Political Developments - November 2018

1. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi – domestic and regional implications:

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October has shocked global opinion, impacted on Saudi-US and Saudi-Turkey ties, and has possibly prepared the ground for major changes in regional political policies and equations.

The bare facts relating to the murder are now well-known: the fifteen murderers, all Saudi nationals, travelled from Riyadh to Istanbul in two private aircraft, landing on the day of the murder and leaving soon thereafter. They travelled on their own passports and so could be quickly identified as security and military personnel close to the crown prince, having travelled with him earlier, with earlier pictures to confirm their proximity to him. This team, apparently sent to ‘persuade’ Khashoggi to return home, included Saudi Arabia’s senior-most forensic doctor, an expert at autopsy and dismemberment, equipped naturally with the main tool of his trade – a bone saw.

Jamal Khashoggi was seen entering the consulate premises on 2 October for routine consular services against a prior appointment, while his Turkish fiancée waited for him outside the building.

After denying the murder for two weeks and even stating that Khashoggi had left the consulate premises, in the late night of Friday, 19 October, the kingdom broke its silence: it accepted that Khashoggi was dead, that he had died in the consulate, and that his death had been accidental – the discussion between the journalist and his interlocutors had got heated, which ended with one of them killing Khashoggi in a strangle-hold. The Saudi spokesperson also announced that two senior officials, Maj Gen Ahmad al Assiri, deputy head of intelligence, and Saud al Qahtani, member of the royal court, had been dismissed, while 18 persons connected with the murder had been arrested. (Both are close associates of the crown prince.)

When the demand arose for Khashoggi’s body to be returned to the family so that the victim could be given a decent burial, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubair, said that the body was handed over to a “local co-operator” (sic) and that the Saudi government had no knowledge of where it was now.

At the end of October, the Turkish public prosecutor said that Khashoggi had been murdered in a pre-meditated act and that possibly, after the killing and dismemberment, his body parts had been “dissolved” to make discovery of the body impossible.

Saudi media defence: The ineptitude of Saudi officials was echoed in its media, as its writers struggled to whitewash the murder, defend their prince and issue dire warnings if their state were to be targeted with blame or sanctions.

The veteran journalist, Abdulrahman al Rashed, pointed his fingers vaguely at “anti-Saudi axes” for the vicious campaign. He also reminded his readers that Saudi oil was “indispensable” to international economic well-being, and that Saudi geopolitical influence could not be ignored as also its religious position at the centre of the Muslim world. Without naming Iran, he recalled to the Americans (and anyone else who cared to listen) that, amidst the division of West Asia into two blocs, Saudi support was “crucial” and could not be substituted by anyone else.

The Saudi paper Al Jazeera (separate from the Qatar-based television network) said that the attacks on the kingdom were primarily from Qatar-sponsored media and journalists who were unhappy with Saudi Arabia’s closeness to the US and hostility to Iran. Okaz echoed this, with the writer saying: “This [the murder] is nothing but a comedy act that turned to international media and was orchestrated by haters and ill-wishers in Qatar who were working day and night to come up with this skit”.

Turki al Dakheel, the head of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network, said on 16 October that, in response to threats of US sanctions, Saudi officials were considering at least “thirty counter-measures” which would be “catastrophic for the US economy”. Among these, he listed: curtailment of Saudi oil production that would push oil prices to $ 100 to $200 and possibly twice that; accepting payment for oil in Chinese Yuan instead of Dollars; shifting Saudi affiliation to Russia and even providing the latter a military base in Tabuk; cutting weapons’ purchases from the US to Russia and China, and withdrawing Saudi investments in the US amounting to $ 800 billion.

Perhaps, al Dakheel’s most bizarre threat was that the kingdom would move closer to Iran and “perhaps reconcile with it”, suggesting that Saudi Arabia has no quarrel with Iran and its present hostility is only to appease the Trump White House. 

Later pro-Saudi comment was more balanced. Ali Shihabi of the Saudi-sponsored Arabia Foundation in Washington DC wrote on 2 November that the murder “has left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its weakest diplomatic position since the horrific terror attacks of September 11”. He then recalled the earlier “series of Saudi missteps that had already left many questioning the country’s trajectory”, including the arrests of women activists, the Saudi-German and Saudi-Canadian diplomatic crises, and the imbroglio surrounding Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri.

While distancing the crown prince from the crime, the writer said that more moderate and calm-headed officials would replace those dismissed and steer the country towards reform. He also felt that this was an opportune moment to address the Yemen and Qatar issues.

US response: The confusion in Riyadh was well-matched in the White House, with Trump simply unable to sustain righteous anger for the gruesome murder; his general contempt for the media and his warmth for the Saudi prince have been the principal influences on him. The President initially said he was “very upset and angry” but would not cancel defence contracts as that would “hurt jobs”. On 13 October, he promised “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was found responsible for the killing.

Later, after the Saudi announcement accepting that Khashoggi was indeed dead, Trump described the arrests as “good first steps”, though he added that he was not fully satisfied. He said he would consider “some form of sanction” but “would prefer we don’t use as retribution” the arms’ deals he said he had concluded with the kingdom, though several commentators doubt both the value of the deals or even whether Saudi Arabia can do without US supplies.

Trump’s agenda has met with considerable opposition from the US Congress. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has been most forthright in attacking the crown prince: he called him “toxic” and a “wrecking ball” who had “this guy murdered” and that he’s “gotta go”. He also asked the President “to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia”. Responding to details of the killing given by Saudi Arabia, the senator tweeted that to say he was “sceptical was an understatement”.

On 10 October, a bipartisan group of 22 senators sent a letter to Trump asking for a federal investigation into Khashoggi’s ‘disappearance’, noting that the disappearance suggests he “could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognised human rights”.

The US corporate sector that just last year was fawning over the Prince, seeing him, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “as a messiah – in the mold of Gorbachev or Gandhi”, began to distance itself from him in the wake of the murder by withdrawing from the prestigious Saudi Future Investment Forum in Riyadh patronised by the crown prince. These included the heads of Ford, Blackrock,

Blackstone and JP Morgan, besides the IMF Managing Director and the finance ministers of France, Holland and the UK. Lobbyists for Saudi Arabia in the US, such as BGR, the Harbor Group and the Glover Park Group have prudently decided to withdraw from their lucrative Saudi contracts.
Other western leaders have affirmed their dissatisfaction with the Saudi account, saying it lacks consistency and credibility and demanding more detailed investigations. Germany has halted arms sales to the kingdom, while France has threatened sanctions.

Responding to widespread criticism of Saudi conduct in the murder, Trump on 23 October appeared to affect a turn-around in his position by calling the Saudi narratives “one of the worst coverup in history of coverups” and even hinted at the crown prince’s involvement. Then he said he would leave it to Congress to consider further action, including sanctions.

Turkey’s role: From just after the murder, official Turkish sources provided a steady stream of information on what happened inside the consulate after Khashoggi’s entry. These included details of the actual murder over seven minutes when Khashoggi “was first tortured, then mutilated, injected with a sedative, and finally dismembered” with a bone saw. Some Turkish accounts also said that the dismemberment might have started when Khashoggi was still alive.

All Saudi attempts at a cover-up were ended by President Erdogan’s statement in Parliament on 23 October, coinciding with the inauguration of the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. The President rejected the Saudi narrative of a fist-fight and said: “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned … Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community. From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account.”

Though he did not give details of evidence available with the Turkish police or specifically name the crown prince, he made clear where the ultimate blame lay when he said: “Saudi Arabia has taken an important step by admitting the murder. As of now we expect of them to openly bring to light those responsible – from the highest ranked to the lowest – and to bring them to justice.”
Soon after Erdogan’s speech, King Salman announced a thorough enquiry into the murder, pledging to hold Khashoggi’s killers to account “no matter who they may be”.

President Trump-Saudi crown prince ties: Given the profile of the victim and the seniority of the Saudi officials already implicated, most observers believe the crime had been sanctioned by the Saudi crown prince personally, and that he had been emboldened to undertake this crude murder due to his deep and abiding affiliation with Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. This is a symbiotic relationship, with important shared interests on both sides. For Trump, defence contracts proffered by the prince and associated financial deals are of paramount importance, which the President exalts in public as creating a million jobs in the US.

Linked with this are two points on the president’s foreign policy agenda: Iran and Palestine. The crown prince shares the president’s visceral animosity for Iran, has applauded the rejection of the nuclear agreement, and is aligned with the US and Israel in a military confrontation against Iran in Syria and in effecting regime change in Tehran.

The crown prince had also attempted to force the Palestine Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas to accept Kushner’s Palestine plan, Trump’s “deal of the century”, that would have met Israel’s maximalist demands and put an end to Palestinian aspirations for all time.

As part of the Saudi-US symbiotic relationship, Trump has backed the idea of an “Arab NATO” led by Saudi Arabia that would sustain Saudi leadership in West Asia, in alliance with the Americans. Besides the war in Yemen, he has also supported the Kingdom in its siege of Qatar that was imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies last year and remains in force. From the US perspective, while the Houthis in Yemen are viewed as Iran’s surrogates, the attack on Qatar is seen as justified due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The US is however keen to see the resolution of the Saudi-Qatar spat to maintain a united Arab front against Iran.

The re-imposition of sanctions on Iran following the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement has affirmed the crucial importance of these bilateral ties for the US: the withdrawal of about 2.6 million barrels per day (mpd) of Iranian oil from world markets will lead to massive price increases unless the Saudis step in with significantly increased production which they alone seem capable of achieving. As the US goes in for mid-term polls on 6 November, Trump, for immediate electoral reasons, needs to ensure that prices remain under control – and Saudi Arabia remains on his side.

This explains Trump’s ambivalent and vacillating response to the murder and the desperate search in Riyadh and Washington to shape a convincing way to bail out the crown prince.

Khashoggi’s writings: Commentators believe that Khashoggi’s writings for the Washington Post over the last year in which he criticised the crown prince’s domestic and regional policies and advocated substantial political reforms in the kingdom earned him the wrath of the crown prince and may have led the latter to sanction his murder.

Even before going to the US last year, in December 2014, he had written in the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya in favour of democracy: “Democracy, popular participation or shura [consultation] – call it what you wish – will inevitably be realised. It’s a natural and inevitable development of history. One of its most important conditions is the right to choose. … There is either complete democracy promised by any civilised constitution or no democracy.”

Soon after Prince Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017, Khashoggi went into self-exile and became a commentator with the Washington Post. His first article of September 2017 was titled: “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable”. He castigated the crown prince for the arrest of intellectuals and their “public shaming”. He spoke of “the climate of fear and intimidation” amidst promises of reform.

Khashoggi noted the contradiction in the Saudi position where it despised Brotherhood activists while itself being “the mother of all political Islam”. What Khashoggi did not clarify to western readers was that both Wahhabiya and the Brotherhood are manifestations of political Islam in that they seek to imbue state order with Islamic precepts and values. But, Wahhibiya gives the monopoly of political activism to the ruler: the latter is responsible for national security and welfare, while the citizens owe him loyalty and obedience. The Brotherhood on the other hand is activist in that all adherents have to be active role-players in the political order and provides scope for the accommodation of a wide range of political values and expression.

Thus, the divide between the crown prince and Khashoggi goes back at least a year, with the latter aligning himself with the activism of the Brotherhood and thus challenging the monopoly over political authority of the royal family, represented by the crown prince.

In fact, through the last year Khashoggi differed with the crown prince on almost all issues of national policy. The journalist reminded the prince that he was nurturing extremist clergy within his fold, those who believed that the Shia were not Muslims and robustly opposed all forms of reform. He criticised the prince’s confrontationist policies in the region, seeing them as “deepening tensions and undermining the security of the Gulf states”.

He was particularly exercised about the war in Yemen. He rejected the attacks on the Houthis and said that the Yemenis were only seeking their freedom. Again, just a couple of weeks before his murder, he called for a unilateral cease-fire in Yemen and end the violence. This would prepare the ground for Yemen’s diverse factions to shape their role in a future political order in the country; this initiative, the writer said, would “restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam”. He criticised the Saudi siege of Qatar and its Lebanon policy.

In his article written in August this year, Khashoggi attempted to explain to western readers the place of the Muslim Brotherhood in West Asia’s political landscape. The eradication of the Brotherhood, he said, “is nothing less than the abolition of democracy and a guarantee that the Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes”.

“There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it”, he categorically asserted. He quoted approvingly an Arab academic who said that Arab regimes’ opposition to the Brotherhood was part of their targeting “all those who practise politics, who demand freedom and accountability, and all who have a popular base in society”.

Perhaps, this piece was the tipping point for the paranoid prince and firmed up his decision to silence Khashoggi permanently. This is confirmed by later news that, in his conversation with US officials after the murder, the crown prince described Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Domestic implications: As details relating to the murder continued to flow from Turkish sources, the crown prince decided to project an image of self-confidence and commitment to “business-as-usual”. The investment conference went ahead and there were announcements that deals worth $ 32 billion had been finalised. Both the king and crown prince condemned the murder, offered their condolences to Khashoggi’s sons, and promised to punish the perpetrators.

Suggesting that the murder might have been committed by rogue elements in the intelligence organisation, the king also set up a committee to revamp the intelligence setup in the country under the chairmanship of the crown prince.

An attempt is now ongoing to project a united picture of the royal family. Prince Turki Al Faisal, former intelligence chief and Khashoggi’s superior in London and Washington when the prince was his country’s ambassador, has condemned the murder but also criticised Americans for “demonising” Saudi Arabia, while recalling the solid mutually beneficial ties the two countries have enjoyed over several decades.

Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, the senior-most royal after the king (and the king’s full brother), who had earlier criticised the crown prince for the war in Yemen, returned to Saudi Arabia on 23 October, signalling royal family solidarity in this period of crisis. On landing in Riyadh, he was greeted by a large delegation that included Crown Prince Mohammed and his younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Newspaper reports say that before returning to Saudi Arabia, Prince Ahmad received assurances from the British government that he would not be danger.

Analysts suggest that his return is a sign that the country’s rulers “may be open to the more consensus-driven form of leadership that for decades characterized the royal family”.

Not much is likely to change in the immediate future: the identified scapegoats will be punished and the crown prince protected. The crown prince remains in firm control of the levers of power and there is no credible challenge to his authority. Even though several sections of the royal family dislike him and want a change, it is unlikely that the king, having backed him so strongly over three years, will remove him.
Again, as of now, the kingdom’s ties with the US remain firm: Trump has indicated no inclination to abandon his royal ally. Given the deep dependence of the US on Saudi Arabia for the successful realisation of its interests in the region, it is unlikely that this will change, at least during the Trump presidency.

CENTCOM general, Joseph Votel said on 29 October that military relations between Washington and the kingdom are not changing, despite the outcry over the Khashoggi murder; he said: “There’s no change with any military relationship we have with Saudi Arabia. From the military perspective, I characterize the relationship as strong, deep, and I think a beneficial one for us. They have been a – they’re an extraordinarily important security partner in the region.”

The longer-term scenario is more uncertain. The crown prince’s image has been tarnished and it is unlikely that it will recover its earlier sheen reflecting moderation and genuine commitment to religious, social and cultural reform. He will seek to compensate for this with a high-profile pursuit of economic change, largely through big-ticket projects to attract the US and western corporate sectors.

It is not clear this will work: companies may be reluctant to invest in a country whose long-term prospects are cloudy, particularly given the uncertainties surrounding oil prices and the ability of the kingdom to finance expensive projects. The failure of the country to see through the Aramco IPO, the proceeds of which were meant to fund the prince’s Vision-2030 programme has also created doubts about the viability of the ambitious proposals emanating from Riyadh.

The outlook relating to the royal family is also unclear. Much of the crown prince’s power is based on the unstinted backing given to him by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Given the deep-seated animosities the prince has generated in large sections of the royal family through his peremptory and harsh actions, it is doubtful that he can now command the same loyalty and wield the same authority within the family that he enjoyed earlier.

It is not possible to foresee the shape of the post-Salman scenario. We have two precedents of royal change: the abdication of King Saud and the assassination of King Faisal. Neither provides much guidance for the future: the first was engineered by a coterie of senior princes working together in support of a consensual successor (then crown prince Faisal), while the latter took place within the royal palace and was perpetrated by a prince representing a disgruntled branch of the family.

To avoid either of these situations, the crown prince has attempted to broaden his support base within the royal family by reaching out to younger princes and even giving senior positions to princes whose parent or uncle he has deeply offended.

But, can the young prince rule for the next few years, and possibly decades, in mortal fear of threats from diverse sources, given that his family and people have seen the impulsiveness, extreme conduct and the violence he is capable of in the face of even the most modest of challenges to his authority? This aspect of the royal family’s functioning will continue to attract attention of diplomats and commentators in coming months.

Regional implications: The Khashoggi murder has created reverberations in the regional scenario as well. Turkey has seized the opportunity to revamp traditional relationships, reverse the regional security scenario and shape a new role for itself in West Asia, facilitated by the estrangement between the US and the desert kingdom.

Turkey has been deeply concerned over US support to the Syrian Kurds in the consolidation of their ‘homeland’ along the Turkey-Syria border in northeast Syria. Though a NATO member, Turkey in response has built up political and military ties with Russia by joining Russia and Iran in the Astana peace process and ordering the S-400 missile system from Russia.

With Saudi Arabia increasingly discredited as a US partner in West Asia, Turkey will seek to promote itself as a viable substitute. The US could welcome this opportunity to detach Turkey from its Astana allies and re-affirm ties with Turkey as its ally in the region, possibly by accepting a long-term Turkish presence in northern Syria as a counter to Iranian influence. (Turkey on the other hand will be primarily interested in restraining Kurdish aspirations for their homeland.)

But, uncertainties remain. Turkey is not likely to view its interests in West Asia in zero-sum terms: as a legatee of the Ottoman Empire, it will view itself as the principal political presence and influence in the region, engaging with the US, Russia and Iran as the central role-player in shaping the region’s politics. It remains to be seen to what extent these assertions will be acceptable to other players.

Turkey’s interests are not likely to be confined to the political: the other area where Erdogan will challenge Saudi Arabia is in relation to political Islam. Both during and after the Cold War, Saudi alliance with the US ensured the primacy of its brand of Islamism, while the activist Brotherhood had to endure execution, incarceration and exile for its members in authoritarian Arab states, culminating in the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013.

The Khashoggi murder could discredit Saudi Arabia not only as a strategic role-player in the region but also as a doctrinal model in political Islam. As Graham Fuller has pointed out, with all its flaws, Turkey “represents a modern, rational, institutionalised state still functioning within a democratic order”, while Saudi Arabia reflects a “sterile and arthritic culture” that hardly meets the aspirations of modern times.
Iran, as an Islamic republic, is also shaped by contemporary political values and institutions, that, however flawed, also provide for checks and balances and changes of government through electoral processes. Qatar, avowedly a Wahhabi state, projects a free and open society, while backing the political model of the Brotherhood. This has earned it the odium of the Saudi crown prince so that it has had to endure a blockade over the last year. Saudi hostility has brought Turkey, Iran and Qatar together into a solid affiliation, facilitated by their shared support for activist political Islam.

Thus, what the Khashoggi murder has possibly facilitated is the shift of regional influence from Riyadh to Ankara and the shift from the centrality of the sectarian divide in regional alignments framed by Saudi Arabia to a robust competition within Sunni Islam – the activist Brotherhood versus the paternalistic Wahhabiyya of the kingdom. These competitions will define West Asian politics in coming years.

2. Yemen:One immediate fallout of the Khashoggi murder has been the encouragement it has given to US officials and legislators to seek an end to the war in Yemen. The last few weeks have seen new reports on civilian atrocities and growing support for a House of Representatives resolution invoking the War Powers Act to stop the war. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) now has 73 co-sponsors for a resolution that would stop US participation in the Yemen conflict.

Possibly in response to the Khashoggi scandal, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington on 30 October, said the US had been watching the conflict "for long enough". "We have got to move towards a peace effort here, and we can't say we are going to do it sometime in the future. We need to be doing this in the next 30 days," he said. Mr Mattis added that all sides were being urged to meet UN special envoy Martin Griffiths in Sweden in November and "come to a solution".

In a separate statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Houthis to end missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and on the coalition to subsequently cease air strikes on all populated areas in Yemen. "It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction," he added.
Most of the mainstream media say some 10,000 Yemenis have died in the war, but that figure comes from a two-year-old UN estimate. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a research institution funded in part by the US State Department, indicates that from 2016 to the present, some 56,000 Yemeni civilians and combatants have died. The total since the beginning of the war will likely be 70-80,000, according to an ACLED spokesperson.

3. Iran sanctions:Throughout October, the media was awash with discussion relating to the implications of the reinstatement of sanctions on the export of Iranian oil and restrictions on its banking and shipping sectors from 5 November. On 2 November, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told reporters that eight countries, including India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan and Italy, would enjoy a waiver from the sanctions for a limited period. Pompeo said two of these countries would have to bring their imports of Iranian oil to “zero” in six months’ time, while others would import at “greatly reduced levels”. Pompeo said these eight countries had been given a temporary respite since they had “demonstrated significant reductions” in their crude imports from Iran and “cooperation on many other fronts”.

After statements by Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announcing the commencement of sanctions from Monday, 5 November, Trump said that the US was “open to reaching a new, more comprehensive deal” with Iran, but till then “our historic sanctions will remain in full force”.

In the face of US intimidation, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an article in the Financial Times, criticised the US administration’s “policies of unilateralism, racial discrimination, Islamophobia, and the undermining of important international treaties, including the Paris Climate Accord” which he noted “are fundamentally incompatible with multilateralism and other socio-political norms valued by Europe”.
Referring to the nuclear agreement he said: “This agreement enjoys the approval of the overwhelming majority of the international community and, as part and parcel of international law, imposes certain obligations on all the members of the UN.” Rouhani commended the multilateralist approach to addressing global issues and said that “Europe’s tradition of multilateralism positions it well to play an important role in reinforcing peace and stability, in line with its identity and interests”. He concluded: “Cooperation between Iran and Europe will secure the long-term interests of both parties and ensure international peace and stability.”

4. Netanyahu visits Muscat:Sultan Qaboos Al-Said of Oman hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat on 25-26 October. According to observers, the preparations for Netanyahu’s visit most likely began last February when Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem where he emphasised the need to establish a Palestinian state.

Following Netanyahu’s visit, Foreign Minister Alawi stressed that Oman does not seek to “mediate” between Israel and Palestine but wishes to bring the parties together. He added: “Our major role in the peace process between Israel and Palestine complies with the US administration. Establishing a Palestinian state is a strategic necessity and without it there will be no stability in the region.”

Saudi commentator Abdulrehman Al Rashed welcomed the visit, noting that Israel was a major player in the region against Iran. He speculated that the main discussions in Muscat might have been about the Iran-Israel file “given that Oman is trusted by both sides as an honest broker”. Al Rashed noted that Israeli air interventions in Syria had curbed Iran’s role in the country; he then wondered: “Is Iran increasing understanding with Israel and reassuring it through intermediaries, or is it Israel that wants to deliver its messages to Tehran, given that Israel influences American decision-making and policies that are steadfast on boycotting the Iranian regime and choking it economically?”

The New York Times said that the visit to Oman came against the background of reports that the Trump administration may soon present its plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. An Israeli official told NYT he did not rule out the possibility that Oman could become a secret channel for Israel not just with Iran but also with Syria.

The last visit of an Israeli leader to Oman took place when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin travelled to Muscat in 1994 and acting prime minister Shimon Peres hosted the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yousef bin Alawi in Jerusalem a year later. In 1996, the two countries agreed to establish reciprocal trade representative offices, with Peres formally opening the one in Muscat.
Although Oman closed the office after the second Palestinian intifada broke out in 2000, it continued allowing Israeli representatives to stay in the country. The two countries maintain low-level ties through the “Middle East Research and Desalination Centre”, a Muscat-based organization dedicated to bringing together Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab scientists to cooperate on water security.

5. Syria: Respite for Idlib: On 15 October, Russia and Turkey agreed to give more time for the implementation of their agreement at Sochi last month to clear a buffer zone in Idlib province of extremist fighters and all heavy weaponry. The original deadline was October 15, but the extension has brought welcome relief to the three million people trapped in Idlib.

While the Sochi agreement deferred military action, its implementation has so far only been marginally successful: It appears that just about 1,000 militants have left the buffer zone and 100 pieces of military equipment have been cleared. These were modest achievements, given that the province has nearly 100,000 opposition militants with heavy artillery.

Idlib is the last opposition-held territory in Syria. Its recapture will ensure the unchallenged position of the Bashar Assad regime and the integrity of the country, matters of priority concern for Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. But, while Turkey is working with Russia and Iran as part of the Astana peace process, it has not shown the same commitment to Assad’s continuity or to Syria’s national unity.
Turkish prioritizes disrupting the territorial consolidation of the Syrian Kurds at its border east of the Euphrates, which has been facilitated by American support through the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurdish-controlled territory stretches from Manjib, just west of the Euphrates, up to the Iraq border, and has a 600-km border with Turkey in the north. This covers 30 percent of Syrian territory and is viewed as a security threat by Turkey.

To counter the SDF, in May this year Turkey set up the National Liberation Front (NLF) — made up of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and Turkmen and other opposition groups — for the protection of its interests in northern Syria. About 60,000 NLF fighters are in Idlib. Turkey pushed hard for the Sochi agreement with Russia to ensure that the NLF would remain a viable fighting force to consolidate Turkey’s own territorial presence in northern Syria and, in time, confront the Kurds across the Euphrates.

Beyond the SDF-NLF binary, the situation in Idlib has further complicated the situation in northern Syria. The most powerful militant group in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which has the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra at its centre. HTS, with 15,000 heavily armed fighters, is said to control about two-thirds of the province.

It appears that, in early September, Turkish officials engineered a split in the HTS, separating a moderate faction backing Sochi from other more extremist elements, who have vowed to fight until their doctrinal agenda has been achieved. The moderate section of HTS is said to be currently working with Turkey to firm up its interests in Idlib, even as the NLF stands poised to confront the HTS, if necessary. This fight has been postponed until the Kurdish question has been addressed to Turkey’s satisfaction.

The extremists from HTS are now represented by Hurras Al-Deen (Guardians of the Faith), formed by 11 pro-Al-Qaeda groups. It is associated with four other extremist groups and has set up a shared war room with them. From Octobdr 13, they began attacking government forces.

Turkey has the highest stakes in making Sochi work and could use this opportunity to co-opt the HTS to consolidate its position in Idlib and to prepare for the attack on the Kurds. This could perhaps be avoided if the Americans were to abandon the Kurds and instead realign with Turkey to serve their long-term interests in Syria and the Middle East in general by accepting a permanent Turkish military presence in northern Syria.

That this is not a pipedream was confirmed by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who recently referred to Turkey “occupying the northern part of Cyprus since 1974 amidst total international silence,” and noting that “nothing prevents it from staying” on in Idlib. American officials have also confirmed that the principal facet of their interest in Syria is not the fight against extremists but the removal of Iran and its allies, and that US forces would remain in Syria until this is achieved.

However, Turkey-US ties are likely to remain cool and distant. The US on its part will make every effort to re-align with Turkey but without giving up its ties with the Kurds. This was re-affirmed in public remarks by Pompeo in Washington on 10 October when he described the Kurds as “great partners” and that the US will “make sure that they have a seat at the table”.
In response, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticised the US for “illegally trying to create a quasi-state in eastern Syria”, reflecting Russian concerns about a long-term US presence in Syria. Turkey welcomed the Russian remarks and began shelling Kurdish positions east of the Euphrates, described this as “a friendly message” to the US. Erdogan has also made tough remarks to the US, and, as a “final warning”, vowing to send Turkish troops across the Euphrates to destroy the Kurdish homeland. The US response to this direct confrontation with its NATO ally is not clear.

The Istanbul Summit: On 27 October, the leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany met in Istanbul to discuss Syria. This meeting brought together selected members of the two groups that are separately involved with Syria: the countries of the Astana Process, ie, Russia, Turkey and Iran, and the members of the “small group” which includes France, Germany, the UK, the US and Saudi Arabia. This was the first joint meeting of the two groups and was preceded by extensive bilateral intra-group and cross-group consultations.

Two documents emerged from this three-hour meeting: a press statement and a joint communique. Both documents affirmed the participants’ commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and the resolution of disputes through political and diplomatic means.

There seem to be some differences relating military operations at Idlib: French President Macron opposed any military action on the ground that it would create thousands of refugees, many of whom might knock on the doors of European countries. Putin has on his part described the Sochi agreement on Idlib as “temporary” and has kept open the military option if the terrorists are not flushed out by Turkey. However, commentators believe that Russia is not likely to alienate Erdogan at this delicate point in regional affairs and will postpone military action to the maximum extent possible.


November 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.