Vladimir Putin’s return to power in Russia in 2012 signified a dramatic change in the country’s foreign policy and military strategy. Scrapping the achievements of the Dmitry Medvedev era in the Kremlin, which was characterised by a thaw in relations with the West, Putin opted for a more aggressive approach to positioning the country in the international arena. Experts still argue what prompted this review of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, but the developments that likely had a major impact on Putin’s policy planning in 2012 included the war with Georgia in 2008, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) infamous military campaign in Libya, which brought down Russia’s long-time ally Muammar Qaddafi.
Contours of the new policy approach to the region started emerging when Russia updated two of its key documents, the ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’ and the ‘Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This served as de facto justification for the Russian military campaign in Syria and the Concept became the first official document to elucidate the country’s ambition to play a bigger role in the MENA region. In the three years that divide the two concepts, Putin’s approach to foreign policy evolved and became increasingly securitised. (The word ‘terrorism’ features fifteen times in the 2013 Concept and thirty-five in the 2016 edition.) The Foreign Policy Concept also spells out the Russian president’s growing ambition to deal with instability at its origin, before it reaches Russian borders.
The rationale behind Russia’s re-emergence as a leading power in the Middle East was of a defensive nature and largely reactive. The uprisings in the region were a painful reminder of the Colour Revolutions that broke out across several post-Soviet states in the first half of the 2000s, and, according to the Kremlin, led to the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine. Putin himself believes that the MENA uprisings were a continuation of those Colour Revolutions and that both were foreign-instigated. A wave of revolutions across Eurasia convinced the Russian leadership that the possible domino effect of regime change would eventually target Russia. It is not coincidental that the Russian president likens Colour Revolutions and the MENA uprisings, and often makes no distinction between them. Commenting on anti-corruption protests in Russia in March 2017, he went as far as to call them ‘an instrument of the Arab Spring’.
A gradual withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East under Barack Obama meant that the region’s ‘policeman’ was no longer interested in maintaining order there, which arguably presented Moscow with numerous security challenges. Russia’s re-emergence in the Middle East happened, to a large extent, to fill some of the void left by the retreating Obama. In some cases it was effortless, such as in Egypt, where the US decision to cut aid to Cairo in 2013 led to the emergence of a budding Russia-Egypt alliance. In other contexts, most prominently in Syria, Russia had to invest significant diplomatic and military resources to marginalise the USA in the war and the peace process. What started out as an attempt to replace the USA where it was no longer interested in playing a leading role transformed into an ambition to challenge the USA even where it had no intention of retreating, for instance, in the Gulf region.
Russia’s return to the Middle East differs from the Soviet experience. Today, Moscow is extending its reach without the baggage of Soviet ideology. The idea of using its arms exports to the Middle East in the ideological struggle against the West evaporated when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated and was replaced with the idea of making a profit for the cash-strapped budget. The Kremlin hopes to support its geopolitical claims with a strong pragmatic dimension.
In the Middle East, Moscow seeks to reinforce its influence there as well as offset the burden upon the Russian federal budget associated with the expenses of the Syrian campaign. Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, Russia has used arms deals to reach out to Cold War-era allies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria to consolidate a new power balance. During the Cold War, Wynfred Joshua and Stephen P. Gilbert wrote that as more countries became recipients of Soviet military aid programmes, there was a tendency for them to become greater political allies of the Soviet Union.
With Putin declaring victory over the Islamic State group (IS) during his December 2017 visit to Syria, Russia is faced with numerous opportunities and challenges. Its military operation in Syria may have put Russia back on the radar in the Middle East, and has solidified its position in the region. As Putin eyed re-election as president early March 2018, foreign policy achievements, chiefly in the MENA region, figured prominently in his election rhetoric.
An effect of Russia’s assertive foreign policy has become an expectation from regional partners and opponents alike that Moscow will be active in the Middle East. However, the hard power that brought Russia to prominence in the region will not be helpful to support long-term influence there, and could, in fact, produce a negative impact for Russia’s international standing. As a result, during his next term in office, Putin will be faced with a challenge to depart from hard power, his preferred modus operandi, to embrace a spectrum of other tools that will help make Russia’s presence in the region lasting and sustainable.
From Status Quo disruptor to Status Quo creator
New Military Positioning
In the next few years, due to Russia’s gains in Syria, Moscow will be recalibrating its military position in the wider region. The most significant of its gains has to do with the establishment of permanent military bases in Syria. In December 2017, the Russian parliament approved the agreements with the Syrian government leasing the Tartus and Hmeymim bases to Russia for forty-nine years with an automatic twenty-five-year extension.
The establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria fits with Russia’s strategy to acquire air and naval supremacy in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, and signals the restoration of the Soviet strategy toward the region. From 1967 until the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet 5th Squadron operated in the Mediterranean, despite Moscow having no permanent bases in the region. In 2013, the Russian president made a decision to revive a perpetual naval presence there and ordered the establishment of the Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) within the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia has developed what some analysts call an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Mediterranean. Along with the deployment of the S-400 air-defence system to Syria in November 2015 (and to Crimea, in August 2016), the Russian naval group in the eastern Mediterranean is equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles, which create an added advantage against a potential enemy. given its security problems, which affect the whole international community.
Russia is increasing its military cooperation with Cairo, a partner with which Moscow had a strong partnership under Gamal Abdel Nasser and now with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Military-technical cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. More importantly, this cooperation now extends to annual joint naval drills as Russia looks for additional access to Egypt’s military infrastructure. Moreover, in order to simultaneously boost its Libya portfolio, Russia reportedly boosted the frequency of its use of Egyptian facilities at the border with Libya, including the port of Marsa Matrouh and the base at Sidi Barrani, once used by the Soviet Union. Moscow may now wish to revive, and even expand, this type of relationship.
At the same time, Russia has been increasingly looking at warm-water ports in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the 2000s. Moscow has significantly stepped up diplomatic engagement with each of these states over the past twenty years since the Soviet collapse. Moreover, in 2006, the two governments signed Algeria’s largest post-Cold War arms deal, amounting to $7.5 billion. Moreover, the two countries signed an agreement on counter terrorism cooperation in 2016, and have held two rounds of consultations on stepping up joint countering of violent extremism in North Africa and setting up regular exchanges of intelligence on extremist groups. The issue of Western Sahara is the kind of political leverage that Russia could use in order to position itself as a go-to mediator for Morocco.
Military presence in the Mediterranean may be only the first step in Moscow’s ambitious naval expansion. With the MTF deployed to the Mediterranean in 2013, Russia also started demonstrating a keen interest in the Red Sea, sending its warships there for drills as well as to project power. It is yet to be seen how Russia feels about setting up such a base so soon after acquiring a permanent military foothold in the Mediterranean. But proposals like this are indicative of how local powers perceive Russia’s growing role in the region.
It is in Russia’s long-term interest to continue expanding its military capabilities in the Mediterranean to support existing bases in Syria, linking its northern and Black Sea fleets’ operations in the Atlantic, as well as to obtain more leverage against NATO. Given failed Soviet attempts to set up a military presence in Egypt and Libya, Russia may finally revisit this idea.
Channelling growing military clout toward political sustainability
The key challenges facing Russia in the next few years concern how to convert gains made in Syria into sustainable political influence in the wider region. Military power projected by Moscow in the Syrian conflict and, by extension, its political clout, have allowed it to be recognised as a leading external power in the Middle East. Once the fighting dies down, however, Moscow will have a hard time maintaining its relevance in the region at the same level.
Without ways to project political power in the Middle East, Russian military forces there will be irrelevant. The bottom line is that hard power is a crisis management tool but not an agenda setting one. Moscow’s military clout in the region has reached the level at which it guarantees Russia presence in the Middle East, but it does not guarantee long-term political influence.
For Russia to replace the United States as the guarantor of security in the Middle East, it needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to the region. But if Putin looks to preserve his country’s influence in the region, he will need to come up with ways to engage partners that would convince them of Russia’s resolve. With the Middle East not being the most strategically important region to Moscow, Putin will need to decide exactly how much influence he actually wants to project in the region. Maintaining the image of a great power in the Middle East will require Russia to invest diplomatically and financially in the resolution of other crises, such as the Libyan war and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, these investments will chiefly concern maintaining stability in the region and will not yield fast returns.
Finally, Russia will need to set a long-term agenda for the Middle East. Moscow’s Middle East strategy has thus far been characterised by short-termism, with its actions being largely reactive and most decisions ad hoc. This was evidenced by the fact that Russia’s bid on Iran’s ground forces as the main fighting force in Syria later led to multiple attempts by Tehran to hijack international agreements on the ground and undermine Moscow’s mediation attempts. According to him, the mechanism should include the Arab countries as well as Turkey, Iran and Israel. The collective security system must consist of three tracks or ‘baskets’: security, economy and humanitarian cooperation. Disarmament in the Middle East should become a starting point for the discussion on a regional security system. The first steps in this direction could be the creation of demilitarised zones, the prohibition of destabilising accumulations of conventional weapons (including anti-missile weapons), and a balanced reduction of armed forces by the main military powers in the region and neighbouring countries.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015, when he announced the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria, Putin proposed creating a global anti-IS coalition ‘similar to the anti-Hitler’ alliance. The proposal, which he has voiced several times in the course of the Russian operation in Syria, pointedly feeds into the idea of creating a regional security system. The viability of a regional anti-IS alliance was demonstrated when Turkey, Iran and Russia partnered to implement de-escalation zones in Syria. Egypt and Jordan played a distinct role in the negotiation process on the creation of de-escalation zones and their implementation, and Putin may try to institutionalise what looks a lot like a regional anti-extremist alliance. An anti-terrorist alliance that could later transform into a collective security system seems to be one of the few areas in which Russia is willing to commit resources, based both on Russia’s domestic security concerns and its foreign policy calculations.
Old and New Partners
With Russia’s military position gradually readjusting as a result of the Syrian conflict, its partnerships night also eventually undergo a broader rethink. Russia will need to find a way to reach out to Sunni Arab powers and win their trust, which was undermined by Russia’s perceived alliance with the Shi'a in the Syrian conflict. According to Pew Research, as of mid-2017, only 28 per cent of people in the Middle East expressed confidence in Russia and Putin’s foreign policy, and only 35 per cent had a favourable view of Russia. The process of reconstruction in Syria also means that Russia and Iran will have to shoulder a heavy financial burden if they want to continue to play a leading political role in the country; neither, however, is capable of doing that. Consequently, Russia has asked world powers, to chip in, which will require a significant draw-down in Iran’s political role in Syria.
While Russia’s relationship with Iran is set to become rockier, there is no guarantee that Moscow’s ties with Sunni powers, specifically Saudi Arabia, will transform into a real partnership. The visit of the Saudi king, Salman, to Moscow in October 2017 may have indicated a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, but it was largely prompted by the Saudi domestic dynamic rather than a genuine desire to reach out to Moscow. The biggest achievement that Moscow and Riyadh can boast about is that they managed to compartmentalise their relations, as demonstrated by the oil deal reached by Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in November 2016, despite the ongoing Syria crisis.
Dichotomy Between Stability and Managed Democracy
Experts who had argued that authoritarianism in the Middle East would maintain stability and keep extremism at bay were proven wrong by the events of the Arab uprisings.
In Turkey, the July 2016 attempted coup was used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an excuse to crack down not only on suspected plotters, but also on wider circles critical of the government’s policies. Western powers rebuked Erdoğan over his suspension of the rule of law and mass detentions – but Russia pointedly did not. Putin was the one world leader who called Erdoğan to tell him Moscow supported his campaign to root out dissent, which the Turkish president described as ‘anti-constitutional’. All this occurred just weeks after Erdoğan’s late June apology to Russia for the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 jet over Syria, and it shows how masterfully Putin uses authoritarian movements to his own political benefit.
Egypt is experiencing a similar wave of authoritarianism, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi cracking down on dissent that is not necessarily associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. That government campaign is happening against the backdrop of economic instability, currency devaluation and increased poverty rates. However, the army’s grip on power and full control over the public sphere give a semblance of stability. Sisi’s fight to eradicate extremism in the Sinai and his crackdown on dissent find support in Moscow, as reflected in official statements from the Kremlin. Egypt reemerged as Russia’s key partner in the Middle East, including in crucial spheres of military-technical cooperation. The two countries signed a protocol on military cooperation in March 2015, significantly ramped up joint military exercises, and are looking to green light an agreement that would allow Russian military aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and infrastructure.
A combination of factors bolstered Russia’s commitment to intervention in Syria. First, geopolitically, the fall of Asad would mean humiliation for Russia, his main global ally, and would deprive Moscow of a springboard to the rest of the Middle East. Second, from a pragmatic standpoint, Syria’s proximity to Russia, coupled with its becoming a training camp for jihadists from the former Soviet Union, meant that the civil war there was becoming a national security issue for Moscow. Hence, Putin undertook this risky affair albeit with no guaranteed outcome.
Syria, however, gives one a skewed idea as to how Russia’s strategy toward the region may look in the future. The military campaign in Syria cost Russia $484 million, according to Putin, These costs have been offset by returns on arms contracts and the existing budget for drills. This sum is manageable for the federal budget, even despite low oil prices. Russia’s defence spending has been continuously growing from 2010; its share in the GDP increased from 3.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent in 2016. Syria was the reason that the Ministry of Defense managed to secure a larger budget until 2016, but it is also the reason that Moscow now looks for ways to cut the overinflated defence expenses. This indicates that the Syria operation is an exceptional affair that Russia is unlikely to repeat elsewhere in the Middle East due to geopolitical risks as well as financial costs that are already too high.
With the focus previously exclusively on Syria, the Russian foreign policy agenda toward the Middle East appears highly securitised. Meanwhile, the military and intelligence circles took charge over policy making towards the region. Despite a wide range of goals that Moscow pursues in Syria, the distinct focus on security issues stoked fears over Russia seeking a military foothold in the Middle East by US officials.
While Syria is a special case, Libya might provide more insight into how Russia will position itself vis-à-vis conflicts in the Middle East in the future. Following the fall of its partner Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Moscow did not show much interest in the Libyan conflict, essentially leaving it to NATO to deal with. At the same time, Libya was a convenient case to revert to in order to lambaste the West each time Russia felt its interests in the Middle East were ignored.
Russia re-emerged on the Libya scene pronouncing no specific agenda and making incoherent statements about the desired endgame as the Libyan civil war erupted. In 2016, following Haftar’s visit to Moscow, the international community was convinced that the Kremlin was looking at Libya within the context of where it would continue to project military power once the conflict in Syria is over. The Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, publicly spoke of a possible delivery of Russian weapons to the government in Tobruq. Many experts predicted a Russian military operation in the country and looked for signs of a military build-up, but those predictions were repeatedly proven wrong.
This approach worked, and Russia became a go-to power for various parties to the Libyan conflict. Moscow hosted representatives of the Tripoli government as well as representatives from Misrata, the two major power centres in Libya. More importantly, Russia facilitated direct talks between Tripoli and the Touareg and Tobu tribes in November 2017, the first such talks between these parties, given the fact that the tribes had not sided with any party yet. This marks the emergence of a fundamentally new approach to conflict resolution in Russia. Hypothetically, Russian military aid and diplomatic support for Haftar could have resulted in the capture of Tripoli by his Libyan National Army, marking the end of the Libyan Political Agreement. Moscow, however, made a U-turn away from Haftar and opted for a more balanced position towards the settlement of the conflict, which helped it be recognised as a key power broker by all sides in this conflict.
The ‘strategic equidistance’’ approach that Russia adopted in Libya is something Putin might explore further in the future. There are numerous signs that Russia will attempt to become a referee and power broker in other contexts in the Middle East as well. One example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Russia did not issue harsh criticism of either the USA or Israel. The Russian Foreign Ministry limited its response to ‘serious concern’.
Russia’s relatively calm reaction to Trump’s move and Israel’s policies toward Palestine can be explained by Moscow’s growing ambition to play a bigger role in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia intensified its diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2016, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited both in an attempt to bridge their differences. Later, in January 2017, Russia hosted all major Palestinian political organisations, Saudi Arabia pursued a similar charm offensive, which culminated in King Salman’s visit to Russia.
As Syria gradually falls from the top of Russia’s political agenda in the Middle East over the next years, Moscow will look for new ways to stay relevant in the region. Russia’s permanent military bases in Syria have the potential to change the power balance in the Mediterranean. Moscow has created a heavily guarded perimeter in the eastern Mediterranean by deploying air defence capabilities to Syria, complementing its permanent naval force in those waters. Together, these deployments and growing capabilities will become a challenge for NATO as Moscow spreads its presence into the alliance’s naval underbelly in the Mediterranean. Russia is also expanding military cooperation with Egypt and the future government in Libya, and is expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea.
Politically, however, hard power will produce fewer benefits for Moscow, at higher costs, which is why the Russian government will need to discover new ways to remain relevant in the regional arena. Having used Syria to rebuild its image as a regional power, Russia is faced with the challenge of how to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of which is a true ally for Moscow. In order to forge stronger regional alliances, Putin might revisit the idea of a global anti-terrorist coalition, which feeds into the concept of a regional system of collective security widely discussed by Russian policymakers.
Trying to insert itself in regional politics in the post-Syria era, Russia is likely to rebrand its image in the Middle East and position itself as a regional referee in an attempt to offset the negative impact of the Syrian conflict for its image. Being a regional referee, however, does not necessarily translate into being a supporter of democracy. The legacy of the MENA uprisings and Russia’s own experience with democratic movements led Putin to believe that authoritarian stability may help the Middle East overcome its security problems. And Russia’s military campaign in Syria has further crystallised this notion for the Kremlin.
* Yuri Barmin is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, covering the Middle East and North Africa, and Moscow’s policy towards the region
 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved by the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on 30 November 2016. http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2542248.
In his widely acclaimed book All the Kremlin’s Men, Mikhail Zygar, an insider into the workings of Putin’s inner circle, argues that Putin absorbed the death of Qaddafi as a lesson: weakness and compromise were impermissible. ‘When he [Gaddafi] was a pariah, no one touched him,’ Zygar wrote. ‘But as soon as he opened up he was not only overthrown but killed in the street like a mangy old cur.’
 ‘Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly Speech’, Washington Post, 28 September 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/28/read-putins-u-n-general-assembly-speech/?utm_term=.c9837439bf3d.
 Nikolay Kozhanov, ‘Arms Exports Add to Russia’s Tools of Influence in Middle East’, Chatham House, 20 July 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/arms-exports-add-russia-s-tools-influence-middle-east#sthash.JYHR0jTz.dpuf.
 ‘Veliky Novgorod and Kolpino Submarines Fired the Kalibr Cruise Missiles from Submerged Position Against ISIS Critical Objects in Syria’, Russian Ministry of Defense, 14 September 2017, //eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12142271@egNews">http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12142271@egNews>.
 ‘Putin: Ships in the Mediterranean are not “saber-rattling”’, RIA, 6 June 2013, https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20130606/941878268.html.
 Tom Parfitt, ‘Gadafy offers Russia a naval base in Libya’, The Guardian, 1 November 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/01/libya-russia-gadafy-united-states.
 ‘Mansouria Mokhefi: “Algeria seeks to reaffirm the primacy of its relations with Russia”’, Jeune Afrique, 27 April 2016, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/321456/politique/mansouria-mokhefi-algerie-cherche-a-reaffirmer-primaute-de-relations-russie/.
 Malek Bachir, ‘Russia’s secret plan to back Haftar in Libya’, Middle East Eye, 20 January 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-russias-secret-plan-libya-2129027228.
 Habibulah Mohamed Lamin, ‘How Polisario Front hopes to partner with Russia in Western Sahara’, Al Monitor, 11 April 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/04/western-sahara-polisario-sell-russia-moscow-visit.html#ixzz55OoQalcn.
 ‘Bashir Discusses with Russia Setting up Military Base on Red Sea’, Asharq Al Awsat, 26 November 2017, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1095236/bashir-discusses-russia-setting-military-base-red-sea.
 Igor Ivanov, ‘Three Baskets for the Middle East’, Russian International Affairs Council, 1 February 2016, http://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/tri-korziny-dlya-blizhnego-vostoka/?sphrase_id=4717562.
 ‘Putin is Calling for the Creation of an Anti-ISIS Front’, Gazeta, 16 November 2015, https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2015/11/16_a_7895243.shtml.
 Anton Mardasov, ‘Russia re-examines relationship with Iran’, Al Monitor, 14 August 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-relationship-iran-syria-military-situation-moscow.html.
 ‘Saudi Arabia sets conditions to role in Syria reconstruction’, The Arab Weekly, 15 October 2017, http://www.thearabweekly.com/Gulf/9440/Saudi-Arabia-sets-conditions-to-role-in-Syria-reconstruction.
 World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch, 7, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/wr2017-web.pdf.
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 Anton Bayev, ‘A Year in Syria: How Much the Military Operation Cost Russia’, RBC, 30 September 2016, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/30/09/2016/57ebb7199a7947db5bb2b309#xtor=AL-%5Binternal_traffic%5D–%5Brss.rbc.ru%5D-%5Btop_stories_brief_news%5D.
 Alexander Sharkovskiy, ‘The Budget of the Defense Ministry Will be Cut by 100 billion’, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 19 December 2016.
 ‘West reaffirms support for Presidency Council “as the sole legitimate government of Libya”, says military must be under civilian control’, Libya Herald, 24 December 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/12/24/west-reaffirms-support-for-presidency-council-as-the-sole-legitimate-government-of-libya-says-military-must-be-under-civilian-control/.
 Maxim Suchkov, ‘Russia seeks well-rounded relations with Libyan factions’, Al Monitor, 15 December 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/12/russia-well-round-relations-libya-lev-dengov.html.
 ‘On a new procedure for obtaining short-term tourist visas to the State of Qatar for citizens of the Russian Federation’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 23 June 2017, http://www.mid.ru/ru/maps/qa/-/asset_publisher/629HIryvPTwo/content/id/2796326.
Israel began this year by announcing that African refugees (who are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea) faced imprisonment if they did not choose the controversial ‘voluntary departure package’ that the government was offering them before April. The package was part of an ultimatum to African migrants in Israel, allowing them two options: accept the $3 500 USD and leave to a ‘third country’ (said to be Rwanda or Uganda) or permanent incarceration in an Israeli jail. Rwanda and Uganda have denied agreeing to host African migrants deported from Israel, but evidence collected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests otherwise. The decision to kick out around 20 000 African migrants comes as Israel embarked on a new strategy to rally African diplomatic support in international bodies. The UN and certain states – such as Canada – have condemned the Israeli migrant plan, but the African Union (AU) and most African countries remain silent on it, creating the perception that there is no substantial opposition to it.
African migration to Israel
Since 1950, Israel’s Law of Return has allowed the immigration of Jews from around the world, including from Ethiopia. African refugee migration to Israel began in the mid-2000s, and the numbers increased rapidly in the late 2000s. By late 2010, Israel received its highest number of African migrants, with between 30 000 and 45 000 entering through the Israeli-Egyptian border. Currently, around 38 000 African migrants – mainly asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – live in Israel. The first wave of Sudanese migrants (mostly from the conflict-ravaged Darfur region) started arriving in Israel in December 2005 through Egypt. Due to the circumstances that forced them to flee Sudan, asylum seekers in Israel have a right to have a sur place refugee claim, and should automatically be recognised as such under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees.
The sur place refugees claim is also applicable to Eritreans, who fled widespread human rights violations, including forced conscription, forced labour and torture. Eritreans who evaded being drafted into the military face persecution if they return. Additionally, according to the UNHCR, many Eritrean migrants seeking asylum in Israel since 2004 have been Christians who faced abuses in Eritrea since 2002, qualifying them for refugee status and asylum in Israel under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite this, Israeli officials and Israel’s prime minister have continuously labelled African migrants ‘infiltrators’ who arrived in Israel for economic reasons. Moreover, many of the migrants in Israel do not enjoy asylum status as the application process is notoriously slow and hardly produces favourable outcomes for the migrants.
Asylum application in Israel is so slow that by the end of 2017 only 10 persons had been granted refugee status in response to 15 000 asylum applications since 2010. The slow and unresponsive process seemed to be changing in 2007 when the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, granted 500 temporary residence permits to migrants from Sudan under pressure from the UNHCR. This changed when Benyamin Netanyahu became prime minister. The current 38 000 African migrant number is after years of sporadic deportations of Africans to unnamed countries. They are concentrated in south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, and are from among the refugees who arrived between 2006 and 2013. After Israel built a fence on its border with Egypt in 2013, the number of African migrants arriving through Egypt decreased drastically. Holot, a migrant detention centre in the Negev desert, currently houses 3 000 African migrants.
Holot was built in 2012, and has the capacity to house around 1 400 people at a time. It has been at the centre of Israel’s immigration policy towards African migrants. In November 2017, Israel announced plans to close the Holot centre and to deport the residents of the centre. It is over capacity with 3 000 African male migrants who do not possess residency or work permits. The Holot detainees are unable to work as they are required to report to the centre at specified times during the day. Migrants in other parts of Israel face similar challenges to those at Holot, and work illegally, facing exploitation and below minimum wage salaries. Israeli citizens who hire African migrants without permits face fines, and are required to deduct twenty per cent of their wages to put into a controversial ‘deposit fund’, thus making it near impossible for African migrants to survive.
Migrants regularly face abuse and ill-treatment from Israeli citizens, with many calling for their deportations. In August 2017, tensions came to a boil when south Tel Aviv residents protested the presence of African migrants. This was followed by a visit by Netanyahu, who promised to remove the ‘infiltrators’. The closure of Holot centre and the prior construction of a steel barrier fence at the Egypt-Israeli border form part of the various measures that Israel has taken to dramatically reduce the number of African migrants.
Africa’s (and South Africa’s) complicity
At the Egypt-Israel border stands a steel barrier that stretches for 242 kilometres, boasting five to seven metre high fences constructed of 35 000 tons of metal and steel. This gigantic barrier was to curb the influx of African migrants into Israel. The steel barrier intends to prevent African migrants from entering Israel through Egypt’s Sinai. The construction of the fence also saw contracts awarded to the Yehuda Fences Company, which is part of the Yehuda Group owned by the South African company Cape Gate. This is not Cape Gate’s first foray into illegal Israeli activities. In 2009 a report by the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid wall campaign revealed that the company was complicit in maintaining and assisting with the construction of what Israel calls a ‘separation barrier’ and the organisation calls an ‘Apartheid Wall’.
The Israeli African migrants’ policy is being abetted by certain African countries that are said to be receiving deported migrants from Israel in exchange for financial compensation. The UNHCR reported that between December 2013 and June 2017, Israel deported 4 000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers under the ‘voluntary departure programme’ to Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries have denied claims that they had been complicit in Israel’s controversial plan. Although they deny having made deals with Israel to accept the migrants, the two countries have embraced Israel’s attempts to strengthen links with African states. In the wake of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US president, Donald Trump, the UN passed a resolution rejecting the move; nine African states abstained, including Rwanda and Uganda, suggesting a solidification of links with Israel.
The silence of many African countries about the ill treatment of African migrants in Israel demonstrates complicity. The AU, in which Israel seeks to gain observer status, has not condemned the Israeli deportation plan, nor pronounced on reports that two of its member states, Rwanda and Uganda, have assisted Israel in its deportation and ill-treatment of African migrants.
Voluntary departure package
Israel’s being a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees obligates it not to return refugees to a country where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom. Israel’s policy towards African migrants came into the spotlight around 2013 after the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Israel was offering a ‘voluntary departure’ ultimatum. Israel attempted to redeem itself by stating that the plan did not include women and children, and targeted only males of working age. The UNHCR responded that the plan could not be considered ‘voluntary’ as both options given to the migrants threatened the life and freedom of the asylum seeker, and was thus in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. By deporting the migrants back to their home countries, Israel placed their lives in more danger than they had previously faced. This is especially significant in the case of Sudanese migrants who, according to the UNHCR, faced jail sentences under Sudan’s Criminal Act, which prohibits citizens from visiting an enemy state, which Sudan considers Israel to be.
Having faced increased pressure from local and international groups to halt the deportations of migrants to their home countries, Israel revised the policy and included a component to allow refugees to choose to be deported to a ‘third’ country, which the UNHCR said was either Rwanda or Uganda. If migrants choose this option, they are given $3 500 USD to help them settle in the new country, an Israeli travel document, and a letter from the ‘third country’ guaranteeing a tourist visa upon arrival. Various Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who took this option and were deported to Rwanda have reported to the UNHCR that although they received the promised $3 500 USD, their documents were confiscated upon arrival and they could not apply for asylum. Further, they claim, immigration officials in Rwanda extorted money from them and ultimately trafficked them to Uganda where they face imprisonment for entering the country illegally.
In a recent twist, in its efforts to accelerate these deportations, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority has offered an incentive to Israeli civilians to serve as ‘inspectors’ and implementers by forcibly removing African migrants from Israeli neighbourhoods. Under this offer, civilians are recruited as ‘inspectors’ who will rout out migrants who do not take up the ‘voluntary departure’ deal. The main targets under this new plan are African migrants residing in the greater Tel Aviv area. Once the ‘inspectors’ have identified those willing to take the departure package, they will facilitate the paperwork for their departure as well as monitor their entry to the third country. These inspectors will receive an incentive of $8 700 USD per deported person for a two-month period – higher than the total sum of $3 500 offered to the Africans who accept the deal and the $5 000 USD reported to be given to Rwanda and Uganda for each migrant they receive.
Israel insists the majority of African migrants in Israel are not asylum seekers but economic migrants. The UNHCR claims most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan and fled war and persecution, which qualifies them as asylum seekers and refugees. The controversial ‘voluntary departure’ package, the barrier fence on the Egypt-Israeli border, and the plan to close the Holot refugee detention centre signals Israel’s commitment to rid the country of ‘infiltrator’ African migrants seeking refuge. The African migrants have been given until April this year to take up the ‘voluntary departure’ package or face permanent jail detention, prompting widespread protests from the migrants and local human rights groups. Israel has also been condemned by the UN and some western countries, but the silence and the complicity of African countries in this controversial African migrants’ policy leaves little hope for the migrants. With this plan to rid itself off African refugees, Israel adds to its list of human rights and international law violations.
AMEC's executive director, Na'eem Jeenah, spoke as part of a panel organised by SISO (Save Israel, Stop the Occupation) and Liliesleaf Farm on 5 February 2018 at Liliesleaf. The other panelists were Alon Liel, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, and Benjamin Pogrund former South African journalist now living in Israel. The three speakers addressed the topic 'Israel and Palestine: What lies ahead?'
Let us be clear. ‘What lies ahead’ for Israel and Palestine is not Israel and Palestine!
The reality as it is today is that we do not have two states called Israel and Palestine, and we will not have two states. There is no Palestinian state today, even if certain sections of the official Palestinian leadership would like to convince us and themselves that there is. All we have is a bantustan that is given certain limited trappings of a state – much like Bophuthatswana or Venda were given in South Africa under apartheid. Indeed, the Palestinian ‘state’ that exists today has fewer powers than the South African bantustans did in the 1970s and 1980s; has less authority; less independence; less sovereignty; and cannot rely on the state that spawned it (as South African banstustans could) to support it financially.
The reality today is that we have one state – Israel – that is in control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, in control of all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The fact that that state exercises its power over this territory through different regimes of control in different parts of that territory does not derogate from the fact that all this territory is, de facto, under the control of, and therefore part of, a single state.
If we want to talk about a future that will see an Israeli state and a Palestinian state existing side-by-side, then, at the very minimum, the Palestinian state in that configuration should be one in which all Israeli settlements have been dismantled; whose capital is in Jerusalem; whose borders are on the 1967 lines; which has full control over its borders; and that exercises full sovereignty on all of its territory – including the airspace above it and the water, gas and other resources below it. And, such a solution would require the exercise of the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes – wherever in either of the two states those homes were. None of this is a fanciful demand of the Palestinians; all of these are guaranteed and required by international law.
But this is no longer a plausible future reality – if it ever was. Israel has ensured that such a solution cannot come to pass. Israel and its successive governments have ensured that there can be no possibility of an independent, sovereign, viable Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state. This has been done systematically through the construction and expansion of the settlements and settlement infrastructure; the building of the so-called ‘separation wall’ which has stolen Palestinian land; and other geographical and social engineering undertaken by Israel. That is why no Israeli politician talks about two states any longer. This reality and the fact that Israel has a US administration that is willing to give it anything it wants means Israel no longer has to pretend it wants a two-state solution. And even a few years ago, when Israeli government officials would occasionally refer to a two-state solution, it was clear that they were not talking about two states, but about an Israeli state controlling a Palestinian bantustan. Netanyahu’s ‘vision’ of a Palestinian state was one in which that state would have no control over its borders, no control over its airspace, no sovereignty over the Jordan Valley where Israeli troops would permanently be stationed, no control over its security, no army, no police force except one that is under Israeli oversight, no possibility to establish a capital in Jerusalem or to have any claim to Jerusalem whatsoever… In short, Netanyahu articulated a ‘two-state solution’ where the Palestinian entity would be a bantustan and a permanent vassal of Israel.
Of course, all of this, we were told, was necessary in the interests of Israel’s security. Because, of course, Palestinians do not deserve any security; Palestinians do not need to be safe from a belligerent, racist state with one of the most powerful armies in the world that occupies their land; Palestinians have no right to defend themselves. Only Israeli security needs consideration.
Among Palestinians, there are only a few today who believe that a two-state solution is possible. In general, most Palestinians believe that Oslo is dead; and that the agreements and creatures of Oslo are irrelevant.
This event is hosted by SISO, and while I am not criticising the organisation, I ask whether the slogan ‘Save Israel, Stop the Occupation’ is a realistic one. I suppose the answer to that question depends, in part, on what is meant by ‘Israel’. What borders, what powers, what is the nature and character of the state, who are its citizens and its nation…
The future for Israelis and Palestinians – the ‘What lies ahead’ – is not an end to the occupation in a manner that will ‘save’ Israel in the form it exists today. The more likely future scenario is one where the occupation will ‘end’ in a manner that will result in Israel, de jure, being a singe state from the river to the sea.
The real question, then, is not whether we will have one or two states in future. The real question is: what is the path from where we are now to the future one-state reality. The real question is whether that path will be one that is a (largely) non-violent, negotiated, carefully envisioned and re-envisioned one with minimal loss of life and minimal misery for Israeli Jews and for Palestinians (especially for Palestinians); or whether that path will be characterised by belligerence, massive violence, bloodshed, death and misery for all concerned (especially Palestinians).
With the current extreme imbalance in power between Palestinians and Israelis, the decision for which path should be taken lies largely in the hands of Israelis and Israel’s supporters around the world.
If Israel perpetuates its violence – as it seems intent on doing, remains intransigent, continues to use its military and security forces to attempt to suppress the Palestinian people and their legitimate aspirations and demands, then we will arrive at the same future, but through the second, more tortuous and bloody route. Palestinians, as they have proven to us over the past seven decades, will not be perpetual victims; they will fight back – even if the balance of force is hugely against them. As the quotes that we read scattered around Liliesleaf suggest, such resistance is built into the nature of human beings.
Let me end, then, by focusing your attention on two quotes I read here in the past hour, which should give Israel’s supporters in this room cause to pause and ponder.
At the entrance to this institution, museum and monument is a quote from an Umkhonto we Sizwe pamphlet issued soon after its founding. It says: ‘…the people's patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa.’ Although no quoted on the board at the entrance, the pamphlet continues: ‘We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.’
And at the entrance to this hall is a quote by that former president of the African National Congress known for his emphasis on non-violence, Chief Albert Luthuli, who said, in response to the sentencing at the Rivonia Treason Trial: ‘… no one can blame brave just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods; nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony.’
The choice and the decision, as I said, lies in the hands of Israelis and their supporters.
At the establishment of the African Union (AU) in May 2001, discourses about human security and counter terrorism were ubiquitous both globally and on the continent. In Africa, the experience of the conflicts in Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region weighed heavily on the continent’s people, and on the new body. The newly-formed AU thus sought to institute measures that would enhance peace and security and ensure human development, even allowing for the possibility of the organisation intervening in member states. Article Four of the AU’s Constitutive Act stated that intervention in a member country could be endorsed by the body in the event that the government of that country severely repressed its population; the prevention of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide were explicitly mentioned.
Within months of the creation of the AU, the September 2001 World Trade Centre bombings in New York took place, forcing an additional imperative onto the AU’s agenda. As a result, the AU has, for the past decade and a half, focused a great deal of effort on counter terrorism (in some instances to the detriment of member state populations). Coordination on counter terrorism has thus been enhanced between member states, and, worryingly, training, skills transfers, and direct deployment of troops from foreign powers – especially the US and France – had been sought to address that has been, to some extent, an exaggerated threat. This has unwittingly allowed, again, the mixing of foreign interests with those of the continent, often allowing foreign agendas to dominate.
In the past few years, a new form of foreign role on the continent has begun to become established, and it is this that we want to highlight as a challenge for the African Union, the continent as a whole, and relationships between African states. We refer here to the phenomenon of the creation of forward military deployment bases hosted by various African states, which, it might be argued, poses, for us, a challenge in terms of continental sovereignty.
The problem of bases
Often promoted by military strategists as reducing the ‘tyranny of distance’, forward deployment bases allow the forward deployment of both troops and equipment, allowing for quicker response times, and a shortening of distance, especially in terms of the need to refuel. This strategy had initially been the forte of the US military – especially after the European war of the mid-twentieth century, or the Second World War. As documented by Nick Turse, US military bases (including forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations) in Africa number around fifty, at least. The US base in Diego Garcia, for example, played a key role in the 2003 Iraqi invasion, with minimal flythrough/docking rights required from other countries.
US bases, compounds, port facilities and fuel bunkers are in thirty-four African countries, including in regional hegemons Kenya, Ethiopia and Algeria. Under the guise of countering terrorism, and through joint partnerships, Washington has infiltrated continental security organisations and has touted the idea of establishing on-the ground liaison offices. American military officials and policy makers view the continent as a full-scale battlefield in the competition against China, and through promoting regionalism, US officials are successfully circumventing continental institutions including the AU. To date, this has not yet been a major factor in interstate conflicts on the continent, but US cooperation has sort to mould partner countries to share its stance on foreign issues. Further, the US uses these bases to carry out activities on other continents; drones operating from Chadelley base in Djibouti have been deployed in Yemen and Syria, for example. This then inserts African states into conflicts unrelated to them, their regions or the continent.
Many other states followed the US strategy – albeit on a smaller scale, especially as international rivalry among global powers (or aspirant global powers) intensified. This lily pad strategy is now utilised by the US, Russia, China, France, and even smaller countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. This is likely to intensify, especially since advances in technology have increased the efficiencies and efficacy of submarines, thus making it more difficult to deploy carrier vessels as a means of power projection. Further, the advancements in missile defence, and the decreasing costs of obtaining such technology has meant that long-haul flights, as a means of strategic lift, have become riskier; the offense-defence balance in some ways favours the defensive power.
These bases, especially those maintained by global powers, have impaired the AU from implementing indigenous continental solutions, especially those requiring inclusiveness and mediation. Mali is significant in this regard, especially since the presence of French troops stationed there for Operation Barkhane had stymied efforts by Malian civil society to include the Islamist Ansar Dine (now Group for the Protection of Islam and Muslims) in the political process, thus prolonging the insurgency in the north. Similarly, UAE bases in Somaliland incentivise and formalise the fragmentation of Somalia, with negative regional consequences. In the coming decades, problems such as these will be exacerbated, as countries such as India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia construct military bases in African countries, and because the sub-regional coordination mechanisms such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin, which have had successes, are more proficient at dealing with cross-border insurgency. It is noteworthy that these initiatives are often continental efforts undertaken by sub-regional states, frequently in opposition to the intentions and programmes of global powers.
There is a great need for Africans to be concerned about these developments and this focus on the creation of bases, because of their impact on the populations of various countries, and implications for state as well as continental sovereignty. Diego Garcia, the base that set the trend for this phenomenon in Africa, illustrates the rather drastic potential impacts of these. The island’s population has been reduced to one lacking rights and freedoms, with many of its members forcibly removed from their homes and deported – most to Mauritius and Seychelles, not allowed the right to return. Further, the presence of the base has ensured that the African Union has little influence over the island; it is still de facto ruled as a British territory.
Similarly, the ‘global war on terror’, coupled with the rise of China, has seen global powers seeking to re-enter or strengthen their presence on the continent, with negative consequences. Both the US and France have constructed new bases in Africa, with China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia following suit. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, they often have other interests, such as France’s bases in Niger, which are more an attempt to protect French interests around Niger’s vast uranium resources.
Last year (2017), China completed the construction of a base in Djibouti, with Saudi Arabia (2017), France, and even Japan (whose base was constructed in 2011, and for which there are plans for extension) maintaining bases in the small country. Eritrea’s Assab port is being used by both Iran and the UAE (2015) to operate bases from, while Turkey (2017) is upgrading the Suakin Island in Sudan under the guise of preserving ancient Turkish relics. Significantly, the Horn of Africa is adjacent to the Bab Al-Mandab and Hormuz straits, through which over twenty per cent of world trade traverses, and it is militarily strategic as it allows control over much of the Indian Ocean. Further, it is noteworthy that almost all the bases not operated by the US and France were constructed after 2010, illustrating that the intentions behind these have everything to do with power projection and little around counter terrorism. The UAE base in Assab, too, is significant in this regard; Abu Dhabi has used it to dispatch armaments and troops from both the UAE and other Saudi coalition countries, for their military campaign in Yemen, leading to dire humanitarian consequences and the likely fragmentation of that country.
Bases and sovereignty
The construction of these military bases has undermined both domestic and continental sovereignty. The UAE base in Somaliland’s Berbera port (2016), for example, heralds the end of the project to ensure a unified Somalia. Already, Somaliland possesses a relatively strong security force; the base construction and consequent support by the UAE will ensure that Mogadishu will not be able to extend control over Hargeisa. This will likely lead to more conflict, especially as Puntland begins to reassert its autonomy, and as al-Shabab exploits these differences to increase its influence.
Moreover, the UAE’s Assab base, coupled with the current Qatari blockade, has threatened to reignite the Eritrean-Djibouti border conflict, since Djibouti’s decision to sever ties with Qatar in light of its close relationship with Riyadh saw Doha withdrawing its peacekeepers (2017); while Emirati support for Eritrea emboldened Asmara to redeploy its troops to the contested Doumeira islands, which the UN designates as belonging to Djibouti.
Further, this race to create bases (along with other geopolitical agendas) has seen foreign countries often support African strongmen (not surprising, considering that some of these foreign states themselves are dictatorships), thus enabling the abuse of human rights and stunting continental efforts at finding solutions. The current Libyan imbroglio, for example, has seen countries such as Egypt and Russia support General Khalifa Haftar, who has promised basing rights in the event of his victory. This should be of great concern as it undermines both the AU and the neighbourhood initiatives that are attempting to resolve the conflict.
The AU and bases
This trend threatens to, in future, undermine the African Union’s already-tenuous sovereignty, especially since the direct influence of foreign powers, in the form of these lily pad bases, threatens to inspire more interstate conflicts. Tension has already risen in Ethiopia in response to Eritrea’s hosting of numerous bases, while both countries expressed their opposition to the Berbera base in Somaliland. The consequent upgrade in arms in these states will ensure that interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, become more precarious, and dilute the AU’s ability to persuade states to negotiate with each other. Worryingly, basing rights are often coupled with multibillion-dollar arms deal packages. These will not only ensure that cross-border interstate conflicts, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, follow a more violent and destructive path, but also that regimes are once again able to violently suppress dissent within their populations. This ‘authoritarian upgrading’ was a major factor engendering the militancy problem that the AU had been dealing with since its inception.
In addition, as can be observed with the UAE’s use of the Assab base to deploy troops to Yemen, Africa is increasingly being used as a staging ground from which to deploy troops to other conflict arenas. Notably, the UAE, in 2015, sought to strong arm Djibouti to allow Emirati and coalition aircraft the use of its territory as a base for the Yemeni operation. Djibouti and Abu Dhabi subsequently severed diplomatic ties, but the UAE found a willing substitute in Eritrea.
The AU will need to increase its capacity (a challenge in a general sense) to have a stronger focus on preventing foreign exploitation and interstate conflicts – more critical threats than terrorism. The institution has had many successes in the fight against the militancy of non-state actors, especially in the area of promoting sub-regional state coordination. The joint multinational task force amongst Lake Chad basin states and the G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) are welcome steps in ensuring neighbourhood solutions to cross-border militancy, although though these still need to be coupled with more focus on inclusivity. Even with the G5 Sahel, which has engendered coordination between the five respective Sahelian states, France’s maintenance of forward deployment bases in these countries has ensured that Paris has greatly influenced the formation, structure and objectives of the force. This is having, and will have, dire consequences for, especially, Mali because the GSIM has been excluded from negotiations, ensuring that instability in the North remains persistent. The Liptako-Gourma corridor partnership between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso will see better results as the French are not formally involved in it, and because it relates more to border security than to domestic state politics.
However, partnerships such as these will be difficult to initiate in future conflicts influenced by outside powers, and which involve sub-regional hegemons. This is especially since, unlike the case of these joint forces, regional organisations will be paralysed if the belligerents are sub-regional powers. The AU will need to improve its mediation and coercive capacity or risk being side-lined as is the case in Libya. Even in Burundi, where the major continental powers advised against a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza, his regime is still operating, despite AU threats and sanctions.
By Ramzy Baroud
There is a real - but largely concealed - war which is taking place throughout the African continent. It involves the United States, an invigorated Russia and a rising China. The outcome of the war is likely to define the future of the continent and its global outlook.
It is easy to pin the blame on US President Donald Trump, his erratic agenda and impulsive statements. But the truth is, the current US military expansion in Africa is just another step in the wrong direction. It is part of a strategy that had been implemented a decade ago, during the administration of President George W. Bush, and actively pursued by President Barack Obama.
In 2007, under the pretext of the 'war on terror', the US consolidated its various military operations in Africa to establish the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). With a starting budget of half a billion dollars, AFRICOM was supposedly launched to engage with African countries in terms of diplomacy and aid. But, over the course of the last 10 years, AFRICOM has been transformed into a central command for military incursions and interventions.
However, that violent role has rapidly worsened during the first year of Trump's term in office. Indeed, there is a hidden US war in Africa, and it is fought in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’.
According to a VICE News special investigation, US troops are now conducting 3,500 exercises and military engagements throughout Africa per year, an average of 10 per day. US mainstream media rarely discusses this ongoing war, thus giving the military ample space to destabilize any of the continent’s 54 countries as it pleases.
"Today’s figure of 3,500 marks an astounding 1,900 percent increase since the command was activated less than a decade ago, and suggests a major expansion of US military activities on the African continent," VICE reported.
Following the death of four US Special Forces soldiers in Niger on October 4, US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, made an ominous declaration to a Senate committee: these numbers are likely to increase as the US is expanding its military activities in Africa.
Mattis, like other defense officials in the previous two administrations, justifies the US military transgressions as part of ongoing 'counter-terrorism' efforts. But such coded reference has served as a pretense for the US to intervene in, and exploit, a massive region with a great economic potential.
The old colonial 'Scramble for Africa' is being reinvented by global powers that fully fathom the extent of the untapped economic largesse of the continent. While China, India and Russia are each developing a unique approach to wooing Africa, the US is invested mostly in the military option, which promises to inflict untold harm and destabilize many nations.
The 2012 coup in Mali, carried out by a US-trained army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, is only one example.
In a 2013 speech, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against a "new colonialism in Africa (in which it is) easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave." While Clinton is, of course, correct, she was disingenuously referring to China, not her own country.
China's increasing influence in Africa is obvious, and Beijing’s practices can be unfair. However, China's policy towards Africa is far more civil and trade-focused than the military-centered US approach.
The growth in the China-Africa trade figures are, as per a UN News report in 2013, happening at a truly "breathtaking pace", as they jumped from around $10.5 billion per year in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011. Since then, it has continued at the same impressive pace.
But that growth was coupled with many initiatives, entailing many billions of dollars in Chinese credit to African countries to develop badly needed infrastructure. More went to finance the 'African Talents Program', which is designed to train 30,000 African professionals in various sectors.
It should come as no surprise, then, that China surpassed the US as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009.
The real colonialism, which Clinton referred to in her speech, is, however, under way in the US's own perception and behavior towards Africa. This is not a hyperbole, but in fact a statement that echoes the words of US President Trump himself.
During a lunch with nine African leaders last September at the UN, Trump spoke with the kind of mindset that inspired western leaders’ colonial approach to Africa for centuries.
Soon after he invented the none-existent country of 'Nambia', Trump boasted of his "many friends (who are) going to your (African) countries trying to get rich." "I congratulate you," he said, "they are spending a lot of money."
The following month, Trump added Chad, his country's devoted 'counter-terrorism' partner to the list of countries whose citizens are banned from entering the US.
Keeping in mind that Africa has 22 Muslim majority countries, the US government is divesting from any long-term diplomatic vision in Africa, and is, instead increasingly thrusting further into the military path.
The US military push does not seem to be part of a comprehensive policy approach, either. It is as alarming as it is erratic, reflecting the US constant over-reliance on military solutions to all sorts of problems, including trade and political rivalries.
Compare this to Russia's strategic approach to Africa. Reigniting old camaraderie with the continent, Russia is following China's strategy of engagement (or in this case, re-engagement) through development and favorable trade terms.
But, unlike China, Russia has a wide-ranging agenda that includes arms exports, which are replacing US weaponry in various parts of the continent. For Moscow, Africa also has untapped and tremendous potential as a political partner that can bolster Russia’s standing at the UN.
Aware of the evident global competition, some African leaders are now laboring to find new allies outside the traditional western framework, which has controlled much of Africa since the end of traditional colonialism decades ago.
A stark example was the late November visit by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to Russia and his high-level meeting with President Vladimir Putin. "We have been dreaming about this visit for a long time," al-Bashir told Putin, and "we are in need of protection from the aggressive acts of the United States."
The coveted 'protection' includes Russia's promised involvement in modernizing the Sudanese army.
Wary of Russia’s Africa outreach, the US is fighting back with a military stratagem and little diplomacy. The ongoing US mini war on the continent will push the continent further into the abyss of violence and corruption, which may suit Washington well, but will bring about untold misery to millions of people.
There is no question that Africa is no longer an exclusive western 'turf', to be exploited at will. But it will be many years before Africa and its 54 nations are truly free from the stubborn neocolonial mindset, which is grounded in racism, economic exploitation and military interventions.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
By Justin Podur
Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.
The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire's Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).
Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana'a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).
North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and '80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen's most important ally.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.
Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.
The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.
People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.
When bin Laden's al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.
By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa'ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.
The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country's elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.
This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen's GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.
As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh's cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa'ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”
In the chant, "curse on the Jews" stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one's own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa'ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.
Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa'ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis' cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh's forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa'ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.
Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh's government. President Obama's drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh's strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen's elite.
At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.
In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh's rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.
Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana'a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada'a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.
The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.
The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.
The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.
Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh's son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.
The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.
* This article was first published on alternet.org
The 4 December death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, at the hands of his former Houthi coalition partners, is a culmination of the differing interests that informed the coalition’s initial inception, and alludes to the intractable and unwieldy nature of the conflict’s many belligerents. Saleh’s death foreshadows further fragmentation of the warring coalitions, and is likely to ensure that ‘smaller’ wars transpire in the country’s northern highlands in addition to the existent southern conflicts. In addition, the rapid consolidation of the Houthi in Sana'a represents a blow to Saudi Arabia’s attempts to extricate itself from the unwinnable Yemeni quagmire and the UAE’s intention to support regional strongmen in an attempt to contain participatory Islamists.
Having once equated the task of governing Yemen to ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’, Saleh’s death was the result of his incessant duplicity, which saw him fight six wars with the Houthi between 2004 and 2010, with limited success, yet later successfully enticing them to unite with him in efforts to force the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi government out of Sana'a in 2014. Prior to this Saleh emerged victorious in two civil wars between Yemen’s South and North; angered the USA by not supporting the 1991 Gulf War, but then received US support for his claimed role in the ‘global war on terror’; and withstood the 2011 Arab uprisings, in which he survived a failed suicide bombing in 2011. At the heart of Saleh’s actions was his belief that he alone could only hold Yemen together, and that the November 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, negotiated by GCC states in an attempt to contain the Yemeni uprising from initiating real change, had betrayed him. Under the initiative, Saleh received immunity in return for his transfer of power to his then deputy, Hadi. He remained in control of the General People’s Congress (GPC) and was allowed to remain in Yemen, although he was forced to cease his attempt to transfer power to his son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s thirty-three years in control of Yemen had allowed him to entrench alliances with the country’s disparate military, civil and tribal elements, and he remained in de facto control over the elite Republican Guard and tribal leaders in the North. His acquiescence was thus imperative in ensuring the success of the Houthi takeover of Sana'a; Republican Guard forces refused to halt the Houthi move southward, especially in Sana'a and Abyan.
However, the partnership between Saleh’s GPC and the Houthi was bound to fail in light of their differing agendas, and was mainly a ‘marriage of convenience’. At the time, both Saleh and the Houthi were aggrieved at being left out of governing following the implementation of the GCC initiative. Despite having a place at the national dialogue conference between March 2012 and January 2014, which intended to chart a path forward for the country, both quickly realised that a Hadi-Islah coalition still controlled the day-to-day running of the state.
The Houthi remain sceptical of the GPC in light of their history of opposition, while many in the GPC oppose the Houthi’s religious fervour. The alliance was thus tactical; both sought to extend their influence by creating parallel governance structures. Already in February 2015 Saleh criticised the Houthi decision to dissolve the then government, and in March that year, Houthi–GPC conflict erupted over control of the Raymat military base in Sana'a. The subsequent Saudi coalition aerial intervention in March 2015 only served to postpone this inevitability.
Tensions had since increased owing to Houthi weariness over UAE attempts to lure Saleh away from the coalition. As part of these attempts, in June 2017 Saleh’s son Ahmed, the current ambassador to the UAE, met with Ahmed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former army spokesperson in charge of the Yemeni war and current advisor to Saudi’s defence minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Subsequently, ties frayed between Saleh and the Houthis as the Emirates sought to more overtly back the former president as an alternative to Hadi. In August, the intra-coalition violence heightened when the Houthi unsuccessfully sought to halt the GPC’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Last week’s clashes resulted in the deaths of over two hundred people and Saleh announcing his defection. The Houthi had been preparing for this eventuality since August and had consolidated control of the North’s religious institutions and finances.
Seeking to extricate itself from Yemen, Saudi Arabia supported the defection, and has since provided aerial cover to troops loyal to Saleh. However, Saleh’s death likely means that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has miscalculated on regional matters once again, especially since the Houthi have largely consolidated control over Sana'a. Further, the reported clash between MBS and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2015 would ensure that Riyadh does not wholly support him as an alternative to Hadi, inhibiting the fruition of UAE interests in the country. This is in a context in which Abu Dhabi is supporting the Southern Hirak and Southern Belt forces in Aden and Taiz in an attempt to counter the influence of the participatory Islamist Yemeni Islah party, which still receives support from Saudi Arabia.
Houthi troops have since managed to consolidate control of the Sawad and Raymat military bases, the two main GPC-affiliated bases in Sana'a; Saleh’s nephew Tariq, who commanded the Republican Guard, was killed, and his two sons, Salah and Madyan were arrested; and tribal shaykhs, such as the Hashed’s Mabkhout Mashraqi, have been forced to defect. This alludes to the fact that although the Houthi governance of the North is tenuous, the group’s military capacity has increased, and its control over finances in Sana'a has meant that it remains able to pay combatants.
Consequently, clashes in northern provinces are likely to intensify, especially since many tribes support Saleh, and because the UAE will intensify its support for Ahmed. Intra-northern clashes, similar to those between groups in the South, will increase, making a political solution more unlikely. This is especially since the GPC remains popular, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands that gathered in Sabeen Square in August 2017, in defiance of Houthi attempts to halt the party’s thirty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Further, the party’s long existence has enabled it to develop its institutional capacity, and it continues to maintain influence over Republican Guard units. In addition, Saleh’s death will make it more difficult for MBS to conceive a face-saving solution to the conflict, even though the Houthi have expressed their willingness to enter into negotiations. The current civil war is thus likely to continue, ensuring the country’s further fragmentation, and making it more difficult to envisage a solution that will allow the various political, tribal and military elements to reunite.
By Phyllis Bennis
US president Donald Trump’s plan to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and potentially to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is not going to undermine peace efforts – because there are no peace efforts underway. Protests have already begun, and anger is rising not only among Palestinians but across the Arab and Muslim worlds, among numerous governments including key US allies, and among people across the globe. Understanding what this move represents means viewing it from two different perspectives.
Taken at face value, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects Trump’s need to placate his key Israel-backing donors, particularly the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and the Christian Zionist component of his right-wing evangelical base. Pro-Israel partisans in Congress orchestrated a law in 1995 mandating the embassy move, but giving the president a way out – the president could waive the requirement if national security might be at stake. Every president since has taken advantage of that waiver – including Donald Trump six months ago. Congressional Israel-backers could blame the president, the White House could lament that security threats prevented the move...everyone was happy. But Trump’s campaign commitment to move the embassy is more important to more influential supporters than was true of earlier presidents. Plus Trump’s failure to win legislative victories (until the recent potential disaster known as the ‘Republican tax scam’) meant he had more incentive to make good on his Jerusalem promise.
Trump called this move ‘the recognition of reality’. It should be noted that it has been US policy itself – support for Israel, billions of US tax dollars sent to the Israeli military every year, acceptance of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem, protection of Israel in the United Nations – that is largely responsible for that reality. The UN resolution partitioning Palestine into what were supposed to be [thoroughly unfairly apportioned] Jewish and Palestinian Arab states, also recognised a special status for Jerusalem – it was to belong to neither ‘state’, but rather be a corpus separatum, a separate body to remain under international control. Israel claimed West Jerusalem as its capital, and in 1967 when it illegally occupied the eastern half of the city after the Six-Day War, it announced the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and forcibly unified the city as its capital. No country in the world recognised the annexation, and since that time legally binding UN Security Council resolutions continue to reaffirm that East Jerusalem remains occupied Palestinian territory. Trump’s decision stands in direct violation of international law.
But US violations of international law regarding Israel is an old story. Decades of US actions accepting, acknowledging, allowing (even if sometimes rhetorically criticising) the expansion of illegal Jews-only colonial settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem and across the West Bank set the stage. Decades of rewarding Israeli violations of UN resolutions and international law concerning Jerusalem with billions of dollars in economic and military support set the stage. Vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning illegal Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem set the stage. What’s new this time around is the deliberately provocative, reckless nature of the decision to placate donors whatever the risk – the risk of violent responses across the world, let alone the risk of further violation of Palestinian rights.
What is not at risk is the role of the United States as an honest broker in sponsoring peace talks. Why? Because the US never was an honest broker in Israel–Palestinian talks, it was always, as at least one long-time US negotiator admitted, playing the role of Israel’s lawyer. That hasn't changed either. There are no negotiations underway to be threatened with cancellation.
Sowing chaos and threatening more war across the region
The second perspective has far more to do with the regional situation, and the war-driven, anti-diplomacy foreign policy of the Trump administration. Aside from donor pressure, US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the threat to move the embassy, have to be seen in the context of the effort led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to consolidate a powerful anti-Iran coalition across the Middle East with ostensible enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia at its core.
Trump has anointed Kushner his point man on reaching the ‘ultimate deal’ on Israel–Palestine. It’s less about any claimed interest in peace than about the collaborative regional plans being hatched by Kushner and his new BFF, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS. Together the two crown princes, as it were, are trying to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together in a newly overt alliance against Tehran. To pull off that kind of normalisation of relations between these ostensible enemies and not risk losing power, or worse, requires changing the rhetoric, if not the actual circumstances. Enter the so-called ‘new Israeli–Palestinian talks’. If the ambitious young Saudi prince can convince the majority of the royal family and at least a majority of Saudi citizens that somehow new talks mean the end of the conflict and we can all stop worrying about the Palestinians, then normalisation of relations with Israel suddenly looks more acceptable. Such a partnership portends a serious rise in the threat of war – with not only the United States but Israel and Saudi Arabia, plus Jordan, the UAE, Egypt and more, openly unified against Iran.
Just a week or so before the announcement about Jerusalem, the Trump administration threatened to close the PLO office in Washington unless the Palestinians accepted Washington’s terms for new negotiations. Those US-brokered talks would be based on pro-settlement, human rights-violating conditions that no Palestinian leader could ordinarily accept. If some Palestinian leader – the current head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, or some other leader if the Saudis force Abbas to quit as they reportedly threatened – accepts a deal legitimising permanent Israeli control of Palestinian land, Saudi Arabia can easily slip into a cosy partnership with their erstwhile enemy.
The timing remains a question. Why would Kushner and his father-in-law make the goal of an Israeli–Saudi alliance against Iran more difficult by such a provocative move regarding Jerusalem? Part of the answer has to do with the primacy of Israel over Saudi Arabia in Kushner’s world – regardless of his recent bromance with MSB. Kushner has been a supporter of illegal Israeli settlements for years; in his role in one of his family’s foundations he helped orchestrate tens of thousands of dollars donated to Israeli settlements. According to Newsweek, ‘The foundation donated at least $38,000 between 2011 and 2013 to a fundraising group building a Jewish seminary in a West Bank settlement known as Beit El. During that period, Kushner’s foundation also donated an additional $20,000 to Jewish and educational institutions in settlements throughout the region.’
Somehow the Trump son-in-law forgot to mention those transactions when he filed financial reports required for his top-level security clearance. But it fits a pattern. In late 2016 Kushner ordered Michael Flynn, then the Trump campaign’s top foreign policy adviser, to persuade Russia to delay the imminent UN Security Council vote criticising Israeli settlements. President Obama had decided to abstain and to allow the resolution to pass; Trump wanted the Russians to delay the vote so the new administration could veto it. But Moscow refused to play along.
If you just listened to the official rhetoric from both governments, something like a Saudi–Israeli alliance appears unthinkable. But it turns out that many ‘unthinkable’ developments in the volatile Middle East are actually quite thinkable – although it usually means there’s a price to be paid. Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital has been bandied about as a threat for years despite international law. The fundamentalist Saudi government has all but publicly pined for open relations with Israel despite Tel Aviv’s continuing violations of Palestinian rights. National leaders may pay a political price for those moves. But the real price – potentially in destroyed lives, devastated cities and more – will be paid by the people of Iran, who will likely face even more crippling sanctions and a growing threat of war; by the people of Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi war continues to escalate with horrific humanitarian consequences; potentially by Lebanon, where Saudi interference is again on the rise; and as always by the Palestinians, who have paid the price for US support of Israeli occupation and apartheid for more than seventy years, and have just been sold out again.
There are no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way that might be threatened by US recognition of Jerusalem. But the move certainly makes peace – or justice – anywhere in the war-torn region far less likely.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Other books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer, Ending the Iraq War: A Primer, and Ending the Us War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
By Ramzy Baroud
On 18 November, just days before the fiftieth anniversary of United Nations Resolution 242, the US State Department took its first step towards severing its ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
The timing of this decision could not be any more profound.
The first formal contact between the US and the PLO occurred in mid-December, 1988, when US Ambassador to Tunisia, Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., picked up the phone to call the PLO headquarters in Tunis to schedule formal talks.
Palestinian PLO officials were 'elated' by the fact that the US made the first move, as reported by the New York Times.
This assertion, however, is quite misleading. For over a decade prior to that 'first move', PLO's chairman, Yasser Arafat, had to satisfy many US demands in exchange for this low-level political engagement.
The 'talks' in Tunisia were prolonged, before the PLO was ready to make its final concession in secret meetings in Oslo, Norway in 1993.
Eventually, a PLO office was opened in Washington DC. It served little purpose, aside from being an intermittent platform to arrange Washington-sponsored talks between Israeli and PLO officials. For Palestinians living in the US, it was almost invisible until the US announced its decision to possibly shut it down.
The American threat followed a United Nations speech last September by Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of the PLO. From an Israeli-US perspective, Abbas committed a mortal sin for seeking the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take Israel to task regarding its human rights violations in Occupied Palestine.
By doing so, Abbas, not only violated a peculiar US law that forbids the PLO from seeking ICC help, but also an unspoken rule that allowed the US to engage the PLO in 1988, where the US served the rule of the political and legal frame of reference for the so-called ‘peace process.’ The UN took a backseat.
But even that unequal relationship proved too much for the US government, which is moving fully and unconditionally into the Israeli camp. The Trump Administration is now working to rewrite the nature of US involvement in the Middle East, and, especially, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unfortunately, Trump’s team has no concrete strategy and no frame of reference, aiming to change 50-years of US foreign policy – unfair to Palestinians and Arabs – but has no alternative plan of its own.
Almost a year ago, Trump made a promise to Israel to be a more trustworthy ally than President Barack Obama, who gave Israel more money than any other US president in history. Obama, however, had violated a golden rule in the US-Israeli relationship: he did not veto a UN resolution that condemned the illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel panicked at that unprecedented event, not because it feared that the UN Security Council would enforce its purportedly binding resolution, but because the US had, for once, refused to shield Israel from international censure.
Even before officially taking over the White House, the Trump team attempted to prevent UNSC Resolution 2334 from passing. It failed but, come January, it took over the Israeli-Palestinian file with a vengeance, threatening to cut off funds to Palestinians, blocking their efforts from expanding their international reach, and declaring its full and unconditional support for the rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
But there was more to Israeli alarm at Resolution 2334 than mere US betrayal. This Resolution - which asserted that Israeli settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of human rights – was partly predicated on, and clarified and added to, previous UNSC Resolution 242.
This means that 50 years of incessant Israeli attempts to absolve itself from any commitment to international law have failed miserably.
For Palestinians, and the larger Arab context, Resolution 242 marked their defeat in the war of 1967. Unsurprisingly, this Resolution has been cited in various agreements between Israel and the PLO, but only to give these agreements a veneer of international legitimacy.
However, the Oslo Accords of 1993 gave Israel the opportunity to use its leverage to bypass international law altogether: signing a peace agreement without ending its military occupation became the goal.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that Netanyahu was quite shocked to witness that a recommitment to Resolution 242 last year at the UNSC did not garner US opposition. Actually, the longstanding Resolution gained more substance and vigor.
The June 1967 war was Israel's greatest military victory, and Resolution 242 enshrined a whole new world order in the Middle East, in which the US and Israel reigned supreme. Although it called for withdrawal of Israeli military from Occupied Palestinian and Arab lands, it also paved the way for normalization between Israel and the Arabs. The Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel was a direct outcome of that Resolution.
This is why Resolution 2334 has alarmed Israel, for it invalidated all the physical changes that Israel has made in 50 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
The Resolution called for "two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv(ing) side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders".
Unlike Resolution 242, Resolution 2334 has left no room for clever misinterpretation: it references the pre-June 1967 lines in its annulment of the Israeli occupation and all the illegal settlements Israel has constructed since then.
The Resolution even cites the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Charter and the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of July 2004, which stated that Israel’s barrier in the West Bank was illegal and should be dismantled.
With international law, once more, taking center stage in a conflict which the US has long designated as if its personal business, Abbas was empowered enough to reach out to the ICC, thus raising the ire of Israel and its allies in the White House.
Even if the PLO’s office is permanently shut down, the decision should not just be seen as punishing Palestinians for seeking ICC support but, ultimately, as the culmination of disastrous US diplomacy, for which the Trump Administration has no clear alternative.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
In a fascinating seminar at the Afro-Middle East Centre, Moroccan academic Maati Monjib focused on two African thinkers-cum-politicians in a discussion of decolonisation and development. Monjib examined the lives and works of Senegalese politician-intellectual Mamadou Moustapha Dia and Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka who, Monjib argued, played significant roles in decolonial thinking within the context of post-independence Africa.
The event, on 16 November 2017, attracted the participation of a number of Middle East and North African diplomats keen to interrogate the notion of decolonisation as presented by a Moroccan intellectual, especially as his country is accused by many Africans of itself being a colonial power, an issue that arose during the discussion.
Ben Barka was a Moroccan socialist political leader who was abducted in Paris, where he had been in exile, and ‘disappeared’ in 1965 at the age of forty-five. He had been a staunch fighter against French colonialism, and also an opponent of Moroccan King Hassan II. Also a socialist, and a devout Muslim, Dia was a Senegalese author and politician who died in 2009 aged ninety-nine. Dia was Senegal’s prime minister between 1957 and 1962, until he was toppled in a coup by his comrade, then-president of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor. Dia was subsequently jailed by Senghor for fourteen years, from 1962 to 1976, and he emerged from prison almost completely blind. Although they were active in different countries, Monjib explained that there were many similarities between the two figures.
As leading intellectuals, both faced immense opposition in their respective countries – Ben Barka from King Hassan II and Dia from Senghor. Ben Barka stressed the importance of the unity of North Africa while Mamadou Dia focused on the idea of an African Federation. Ben Barka viewed development and decolonisation as being possible only if three areas were addressed: education, agrarian reform and political mobilisation of the citizenry. Dia argued that development and independence could only be successful if agricultural reform followed the Chinese model of agricultural cooperatives. He published extensively on these ideas and produced a prominent body of work which included ‘Le Plan du Développement du Sénégal’ (Plan for the Development of Senegal), Failure of Alternation in Senegal and Crisis of the liberal World, African nations and world solidarity, and Africa: The Price of Freedom. He also authored a number of books on Islam and Islamic jurisprudence.
Using the ideas of the two thinkers as points of departure, the seminar audience questioned Monjib about other topics related to decolonisation, especially on the issue of Western Sahara. Monjib’s view was similar to the official Moroccan view that did not regard the occupation of Western Sahara as an instance of colonialism, and saw the solution as an integrated Moroccan state that included Western Sahara. However, he emphasised, Morocco denies the Saharawi basic freedoms, just as it denies the basic freedoms of Moroccan citizens. There was also some audience interrogation of the interaction between politics, culture and religion, with Monjib insisting that Dia’s life showed that one could be a devout believer while adhering to secularist political ideas. He pointed to an interesting set of alliances in Senegal when Senghor had attacked Dia. Senghor, a Christian, was supported by ‘Maraboutist Islam’ (Senegalese Sufi orders) who had been criticised by Dia for what he saw as their social and intellectual backwardness. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, supported Dia, the devout Muslim.
Monjib argued that in Morocco religion continues to play an important role even though people have become more nationalist, with religion playing a secondary role. He also suggested that, in a post-liberation African context, language should not be used as a basis of exclusion as is the case in many contexts on the continent.
Find Monjib's seminar presentation attached below:
By Na'eem Jeenah
The dramatic news out of Saudi Arabia over the past week, including stories of arrests of members of the royal family, assassinations, purges and torture are not entirely a domestic matter. There is most certainly an international dimension to it, as evidenced by the coerced resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, Saudi threats against Lebanon and Iran, and the Saudi call for its citizens to leave Lebanon. That international dimension, it is becoming clearer, also includes the USA and Israel.
Soon after Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is often referred to), the king’s son and now crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was appointed deputy crown prince, he began ingratiating himself to the US Trump administration – with the assistance of the UAE, and is now close friends with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who was briefed about last weekend’s crackdown a week before when he saw MBS on a ‘personal visit’ to Saudi Arabia. There are numerous reasons why MBS would want the kingdom and the US to strengthen relations that had frayed over the US approach to the 2011 uprisings in North Africa, and particularly, their lack of support – from the Saudi view – for Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. One of those reasons is the common hatred of Iran that both MBS and Trump have. Both administrations are bitterly unhappy about the Iran nuclear deal (which the US signed onto during the Obama administration).
In this, MBS has also made common cause with Israel. And that has led to a developing relationship between the Saudis and Israelis. It was recently reported that the Saudi crown prince visited Israel on a secret but official trip, an unprecedented occurrence. And, less than a day after MBS arrested dozens of potential rivals in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli foreign ministry sent a cable to its foreign missions asking them to piggyback on the Saudi repressive actions in order to ramp up criticism of and action against both Iran and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The classified cable, made public by Israel’s Channel 10 News, also asked Israeli diplomats to express support for the Saudi war against Yemen, which has become a humanitarian nightmare.
Israeli diplomats were told to contact foreign ministries in their host countries, and reiterate the Saudi position on Hariri’s resignation, using it to paint Hizbullah and Iran as “destructive”, and to pressure the host governments to regard Hizbullah as a “danger to the stability of Lebanon and other countries of the region”.
Israel regards Hizbullah as probably its second most dangerous enemy after Iran. It was, after all, Hizbullah which forced Israel to end its occupation of areas in the south of Lebanon, and which withstood a sustained war by Israel in 2006. However, Hizbullah is a legal political party in Lebanon, and is part of the government headed by Hariri.
Not long after the Israeli cable, Saudi Arabia, strangely, announced that Lebanon had declared war on the Saudi kingdom – simply because Lebanon has Hizbullah as a political party. Many Lebanese interpreted that announcement as a Saudi declaration of war, a perception that was strengthened when, on Thursday, the kingdom called on its citizens in Lebanon to evacuate the country. Clearly, the Saudi and Israeli agendas not only dovetailed with each other, but were, in fact feeding off and reinforcing one another.
There is a strong belief among Lebanese people and commentators on Saudi Arabia that the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, was forced by MBS to announce his resignation, and that he is being held prisoner in the kingdom, along with the scores of others arrested last Saturday night. Even Hariri’s own Future Party made similar comments to the media later in the week. Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi TV rather than on his own TV channel, and did so from Riyadh rather from his own country. In an announcement that was scripted for him, Hariri blamed his resignation on interference in Lebanon by Iran, and non-cooperation with Hizbullah.
Trump’s tweets of support for the authoritarian actions of MBS reinforce the common agenda between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. “They know what they are doing,” he said, referring to MBS’ crackdown, which included Saturdays arrests – including those of two sons of the former king, a son of the former crown prince (who was also sacked from his position as head of the powerful National Guard), numerous businesspeople (including Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world), heads of three major media networks, and former ministers. Through these moves, MBS has taken full political control and sidelined all other sections of the Saudi royal family; he now has complete control of all sections of the Saudi security and armed forces; he is able to shape the Saudi narrative as he wants it; and he has prepared the way for his father’s abdication and his ascension to the throne – without any criticism from other Saudis.
That he is in the process of transforming an authoritarian system and power structure into an even more authoritarian absolute monarchy where all power is controlled by one person does not faze Trump or the Israelis. Indeed, as the Israeli cable indicates, such authoritarianism can be useful in the effort to isolate Iran and destroy Hizbullah.
The repercussions of this triumvirate of cooperation can be catastrophic for a Middle East region that is already mired in a number of wars – with large parts of Syria and Yemen completely destroyed, facing humanitarian disasters, and is dealing with more than 13 million displaced people (mainly from Syria and Yemen). While Iran is more than capable of defending itself against all three, Lebanon, more than 20 percent of whose population is refugees from neighbouring Syria and Palestine, is now under psychological, propaganda, diplomatic and military threat from both Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a fragile political system, the country is bracing itself for a possible external attack from Israel, and internal upheaval from Saudi-funded extremists. If such actions begin, Lebanon could be plunged into another civil war that could destroy the country. And it is quite likely that all three countries will bring their battle with Iran onto the African continent as well.
The newly-emerging Saudi-US-Israeli alliance could prove to be disastrous for the Middle region and for Africa.
Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre
* This article was first published in the the Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune in South Africa
In an extremely busy twenty-four hours in Saudi Arabia this past weekend, a series of moves by the palace sought to consolidate the power of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman – who already effectively runs the kingdom, centre all power in his office, and pave the way for his accession to the throne – even before his father, King Salman, dies. In the process, the power grab upends the slower, more consensual decision-making processes in the royal family, and establishes MbS, as the crown prince is known, as a more authoritarian ruler concentrating power in his person rather than in the family that has ruled the country since the 1930s. The moves this weekend (and earlier) achieve four major objectives for Muhammad: granting him control over a vast pool of assets around the world; putting him in charge of the Saudi voice outside the country through media networks owned by Saudis he has arrested; consolidating his power over the three main branches of Saudi military and security services; and removing (if temporarily) any voices of dissent to his father’s abdication and his becoming king.
The past weekend saw Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announcing his resignation in Riyadh, at the instruction of MbS; the arrests of eleven members of the royal family (including two sons of the former king, Abdullah – Mut'ib and Turki), four ministers and dozens of former ministers, government officials and businesspeople, the disappearance of Abdulaziz bin Fahd (the son of another former king; while some reports say he was killed while trying to escape arrest, others suggest he was renditioned to Abu Dhabi where he is incarcerated and tortured); the death in suspicious circumstances of Mansour bin Muqrin (the son of a former crown prince, who perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni border); the warning that assets of hundreds of other Saudis will soon be seized; and the dramatic ramping up of rhetoric against Iran and Lebanon. All of this threatens serious long-term consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally.
The arrests and freezing of assets of the detainees were conducted ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive under the auspices of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee (headed by MbS), but it is clear that the reasons are much more comprehensive, and the move was planned before the committee was even inaugurated.
The arrests are part of an MbS pattern, with Salman’s acquiescence, of consolidating control over the levers of the country’s power, particularly the political, security, economic and media sectors. He has already centralised political power in his office – despite concern among many royals. Indeed, some sources claim that Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in the helicopter crash on Saturday night, had sent a letter to some 1 000 princes urging them not to support MbS’s accession to the throne. These same sources also claim that Mansour’s helicopter was deliberately targeted by state forces under instruction from MbS.
With the latest arrests, the crown prince has now taken over the military and security structures of the kingdom. In June, then-crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was also interior minister, was fired (and has been under house arrest since), and a month later the interior ministry was stripped of many powers, which were given to a new homeland security agency headed by the king, thus giving MbS control of the country’s internal security and large amounts of security personnel and military materiel. As defence minister, MbS also controls the country’s defence forces. With this weekend’s arrest of Mut'ib bin Abdullah, MbS now also controls the third important security-military department, the National Guard. The Guard is an important arm of the Shammar branch of the royal family, and is a conglomeration of the tribal forces in the kingdom; the Shammar effectively control the various tribes through their control of the National Guard. By removing Mut'ib, MbS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, he also is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations. The influence of the National Guard is indicated by the fact that it was responsible for coercingKing Saud to hand over power to his brother Faisal in 1964, following a power struggle between the brothers over the division of political power. By surrounding Saud’s palace in early 1964, the Guard rendered it impossible for Saud to rule.
The arrests of the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Rotana Media and ART – Walid bin al-Ibrahim, Walid bin Talal and Salih Kaamil respectively – gives the Saudi regime effective control of Saudi media that broadcast outside the kingdom. (The palace already tightly controls the media internally.) This will ensure a common narrative on issues such as foreign policy, MbS’s accession to the throne, and the demonisation of dissent.
Furthermore, dozens of clerics, scholars and academics, who might have been opposed to or critical of Salman’s abdication in favour of his son, were jailed in September for no apparent reason. This move also signalled to the clerical establishment, whose influence MbS wants to curtail, that only supportive voices from its ranks will be tolerated. The clergy will be a concern for MbS, who has been talking of Saudi Arabia as a ‘secular’ state, and about diminishing the role of religion and the clergy, which would upset a compact between the royal family and the clergy about them supporting each other. Like the National Guard, the clergy too had a hand in the abdication of Saud in 1964. It took only twelve senior clerics’ support, including that of the grand mufti, to legitimise Saud’s ouster.
The latest arrests also help shore up MbS’s economic control in the kingdom, and are, at least in part, related to the need for him to mobilise funds to drive his ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to move the country away from its dependence on oil, and improve an economy that is worse than it has been in decades. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit stands at ten per cent of GDP; unemployment has increased to twelve per cent; and popular discontent has forced him to drop plans to reduce state subsidies (which he hoped would free up funds for Vision 2030). The need for extra funding is exacerbated by his plan to construct a 500 billion dollar megacity (dubbed Neom), which has attracted substantial interest from Israeli businesses. Moreover, the Yemeni war, ongoing for two years and with no end in sight, is draining the kingdom’s coffers by between 100 and 500 million dollars daily. It has been estimated that the seizing of the wealth of the businesspeople arrested thus far will add around 33 billion dollars (half the 2017-18 budget deficit) to Saudi state coffers, a substantial contribution to the 2030 and Neom projects. With hundreds more people on the list for their assets to be seized, that figure could increase dramatically. Furthermore, MbS’s plan to list the oil company Aramco on the New York Stick exchange was not universally supported in Saudi Arabia; nor were his plans for Neom. The dissenting voices on these matters have now largely been neutralised through their detention.
It is suspected by many that Hariri’s forced resignation is partly also part of the effort to bolster Saudi state finances. Hariri’s assets are worth more than a billion dollars, and his business interests are mainly based in Saudi Arabia. Since the economic downturn that hit the Saudi construction industry, Hariri has been unable to pay his debts to the kingdom. His stake in Saudi Oger is worth just under a billion dollars, a reasonable contribution to MbS’s coffers. Interestingly, the disappeared Abdulaziz bin Fahd was the Saudi point person in charge of Saudi Oger, and, thus, Hariri’s partner. Hariri has, since his ‘resignation’, been rumoured to be interned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, along with others arrested on Saturday. However, Hariri’s removal also has political objectives. MbS, with the support of the USA and Israel, hopes to increase the pressure on Iran through its proxies and associated groups. Thus the removal of Hariri can be read as part of the effort to escalate tensions in Lebanon, and to begin an offensive against Hizbullah.
He identified Iran’s role in Lebanon and the region, and his dissatisfaction with Hizbullah as reasons for the resignation. Yet, shortly before he left for Saudi Arabia, he met with Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor on international relations to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; and Hariri’s party’s relations with Hizbullah have not been any rockier than usual.
MbS’s power grab has already caused much disquiet within the house of Saud, which previously divided government portfolios between the different family branches to prevent fractious succession battles, and to ensure continuity. Saturday’s moves have upended this policy, centralising immense power in MbS’s office. It is likely that the families of Nayef, Abdullah and Muqrin will join forces, especially if Salman abdicates power in favour of his son in the next weeks. Abdulaziz’s disappearance and Abdullah’s death will aggravate this urge. Any rumblings of protest from within the National Guard at the firing of its former boss, Mut'ib, to whom the Guard had been fiercely loyal, would be an indicator in this regard.
Further, despite earlier expressions of enthusiasm for MbS’s ‘modernisation’ proposals – especially from Saudi youth, it is uncertain whether the majority of Saudi citizens will accept MbS’s plans, even though Saudi Arabia has a bulging youth population, especially after the recent crackdown. He has already alienated many critical clerics who had previously called for such modernisation, and who enjoy much popular support, as well as created fear in the business community, and anger in many sections of the royal family.
Additionally, the arrests of young reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki and Mustafa al-Hassan, together with the arrests of cleric Salman al-Awda in September, suggest two faces of MbS’s ‘reform’ initiative. Despite, for example, voicing support for increased freedoms, relaxing conditions on Saudi women’s restrictions to drive, and advocating (rhetorically) a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, MbS instituted two committees (the Union of Electronic and Software Security, and the National Authority for Cyber Security) in October to monitor and control social media, and curtail freedoms. Already, the head of the Union of Electronic and Software Security, Saud al-Qahtani, called on Saudi tweeps to report citizens sympathising with Qatar in the issue of the blockade on that country. Another example of MbS’s two-faced policies is his commitment to ‘privatise’ Saudi assets such as Aramco, while the recent crackdown shows that he is just as happy ‘nationalising’ private assets of those he dislikes.
The increasingly gung-ho attitude from the Saudi palace will also have serious regional consequences. MbS and his deputies have hardened the kingdom’s stance toward Iran, used war-like rhetoric in reference to Iran and Lebanon, further threatened the Houthi in Yemen, and instituted a full blockade on Yemeni ports. While a war with Iran is unlikely, Riyadh’s moves threaten to destabilise Lebanon’s complex, sectarian consociational political system in a manner that could have disastrous consequences; some Lebanese are talking about the possibility of another civil war.
While there is concern in the Middle East about where this will lead to, MbS and his authoritarianism have won unqualified support from the USA and Israel. Both the US president, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner enjoy a close relationship and mutual admiration with the crown prince. Kushner returned to the USA from a personal visit to Saudi Arabia just a week before the recent arrests, sparking speculation that MbS briefed him about his plans for the arrests and for Lebanon. After the arrests, Trump tweeted that he had ‘great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing’. Israel, which MbS reportedly visited in September, has also been jubilant about the new crown prince and his keenness to normalise relations with the Zionist state. The events of the past weekend have been pounced upon by Israel, with its envoys around the world being instructed to use the Hariri ‘resignation’ to attack Hizbullah and Iran. Whether this was coordinated with Saudi Arabia or not, events in the kingdom are proving useful to Israel in its battle with Iran, and, ultimately with the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty. From the time he was appointed deputy crown prince by his father in April 2015, he began to present himself as the face of the kingdom’s future, and many of his actions – domestically, regionally and globally – have been crafted to concentrate power in himself, show Saudis and the world that he is tough, willing to deal decisively with his enemies, fully in league with the United States, and to prepare for his coronation. This year, the blockade against Qatar, increased sabre-rattling on Iran, normalising relations with Israel, developing intimate relations with the the US Trump administration, and the events of the past weekend have all had a singular motive: strengthening MbS’s hand in preparation for his being handed the throne by his father. The latest arrests and firings are an attempt to silence criticism of his ascension to the throne, and to shore up his military, economic and media power.
Furthermore, MbS is transforming Saudi Arabia into a strong regional client that will help the USA maintain global ascendency, and serve, together with Israel, as a US proxy in the Middle East. MbS has set himself up as the new regional strongman whose role has been rubberstamped by Trump. The US administration has given him wide permission to consolidate his position in a way that will allow him to become an effective instrument of the USA in the region. The focus and escalating rhetoric on Iran (and its proxies) helps consolidate this position by ensuring that Saudi Arabia, the USA and Israel will be on the same page, with a common enemy that they each can rally their constituencies against.
The decision by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to hold a referendum on independence has proven to be a terrible miscalculation for the its president, Masoud Barzani, who announced on Sunday that he will not seek to renew his term of office when it expires on 1 November. The 25 September 2017 referendum was touted by Barzani as a momentous occasion in the Kurdish quest for secession from Iraq, and in the century-old struggle for a Kurdish state. It was also a reflection of the internal political struggles within the KRG, and an attempt by Barzani to retain favour with his constituency and solidify his legacy before his term ended. He went ahead with the move despite warnings and even threats from regional and global powers, including KRG allies Turkey and the USA. Indeed, the only state that supported the referendum and its results was Israel.
The referendum resulted in ninety-three per cent of those who voted supporting independence. In response, Iraqi military and police forces and Iran-backed militias clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga forces mid-October south of the disputed Kirkuk region, and, within days, Iraqi troops (re)took control of oil fields that were a key KRG funding source. With its military routing, loss of key finances, continued threats by Turkey, and the Iraqi central government demanding an annulment of the referendum results, the KRG offered freezing the results and opening talks with Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, rejected the offer.
Following the announcement of the referendum, many countries in the region and globally, as well as the United Nations and the European Union, had discouraged the vote, calling for dialogue between the KRG and the Baghdad government instead. The KRG’s largest regional ally, Turkey, urged Barzani to reconsider, warning it might ‘exacerbate regional instability’. On 18 September, Iraq’s Supreme Court declared the referendum unconstitutional. Turkey, and Iran, along with Baghdad, also threatened an economic blockade. Nevertheless, the referendum went ahead, with Kurds in the KRG and Kirkuk region being asked whether they wanted the KRG and neighbouring Kurdish areas to become an independent state. The electoral commission announced a resounding majority resounding majority ‘yes’ vote in the three governorates of Erbil, Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah and in oil-rich Kirkuk.Although Barzani said the outcome would have no immediate administrative effect, he did, however, use the referendum for political manoeuvring near to the end of his term.
Barzani – president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region since its establishment in 2005, and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – has already exceeded his term limit, which expired in 2013 and was extended until 2015. His current mandate will expire in November 2017, when elections will take place to vote in a successor. Barzani’s pushing the referendum, despite advice against it – including from many Kurds, reflected his desire to gain the title of ‘bringer of Kurdish independence’. However, the loss of the Kirkuk oil fields, Kurdish anger at his miscalculation, opposition from his erstwhile allies, and bombardment by Iraq’s central government have forced his hand. With the prospect of losing even more territory, he has encountered growing animosity from rival political parties, especially the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose Peshmerga forces were the first to withdraw from the south of Kirkuk, leading to a takeover by Iraqi troops. In a statement on 25 October 2017, the KRG announced that its leadership was prepared to declare a ceasefire and engage in dialogue with Baghdad. The Iraqi government rejected the offer saying it would only allow the total ‘abolition of the referendum and the adherence to the constitution’.
The Iraqi Kurdish independence bid clearly lacks support from countries in the region and elsewhere in the world. Leading up to the referendum, countries with Kurdish minority populations, including Turkey, Syria and Iran, vocally opposed it, fearing it would inspire Kurds in their respective countries to seek greater autonomy or spur them on to their own independence campaigns. This criticism has continued even after the referendum, leading to a tripartite alliance between Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and revealing that even though they disagree on many issues, they all agree that an independent Kurdistan cannot exist. Seeming to express the view of all these countries, Turkey’s president threatened a harsh blockade against the KRG that would cause it to ‘starve’.
Only Israel has thus far pledged support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is allegedly lobbying for global actors such as the USA, Russia and Germany to support Kurdish independence in Iraq, Syria and Iran. He described the KRG as a ‘strategic place’, and called on ‘someone’ to ‘[give] them weaponry, and whatever else’. His campaign seeks to garner Kurdish support to undermine the resistance of Arab states and Iran to Israel. More importantly, Israel hopes a Kurdish state can be used to legitimise Israel’s desire to legitimise for itself the status of an ethnic (Jewish) state.
With the KRG’s offer to ‘freeze’ the referendum’s results, and Barzani’s announcement about his role after November, it seems the KRG may be conceding defeat and succumbing to pressure, if only temporarily. The referendum, which appeared to have been Barzani’s ace card to achieve political popularity before the next election, backfired for him. Before his announcement, there were growing calls within Iraqi Kurdistan for his resignation, as his opponents argued that his political use of the referendum was a costly miscalculation that resulted in the loss of Kirkuk. Of course, Barzani withdrawing from his position in November is not the end of his political role. Members of his family are well-ensconced in the KRG government, and the Barzani family has controlled the KDP since 1946. Over the next weeks, Baghdad will likely be coerced to negotiate with the KRG, especially if Israel is able to lobby the USA to pressure Abadi to move in that direction. In the long run, however, Israeli support could disadvantage the Kurds against powerful regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of whom will use that to de-legitimise Kurdish claims. A war over the question of an independent Kurdistan is the last thing any state in the region (except Israel) wants, especially as the region remains mired with the ongoing Syrian crisis, and the devastating wars in Yemen and Libya.
by Azzam Tamimi
For a change, all concerned parties seem eager to see Palestinian reconciliation succeed. Each player has its own reasons, of course. Yet, it would not have been possible to come this far so quickly had it not been for the deepening humanitarian crisis inside the Gaza Strip and the growing predicament that Hamas, which controls Gaza, finds itself in as a result. There is no doubt that the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt has achieved its objectives. Life has become so unbearable in the Strip that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of any deal that promises easing the pressure.
This has prompted Hamas to express readiness to make concessions that had until recently been inconceivable. The full extent of these concessions is, however, unclear, and the deal under discussion is shrouded in ambiguity. What is known thus far is that Hamas has agreed to disband its own administrative committee in charge of the Gaza Strip in a prelude to handing over control to the Ramallah-based Palestinian National Authority (PNA), whose prime minister, Rami al-Hamdallah, arrived in the Strip on Sunday for the handover by Hamas. As part of the new arrangement, Hamas is expected to relinquish control over the border crossings with Egypt and Israel.
While some Hamas leaders have maintained that the movement’s military force is not up for negotiation, Fatah spokespersons insist that reinstating the PNA in Gaza would have to result in an end to all military manifestations outside the control of the PNA. It is inconceivable that the Americans and the Israelis, who are said to be in favour of the current reconciliation effort, will settle for anything less than dismantling Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. This is believed also to be the position of the government in Cairo.
Another important factor that brought about a shift in Hamas’s position was the election of a new leadership. Over the past decade, Hamas developed a complex organisational structure that consisted of three regional administrations – one for Gaza, a second for the West Bank, and a third for the diaspora – and an overarching leadership.
In February 2017, a new leadership for the Gaza region was elected, with Yahya al-Sinwar, a freed war prisoner, as its head. A few months later, Ismail Haniyyah was elected as the new head of the overarching leadership. Both men are based in Gaza.
In the past, decision-making within Hamas was a laborious process. The head of the political bureau had to consult with the leadership of every region as well as with his comrades in the overarching structure. When former Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al once violated this norm by individually consenting to a proposed arrangement with PNA president Mahmoud Abbas without consultation, he was severely criticised, particularly by Hamas leaders inside Gaza. Now the exact opposite is happening. Hamas leaders in Gaza are accused of not being bothered to consult with anyone. It is no longer a secret that tension has been building within the movement since Sinwar decided, on his own, to meet and negotiate with his former schoolmate Mohammed Dahlan, a close associate of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed and an arch enemy of Hamas.
But to his credit, Sinwar seems to be consistent with the public mood within Gaza. People are not only exhausted because of the siege and want to see it end, but they are also tired of remaining the prisoners of old rivalries. Dahlan was Fatah’s main security person when war erupted between Fatah and Hamas in the Strip in June 2007, resulting in the death of dozens on both sides and with the eventual takeover by Hamas in Gaza and by Fatah in the West Bank.
Today, the new leaders of Hamas want to turn over this dark page in the history of the strip. Hamas’s Cairo meetings with Dahlan, who now commands the loyalty of nearly half of Fatah’s members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and is a serious rival of Abbas, paved the way for what is known as community reconciliation. With funding from the United Arab Emirates and cooperation from Egypt, Dahlan set up a fund to compensate families who are willing to be part of a programme aimed at healing old wounds. Each family stands to receive the sum of $50 000 in exchange for publicly renouncing demands to avenge the deaths of family members.
Finally, Hamas has been considerably weakened in recent years. Since 2008, it has been the target of three major Israeli military campaigns and numerous smaller attacks and incursions. Yet, the most devastating development has been the success of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in aborting the Middle East and North Africa uprisings. The 2013 military coup in Egypt was a particularly catastrophic blow to Hamas. Since then, the movement has been left deserted and besieged. Earlier, disagreement with Iran over Syria cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in Iranian sponsorship of its Gaza administration, not to speak of the lost military and logistical support both Iran and Syria used to provide.
Palestinian reconciliation is likely to succeed this time around because all parties concerned desire to see it succeed. Egypt has a chronic security problem in Sinai and has concluded that Gaza can be part of the solution rather than the problem. The Arab counterrevolution states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, believe that Palestinian reconciliation will pave the way for official diplomatic and trade relations with Israel. It is no secret that these Arabs are dying to go public with their Israeli ties, but are barred by the lack of progress in the peace process. They believe that once Fatah and Hamas are reconciled, the PNA and Israel can resume final-status talks, and once the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fully resolved they will be able to justify ending their own public hostility toward Israel.
It is very likely, therefore, that the success of Palestinian reconciliation will mark the end of an era and the beginning of another in the history of Palestinian resistance. If so, and if ever allowed, Hamas may, under new terms, revert gradually to being a modified version of what it used to be before December 1987, a socio-religious movement. But will it ever be allowed to do so? With the military in control of Egypt, it is highly doubtful.
* Azzam Tamimi is a British Palestinian academic, political activist, and author of Hamas: Unwritten Chapters and Hamas: A History from Within
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Recent statements by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa criticising the Arab boycott of Israel and advocating Bahraini visits to Tel Aviv, point to the increasing normalisation of Gulf Arab states with Israel under the auspices of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Al-Khalifa’s statement can be read as as a testing of the waters by Saudi Arabia, and partly as an attempt to gain favour with the US administration to form an alliance against Iran. It is also part of a bigger trend among Gulf Arab countries to normalise links with Israel, thus likely resulting in a decrease in the already-limited support for the Palestinians.
The statements, disclosed by Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the pro-Israel Simon Wiesenthal Center, emerged following the participation of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser Al-Khalifa in an event of the centre, and his visit to the pro-Israel Museum of Tolerance, both in Los Angeles, USA. The Wiesenthal Centre event was funded by Bahrain, and, during it, Nasser, accompanied by over forty Bahraini officials, signed a declaration on religious tolerance, which was endorsed by Hamad. In an indication of his royal family’s attitude to Israel, Nasser agreed to the playing of the Israeli national anthem at the event, and respectfully stood for it. The king’s subsequent silence reinforces the veracity of the revelations, and illustrates his regime’s confidence that no reputational harm will result. Cooper and Hier also announced their intention to construct a ‘tolerance museum’ in Bahrain’s capital Manama. The Wiesenthal Centre built a similar museumover the Ma'man Allah Muslim cemetery in East Jerusalem, despite opposition from Palestinians.
Manama often touts its treatment of minorities as a regional exemplar, mainly in an effort to deflect from criticism of its suppression of the Shi'a majority, which has endured systematic marginalisation, and which regularly experiences state violence, including torture, including at the hands of Nasser. Incidences of such violence have increased since the 2011 Middle East uprisings that saw large protests in Bahrain and resulted in the deployment of Gulf (mainly Saudi) troops to Bahrain in March 2011.
Hamad’s statements point to a broader pattern of Gulf Arab normalisation with Israel, partly in an attempt to contain Iran. In recent years, visits between Israeli and Gulf officials have increased, and covert cooperation and intelligence sharing between the Gulf and Israel has intensified. In July, Britain’s The Times reported discussions between Saudi and Israeli officials aimed at fostering economic ties, while some reports claimed that bin Salman secretly visited Israel in August. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had previously invited the crown prince for an official visit, and Netanyahu has repeatedly recently bragged that Israeli-Arab ties were at their best levels. Saudi Arabia and Israel have common cause in their desire for a regional bloc to contain Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as threatening its regional aspirations. Bahrain fears the influence of the Islamic republic on its Shi'a population, which comprises two-thirds of the total. Bahrain often accuses Iran of meddling, and has instrumentalised this to crack down on dissent. These dynamics have been bolstered by the US president, Donald Trump, his vigorous support for Israel, and his focus on containing Iran at Tel Aviv’s request. Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati officials have enthusiastically supported Trump’s administration, leveraging their connections with Israeli sympathetic think tanks to garner favour.
It is thus likely that Hamad’s comment was issued with Saudi endorsement. This is especially since the Bahraini monarchy is dependent on Saudi largesse for its survival. Saudi troops remain in Bahrain, and, in 2012, Riyadh unsuccessfully sought GCC unification as a means to protect the Bahraini regime, and to consolidate Riyadh’s influence in the council. Moreover, Bahrain generates most of its revenue from the Saudi Aramco-controlled Abu Safah oilfield, and is disproportionately reliant on Saudi tourism. Bahraini foreign policy has thus been beholden to Saudi Arabia. Manama touted GCC unification in 2012, and Bahrain is a key supporter of both the 2014 Gulf ambassadorial recall from Qatar and the 2017 blockade on Qatar. Hamad has also defended the Saudi king, labelling twitter critics as Qatar proxies, and threatening Bahrainis sympathetic to Qatar with five-year imprisonment terms. This despite the fact that Bahrain-Qatar ties regarding oil exploration and trade had been increasing since 2014, and Bahrain, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is supportive of its Muslim Brotherhood-styled party, Minbar Al-Islami.
Warming Gulf ties with Israel are likely to damage the already-debilitated Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The flawed 2002 Arab peace initiative, which proposed Arab governments normalise ties with Israel in return for Israeli relinquishing of territories occupied since 1967 and Tel Aviv’s partial endorsement of the Palestinian right of return, will be rendered more irrelevant as Israel will no longer see any need to make any concessions. Israel’s strategy of negotiating with individual Arab states has seen results, and this is likely to continue. Moreover, Gulf Arab regimes are increasingly forcing Palestinians to forego their aspirations in an attempt to speed up this process. Gulf and Egyptian support for Mohammed Dahlan to succeed Mahmoud Abbas can be partially understood in this light, especially since Dahlan maintains good ties with Israel, and is willing to consider land and population swaps as part of a ‘peace’ initiative.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
After seven years of the raging Syrian civil war, Israel has emerged from the shadows to launch a campaign in Syria, continuing its battle with Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, while also looking to capture more Syrian territory along its borders. Soon after Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from a trip to Russia, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked a branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Syria’s Hama province on 11 September. The centre is located in the town of Masyaf, sixty kilometres east of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval repair base. Israeli strikes in Syria are not uncommon. In this context, however, Israel hopes to eliminate any possible challenge to its activities in Syria, hence the recent (more than normally-) aggressive tone against Iran. Unlike Russia and the USA (two of the major external actors in Syria), Iran (with Hizbullah) and Turkey are uninterested in having Israeli interests protected. The quest to malign Iran in the region, and discredit its presence in the Syrian conflict is the reason that Israel’s double-edged campaign seeks to create a buffer zone from the border of Golan Heights further into Syria, and ward off any present and future threats from Iran and Hizbullah.
Relations between Israel and its northeastern neighbour have always been rocky. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Golan, Syrian territory which lies within an area of 444 square kilometres – from the Yarmuk River in the south, Jordan Rivre and the Sea of Galilee in the west. m Syria’s military and diplomatic attempts to force Israel out of the Golan have failed on numerous occasions, including after the 1973 war; in 1981 Israel illegally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights, and has been building settlements there since. Over the past five years, the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan has changed hands between the Syrian regime and rebel forces.
Today, the area controlled by Israel is inhabited by approximately 40 000 people, of which half are Syrian and the other half Israeli Jewish settlers. The Golan Heights is a strategic asset that supplies Israel with 30 percent of its fresh water from the Jordan river. The Golan also has fertile agricultural lands for multiple products and is useful for the production of renewable energy.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel’s occupation of the Golan has remained in the background, allowing Israel’s ambitions to extend its control beyond two-thirds of the Golan Heights to fester. This is seen starkly in Israel’s demands to extend its current twenty-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ into Syria. Israel wants to expand the buffer zone to sixty kilometres from the border on the Golan Heights to the west of the road connecting Damascus and the city of al-Suwayda in southwest Syria.
This buffer zone in Syria would mirror Israel’s ‘Good fence’ policy employed in Lebanon when the civil war broke out in 1975. There, Israel established military and social networks with local Lebanese groups, assisting them to fill the vacuum that had been left by the government in terms of service provision as a way to sustain its occupation of Lebanese territory. In Syria this ‘good fence policy’ aims to consolidate Israeli control over Syrian territory as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s position strengthens in the six-year civil war, and Hizbullah and Iran become increasingly entrenched.
In June 2017, Israel provided funding and aid to certain Syrian rebel factions – particularly Fursan al-Joulan (Knights of Golan), through the Golan. Fursan al-Joulan boasts 400 fighters and is close to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Israeli effort to support it was set up in 2013 by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Fursan al-Joulan has effectively maintained security on Israel’s behalf in Syria-controlled Golan in exchange for the group receiving $5 000 a month, as well as food and medical supplies. Israel seeks to thus alter and shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war, in a way that ensures that it continues its occupation of the Golan. Israel also seeks to realise its interests is by getting the USA and Russia to uphold these interests in Syria via the ceasefire deal negotiated in Astana in Kazakhstan by Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Syria.
With the recent agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey, supported by Jordan and the USA, Israel saw an opportunity to expand its control of Syrian territory further, and its sporadic air-strikes in Syria are part of this agenda. The strikes, which Israel claims targetHizbullah arms convoys or warehouses, have been the biggest indicator of its involvement in the Syrian war. These airstrikes had previously resulted in strong diplomatic reaction from Russia. Earlier this year, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, to show that it did not appreciate Israel’s actions against a Russian partner, Iran, which has played a strategic role in supporting the Asad regime. However, this Russian attitude seems to have changed more recently with a seeming romance between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Astana de-escalation deal
The Russian role in Syria has been critical to the survival of the Asad government, and has strengthened the regime’s position in the war, as well as created the possibility of a ceasefire deal that will see Turkey, Russia and Iran act as guarantors in different zones in Syria. Such a deal, which has been accepted by the USA, has spurred Israel’s campaign against what it calls a ‘permanent Iranian threat’ in Syria.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey de-escalation zones deal was signed in May in Astana, Kazakhstan, and calls for an end to hostilities between (most) rebel groups and Syrian government forces in four regions. The first zone – Idlib province in the northern region, including north-eastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province – will be monitored by Turkey; the second – Rastan and Talbiseh enclaves in northern Homs province – and the third – which includes eastern Ghouta in northern Damascus – will be monitored by Russia. The fourth zone – including areas along the Jordanian border and parts of Dar'a and Quneitra provinces – will be monitored by Iran, and this is what the Israelis are upset about.
Israel justifies its demand for a stake in the Syrian pie by focusing on this fourth zone, and its supervision by Iran. Hostilities between Israel and Iran date back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Iran altered the previously friendly relations with Israel by ceasing ties with the latter and openly supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. More recently, Israel has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, which, it claims, threatens its existence and stability in the Middle East. Additionally, Israel regards Iran as an enemy for its support of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and the Lebanese party Hizbullah.
As part of its campaign to realise greater Israeli control of Syrian territory, the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was dispatched to the USA to warn US President Donald Trump of ‘the imminent threat of Iran’s presence in Syria’. In addition, Netanyahu himself flew to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin while the latter was holidaying in Sochi. Netanyahu informed Putin (and the world) that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Israel values its relations with Russia and recognises the strategic position of Moscow in the Syrian civil war. With this trip, Netanyahu hoped to gain Russian support to curb Tehran’s role in Syria in the future.
The Russians, trying to appear unfazed by Israel’s warning and requests against the ‘threat of Iran in Syria’, have not fully given in to Israel’s demands, but have made certain concessions. Although not agreeing to the extension of the buffer zone, they have, for example, propose a deal that Israel will find beneficial: keeping Iranian troops away from the south of Syria, and preventing them from maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. The deal might not fully give Israel what it wants, but effectively accedes to part of Israel’s request.
Despite being slightly rebuffed by the Russians, and not evoking sufficient American interest, the Israeli campaign will not easily back down, with Netanyahu hoping to insert Israel into the de-escalation deal, and expanding the Syrian territory that it controls. In July this year, a ceasefire deal brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan was widely welcomed by Israel. This deal – also hailed by Jordan – covers parts of Dar’a, Quneitra and western Suwayda, and is set to continue to secure the Jordanian border, which closed in June 2016. Under the deal, groups fighting against Iranian and Syrian forces were asked to cease fighting in the area by their US backers. They have also been asked to return artillery and anti-tank missiles. Israel prefers this agreement to the Astana deal, which recognises Iran as the monitor of areas along the Jordanian border, Quneitra and Dar’a. This zone seeks to create more of a de-militarised zone than a de-escalation zone, warding off the presence of any military hardware (belonging to regime or opposition groups) in the south, thus lifting the threat of an attack on Israeli assets in the Golan.
The Syrian civil war has been characterised by a complex web of involvement by and relations between foreign states. Despite a myriad of attempts to find a solution to the crisis, only the Russian-sponsored Astana (Kazakhstan) process has, thus far, yielded any results – modest as they might be. One of those outcomes has been the de-escalation deal that seeks to create ceasefire zones monitored and supported by Russia and Iran – which are major players in the war and have strengthened the Asad regime, as well as Turkey – which has backed the Syrian opposition. Israel sees in the de-escalation plan an opportunity to advance its own interests – particularly the extension of its territorial control further into Syria – in addition to its occupation of the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. It is using the fact of Iran’s role in the plan to, first, attempt to stymie Iran’s involvement in Syria for the future, and, second, to attempt to justify its own bid for control over Syrian territory. It seeks to thus lay the foundation for a long-term plan of expanding territory beyond Golan into Syria.
Although the USA usually readily supports Israel’s ambitions in the region, it is not an architect of the Astana deal, and has to defer to Russia. It is unclear whether the latter will ultimately give in to Israel’s requests. Although Russia and Iran are currently allies, Moscow is also concerned about Iran’s role in the region being elevated through a resolution in Syria, and might be willing to allow Israel to fulfil some of its ambitions in the interests of keeping Iran in check. Support from Russia and the USA on the issue will also embolden Israel to continue building settlements on Palestinian lands.
By Ramzy Baroud
Judging by its size, the Gaza Strip may look too small to matter in the ongoing regional intrigues involving Israel, the United States, Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. However, the 365 square kilometre coastal strip, which has been under Israeli-Egyptian siege for over ten years, outweighs its size many times over in the ongoing political gamble involving the region’s most powerful players. The many players that are involved are all motivated by sheer self-interest and self-preservation.
Israel has maintained the upper hand thus far, watching alliances emerge and others fold, manipulating the various variables as it sees fit, and ensuring that the outcome is always in its favour. But what exactly does Israel want? Shortly after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza. The siege has remained in place since, and has grown to define the status quo. Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli adviser to the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, aptly described Israel’s motives behind the siege ten years ago: ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.’ That single quote came to define the standard of cruelty with which Israel treats Palestinians. Yet, there is more to it than an expression of Israeli malice.
First, Weisglass’s near-starvation diet has been in effect ever since, with little done to remedy the suffering of Gazans. Second, with time, the Israeli siege also became an Egyptian blockade, thus making the most populous Arab country an accomplice to the Israeli plan to control Palestinians. Third, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah learned not only to co-exist with the Israeli siege on Gaza, but also to benefit from it.
The West Bank-based authority is controlled by the Fatah Movement, credited with launching the Palestinian revolt decades ago. But times have changed. The movement, now dominated by an aging, quisling leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is experiencing a power struggle within its ranks, while fighting hard to keep its Hamas rivals weak, isolated and discredited.
Egypt’s share of and role in the siege cannot be underestimated. Since his ascent to power following a military coup against an elected government on 3 July 2013, General - now President - Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved quickly to deepen the isolation of Gaza, and, by extension, Hamas. Sisi’s coup managed, decisively and violently, to overthrow a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Cairo, but not its Palestinian affiliates in Gaza.
Hamas, widely seen as the Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood, still reigned supreme in the besieged Strip despite determined Israeli attempts at destroying it, and any semblance of resistance there. Three major onslaughts launched by Israel (in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014) killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of Hamas fighters and leaders, but the political balance has remained firmly in Hamas’s hands.
With time, the Israeli siege became an Egyptian one, all with the tacit approval of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and with Arab approval. Some Arab Gulf governments, which wanted to ensure the complete demise of the Brotherhood, saw in Hamas’s survival a threat to their own existence. Now into its eleventh year, the siege has become a shared Israeli-Palestinian-Arab long-term investment. However, this is not a matter of politics or ideology only.
Following various popular uprisings in several Arab countries, Arab regimes with no democratic mandates moved quickly to suppress any dissent, no matter how seemingly harmless. Bloggers were dragged to jails; poets were imprisoned; peaceful activists were shot; and thousands disappeared in massive purges to ensure the failed uprisings do not resurface.
Meanwhile, Israel continued with its illegal land grab and Jewish colonial expansion, unhindered. With plans set in motion for ‘security coordination’ between Israel and the PA to crack down on dissenting Palestinians, the Israeli plan to annex most of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem was developing without many obstacles. Except, of course, Gaza, which symbolised a kind of resistance that could not be eliminated – neither by starvation, incarceration nor firepower. Nearly, 5 000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during Israel’s three major offensives in the past decade. Yet, although much of the Strip was destroyed as a result of Israel’s deadly wars, the spirit of the resistance there remained strong, and eventually, it rekindled the resistance of Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Further, despite every attempt at creating two different political entities in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in both regions continued to be bonded by their resistance.
Israel, nonetheless, succeeded. While it could not defeat Gaza, it managed to turn the siege on Gaza into an Arab affair, too. The Arab region has been experiencing rapid changes in recent years, where three civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the spread of militancy and ‘terror’ has reached almost every Arab country. The political uncertainty in the USA wrought by the election of Donald Trump, however, has offered a rare opportunity to some embattled Arab regimes. Even prior to Trump’s unexpected election victory, the USA was in the process of redefining its rule in the Arab world, and a ‘pivot to Asia’ was already downgrading US leadership and influence in the region. Trump’s ascendency, however, has mixed the cards like never before. Washington, which had governed the Middle East through clearly defined doctrines, now seems to have no doctrine, only impulsive decisions made by a Twitter-obsessed president.
The American retreat offered the kind of political space that could be filled by those vying to control the region. With Israel remaining on top of the pyramid, an alliance involving Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia began moving into a clear formation to achieve dominance through destroying some foes, isolating others and out-manoeuvring the rest. According to this new ‘vision’, Hamas, which could not be defeated by sheer force, could be relegated into an ineffectual political entity through an alliance with Mohammed Dahlan.
Once upon a time, Dahlan was the strongman of Gaza, commandeering ten security branches, torturing resisters and controlling the Strip in a way that was both consistent with the interests of his Fatah party and also with Israeli diktat. A few months after it won the elections, Hamas reportedly pre-empted a coup by Dahlan, and, since then, controlled the Strip alone. That was when the Israeli siege became complete. Dahlan fled to the West Bank, and a later power struggle within Fatah led to his dismissal by Abbas, who also accused him of a coup attempt in 2011. In 2012, Dahlan settled permanently in the UAE. Following the Egyptian coup in 2013, Dahlan and Sisi found common ground: initially to defeat Hamas, and eventually to coopt Hamas.
As Arab countries began moving to fill the gap left by receding US foreign policy, the political machinations began intensifying in an unprecedented fashion. Abbas quickly lost favour with Cairo, and Dahlan became Fatah’s strongman, as far as Egypt was concerned. Abbas’s sin was his refusal to join forces with Dahlan, with the ultimate objective of defeating Hamas. Meanwhile, with Abbas and Hamas failing to achieve even a minimal form of unity, Abbas remains confined to the West Bank, desperately trying to find new channels to win political validation.
The ‘Dahlan plan’ then emerged. A leaked document, widely reported in Israeli and other media, purported to show that Dahlan and Hamas had been negotiating the return of the former strongman to Gaza, to head a government there in exchange for an Egyptian easing of the siege. According to the plan, Hamas would remain in control of Gaza’s interior ministry and would not disarm, but, in the words of Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el, Israel, at least, ‘would have a partner in Gaza who supports reconciliation’.
Overwhelmed by the unexpected move, Abbas is now trying to make life even more difficult for Palestinians in the Strip, hoping to exert more pressure on Hamas to end its possible partnership with Dahlan. A few months ago, Abbas slashed salaries for thousands of employees, many of whom were loyal to Fatah, and to Dahlan, in particular. More recently, the PA refused to pay for much of the electricity that Gaza is supplied by Israel, leading the Israeli government to order yet more electricity cuts to the Strip. The suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is now compounded.
Unemployment in the Strip is already among the highest in the world, presently estimated at forty-four per cent. Those who are employed still struggle to survive, with eighty per cent of all Gazans said to be dependent on humanitarian assistance. In 2015, the UN warned that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. A Red Cross report in May 2016 warned of another ‘looming crisis’ in the public health sector, due to the lack of electricity. The energy crisis has extended from electricity supplies to include even cooking gas. Following the most recent energy reduction which started on 11 June, Gazan households now receive two to three hours of electricity each day, and not even at fixed hours.
Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, sounded the alarm on 14 June when she warned that ‘the latest power cuts risk turning an already dire situation into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe’.
To think that Palestinian leaders are involved in tightening or manipulating the siege to exact political concessions from one another is dismaying. While Israel is invested in maintaining the Palestinian rift, Palestinians are blinded by pitiful personal interests and worthless ‘control’ over occupied land. Between Israel’s dismissal of international calls to end the siege and the Palestinians’ pathetic power game, Palestinians in Gaza are isolated, unable to move freely, or to live even according to the lowest acceptable living standards. The suicide rate in the Strip is at all-time high, and despair is believed to be the main factor behind the alarming phenomena.
Failing to subdue Gaza, Israel has succeeded in spreading the burden of tormented Palestinians there by enlisting the support of Palestinian as well as Arab hands, each playing a role in a dirty game of politics that has no regard for human rights, life or dignity.
*Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, media consultant, author of several books, and the founder of ‘PalestineChronicle.com’. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada, and, his latest, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
By Zeenat Adam
The May 2017 Riyadh Summit marked the first international tour of the new US president, Donald Trump. Three meetings in Riyadh – a bilateral with Saudi Arabia (KSA), a USA-Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) meeting and the US-Arab-Islamic Summit – collectively supposedly focussed on unity in the fight against terrorism. The Summit culminated in a declaration – crafted unilaterally by KSA – that proposed, among others, the establishment of an ‘Arab Alliance’ and an ‘Islamic Military Coalition’ to combat terrorism; the establishment of a counter-terrorism centre based in KSA; and a condemnation of Iran as a regional destabiliser. Contrary to the show of unity, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, expressed reservations about signing a declaration that had not been discussed, in clear defiance of his hosts. It is unclear whether he ultimately did sign the document.
A day later, statements attributed to Tamim – supposedly uttered at a military graduation ceremony – appeared on the website of Qatar News Agency. He was quoted praising Iran and the Lebanese resistance organisation Hizbullah, mentioning Qatar’s close ties with Israel and the USA, and proclaiming his country’s unwavering support for the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas. Additionally, tweets posted in the name of Qatar’s foreign minister declared that Qatar would withdraw its ambassadors from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because of a ‘plot’ against Qatar. The Qatari government vehemently rejected these statements, claiming the news agency website had hacked. By this time, however, the reaction from KSA, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt was becoming frenzied. Within an hour of the hacking, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media began a media campaign to discredit and demonise Qatar. The seemingly-orchestrated onslaught maligning Qatar as a cancer in the GCC persisted despite Kuwaiti attempts to intervene and restore calm. Tamim’s visit to Kuwait to quell the tensions was in vain, as KSA and the UAE refused to entertain any explanations, leading to a shock announcement on 5 June 2017 that both states had severed ties with Qatar. They were followed by Egypt, Bahrain and, later, other Arab states or non-state actors aligned to KSA or the UAE, in what became one of the greatest spats in the GCC’s history.
A series of leaked emails revealing the extent of the lobbying by the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, added to suspicions that the GCC fallout was not as sudden and reactive as the Saudis and Emiratis portrayed it. The emails uncover the key contentious issues according to Qatar’s neighbours: the presence of US CENTCOM in Qatar, the Al Jazeera network, and support for Hamas. Otaiba’s courting of Washington neo-conservatives adds to the suspicion that the Saudis and Emiratis seek to seize the opportunity of Trump’s presidency to reconfigure the US agenda in the Middle East. The carefully orchestrated plan to isolate Qatar appears to be aimed at reinforcing Saudi hegemony in the region and cultivating a new power dynamic with the Trump administration. The renewed courtship with America is led on the Saudi side by the deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been at the forefront of decision-making since his aged father, King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015. His ambitious vision for Saudi Arabia and his aggressive, impulsive resort to military action against perceived rivals is setting the scene for regional upheaval. The Emiratis have also been flexing their petrodollar muscles to exert influence in the region, led primarily by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan who has been aggressively building up an arsenal of weaponry to support his interventionist motives.
As tensions between Qatar and its neighbours heighten, more questions arise as to the future of the GCC and the expected result of the dramatic siege of the tiny peninsula state. Without providing evidence, the anti-Qatar alliance led by KSA and UAE accuses Qatar of supporting terror organisations. The list of individuals on their ‘terror list’ appears to be a regurgitated post-9/11 CIA list that was laid to rest over a decade ago, and which has been dug out of some dusty archive for lack of any other credible evidence against Qatar. Organisations on the list appear to mainly be humanitarian and charity groups that have been active in war-torn regions. Qatar, KSA and UAE have all been deeply involved in Middle East conflicts, with proxy wars playing out in Syria, Libya and Yemen in particular. None of the three have been neutral in supporting factions that may have committed war crimes and atrocities and / or have been accused of being terror organisations. Thus, the KSA-UAE accusation against Qatar is a case of ‘the camel never seeing its own hump, but only those of others’. The allegations of Qatari terror funding and destabilisation of the region through its policy of engagement with Iran, support for Al Jazeera, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood are bones of contention but it is unclear how much the anti-Qatar alliance expects Doha to concede on these issues, especially since it would encroach on its sovereignty and independence.
Perhaps the alliance, and KSA in particular, cares little about sovereign rights of states like Qatar, which it has long treated as an extension of its eastern province. It has even been suggested that the anti-Qatar alliance is plotting for regime change in Qatar; unsubstantiated rumours surfaced in Egyptian and Emirati media weeks before the Riyadh Summit that the Tamim’s father was planning to support one of his other sons, the current deputy emir and Tamim’s half-brother, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Thani in a coup against his brother. These rumours are likely unfounded and generated outside Qatar among those who believe the real power in Qatar is with Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Misned, a prominent figure who has been repeatedly disparaged by Qatar’s patriarchal neighbours. She has been at the forefront of social and educational transformation in Qatar, and served as a UNESCO Special Envoy for basic education. Her children were groomed for leadership and she has stood as a model for women’s empowerment in the Gulf.
Further whisperings of regime change, also emanating from Egypt, attempted to open old wounds in Qatar’s history by goading Tamim’s distant cousin, Saud bin Nasser Al Thani, into making a claim for the position of emir. These attempts fail to consider that Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, and Qataris talk of a ruling family as opposed to a royal family. Its historical succession has not traditionally been one of primogeniture, but of regency and consensus within the ruling family. Furthermore, the split between the two wings of the ruling family dates to a 1940s succession debate when then-emir, Abdullah, intended for his son Hamad to succeed him. Unfortunately, Hamad died prematurely, but an agreement was reached within the ruling family that Abdullah’s other son, Ali, would assume the helm until Hamad’s son Khalifa would be able to rule. Ali, however, handed over the affairs of state to his son Ahmad in 1960, contrary to the agreement, and in opposition to the Hamad faction of the Al Thani family. In 1972 Khalifa, the rightful heir, deposed Ahmad. Any claim by Ahmad’s heirs would be contrary to the historical agreement, and would require consensus from the entire Al Thani clan, numbering more than 20 000 in Qatar alone. In addition, Tamim’s father, the former emir, Hamad, focussed, during his rule, on bringing the Ahmad faction back to Qatar from self-imposed exile and reunifying the factions, though there may still be some within the clan who feel disgruntled and entitled to power. To ensure that the matter would be laid to rest, the constitution stipulated that the succession of the rule of state would be hereditary in the male lineage of Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani.
There is no inclination to effect regime change by installing a ruler from outside the Al Thani clan, but any such attempt would fail, first of the constitution, and second because the Al Thani family has led the Qatari tribes with little opposition since the British Empire entered the territory in the 1800s.
Most analysts trace the current tensions between Qatar and its neighbours to the Middle East and North Africa uprisings, when Qatar positioned itself apart from the rest of the GCC in supporting the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, events unfolded sporadically and the momentum was organic. In both countries, parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power through the popular vote, to the dismay of other Arab dictators. Qatar’s role was minimal but for extensive coverage on Al Jazeera, which became the people’s channel – broadcasting their revolution live from Tahrir Square to the world. Once the governments in these two countries were democratically elected, Qatar provided keen support – financially and politically. The uprisings also presented Qatar with an opportunity to exert influence and affect the outcomes in other areas where similar uprisings were simmering, but where the leadership was militarily more equipped to suppress the people. In Libya, Qatar was instrumental in lobbying for international intervention, which subsequently set the country on a debilitating course of war. Similarly, in Syria, Qatar was one of the first countries to openly support the Free Syrian Army and is also alleged to have supported al-Qa'ida-linked Nusra Front. Qatar’s stance in Bahrain, however, was far more ambiguous as it joined the GCC coalition in support of the Bahraini monarchy; but coverage by Al Jazeera left its Gulf neighbours wondering if its allegiance to the coalition was genuine. Similarly, in Yemen, whilst Qatar contributed troops to the Saudi coalition forces, it strongly expressed the view that the Houthi should be engaged as a legitimate party; Saudi Arabia considers the Houthi terrorists.
KSA and Qatar now find themselves at opposites, though not for the first time. The polarisation during the MENA uprisings boiled down to the views of each country on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1950s the Gulf states served as a haven for Brotherhood activists escaping persecution from Egypt and Syria. During the 1970s a Saudi society (Al-Sahwa al-Islamiya – the Islamic Awakening) was formed, inspired by the Brotherhood. KSA rendered support to the Brotherhood until the 1991 Gulf War when Al-Sahwa opposed the kingdom’s position of inviting US intervention in Iraq, and began to mobilise for democratic and political reform. Similarly, in the UAE, an organisation with roots in the Brotherhood, Al-Islah wa al-Tojihi al-Ijtima (The Reform and Social Guidance Association) was established in Dubai in the early 1980s. During the MENA uprisings, Al-Islah began to call for democratic reforms, and was subsequently banned as a terror organisation, along with the Brotherhood. With its prominence in uprisings, the Brotherhood suddenly became an existential threat to the monarchies. Qatar provided a haven to Brotherhood clerics and Al Jazeera stood as the driving force of popular revolution. This prompted GCC members in 2013 to secure themselves against one of their own by ensuring that Qatar committed to ‘principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other GCC countries and not support anyone who threatens the security and stability of other GCC countries, including organisations…and not supporting the antagonistic media’. However, a few months later three countries recalled their ambassadors from Qatar citing non-compliance with the pact. Qatar was forced to make some concessions eight months later, ahead of the next GCC summit, including the closure of the live Al Jazeera channel, Al Mubasher Misr in Egypt and requesting some members of the Muslim Brotherhood to leave Qatar. Exiled members sought refuge in Istanbul.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has viewed the tiny territory of Qatar as an irritant that should be dispensable due to its diminutive size, but which always tried to play in the big leagues. Until the early 1990s, KSA dominated the GCC, which had been established in response to the security concerns from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. As a miniscule state, Qatar had always relied on alliances with mightier external actors to ensure its security, notably the Ottomans, British Empire, and the Saudis. The 1995 coup by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against his father Khalifa, a staunch Saudi ally, irked the Saudis who supported the former emir in a failed counter-coup attempt in 1996. Most of Qatar’s nuanced policies were developed during Hamad’s reign from 1995 until his abdication to Tamim in 2013. Credit is also due to the then foreign minister and later prime minister, Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr Al Thani, as the architect of Qatar’s enigmatic foreign policy. By the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, whilst Hamad bin Khalifa was heir Apparent, Qatar began to woo the Americans, who soon established US CENTCOM (Central Command) at Qatar’s Al Udeid military base. Having the military might of the world’s superpower just a few dunes away from the regional big brother emboldened Qatar to embark on its ambitious plans for development. The second major development was the founding of the Al Jazeera News Network, and the third was its embarking on economic investments through its sovereign wealth fund aimed at diversifying its gas-based economy. This allowed Qatar to position itself at the centre of numerous international political dialogues, as it did not shy away from criticising the US interventions in the Middle East, whilst concurrently expressing a willingness to engage adversaries and position itself as a peace broker. No doubt Qatar’s financial clout greatly contributed to its political ambitions; often leaving its neighbours feeling slighted by its brazen actions. Often, Qatar would be reminded of Saudi’s seniority, particularly when it tried to influence the outcomes of GCC and Arab League summits. This would frequently occur when Qatar tried to present a conciliatory tone in discussions regarding Iran – a sensitive matter for the region and a view which KSA is not tolerant of. Qatar has maintained cordial, yet cautious, relations with Iran due to the proximity of the two countries and the fact that they share the North Dome / South Pars gas field. The wars in Yemen and Syria found Qatar and Iran on opposing sides, but Qatar has consistently held that diplomatic engagement would be more beneficial than hostility and military aggression, a position its GCC partners do not agree with. Iran has exploited the rising tensions between Qatar and its neighbours by extending a hand to Qatar; Doha has, however, been cautious not to be over-eager to befriend Iran in this sensitive time.
The smear campaign against Qatar has isolated geographically and politically. The economic impact of the siege will likely be severe, considering that air traffic has been affected, impacting on the successful Qatar Airways, and hindering importation. Ground transport across the border with KSA has been completely shut off. Sea ports are limited, and access to the UAE port of Jebel Ali has been restricted, making the movement of aluminium and LNG challenging. Qatar has begun using Omani ports, and has been offered the use of three Iranian ports. Food imports have been seriously affected, but Iran and Turkey have become new sources of fresh produce, and a ‘buy local’ campaign has been launched, enhancing growth in the local market. Moody’s had downgraded Qatar’s status prior to the siege, and other ratings’ agencies did so since. Fitch dropped Qatar’s credit rating from AA to negative, noting that a prolonged siege may affect its credit outlook. The stock market has been significantly affected, but indications are that Qatar has sufficient investments abroad to ensure its survival should further economic sanctions be applied. Stress on gas production has been evident with the shutdown of two helium production plants, impacting on 32% of the global market. This is an early warning of what could potentially happen should the blockade affect Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) and gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants. World powers would be wary of allowing the anti-Qatar alliance to push Doha to the extent that it begins to flex its energy producing muscles and threatens a world energy crisis. Gas production is not governed by OPEC, and therefore Qatar is not regulated in its production or price settings. It would have the potential to cripple Asian giants like Japan and South Korea but the real question is whether it would consider retaliation against the UAE by cutting off the Dolphin Energy gas pipeline to the Emirates. Thus far, Qatar seems to have adopted measured responses, and emphasised the need to enter into dialogue to resolve differences, but the anti-Qatar alliance appears determined to force its way irrespective of the consequences.
The push for US sanctions on Qatar through the Congressional Bill HR 2712 (Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2017) bolsters the suspicion that the action against Qatar was not sudden, but was part of a broader plan for reconfiguring the Middle East. The bi-partisan sponsored bill already appears to be gaining momentum in Washington DC, and clearly targets Qatar (and Iran), without specifically mentioning its name, by its allusion to the sponsors of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It proposes economic and military sanctions against individuals, entities, organisations and organs of state. The banking sector is specifically mentioned. Were this bill to pass, it will have far-reaching consequences in the further isolation of Qatar, and in the ability of Qatar to do business with the rest of the world. The bill and the actions against Qatar are likely to have devastating effects on Hamas, possibly constraining the capacity of the movement to continue to resist Israeli occupation, or forcing it to make unimaginable compromises that could be devastating for the Palestinian cause.
There are strong indications that Israel- and KSA-funded lobbyists had pushed for the bill to be tabled, and it is no mere coincidence that its timing corresponds with the siege on Qatar. Israel expressed strong support of the anti-Qatar alliance, with Israel’s Deputy Minister for Diplomacy tweeting: ‘No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror’. The Saudi and UAE insistence for Qatar to break links with Hamas, and their promoting the notion that Qatar undermines Palestinian-Israeli peace beg the question whether their new-found friendship with Israel and the relationship with Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have any bearing on these demands. There are strong indications that Israel has been cooperating covertly for some time with both KSA and UAE. In recent years the GCC had been increasingly muted in addressing the flagrant disregard of international resolutions by Israel. Qatar expressed extreme frustration with the GCC in 2008 when the GCC refused to hold an emergency session on the margins of its Summit in Kuwait to condemn the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Qatar has financially supported Gaza with humanitarian and reconstruction aid after both the 2008 and 2014 Israeli attacks. It has been instrumental in mediating between the Palestinian factions to bring about unity, and supported the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, proposing a normalisation of relations with Israel, which the Saudis tried to reignite earlier this year, against the backdrop of their own warming relations with Tel Aviv.
It remains unclear what tangible outcome the anti-Qatar alliance seeks to achieve from the current escalation other than battering what they see as a delinquent into submission. Any suggestions of regime change will not be welcomed by Qataris who hugely support Tamim, and have a strong sense of national pride. The siege has sent Qatar’s patriotism to an all-time high, even amongst non-Qatari residents. An expression of allegiance to Tamim by the Bani Hajer and Al Murrah tribes, which span the Arabian Peninsula, has caused concern in Saudi Arabia, which fears other tribes, including the Bani Tamim, whom the Al Thani family derives its lineage from, will follow suit. The siege has already had a negative impact on the lives of Gulf nationals who are married across state lines or whose families and tribes were divided by national borders, but who, until two weeks ago, had ease of movement between Gulf states. Any coup or transfer of power will not significantly alter Qatar’s policies, and will, instead, leave the country more vulnerable to internal strife, as it would be seen to lack integrity, pride and independence. Qatar is unlikely to accede to the shutting down of Al Jazeera, a demand (sometimes threatening) of several Arab states over the years that it has withstood.
Kuwait’s attempts to negotiate a de-escalation may yet succeed, but an escalation, including the option of military intervention (though minimal at this stage) cannot be completely ruled out. Any such move would be catastrophic for the region, polarising the Muslim and Arab world and drawing other regional powers into the conflict. KSA is clearly lobbying other countries to join its alliance against Qatar, with a growing number of countries seemingly willing to do so. Saudi Arabia appears to be courting several African states for support with either offers of millions of investment dollars or threats of divestment. Pledges of support by these client states is indicative not only of the immediate isolation of Qatar, which has massive huge investments in Africa and membership of La Francophonie, but possibly of a potential plan to table motions against Qatar at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Arab League, and perhaps even the United Nations.
Qatar would not be able to withstand a military incursion without outside support, even though it has pulled back its troops from Yemen and the border region between Djibouti and Eritrea. Turkey has strongly supported Qatar and has begun to fast-track the deployment of about 3 000 troops to Qatar based on a pre-existing military cooperation agreement. Iran is keen to align with Qatar, as demonstrated by its immediate deployment of foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Ankara on 7 June to engage his Turkish counterpart on collaborative means to support Doha. It is, however, unlikely that Qatar will choose to align itself too closely with the GCC’s antagonist while facing the prospect of sanctions or expulsion from the council. Qatar’s options may appear limited but the anti-Qatar alliance has drawn itself into a quagmire that would be difficult to withdraw from. Other world leaders have been weighing in on the crisis. US President Donald Trump initially expressed glee at the siege, taking credit for the notion. Washington has sent conflicting signals to Qatar since the blockade, as the White House has aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in accusing Qatar of support for and funding of terrorists, whilst the Pentagon continues to engage Qatar more constructively, including through a new arms sale and joint military and naval exercises. French President Emmanuel Macron has urged dialogue, whilst Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Erdogan in calling on all parties to ‘develop compromise solutions in the interest of preserving peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region’.
The siege will undoubtedly have far-reaching ramifications for GCC. The values upon which the GCC was formed may still be important for its member states, but culture, language and familial ties cannot be the sole basis for unity when political ideology and military ambitions undermine the prospects of shared values. Unification of the states and integration will not be possible in a climate of mistrust. Threats to regional security in the form of wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria require a unified vision that will not be possible if GCC members have different views on the root causes of these conflicts, and view each other as enemies. The absence of trust between member states, together with the lack of transparency, accountability and an archaic notion that the public must remain submissive to a ruling elite, does not augur well for the GCC’s future, and may even lead to renewed popular mobilisation for democratic change in the Gulf. This is already indicated by a petition by GCC nationals calling for citizen participation in political decision-making, noting that ‘arbitrary and extreme actions’ such as the blockade would not have happened in a democratic environment. With Qatar not willing to concede, and the anti-Qatar alliance not backing down, the dissolution of the GCC in its current form is likely.
* Zeenat Adam served as South Africa’s deputy ambassador to Qatar between 2005 and 2009, and is currently an independent international relations strategist
By Afro-Middle East Centre
In his speech at the fifty-first ECOWAS heads of state summit in Monrovia, Liberia on 4 June, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed Africa and Israel shared ‘a natural affinity’ and ‘similar histories’. His attendance at the summit is a further indication of Israeli ambitions to shore up support from African states, extend Israel’s influence in Africa, and obtain observer status in the African Union (AU). ‘Israel should once again be an observer state of the African Union…I fervently believe that it’s in your interest too, in the interest of Africa. And I hope all of you will support that goal,’ Netanyahu told West African leaders. This initiative included Netanyahu’s visit to East Africa last year, the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister to an African state in twenty-nine years. However, the summit was punctuated by spats between Morocco and Israel after King Muhammad VI of Morocco reportedly skipped the summit citing the Israeli presence.
ECOWAS is a subregional bloc comprising fifteen member states dedicated to the advancement of political and economic integration in the West African region. Members include: Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. Except for Nigeria, all fifteen states attended the summit, which discussed issues of security, political stability and economic integration. In his speech at the summit, Netanyahu addressed these issues, hoping to charm the West African delegates sufficiently to be able to garner support for Israel’s AU bid as well as to boost economic ties in the agriculture and technology sectors. As part of this effort he attempted to compare African struggles to Israel: ‘With determination and conviction, you won your independence…This is very much our story. Our people too were denied independence,’ he said.
Other non-member attendees at the summit included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, AU commission chairperson Moussa Faki and a Moroccan delegation championing its application for ECOWAS membership. All the non-member attendees gave addresses at the summit except Morocco’s representatives. The fact that no Moroccan was slated to speak has been cited as one possible reason why King Muhammad VI did not attend the summit.
The Israeli government’s prioritising the bolster of ties with African states gained a boost last year when Netanyahu visited East African states Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Regaining AU observer status has been a crucial objective of Israel after losing this status in 2002, when the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) was dissolved and replaced by the AU. Israel’s loss of observer status was due to pressure exerted by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who accused Israel of promoting African wars, and South Africa. That the State of Palestine is an observer at the AU makes Israel’s bid even more desperate. Such a status will bolster Israel’s legitimacy in Africa, and enhance its ability to lobby and influence African states on several issues. It will also allow Israel to influence the voting behaviour of African states at multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.
Morocco and Israel have a shared ambition to influence African states in the AU and the UN. The West African country, which recently rejoined the AU, seeks African states’ support for its control of Western Sahara. Both Israel and Morocco see African states as a means to an end in the pursuit of their interests, hence the row between the two countries at the ECOWAS summit. According to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry’s official statement, Mohammed VI cancelled his trip to the summit because of Netanyahu’s presence at the meeting; he ‘did not want his presence at the summit to take place under a context of tension and controversy’. The Israeli government denied the Moroccan claims, saying Mohammed’s absence reflected his sulking after he was not given an opportunity to address the summit.
Netanyahu used the summit to secure support from West African states, including in sideline meetings with representatives of individual states. Believing that East Africa is securely in the Israeli camp, Netanyahu focused on renewing and forging relations with Francophone states. Even small states such as Togo are important for Israel because the votes of such small states at the UN General Assembly have equal value to any other states, which might be critical of Israel, especially states in the Arab and Muslim world. More support at the UN means Israel can more effectively oppose resolutions against its occupation. Netanyahu was clear about his objective to divide Africa: ‘There are 54 countries [in Africa]. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them, you at once bring them from one side to the other. We want to erode the opposition and change it to support.’ Netanyahu also used the occasion to mend relations with Senegal, which, in December 2016, co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli’s ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, resulting in Israel recalling its ambassador. After a side meeting at the ECOWAS summit, Israel reconciled with Senegal, which will see the Israeli ambassador reinstated.
Netanyahu considers his East Africa trip last year as successful. He met Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who visited Israel in February 2016, and pledged that Kenya would advocate for Israel’s observer status at the AU. Kenya has strong trade and security relations with Israel. During the July 2016 multilateral meeting with East African states, Tanzania announced it would open an embassy in Israel, reversing the diminished bilateral ties between Tanzania and Israel following the 1973 October War. Following the July meeting last year, ECOWAS President Marcel Alain De Souza visited Israel where he and Netanyahu signed a declaration for greater economic cooperation between ECOWAS and Israel.
This will not be Netanyahu’s last trip to Africa this year; he is scheduled to attend an Africa-Israel summit in Togo in October, where he plans to meet representatives from twenty-five African states. Continental heavyweights, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria, appear dissatisfied with Israel’s growing presence in the continent, and Nigeria’s absence at the ECOWAS summit may be an indication of such discontent. South Africa, Algeria and other states have staunchly criticised Israel, and expressed reservations about the upcoming Togo summit, but have not yet actively lobbied other African states in this regard, suggesting an incapacity or lack of commitment to curb the Israeli quest for influence on the continent.
The 5 June decision by Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and their allies and proxies – Egypt, Bahrain, the Maldives, Mauritania and rival governments in Libya and Yemen – to sever diplomatic and other links with Qatar is payback for Qatar’s support of the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011. It represents, for KSA and UAE, another phase in their process since 2011 to reverse the changes brought about by the uprisings.
The sanctions on Qatar aim to force the government of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to alter its foreign policy – particularly regarding its warming relations with Iran, and to end its financial and political support for Islamist dissidents in the region such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The Saudi-led move followed and was encouraged by US President Donald Trump’s visit to KSA in May, and his 21 May speech in Riyadh where he supported stronger action against Iran, and spoke out against terrorism – including Hamas in his list of terrorist groups.
Saudi and Emirati claims
The main reason advanced by KSA and UAE for harsh measures such as the land-sea-air embargo and travel prohibition for citizens of these countries, was a statement attributed to Al Thani, in which he allegedly praised Iran’s regional role and criticised states seeking to declare the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organisation. The 23 May statement, published on the website of the state-owned Qatari News Agency, is likely a hack, as the Qatari foreign ministry has claimed. No audio or video footage exists of the emir’s speech, purportedly presented at a graduation ceremony for National Guard officers at the Al Udeid base. Although the alleged statement may reflect the broad trajectory of Qatari foreign policy, Al Thani is unlikely to have expressed such sentiments publicly. Moreover, statements praising Hizbullah and criticising the US are at odds with Qatar’s policy and national interest, especially considering that Qatar supports forces opposing Hizbullah in Syria, while the US troops stationed at Al Udeid are critical to Qatar’s security.
Nevertheless, there are indications of a warming of relations between Qatar and Iran, as evidenced by Al Thani’s 27 May congratulatory phone call to Iran’s re-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, during which he proposed enhancing Qatari-Iranian ties. Further, reports that Qatar paid a $1 billion ransom for Qatari royals kidnapped in Iraq, and that about $700 million ended up with Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, also enraged the KSA and UAE. KSA viewed these moves as compromising its battle with Iran for regional hegemony. For the Saudis, this is the main reason for its action against Qatar.
The UAE, on the other hand, used the KSA action to pursue its agenda of trying to force Qatar to cease support for the MB and other such groups. Since 2011, it has worked strenuously to undermine and destroy the MB-aligned organisations throughout the region through attempting to finance parties such as Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia (against the Islamist Ennahda), by militarily supporting the campaigns of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and by supporting the 2013 coup in Egypt which overthrew the MB’s Mohammed Morsi.
Both KSA and UAE regarded Qatar’s support for civil society action during the 2011 uprisings as incompatible with their regional aims, upsetting the regional balance, and potentially ultimately threatening their own monarchies.
The sanctions, however, did not happen entirely suddenly and without careful consideration. In 2014, the KSA and UAE, together with Bahrain, recalled their ambassadors from Doha in a successful attempt to weaken Qatari ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The current sanctions follow a campaign by, mainly, the UAE to demonise Qatar, particularly in the USA where, in the run-up to the breaking of ties, fourteen op-eds in US media attacked Qatar and called for the USA to downgrade relations with that country. And, at the end of May, Saudi media alleged Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, secretly met with Qasim Sulaimani and discussed enhanced intelligence cooperation between the two countries.The cutting of ties by Egypt, Yemen, the Maldives, Mauritania, the House of Representatives in eastern Libya, and the Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi government in Yemen was primarily in support of the Saudi and Emirati benefactors of these actors. There has been some suspicion in the region that KSA and UAE would act against Qatar, but the suddenness (and severity) took everyone by surprise. It is possible that the suddenness is related to recently leaked email correspondence of UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, which reveal his country’s disdain for US-Qatari relations, anger at the US military base in Qatar, and envy about Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The emails hint at Otaiba’s role in the anti-Qatar campaign in Washington over the past few weeks.
To justify the action, the two countries have accused Doha of threatening the region’s stability, ‘adopting’ terrorist organisations – including the Islamic State group, and supporting opposition Shi'a groups in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. Much of this is untrue. What is true, however, is that the UAE-KSA and Qatar also support different (even opposing) sides in Egypt, Libya and Syria, and both countries regard Qatar as an obstacle to their agenda for the region.
Saudi and Emirati objectives
Following the conclusion of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia has attempted to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region. The kingdom has sought to enhance this containment strategy by advocating unity among ‘Sunni’ states, and by tolerating (and even sponsoring) Islamists linked to the MB, such as Yemen’s Islah movement. Trump’s singling out Iran as the greatest regional threat emboldened KSA, and especially its inexperienced deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Riyadh declaration, which KSA issued after Trump’s visit, vociferously admonished Iran’s regional role and advocated a coordinated containment strategy. However, Qatar was regarded as not being entirely compliant with KSA’s wish to isolate Iran.
The UAE focused mainly on Qatari support for Islamists such as Hamas and the MB, which the Emiratis believes pose a greater threat to them than Iran. This conformed to Cairo’s position on the MB, and Egypt thus fell in line with the UAE, already a major financial backer of the Egyptian state under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Abu Dhabi also used the situation to reduce tension between forces it supports in Yemen and those supported by KSA. Pressure had been building since June 2016, when the UAE redeployed its frontline forces to southern Yemen, to consolidate the gains of the secessionist Southern Movement (Al-Hirak), in opposition to Saudi interests. Worsening the situation, in February 2017, forces loyal to the UAE prevented Hadi, heavily supported by KSA, from landing at Aden’s airport, forcing Riyadh to mediate in an attempt to enforce Hadi’s ‘prerogative’. There was likelihood of even further deterioration when the UAE-supported forces routed those of Hadi, and consolidated control over the Aden airport. At the heart of these differences is UAE opposition to Saudi support for Yemen’s MB-aligned Islah movement.
The UAE thus expertly exploited the inexperience of Saudi Arabia’s thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince to create a false consensus around Qatar. Significantly, the suspension of Qatari troops from Yemen as part of KSA-UAE sanctions will empower UAE-supported groups, at the expense of Saudi-supported Hadi. Although Qatar’s troop contingent was small, Doha and Riyadh have comparable interests in Yemen – which are not the same as the UAE’s.
In what is definitely a major diplomatic crisis for the Gulf, other countries are also becoming engaged. Apart from KSA and UAE allies that also cut ties with Qatar, Jordan has downgraded its links. On the other hand, Iran offered to export food to Qatar from Iranian ports – which are around 200 nautical miles from Doha, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erodgan, defended Qatar, opposing the sanctions. Furthermore, on Monday, less than a day after the sanctions were implemented, Turkey exported planeloads of food to Doha to replace food that had previously been imported from KSA. The USA, which has its largest Middle East military base, and 11 000 troops, in Qatar, has issued contradictory messages. While Trump tweeted support for the sanctions, claiming responsibility for its success, the Pentagon praised Doha for hosting US troops and for its ‘enduring commitment to regional security’, and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson offered to mediate. The USA will likely attempt to ensure the smooth continuation of relations with both Doha and Riyadh, and will seek to maintain the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
As in 2014, Kuwait and Oman will attempt to mediate a resolution to the crisis. Neither has severed ties with Qatar, and Kuwait’s emir has been shuttling around the Gulf to seekagreement on a mediation process. Both states maintain good ties with Iran, and Oman was involved in preliminary negotiations for the nuclear dealin March 2013, helping to ensure face-to-face talks between Iranian and American officials prior to the commencement of public negotiations. However, resolving the dispute this time will be more challenging, especially since the demands on Qatar are multifaceted, and because the measures instituted are more wide-ranging than in 2014.
Qatar faces three possible options. First is the unlikely possibility of it aligning with Iran. Second, it could buckle under the pressure and give in to KSA-UAE demands, especially since it depends on Gulf transit routes for its food security, and because of its strong economic links with Saudi Arabia. Such a capitulation could mean that members of Hamas and the MB residing in Doha will be expelled (possibly to Turkey and Lebanon). Further, Qatari media activities will be severely curtailed, and the AlJazeera network, in particular, will have its wings clipped and will begin resembling other Gulf media outlets, in addition to the likely shutting down of Britain-based Al-Arabi al-Jadid as well as other websites financed by Qatar. Palestinian exile and intellectual Azmi Bishara will likely be expelled as per the demand of the KSA-UAE alliance. Qatar’s links with Iran will also have to be firmly cut. The third option is that Qatar remains defiant, and joins with Turkey to informally form a third axis – which could include Oman and Kuwait, and could see some involvement of Iran. With countries such as Turkey and Pakistan seeking to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, albeit unconvincingly at times, this third axis is already slowly emerging. Heavy-handed measures such as the current siege on Qatar are increasingly forcing smaller states to unhappily choose sides, accelerating the development of a third path, even if informally. The possibility of the emergence of such a third axis (and the possibility of Qatar refusing to give in) increased dramatically Wednesday night when the Turkish parliament passed legislation to facilitate the posting of as many as 3 000 troops in the Turkish military base in Qatar. Qatar might have momentarily been on the ropes, but its allies (and hopeful allies, such as Iran) have come out swinging. David Hearst argues that, in fact, the action against Qatar is doomed to fail, and Doha's two Gulf antagonists had bitten off more than they can chew.
The increasing tension also indicates a weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was established in 1981 to ensure unity and coordination among Gulf countries, as a response to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Although GCC countries have been coordinating on regional policing, established the Peninsula Shield Force military arm, and signed agreements on economic and taxation matters, the organisation has been increasingly fragmented by different stances of individual states. In 2013, for example, Oman was widely criticised for hosting secret negotiations between Iran and the USA, prior to the nuclear deal; in 2014, Oman and Kuwait refused to recall their ambassadors from Qatar; and in 2016, when KSA severed ties with Iran, Bahrain was the only GCC member to follow suit. No matter how the current crisis ends, the GCC will emerge weaker. If Qatar refuses to capitulate, that could spell the beginning of the end of the council.
Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory in the Iranian presidential election on Friday, 17 May heralds a continuation on the country’s path towards global re-engagement, both on a popular level and in terms of economic and political cooperation. However, the intense campaign that preceded the election points to increasing tension between state institutions such as the presidency, and parallel institutions, including the Revolutionary Guard and parts of the clerical establishment, especially since presidents have previously frequently become more confrontational towards such institutions at the end of their tenures, as evidenced by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fallout with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2011.
With a turnout of nearly seventy-five per cent, Rouhani’s victory, by a margin of twenty per cent over his nearest competitor, principlist cleric Sayyed Ibrahim Raisi, suggests an evolutionary shift within the calculus of Iranians. Although many citizens had previously abstained from voting as it had been seen as endorsing the system, Iranians, in particular those from younger and urban backgrounds, are increasingly turning to the electoral process to shape the country’s politics. Further, most citizens prefer non-violent, incremental changes to Iran’s governance structures. Trita Parsi observes that in most Iranian elections the system outsider has had the most appeal – Khatami in 1997 and Ahmadinejad in 2005 are examples – because Iranian citizens see elections as the only means of altering the country’s political trajectory. Significantly, Khamenei tacitly supported Raisi, especially in the weeks preceding the poll through criticisms of the nuclear deal and of Rouhani’s ‘unwillingness’ and ‘inability’ to implement a ‘resistance economy’. He also publicly confronted the administration over its acceptance of a UNESCO-developed education curriculum, which some saw as undermining gender roles, although the programme had been endorsed, with little opposition, in 2015.
Rouhani’s victory also benefited from the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal in 2015 – despite the less-than-expected foreign investment that followed – and the growth of Iran’s economy by over 10 per cent in 2016, which caused the riyal to appreciate. Fears over a curb in social freedoms if a principlist candidate were to win also influenced the poll, especially since candidates such as Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf had repressed dissent in the past.
Campaigning had been vigorous, and the candidates – especially Rouhani – crossed many ‘red lines’. The president blamed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for stunting the gains of the nuclear deal; the judiciary for its limits on freedoms; and the public news broadcaster for backing Raisi. He also offended the clergy by demanding that the largest Islamic charity organisation, Astan Quds Razavi, headed by Raisi, be subjected to tax compliance. He further accused the IRGC of crowding out private business. Raisi and Ghalibaf conversely pointed out the nuclear deal’s failings, corruption and recent increases in unemployment during Rouhani’s incumbency. This is typical of Iranian politics, where intense competition for positions increases openness, accountability and criticism, especially in electoral years. The system thus provides room for and tolerates a diversity of opinions, despite vigorous vetting of candidates.
Although most power in Iran remains vested in the Supreme Leader, the president is able to shape most domestic and economic policies through his ability to appoint staff to key institutions, and because of the power he wields in formulating these. Further, in most instances the Supreme Leader prefers to maintain an image of political insulation, and usually contours his political pronouncements in line with popular sentiment, opting to work through informal institutions to realise his preferences. Rouhani’s victory will require him to continue his attempts of increased cooperation globally. This is despite the fact that Khamenei has become disenchanted with this stance, fearing potential reforms, and will act to inhibit it. Further, although many of Rouhani’s criticisms of the IRGC, judiciary and clerical establishment in the regime were politicking, these direct and sharp criticisms and the tendency of Iranian presidents to seek to empower their office in the second term will escalate confrontation between these competing centres of power. This will especially be the case as Rouhani considers his legacy, which is important for Rouhani since seventy-eight-year-old Khamenei reportedly suffers from cancer, and it is reliably believed that Rouhani (and Raisi), wish to succeed him. Therefore, Rouhani tacitly criticised the IRGC and the judiciary in his victory speech, acknowledged his support for the popular reformist cleric and former president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and promised to negotiate directly with the Trump administration for the removal of non-nuclear sanctions.
At a regional level, Rouhani’s victory will not drastically alter the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, although the administration seems to prefer political solutions to both. Khamenei and the IRGC largely control foreign policy, particularly in this arena. The Iranian-Saudi cold war will likely endure, especially since the Saudi monarchy continues to replenish its military capacity, and because the Trump administration’s pronouncements have emboldened hawks on both sides. Rouhani’s victory will, however, guarantee the maintenance of the nuclear deal, and intensify the administration’s attempts to increase its economic benefits. This will be challenging, especially since the USA is unlikely to remove its ‘non-nuclear’ sanctions component, which has so far complicated efforts to invest in the country and caused its economy to remain sluggish. Rouhani will need to consider domestic measures, such as enhancing productivity and cracking down on corruption, to stimulate economic growth.
Despite Rouhani’s massive victory, he will face constraints both from Iran’s complex governance structure and regional ructions. Significantly, Raisi’s populist rhetoric, including pledges to increase subsidies and create jobs, attracted over 15 million votes (thirty-eight per cent). If Rouhani fails to fulfil his campaign promises, we will see a rise in opposition numbers, opening the doors to a principlist resurgence.
By Alaa Tartir
To speak of Israeli-Palestinian ‘cooperation’…is to use no less than a misnomer. This is not, however, simply because ‘the outcome of cooperation between an elephant and a fly is not hard to predict’, as Chomsky so pithily writes…but because in the context of the Oslo peace process, ‘cooperation’ is often only minimally different from the occupation and domination that went before it. ‘Cooperation’, in this context, is above all an internationally pleasing and acceptable signifier which obscures rather than elucidates the nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations. - Jan Selby, 2003
I…applaud the Palestinian Authority’s continued security coordination with Israel. They get along unbelievably well. I had meetings, and at these meetings I was actually very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along. They work together beautifully. – Donald Trump, 2017
From the outset, the Palestinian Authority (PA) security establishment has failed to protect Palestinians from the main source of their insecurity: the Israeli military occupation. Nor has it empowered Palestinians to resist that occupation. Instead, the PA has contributed to a situation in which the Palestinian struggle for freedom has itself been criminalised.
Rather than recognise resistance as a natural response to institutionalised oppression, the PA, in tandem with Israel and the international community, characterises resistance as ‘insurgency’ or ‘instability’. Such rhetoric, which favours Israeli security at the expense of Palestinians, echoes discourse surrounding the ‘war on terror’ and criminalises all forms of resistance.
This dynamic can be traced back to the 1993 Oslo Accords, but it has been galvanised over the last decade through the PA’s evolution as a donor-driven state that espouses neoliberal policies. The donor-driven reform of the security sector has been the linchpin of the PA’s post-2007 state building project. The enhanced effectiveness of the PA’s security forces as a result of massive donor investment has in turn created additional ways of protecting the Israeli occupier, thus creating spaces that are ‘securitised’, within which the occupier can move freely in the execution of its colonial project.
Such a development could only have two outcomes: ‘better’ collaboration with the occupying power in a way that shored up the destructive status quo; and greater violation of Palestinians’ security and national rights by their own government and national security forces.
This policy brief analyses the evolution and ‘reform’ of the Palestinian security forces since the establishment of the PA, and examines Palestinian-Israeli security coordination and its deleterious effects on the Palestinian ability to resist Israel’s occupying forces as well on basic liberties. It focuses on the PA forces in the West Bank and not the situation in Gaza, which requires separate research and analysis. It concludes with policy recommendations to reinvent the PA security forces’ operations and overhaul their structures so that they may truly serve to protect their own people.
The Rise of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces
The evolution of the PA security forces can be categorised in three phases: the Oslo Accords (1993-1999), the Second Intifada (2000-2006), and the post-2007 PA state-building project.
The Oslo Accords were characterised by two parallel, yet conflicting, projects: state building and national liberation. The former implied constructing state-like institutions and a bureaucracy under occupation, while the latter meant pursuing the revolutionary programme for self-determination that had been adopted by the PLO. The tension between these ventures already manifested themselves under the late president Yasser Arafat’s rule. Arafat’s personalised style of governance and its resultant complex network of corruption and patronage meant that the evolution of the PA security forces was from its advent neither inclusive nor transparent. Rather, it was fraught with nepotism, and was used as a tool to address the threats posed by Oslo’s opponents and to stabilise the population. In turn, it also solidified the nascent ‘peace’ agreements. The 9 000 recruits in the ‘strong police force’ envisaged in the 1994 Cairo Agreement became nearly 50 000 security personnel by 1999.
This proliferation of the security forces – all spying on each other, as Edward Said once said – has had severe consequences for Palestinians. Arafat’s establishment of security-driven political structures nourished authoritarianism and blocked accountability mechanisms in the Palestinian political system. This resulted in a dearth of legitimacy and further insecurity for Palestinians. As the security establishment grew in numbers and institutions, Palestinians remained ill-protected, and corruption and patronage within the forces became endemic. The divide-to-rule approach paved the way for future Palestinian fragmentation.
During the Second Intifada, Israel destroyed the PA’s security infrastructure because PA security forces participated in the uprising. This created a security vacuum into which non-PA actors inserted themselves, with mixed results for Palestinians. This exacerbated intra-Palestinian competition and led external donors, the PA, and Israel to be even more concerned with building a strong and dominant security sector. In June 2002, the PA announced its 100-Day Reform Plan; in 2003 the Quartet Road Map demanded that a ‘rebuilt and refocused Palestinian Authority security apparatus’ must confront ‘all those engaged in terror’ and dismantle ‘terrorist capabilities and infrastructure’. PA security structures were forced to combat terrorism; apprehend suspects; outlaw incitement; collect illegal weapons; provide Israel with a list of Palestinian police recruits; and report progress to the United States.
Accordingly, Palestinian security reform ‘remained…an externally-controlled process, driven by the national security interests of Israel and the United States, and characterised by very limited ownership on the part of Palestinian society.’ The international donor community led this reform in 2005 through the establishment of the European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (EUPOL COPPS) and the US Security Coordinator (USSC). This situation persists in the form of a ‘one gun, one law, one authority’ strategy through which the PA’s monopoly on force and violence is ensured.
The post-2007 state-building project under the PA has aimed, mainly through EUPOL COPPS and USSC, to reinvent the PA security forces through technical means, including training and weapons procurement. It has also aimed to reinvent the forces politically by constraining Hamas and its armed wing, curbing Fatah-allied militants through co-optation and amnesty, cracking down on criminals, and conducting security campaigns, particularly in Nablus and Jenin. These forces became known as Dayton’s forces in reference to Keith Dayton, the US lieutenant general who led the PA military establishment’s ‘professionalization and modernization’ process. Local and international human rights organisations have accused these reformed forces of human rights violations and of suppressing freedoms.
The current phase has further entrenched the predominance of Israeli security interests at the expense of the Palestinians. Disarmament and criminalisation have impaired popular resistance against the occupation, including peaceful demonstrations and marches, advocacy against Israel’s violations of human rights, and student activism. Today, PA security forces largely protect the security of the occupier and not that of the occupied. In short, the security of Palestinians has been jeopardised because their own leadership has been subcontractedto repress them. The post-2007 security reform agenda has thwarted Palestinians’ national struggle, their resistance movement and their everyday security, and has subverted the very functioning of Palestinian politics.
To understand the magnitude of the security coordination enterprise, it is useful to note that the Palestinian security sector employs around half of all civil servants, accounts for nearly $1 billion of the PA budget, and receives around 30 per cent of total international aid disbursed to the Palestinians. The security sector consumes more of the PA’s budget than the education, health, and agriculture sectors combined. The sector is currently comprised of 83 276 individuals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including 312 brigadier generals, of whom 232 report to the PA and 80 to Hamas. In comparison, the entire US Army has 410 brigadier generals. The ratio of security personnel to the population is as high as one to forty-eight – one of the highest in the world.
Security collaboration between Israel and the PA has fulfilled the Oslo Accords’ objectives of institutionalising security arrangements and launching a peace process that is tightly controlled by the security sector in order to enable Israel to fulfil its colonial ambitions while claiming to be pursuing peace. This process of ‘securitised peace’ is manifested in a number of ways, including the PA security forces’ arrest of Palestinian suspects wanted by Israel (as in the recent case of Basil Al-‘Araj, who was arrested and released by the PA only to be hunted and eventually assassinated by the Israelis); the suppression of Palestinian protests against Israeli soldiers and/or settlers; intelligence sharing between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the PA security forces; a revolving door between Israeli and PA jails through which Palestinian activists cycle for the same offences; and regular joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings, workshops, and training.
Though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to suspend security coordination, he has at the same time declared it a ‘Palestinian national interest’ and a ‘sacred’ doctrine. PA security force activities and Abbas’s political manoeuvrings have created a deep gap in trust between the Palestinian people and the PA.
Indeed, multiple surveys over the years have shown that the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (between 60 and 80 per cent) oppose security coordination with Israel. In a March 2017 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey poll, two-thirds of respondents demanded Abbas’s resignation, with 73 per cent expressing the belief that Abbas was not serious in his threat to suspend security coordination with Israel. In a 2010 Maan News Agency poll, 78 per cent of respondents said they believed that the PA security forces were engaged in surveillance, monitoring activities, and intervening in people’s privacy. Finally, according to Visualizing Palestine, 67 per cent of West Bank Palestinians said they felt they were living in an undemocratic system that cracked down on freedoms in large part as a result of the security realm.
Negative public perceptions about security coordination are fuelled by lived experiences – from which elites are often spared – as well as by official rhetoric and the contents of the leaked Palestine Papers. For instance, Keith Dayton remarked in 2009 that senior IDF commanders had asked him, in regard to the Palestinian security forces he was training, ‘How many more of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly?’ He also said a senior Palestinian official addressed a graduating class of these ‘new Palestinian men’ in Jordan, saying, ‘You were not sent here to learn how to fight Israel…you were rather sent here to learn how to keep law and order, respect the right of all of our citizens, and implement the rule of law so that we can live in peace and security with Israel.’ And in 2013, in a speech before the European Parliament, Israeli president Shimon Peres stated: ‘A Palestinian security force was formed. You and the Americans trained it. And now we work together to prevent terror and crime.’
While security coordination between Israel and the PA has been cemented since the Oslo Accords, the status quo is not a foregone conclusion. However, change will be difficult to achieve, as the system has created a segment of Palestinian society that will seek to maintain it. This segment is composed not only of security personnel in the West Bank and Gaza, but also of those Palestinians benefiting from institutional arrangements and a network of collaboration and domination. The status quo is beneficial for them, and ‘stability’ is their mantra. They are committed to an approach that privileges the political, economic and security elite, and they have no incentive to reverse the rules of the game.
Any attempt to halt security coordination would thus have real consequences for the PA and its leadership. Yet the perpetuation of the status quo is destructive for the majority of Palestinians living under Israel occupation and for the Palestinian people at large. With the crushing of the ability to correct political wrongdoing and hold elites accountable, business as usual will likely continue. Security coordination will remain a defining feature of the skewed reality that favours the occupier if action is not taken – soon.
The entrenchment of the PA security establishment requires policy interventions at multiple levels, from correcting biased rhetoric to establishing accountability mechanisms. The following recommendations, addressed to different stakeholders, propose an overhaul of the PA security forces’ operations and structures.
The Palestinian Authority
The PA must listen to Palestinian people and respect their wishes and aspirations, including in the security domain, otherwise the legitimacy and trust gap will grow larger. There has never been an inclusive Palestinian political system, but a more responsive, representative, and responsible leadership would ensure that the security of Palestinians, rather than that of their occupier and coloniser, is a core concern. An authentic security sector, as Tariq Dana has argued, would mean an end to the ‘focus on internal policing known as the “Dayton Doctrine”’ and ‘a program that demands accountability and justice be put in place’.
As Hani Al-Masri has elaborated, this would require gradual but firm steps to eventually freeze or suspend security coordination, including: ending Palestinian security apparatus intervention in political issues; reducing security allocations in the annual budget; disbanding parts of the security apparatus and restructuring the remainder, with an emphasis on professionalism, patriotism, and freedom from political nepotism; and instructing the security apparatus to resist raids by Israel in the West Bank’s Area A.
Although the PA still argues that the current security arrangements and division of labour serve the two-state solution, the relentless Israeli colonisation of Palestinian land means that the PA and its leadership must reassess their function. The looming threat of annexation should push the PA to take action before its role solidifies as a subcontractor to the Israeli occupation.
Palestinian Civil Society
Palestinian civil society organisations, especially human rights organisations, must form more effective coalitions and intensify their efforts to hold the PA and its political and security leadership accountable for their human rights’ violations. In the absence of institutions that perform checks and balances, pressure that goes beyond writing and publishing reports (though this in itself is an important act) is urgently needed. In other words, Palestinian civil society organisations need to develop practical actions that confront the PA’s continuous rights’ violations.
These civil society actors, including academic institutions, public intellectuals and think tanks, must also address the PA’s discourse in which Palestinian resistance is reframed as criminal insurgency or instability. Israeli and international actors who use this discourse should also be confronted. Civil society must embrace and operationalise resistance rather than see it criminalised, and view it as an all-encompassing way of living under occupation and in exile. Resistance as a way of life can help to reverse how the political and security elite currently portray it. Resistance can then ensure the restoration of the core values and ideas that enable Palestinians to engage collectively to realise their rights.
External actors, particularly security bodies EUPOL COPPS and USSC, need stringent scrutiny from civil society, both within Palestine and in their home countries. They cannot continue to dominate the security realm without accountability or transparency. By promoting the rule of law in an authoritarian context, these bodies contribute to the ‘professionalization’ of authoritarian practices by (ab)using a good governance framework. Their claim that their mandate is ‘technical’ enables them to evade the political results of their operations and interventions. After a decade of operation, it is time to conduct an independent Palestinian-led evaluation of these bodies and use that as an accountability mechanism to reform these erstwhile ‘reformers’ and decide on the way forward.
Donors and the Donor Industry
In a context highly dependent on aid, the supremacy assigned to securitisation and militarisation extends to the realm of development. Policymakers in donor states and Palestinians who facilitate donor programmes should address how ‘securitised aid’ has transformed a liberation movement into a subcontractor to the coloniser, and has resulted in authoritarian tendencies that favour the security establishment at the expense of sectors such as health, education, and agriculture, as well as at the expense of democracy.
Moreover, in Palestine, securitised aid and development have not only failed to address poverty, unemployment and empowerment, but have also created new insecurity and illegitimacy. Development planners must acknowledge that these patterns will never be reversed unless people, and not the security establishment, drive actions and are the constant reference point.
All these actions are the duty of the Palestinian people, especially when policymakers do not represent them and their aspirations. Palestinian society needs to confront the tools used to repress its mobilisation and organise in order to ensure the realisation of its fundamental rights. The non-factional youth-led initiative End Security Coordination that emerged in the aftermath of Basil Al-‘Araj’s assassination in March 2017 represents an example of such mobilisation. In their call for action, the group stated
'Our people have struggled for too long for us to stand idle while repressive leaders barter our oppression and dispossession for their personal gain…We are approaching 30 years since the Oslo Accords that transformed what remained of our land into open air prisons administered by unrepresentative PA officials who have hired themselves out to be our colonizers’ first line of defense…The Oslo regime does not represent us. Now is the time for us to come together and rebuild our collective struggle for the liberation of all of Palestine.’
If such organised resistance can continue and increase, pressure from the people may be able to change the trajectory of PA-Israeli security coordination, rendering Palestinians better equipped to work toward self-determination and the attainment of human rights.
* Alaa Tartir is the Program Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a Research Fellow at the Centre on Conflict, Development, and Peacebuilding (CCDP), The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID), Geneva, Switzerland, and a post-doctoral fellow at The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).
** This article was first published by Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Almost three years have elapsed since the reconvening of Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) in July 2014 and subsequent division of the country into two, now three, centres of power, with no conclusion forthcoming. The April meeting between the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar initially engendered some optimism. However, their differing understandings of the balance of forces, and views on ways out of the current impasse meant they were unable to agree on a unified statement. Continuing clashes in Sabha, in the south, mainly at the hands of forces aligned to Haftar, suggest that the Libyan National Army still believes in a military solution. This is despite attempts by global and regional powers to foster compromise. The 2014 Algeria plan and subsequent 2015 Skhirat (Morocco) agreement have had only limited success. Key in accounting for these failures has been the interference of foreign powers, and a lack of inclusiveness. Russia’s intensified support for the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Haftar, has also been worrying.
With the Islamic State group (IS) largely ejected from its Libyan strongholds, a renewal of the 2015 Libyan political agreement (LPA) is required. However, for it to succeed it must be more inclusive, and expand its focus on governance. Moreover, clear consequences for outside interference need to be stipulated. A fresh election is a likely eventuality, as a means of finally solving the impasse. However, this will only succeed if it is seen as fair and representative, and if it is coupled with security reform.
Roots of the current divide
Former president Muammar Gaddafi’s personalised and extended authoritarian rule meant that governance institutions were severely deficient. Following the NATO-led ouster of the regime in 2011, the new National Transitional Council was not very successful in dealing with governance challenges. Social service provision was non-existent and armed militia flourished. A May 2013 political isolation law, passed under pressure from various militia, resulted in the removal of a small number of technocrats and politicians who had had minimal ties to the Gadhdhafi regime. This was aggravated by the limited support provided to Libya by international institutions, which incorrectly calculated that the removal of the regime would ensure a consolidation of democratic governance.
Disillusionment amongst the population increased, and by February 2014, remnants of the old regime under Haftar’s command began agitating for a revolt against the governing GNC. Initially prompting widespread opposition from Libya’s political and military elite, by May 2014 Haftar launched ‘Operation Dignity’ in an attempt to provide a Libyan version of the regional backlash against Islamists willing to participate in electoral politics. Successfully appealing to perceived marginalisation amongst eastern federalists, tribes and separatists, Haftar’s forces greatly increased their capacity, garnering support from the country’s naval and special forces.
The May 2014 parliamentary election exacerbated the situation. The emergent Council of Deputies (now called the House of Representatives (HoR)) was comprised of a limited number of Islamists, elected with a 20 per cent voter turnout. Fears of this ‘new’ marginalisation were greatly influenced by the 2013 Egyptian coup, which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Mohamed Morsi, and the declaration of the MB as a terrorist organisation by Gulf Arab heavyweights in March 2014; thus, Libyan Islamists sought to reconstitute the GNC. Under the Libya Dawn banner, sympathetic militia began supporting the GNC, and by July clashes intensified around Tripoli airport. As a result, the country experienced a de facto division between eastern and western Libya; the HoR relocated to Tobruk and intensified its support for Haftar’s dignity campaign, which now overtly sought to confront Islamist-leaning politicians and militia. Haftar garnered support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are both fearful of participatory Islamists and had led the regional campaign against them. Financial, intelligence and military support from the two states meant that Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has been able to consolidate control of much of the country’s east.
The situation has been aggravated by the growth of IS, which consolidated control of the Libyan city Sirte in May 2015. Western countries’ exaggerated perception of IS’s military strength, and their wariness over migration to Europe from Libya had seen countries such as Britain and France coordinate with Operation Dignity, unintentionally increasing suspicion amongst Islamist-leaning politicians and militias. This myopic focus saw these states push through the Libyan political agreement (LPA) in December 2015, in an attempt to create a ‘unified’ government, which would sanction direct intervention. The imposition of the LPA, which resulted in the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), stalled what was then a domestic process between local actors. The GNA, under the leadership of Fayez Sarraj, has thus received limited support from the GNC and HoR; and the Sarraj administration exercises limited territorial and administrative control. The HoR has voted against endorsing it, while parts of the GNC have formed the National Salvation government out of Tripoli.
Currently there are three centres of power in the country: the GNA, GNC (Salvation government) and the HoR. The HoR remains based in Tobruk and has consolidated control over eastern Libya. Haftar’s forces have pushed GNC-supported militia, under the banner of the Benghazi Defence Brigades, out of most of Benghazi, and encircled Derna. Moreover, in September 2016 Haftar’s forces successfully captured Libya’s oil crescent, allowing it to control most of Libya’s oil, and enabling Haftar to increase his influence in the HoR. Through staffing local councils with military allies, Haftar is now more influential than the prime minister recognised by the HoR, Abdullah al Thinni, and HoR speaker Ageela Saleh.
Conversely, the GNA controls parts of western and southern Libya, including the influential city of Misrata. Misratan forces support the Sarraj regime, which is regarded by the international community as the legitimate government. Parts of Libya Dawn are allied to the GNA; however, more hard-line groups have resolved to back the GNC and its head Khalifa al-Ghwell. Prior to March 2016 Sarraj operated out of Tunis; he has since managed to consolidate control in parts of Tripoli. Ghwell had attempted a coup in Tripoli in September 2016, but GNA-supported militia rapidly quelled this effort. Notably, many GNC-aligned militia have frequently interchanged support between the GNC and GNA, although most would support the GNA in a confrontation with Haftar. In March 2017, for example, the GNC-allied Benghazi Defence Brigades briefly gained control over the oil refineries of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, most likely with support from Misratan militia. Moreover, in April, GNC-aligned forces supported the thus far successful effort by Misrata’s Third Force to repel LNA troops from capturing the Tamnihint airbase in Sabha.
Conflict among the three parties is currently centred in the south and centre between the HoR and GNA, and in Tripoli between the GNA and GNC. At present, although Haftar’s forces have the best training and equipment, a military victory is unlikely. This is especially since the federalist and separatist elements that support Haftar in the east are not present in the west, because the Misratan militia are reasonably well trained and possess aerial capabilities, and because many western tribes still support the GNA. Recent clashes, between Misrata’s Third Force and Haftar, over aerial bases in the southern city of Sabha and over the strategic central city of Jufra will shape the military side of the conflict in the immediate term.
IS in Libya has been largely defeated, and only a few hundred fighters remain in the country’s south. This is mainly the result of actions of the Misratan militia under the al-Bunyan al-Marsoos operation, and because of support from US airstrikes. Sirte was regained in September, and IS is unlikely to regroup. Significantly, Sirte’s recapture weakened the Misratan militia, allowing Haftar’s forces to move west into Jufra. IS’s relatively rapid routing from Sirte does point to the group’s comparative weakness in the country and the often-exaggerated perception of its influence.
Politically, all three governments possess only nominal control over areas they claim to govern. Social services such as electricity and health care are often irregular and intermittent. Inflation has increased and the Libyan dinar has weakened. Oil production, the country’s main source of revenue, has increased to around 700 000 barrels daily. However, in recent months, the GNA and HoR have disputed the sharing of such revenue.
Efforts to form a unified government incorporating the HoR into the LPA have faltered. In December 2016 it was agreed that the LPA would be amended to include Haftar’s command of the Libyan army and to provide a greater role to the HoR in shaping policy, the two main factors impeding HoR endorsement. The subsequent meeting between Haftar and Sarraj reinforced this, especially as the two reportedly concurred on the need to reform the GNA’s presidential council to allow for HoR representation, and that Haftar would head a unified national army. However, it is unlikely that Sarraj would allow Haftar a voice on a reformed presidential council, and it is implausible that militia aligned to both the GNC and GNA would sanction the LNA being incorporated into the GNC’s presidential guard if it meant that their influence would be subsumed.
The March 2018 date for presidential and parliamentary elections, agreed upon by Haftar and Sarraj, provides a means out of the current impasse. However, for this to be successful, the election would need to be seen as fair and representative. Turnout would need to be greater than the 20 per cent seen in the 2014 poll, and stipulations for regional seat allocation would need to be enacted, especially since federalism and secession have previously had much appeal. Moreover, a formula for military unification would need to be concluded and implemented in the interceding period, failing which militia groupings would continue to hold sway.
Increasing role of foreign actors
Since its inception, the Libyan conflict has been greatly influenced by outside powers. Gadhdhafi’s overthrow can largely be attributed to international support for rebel groups and the NATO-enforced no-fly zone. Haftar’s forces had subsequently received vast amounts of military backing from Egypt and the UAE, which deployed ground and aerial forces into eastern Libya. Haftar’s recapture of Sidra and Ras Lanuf in March 2017 was planned in Egypt and executed with the assistance of UAE aircraft, based out of a UAE-controlled airbase in eastern Libya. The Misratan militia and those allied to the GNC receive support from Turkey and Qatar; however, this is limited when compared to foreign support for Haftar. The IS threat has meant that France, Britain and Algeria have also deployed special forces to the country. These have usually been in support of different militia groupings, including Haftar’s LNA, aggravating the conflict and often impeding efforts to engender political compromise.
Worryingly, Russia has intensified its focus on the country. Over the past year, both Sarraj and Haftar visited Moscow, and in January 2017 Haftar was hosted on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Comparable to its renewed focus on Egypt and support for the Asad regime in Syria, Moscow does not distinguish between militant extremist and participatory Islamists. It has thus militarily supported Haftar’s Operation Dignity and is likely to provide over two billion dollars of arms to the LNA. Haftar reportedly participated in a video conference with Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, while on the Admiral Kuznetsov, and methods of circumventing the arms embargo were discussed. Haftar has thus been emboldened and has intensified his intentions to militarily confront Tripoli. Notably, prior to Gadhdhafi’s ouster, Moscow concluded over ten billion dollars in arms and trade deals with Libya, and is seeking to reactivate those agreements. In addition, agreements over Russian use of Libyan aerial and naval bases have also been concluded with the HoR in the east.
Thus, regional and international diplomatic and political manoeuvres have had only limited success. The Algeria initiative of September 2014 was impeded by Egyptian support for Haftar and a subsequent parallel Egyptian initiative. Conversely, the LPA has been hampered by the willingness of international actors to work with Haftar to combat militancy. Recently, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia collaborated in an attempt to formulate a more localised solution to the Libyan crisis, which would involve all actors. This culminated in the Tunis Declaration of February 2017, which calls for the protection of Libya’s territorial integrity, involvement of all actors in finding a political solution, and desisting from the use of force by regional and international actors. It is difficult to see this being implemented, especially since neighbouring countries are already involved in the conflict, and because they believe their interests can better be guaranteed by Haftar prevailing. Egypt continues to support the LNA, while there are reliable reports that Russia seeks to work through Algeria to circumvent the Libyan arms embargo. Further, the UAE, through its organising and hosting of the meeting between Haftar and Sarraj, seeks to initiate its own negotiations. These will likely undermine those held by the Algeria-Tunisia-Egypt troika, which have African Union support.
While most international and regional actors concur that a political solution is the only means of solving Libya’s conflict, they maintain support for different parties. This support, military and financial, has emboldened these groups, which continue to seek a military victory. The consolidation of governance structures has thus not occurred as different groups divert resources to military efforts, and negotiations aimed at amending the LPA have stalled, owing to disagreements over who will be in command of the military. Though it was a possibility in 2014, secession is no longer on the cards, mainly because international actors are not in favour; however, polarisation between eastern and western Libya is calcifying, and secessionist sentiments occasionally arise in the south. In the immediate term, the confrontations in Jufra and Sabha will greatly influence which faction possesses the upper hand, but the outright military victory of a single faction is unlikely. International and regional powers need to ensure that good-faith negotiations are expedited. Key in this regard is facilitating the maintenance of a ceasefire and ensuring that military support from outside powers results in clear consequences. Building governance institutions, which was an aim of the Skhirat agreement, must be emphasised and pursued, and an agreement over the sharing of oil resources formulated. The LPA needs to be revised; however, caution must be exercised to ensure that the agreement represents the balance of forces and is not seen as favouring certain factions.