response to what was described as a chemical weapons attack on civilians in the town of Douma in East Ghouta, a week earlier, that was then under assault by Syrian government forces. Reports of these attacks, backed by gruesome photographs of seriously injured children shown on global media (with the caption “unconfirmed pictures”), said that about 60 people had died and several hundred had been injured.

The Syrian government and Russia vehemently denied that Syria was involved in the attack; they even questioned whether an attack had occurred, suggesting that the entire episode had been fabricated. They called for an impartial investigation; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that it would commence its investigation very soon.

But, Trump and his allies needed no such verification and threatened quick retaliation. In his first tweet on April 8, Trump said: “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. … President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price.”

In the event, the US-led attack, while more robust than the one last April in similar circumstances, lasted about an hour and directed its firepower at fairly limited targets. The principal target was the Scientific Studies and Research Centre at Barzeh and its branch at Maysaf, which are suspected to be facilities for the development of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Other sites attacked were a few military bases and arms depots near Damascus. The air strikes carefully avoided Russian and Iranian facilities.

The chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford said that, following the bombings, the Assad regime had lost “years of research and development data, specialised equipment and expensive chemical weapons precursors, [inflicting] maximum damage without unnecessary risk to innocent civilians”; again, a “strong message” had been given to the regime that its actions were “inexcusable”.

While the Syrian government described the attack as a “war crime”, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the action as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state that is in the forefront in the fight against terrorism”. He said that the attacks had worsened the “already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria”, while the US “panders to terrorists”. Finally, he described the escalation in Syria as “destructive for the entire system of international relations”.

In background briefings, Russian officials have said that the West-funded “humanitarian” group based in Syria, popularly called “White Helmets”, had faked the April 7 chemical attack; all first-hand reports of the attack have come from the White Helmets and have been widely disseminated by them.

The internet is now awash with substantial stories on this subject. After a detailed study of the video footage released by the White Helmets after the chemical attack in Douma, commentators have noted that, while rushing in to help the “victims”, the White Helmet volunteers had themselves neglected to put on gas masks and protective suits. The canister that had allegedly carried the lethal chemicals and had been allegedly dropped on the site by Syrian forces was shown in a pristine condition in one picture, while the bed on which it had fallen was also undamaged.

Again, reports from Russian sources on the ground say that doctors in Douma reported that they had received no patients with signs of chemical poisoning, nor were there any traces of chemical agents in the area where the attack was said to have taken place.

Scepticism in sections of the Arab media about the chemical attack is based on the fact that Syrian forces were already heading towards complete success in East Ghouta and did not need a chemical attack to take the area. Syrian forces began the operations to take East Ghouta on February 18, and by early March they had successfully divided the region into different sectors and begun negotiations for the evacuation of the rebels from the areas concerned. By mid-March, 60 percent of East Ghouta had been taken by government forces and rebels and family members from militia sponsored by Turkey and Qatar had been evacuated to Idlib.

After the chemical “attack”, Syrian forces continued their offensive, secured Douma and arranged the evacuation of thousands of rebels and civilians to Jarablus. This has raised the question: did Assad really need to use chemical weapons when the opposition was deeply divided, the civilian population was on his side, and his forces were moving forward rapidly to take Douma?
In an analysis in the New York Times, Peter Baker has noted that the airstrikes have “essentially left in place the status quo on the ground”, with Assad unchallenged in Syria and neither Iran nor Russia asked so far to pay the “big price” they were threatened with for backing Assad (though President Trump has indicated that some new sanctions on Russia are in the offing).

Baker has argued that on Syria Trump is subject to “competing impulses”: one, the compulsive need to demonstrate his “toughness” at international fora and, the other, his deep conviction that the US role in West Asia after 9/11 “has been a waste of blood and treasure”. The latter view makes him most reluctant to engage the US in the region and instead “let the other people take care of it now”, as he said just before the air attacks.

2) Arab force for Syria: In early April, President Trump telephonically informed Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz that he planned to withdraw US troops from Syria. He said that, if the king wanted US forces to stay, “maybe you are going to have to pay for that” — with a figure of $4 billion being circulated in the media.

A few days later, US national security adviser John Bolton told his counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar that they should consider putting together a joint Arab force that would be deployed in areas in Syria vacated by US troops.

Mobilizing an Arab expeditionary force would be a non-starter, as these regional states are already preoccupied with conflicts nearer home. Also, even if the proposal were to move forward, the deployment would be in Kurdish areas whose fighters are hardly likely to welcome an Arab army. Finally, such a force would also face hostility from Iranian and Russian forces entrenched in Syria, increasing the possibility of direct conflict between them.

Thus, the Arab states are left with the option of sharing the cost among them or funding a private mercenary force, most probably from Blackwater, which has been involved in backing US military presence in Iraq earlier and is now said to be in Yemen. The security contractor Erik Prince, who has strong ties to both the Trump administration and the UAE, has been reportedly promoting the creation of a private army to replace many of the U.S. troops if Washington withdraws.

3) Iraqi elections: On 12 May, the Iraqi people will go to the polls to elect 329 members to the national parliament, the fourth such free elections since the US invasion of their country in 2003. After the defeat of Daesh late last year and attempts at national reconciliation by Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, the country is now seeing the prospect of unity, reconstruction and constructive engagement with its neighbours.
Commentators Yasir Kouti and Dlawer Ala’Adeen have projected that the six main Shia alliances between them could get about 200 seats, with the Haidar Abadi, Nouri al Maliki and Muqtada Sadr groups getting about 46, 41 and 32 seats, respectively. The five Kurdish groups could together get 56 seats, with the Barzani group winning 25. This will open up options for a number of different coalitions to take shape which will ultimately decide the country’s prime minister.

Abadi remains a frontrunner. Already popular among the Shia, his appeal among the Sunnis went from 24 percent in December 2015 to 78 percent in December 2017. He is widely seen as the leader who defeated Daesh, evicted the Kurds from Kirkuk without bloodshed, and one who is now focused on national unity and good governance. He has also campaigned actively in the Kurdish region, with messages of reconciliation, and has also put up Kurdish candidates from his group.

Iran has however given mixed signals about his prospective prime ministership. It is perhaps concerned about strengthening Saudi-Iraq ties over the last two years, which have seen exchanges of high-level visits, heightened diplomatic presence and cross-border trade links, a bilateral council to discuss security and economic ties, and the Saudi pledge to expand its investments in Iraq and provide $ 1.5 billion for reconstruction.

Hence, while the Kingdom and the US would like to see an Abadi-led government that would include the Kurds and Sunnis, Iran might have other plans. A key factor in Iraq’s post-election calculus will be the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, likely to be announced by Trump on 12 May, the same day as the Iraqi elections. This will encourage Iran to ensure that it does not lose its grip on Iraq, possibly by backing a Nouri al Maliki-led coalition that includes pro-Iran Shia parties and possibly some Kurdish parties as well.

This scenario could call into question prospects of national reconciliation in Iraq and peace and stability in the region.

4) The Iran nuclear deal: This issue continued to garner world attention as President Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington to persuade President Trump to retain the agreement, a few weeks before his final decision on this matter on 12 May.

Both Merkel and Macron attempted to persuade Trump to see the current deal as a stepping stone to a longer-term, broader accord, featuring a "four pillars" solution. The first column is the current nuclear treaty with Iran. The others would target Tehran's nuclear activities after 2025, when so-called sunset clauses kick in, enhance global leverage against Iran's regional influence and try to curb its ballistic missile program.

This “four pillars” approach of Macron and Merkel has been criticised by Eldar Mamedov as diluting the firm EU support for the nuclear agreement, particularly Merkel’s statement that the agreement is “insufficient to curb Iran’s [nuclear] ambitions”. He has pointed out that the two leaders’ positions have been seen in Washington “not as an attempt to save the deal, their professed objective, but as a sign that France and Germany are ready to cave in to a more aggressive American approach towards Iran”.

After the issue of the joint statement, Macron spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a call lasting more than an hour, President Macron said talks would have to be broadened to cover "three additional, indispensable subjects": the need to discuss what would happens in 2025 when the current deal expires, plus Iran's involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts, and its ballistic missile programme.
President Rouhani told Mr Macron that Iran "will not accept any restrictions beyond its commitments" to comply with international rules after 2025, according to the Iranian presidency's official website. He added that even if the US stays in the deal, "it won't be acceptable", as the Trump administration's recent conduct has upset Iran's international standing. However, Mr Rouhani also said he would work to strengthen relations with France and wanted to co-operate "in all fields".

On 21 April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had agreed with his Chinese counterpart that Moscow and Beijing would try to block any U.S. attempt to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal. "We are against revising these agreements, we consider it very counter-productive to try to reduce to zero years of international work carried out via talks between the six major powers and Iran," TASS quoted Lavrov as saying after talks with Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, in Beijing. "We will obstruct attempts to sabotage these agreements which were enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution," Lavrov was cited as saying.

On 29 April, European leaders in a joint statement announced their support for the deal. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany described it as "the best way of neutralizing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran."

5) Pompeo in West Asia: Mike Pompeo went on a West Asia tour of Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Amman soon after Congressional approval of his appointment as Secretary of State, where he continued his tirade against Iran. He called Tehran the world’s “greatest sponsor of terrorism” and repeated Trump’s threat to pull out of the nuclear deal if it isn’t changed. “We are determined to make sure [Iran] never possesses a nuclear weapon,” Pompeo said on 29 April at a joint news conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. “The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance.”
Later that day, at a brief appearance in Tel Aviv with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pompeo repeated Trump’s threat to pull out from the Iran deal if it isn’t changed significantly, but expressed pessimism. “If he [President Trump] can’t fix it, he’s going to withdraw from the deal,” Pompeo said. “It’s very flawed.”

Pompeo also warned that Iran increasingly posed a direct threat to Israel. The Israeli military has allegedly launched strikes in recent months against Iranian positions in Syria. “The United States is with Israel in this fight, and we strongly support Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said Iran’s actions in the Middle East had to be taken into account as the U.S. and Europe try to find a way forward on the deal. He said Iran “destabilizes this entire region,” supporting Yemeni rebels who fire missiles on Saudi Arabia and backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. “Unlike the prior administration, we will not neglect the vast scope of Iran’s terrorism. It is indeed the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Mr. Pompeo said in Riyadh. “Iran has only behaved worse since the deal was approved.”

6) Yemen: A Saudi-led coalition air strike last week killed Saleh al Samad, the “president” of the Houthi-led government in northern Yemen. Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi said in a televised statement that Samad was killed on 17 April in the port city of Hodeidah, on Yemen’s west coast, in several strikes which killed six others in his retinue. Samad was second on the Saudi-led coalition’s most wanted list of Houthi leaders, after Abdul Malik al-Houthi. It had offered a $20 million reward for any information that led to Samad’s capture.

“This can potentially escalate the conflict, as it comes amidst tense political negotiations,” said Adam Baron of the European Council for Foreign Relations. “The Houthis will feel the need to respond,” he added.

Al-Masirah reported that the Houthis had appointed Mahdi al-Mashat, once director of al-Houthi’s office, to replace Samad.

7) Gulf Shield -1 exercises: The Gulf Shield - 1 military exercises, organized by the Ministry of Defence in Saudi Arabia, between 21 March and 16 April, were attended by 23 countries.
Tens of thousands of soldiers participated in the exercises, one of the largest in the region in terms of the number of participating countries and the equipment used. The exercises included: joint operational planning, training, demonstrations, seminars on professional topics, and cultural events. Other events included: irregular warfare, coastal defence, combat search and rescue, naval warfare exercises and extensive flying operations.

Warships from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the UAE and US participated. Pakistan was the leading contributor to the Joint Gulf Shield-1, both in terms of personnel and assets. According to official sources, the month-long military drill in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia “is important for preparing to address any causes of instability and threats to the region.”
Qatari forces participated in the exercises, signalling some compromise among U.S.-allied Arab states locked in a nearly year-long dispute. An official from one of the 23 participating countries said Qatar sent one ship with nine officers to join the drills and had seven other officers observing.

Qatari Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Ghanem bin Shaheen Al Ghanim was present on 16 April at a closing ceremony, attended by Saudi King Salman and other heads of state.

8) Qatar: Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visited Washington on 15 April. Commenting on the emir’s contribution to the cutting of funding to extremists, Trump reassured Sheikh Tamim: “You’ve now become a very big advocate and we appreciate that.” The emir did not seem very happy, however, with Trump’s implicit suggestion that Qatar had not been helpful in combating extremism in the past. He said his country has been “cooperating with the United States” all along.

Commentators have noted that the warm welcome extended to the emir might have been a result of the millions of dollars Qatar has spent on public relations campaigns by several lobbyists. Qatar also announced the purchase of large amounts of US military hardware. A day before the Oval Office meeting, the Trump administration said Qatar was buying an advanced US rocket system for $300 million.
The United States is pressing for the differences between Qatar and its GCC partners to end quickly because it wants its Gulf allies to form a united front facing Iran. Trump demanded a resolution to the crisis in an April 2 telephone conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Trump’s tone during the call was described by a US official as “forceful.”

9) Making Qatar an island: Contrary to these developments, in a sign of deteriorating ties, Saudi Arabia announced a plan to turn Qatar into an island by digging a 60-kilometre ocean channel through the two countries’ land border that would accommodate a nuclear waste heap as well as a military base. There are unconfirmed reports that the UAE plans to follow in the kingdom’s footsteps and build a nuclear waste site of its own at the closest point to its border with Qatar.

The 200-metre wide, 20-metre deep channel would erase a border that has been closed since the imposition of the boycott and is unlikely to re-open any time soon. Built a kilometre from the Qatari border, the channel would be able to accommodate merchant and passenger ships of up to 295 metres long and 33 metres wide, with a maximum draught of 12 metres. The nuclear waste dump and military base would be on the side of the channel that touches the Qatari border and would effectively constitute a Saudi outpost on the newly created island.

The plan, to be funded by private Saudi and Emirati investors and executed by Egyptian firms that helped broaden the Suez Canal, also envisions the construction of five hotels, two ports and a free trade zone. The $750 million project would have the dump ready for when Saudi Arabia inaugurates the first two of its 16 planned nuclear reactors in 2027. Saudi Arabia is reviewing proposals to build the reactors from US, Chinese, French, South Korean contractors and expects to award the projects in December.

10) Arab summit in Dhahran: Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud hosted the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran on 15 April which included some distancing of the kingdom from its close association with the Trump administration.

Salman opened the summit by renaming it the “Jerusalem Summit.” He said the top priority of the Arab leaders is and should be Palestine. He strongly condemned the Trump administration’s Jerusalem policy. He said the Saudis saw Palestine and Jerusalem as their “first issue.” The king also reaffirmed the Saudi commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

US commentator Bruce Reidel has noted that the stridency of the king’s remarks “reflects growing unease in the royal palace that events in Gaza and Jerusalem are moving toward even more explosive unrest next month when the US Embassy opens in Jerusalem”.

The Saudis are uncomfortable that they have been widely perceived in the Arab world as colluding with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, to undermine the Palestinians’ claim to the holy city. Pictures on TV of protesting Gazans burning Saudi flags and pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been blocked in the kingdom. Iran is actively labelling the Saudis as conspiring with Israel.

King Salman pledged at the summit $200 million in aid. He is also donating $150 million to preserve Islamic sites in Jerusalem and another $50 million to Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Salman also said that the Arab leaders must unite against Iran and its surrogates, such as the Houthis.


 May 1, 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.