Usually, when people talk about Saudi Arabia and its hegemonic policies, we tend to relate to the well-known rivalry between the monarchy and Iran, two capillary actors in the Middle East, who compete for the leadership in the region. Continue reading “PROJECTING POWER: THE SAUDI DESIGNS ON AFRICA” »
On Tuesday 8th January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opens his tour in the Middle East visiting Jordan. The tour originally scheduled nine stops, including Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. However, due to family reasons, Pompeo had to cancel the final leg in Kuwait.
This tour comes at a time when the US is changing his policy toward Middle Eastern issues and his allies are questioning the new approach.
After the President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the nuclear deal signed with Iran and other Western countries during Obama’s administration, on 19th December the US President announced with a video on Twitter that he was pulling US forces out of Syria “now”.
Pompeo’s tour in the Arab countries can, therefore, be seen as an opportunity and means to clarify US position regarding Syria but also more broadly to define US policy in the Middle East.
Here the main points on the table.
– US withdrawal from Syria does not mean that the US is withdrawing from the fight against the Islamic State, which is still a top priority for the White House. US partnership with the Arab countries, indeed, is essential to achieve some shared objectives in the region: defeating Daesh, countering Islamic terrorism, protecting global energy resources and countering Iran’s aggressive behaviour.
– Unity among the GCC(Gulf Cooperation Council) is vital to achieving security and stability in the region. As Pompeo stressed, the internal dispute among the Gulf monarchies has gone far too long. Since June 2017, indeed, the Arab Quartet (UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) cut the diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the country of funding terrorist groups and fostering instability in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, this situation hampers the efforts of the GCC to achieve common goals in the region. The GCC is a capillary institution in the Middle East: hence, its internal cohesion is an essential factor for the stability, prosperity, security and peace in the area.
– The US strongly promotes the institution of a Middle East Strategic Alliance, also nicknamed Arab NATO. This organisation would join the GCC militaries with the militaries of other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan. This alliance would mainly counter Iran’s aggressive behaviour and protect the stability and security of the Arab countries.
– US-Saudi relation is crucial for the stability in the region. In the Khashoggi issue –not clear if and how much Pompeo and the Saudi leader discussed it- President Trump stood by Saudi Arabia and this event –though clarification is still needed- has no hampered the relationship between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is a key actor in the anti-Iranian coalition. Moreover, the value of the arms purchases from Saudi Arabia is still a relevant fact for the US to consider.
– Last but not least, Pompeo reiterates the need for peace in Yemen and call to boost effort in order to stop the bloody civil war that has been devastating the country for more than 3 years.
Trump administration approach in the Middle East has clearly moved away from Obama’s path in the past years, with the president not even trying to hide the criticism toward his predecessor. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly blamed Obama’s administration for his approach in the region, accusing of underestimating threats such as Daesh or Hezbollah.
In the past few months, Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and announced the imminent withdrawal from Syria; however, this does not mean a less presence or US interest in the regional issues, but it is a signal of a different posture. If Obama opted for engagement rather than confrontation with a country like Iran, Trump is taking the opposite path.
Note to mention that Iran, however, is not the kind of player that stays still and watches. By contrast, Teheran is strengthening its position in the region, supporting groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Moreover, it can count on some strategic allies, such as Syria, Russia and Turkey.
The risk is that the US might get engaged in a more complex and dangerous conflict that it could seem at first glance. Moreover, thought the US is working to align the Arab countries on the same path and join the effort toward the same goal -stability and security- there is still an important factor to consider. The Middle East is still sharply fragmented -ethnic division, religious schism, political rivalry, etc- and those countries that do not follow the US ideal of Middle East Strategic Alliance , like Iran, Syria, even Turkey or Yemen, play a peculiar role in the game, as their actions or the developments in their territories may considerably affect Washington’s project.
Hence, eyes on Trump and the Arab countries, as the withdrawal from Syria might not be the last twist of Trump’s policy in the Middle East. Moreover, the White House’s decisions may also trigger unexpected reactions of other players, as could be yesterday’s suicide bombing in Syria, the first one after Trump’s announcement, easy to relate to latest developments.
On 15th April the 29th edition of the Arab League Summit ended. The meeting, held in Dharan (Saudi Arabia), has gathered the 21 active members of the Arab League and some key personalities of the International arena, such as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, the chairman African Union Commission Moussa Faki and the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres. The only missing member was Syria, suspended by the League in November 2011, when protests arose in the country and the regime reacted with violence over civilians.
Most of the countries were represented by heads of State or Government; Qatar, instead, sent his representative to the Arab League. The rest of the Arab community did not take the decision so well. As we know, the relationships between the Gulf monarchy and several Arab and Middle Eastern nations have sharply deteriorated in the past few months, thus causing a diplomatic crisis among neighbours. In particular, on 5th June, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke their diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting extremist and terrorist groups. Anyways, the Gulf nation received the invitation to the summit, also being ensured that the diplomatic crisis would not have been a topic on the summit’s agenda. Therefore, the absence of the Emir of Qatar has been seen as a sign of arrogance, thus fuelling the already tense relations.
The meeting focused on the topics on the agenda, showing alignment among leaders on major and essential issues related to the balance of power in the region but also to the relations among the Arab community and other external actors.
Three main topics on the table: the Arab-Israeli dispute, the war in Yemen and the dangerous influence of Iran. Not on the list, instead, neither the diplomatic crisis with Qatar nor the war in Syria. However, in a statement published by the Arab League after the summit, the League called for “independent International investigation to guarantee the application of the International law against anyone proven to have used chemical weapons”. To be noted that the summit started 24 hours after the US, UK and France launched air strikes on Syrian military installations in response to a chemical attack on rebels in Eastern Ghouta. Both Syria and Russia denied the action.
PALESTINE AND ISRAEL
Lights on Palestine and Israel. The Arab community showed an interesting position. On one hand, the countries have unanimously condemned president Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus officially recognising the latter as the capital of Israel. The US has traditionally played the role of mediator in the dispute between Palestine and Israel; hence, such a decision was seen by the Arab leaders as a significant shift from a neutral position, to the one of a direct stakeholder. Given the volatile situation in the Middle East, this move is not only relevant but potentially dangerous. King Salman -who named the meeting “Jerusalem Summit” to stress the solidarity of Arab countries towards the Palestinian people- reaffirmed during the day that Arab leaders recognise the right of Palestinians to establish their own independent nation, with Jerusalem as the capital. According to them, East Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinian territory. Moreover, King Salman announced the donation of $ 150 million to the religious administration that runs the Islamic religious sites in Jerusalem, such as the Al-Aqsa mosque and other $50 million to the programmes conducted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
On the other hand, the Arab leaders- all but the Palestinian president Abbas- supported the peace plan presented by Trump. Although the details of this plane have not been notified yet, it is likely that it would be printed on a two-state solution.
WAR IN YEMEN
Another hot topic was the war in Yemen. After three years, this civil conflict is still on and involves several nations, both Arab and foreign ones, such as the US and Russia, both on a military level and a political one. The fight sets forces supporting the government of President Hadi, who, however, has lost control of several areas of the country against the Houthi rebels, who fight along with the former president Saleh and are militarily and financially supported by Iran. To complete the picture, we should add the Saudi-led military coalition, which involves also Western powers such as France and the UK, and Middle Eastern allies, as the United Arab Emirates. Once again, the Arab leaders reiterated their commitment to restore the unity, integrity, security, sovereignty and independence of Yemen. According to them, the Houthi bear the full responsibility for the situation and this assumption leads to the third main topic of the summit, that is Iran’s aggressive behaviour in foreign policy.
IRAN’S AGGRESSIVE POLICY
The summit was also an opportunity to condemn Iranian foreign policy, too often driven by an aggressive behaviour and persistent violation of the principles of the international law. First and foremost, Teheran’s support to the Houthis in Yemen, but also to President Assad in Syria. It seems clear that King Salman took the summit as a chance to align his Arab friends against his historic rival, Iran. To date, Iran is seen as the main cause of instability in the region, “guilty” as it is of using its military and financial resources to foster proxy wars in countries already devastated by a civil war, such as, indeed, Syria and Yemen. As already mentioned, the Iranian Shiite militias are fighting in Syria along with Assad’s regime, Shiite as well. Similarly, in Yemen, Iran’s military experience and weapons offer a valuable help to the Houthis, who have managed to take control of several areas of the country, included the capital Sana’a. The replay came almost immediately from Tehran. The spokesperson of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bahram Qasemi clearly stated that the accusation lifted during the summit was just the result of the pressure of Saudi Arabia, his main foe but also the host of the summit.
As we can see, the situation in the Middle East is still very tense. Though countries share some objectives and intentions, there are lots of hot topics still on the table but most of all there is no plan or clear “course of action” to achieve these aims. It is desirable that this unity of thoughts will soon turn into practical actions, which would lead –step by step- to improve the security and stability in the region.
TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya – U.S. forces said they had killed “two terrorists” in an air strike in southwestern Libya on Saturday as part of efforts to deny militants a safe haven in the country’s vast desert. The strike hit on the outskirts of the city of Ubari and was carried out in coordination with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the U.S. Africa Command said in a statement.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) said on Friday it would pull out its fighters from northwestern Iraq after Ankara has warned on several occasions it could launch an attack on the Yazidi-majority area. The KCK, considered the PKK’s political branch, said fighters who were deployed in Iraq’s Sinjar region to protect the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis from the brutality of ISIS would be withdrawn. “The conditions that were imposed by the August 3, 2014 events (the attack of ISIS) have gone,” it said. “With their goal achieved,” the KCK “are withdrawing from Sinjar,” it added.
On Wednesday, Mulla Bakhtiar, a senior leader at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said in statements that a series of secret meetings between officials in Baghdad and Erbil have been held to reach a solution of pending disputes. Talks in Baghdad between the central government and the Kurdistan Region government signed a “detente” in the crisis. Mulla Bakhtiar added in later statements on social media that the meetings have shown that “Baghdad is pretty prepared for dialogue, while the Kurdistan government is working on setting the suitable atmosphere to that end”. “Officially, there will be no clash between Iraqi forces and (Kurdish) Peshmerga troops” Bakhtiar stated, adding “The issue of land and air ports, as well as customs, are currently being handled thoroughly, and after those are resolved, an action plan will start to resolve the budget, payments and disputed territories’ issues”. Bakhtiar also urged the Kurdish government to hold a meeting with parliamentary blocs to agree on points of negotiations with Baghdad to ensure “an inclusive solution”.
In a statement on its website, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) expressed on Wednesday deep concern over violence in Iraqi Kurdistan region, saying “is deeply concerned about the violence and the reported casualties during demonstrations in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) in the last two days, and calls for restraint and calm on all sides”. It stressed that people have the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations, and the authorities in KRI have the responsibility of protecting their citizens, including peaceful protesters. KRI security forces also are urged to exercise maximum restraint dealing with the demonstrators. UNAMI also exhorted demonstrators to avoid any act of violence, including the destruction of public and private properties. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq urged the authorities to respect and protect the media, after NRT TV was ordered to suspend its broadcasts because of the content of its reporting on the demonstrations. “The Mission urges the media to abide by the law, while emphasizing the critical role of free and impartial media in any democratic society”, the statement concluded. Several media reported that Kurdish forces have launched a wide-scale arrest campaign in Sulaymaniyah to silence demonstrators, who have protested since Monday because of delayed salary payments and poor services.
In a post on his official Twitter account, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif highlighted Washington’s complicity in war crimes committed in Yemen against Yemeni people, saying that since the beginning of the war, “the US has sold weapons enabling its allies to kill civilians and impose famine”. Zarif made the remarks in response to US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who claimed that the Islamic Republic has supplied Yemen with ballistic missiles. In fact, on Thursday, during her press conference, Haley appeared standing before parts of a ballistic missile that she claimed Iran delivered to Houthis in Yemen, who then fired it at the Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia last month. Also Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gholam Ali Khoshroo in a statement issued on Thursday rejected Haley’s claim as “baseless” and said the accusations are aimed at covering up the Saudi war crimes in Yemen with the US complicity. Yemen’s defenseless people have been under massive attacks by coalition led by the Saud regime attacked for nearly three years, but Riyadh has reached none of its objectives in Yemen so far. Over 14,000 Yemenis, including thousands of women and children, have lost their lives in the deadly military campaign.
On Wednesday, Iraqi Planning Minister Salman al-Jumaili signed with European Union representatives an agreement for EU funding of reconstruction and demining projects worth 60 million of euros as international donors continue efforts to address the dilemma of millions displaced by the war against the Islamic State. In a press conference following the signature of the deal he said that the projects purpose is to restore stability and to repatriate civilians to areas recaptured from militants. In fact, Iraq is getting 50.4 million of euros for reviving economic activity, rehabilitating infrastructures and supporting small-sized enterprises at liberated areas and 10 million of euros will address explosives contamination at those areas. In a separate declaration, the UK embassy in Iraq announced that next year the UK will provide £30 million to help restore livelihoods, essential infrastructures and basic services in Iraq, including to support displaced communities to return safely to liberated areas. At least £20 million will also be provided in humanitarian aid “to help deliver urgent life-saving assistance like food, shelter and access to clean water”, as he said.
On Tuesday, speaking at a naval base in the northern port city of Anzali, Brigadier General Amir Hatami announced that Iran is ready and open for mutual defense and military cooperation with the countries of the region to guarantee peace and security. “Such (military) cooperation would continue as long as the security of the region and its people is preserved”, the minister added. The ceremony was held to bring into service the country’s newest homegrown missile-launching corvette, dubbed Separ (shield), in the Caspian Sea. Brigadier General Hatami described Separ as the symbol of self-reliance and determination and said that the locally-manufactured vessel would convey the Iranian Navy’s message of peace in the sea. Separ is 47 meters in length and around 4 meters in height, it can sail at a maximum speed of 35 knots and it is equipped with various locally-made advance weapons, including surface-to-surface missile systems, naval guns, and fire control radars capable of detecting fighter jets and cruise missiles.