Tag Archives: Syria

What are the Saudis Thinking?

Two stories made a big splash today, suggesting US-Saudi ties are fraying and that Riyadh is hugely disappointed by U.S. policies. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is at the center of both the Wall Street Journal and Reuters articles. European diplomats reportedly met with Prince Bandar (pictured) over the weekend. He made it perfectly clear to them that Riyadh was ready to scale back cooperation with the U.S. on Syria and arm rebel factions now fighting the Assad regime. Sources told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would reconsider arms deals with the U.S. and oil sales just days after the Kingdom rejected a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Three recent developments have inspired Saudi Arabia to beat its own path of late. With this post, I’m trying to capture the logic driving Riyadh. This post is deliberately sympathetic because the media has largely failed to express their views. Saudi leaders haven’t articulated them carefully, either.

Start with Syria. For two years the U.S. has hinted at arming rebels but held back. These hints hardened into explicit promises in June, when the Obama administration first accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons and crossing the president’s “red line.” In response, the White House pledged to arm rebels. Even then, the goal was not to oust Assad, but to create a stalemate that would force both sides to negotiate.

Countless stories since then have made it clear that rebels are not receiving enough arms or aid from the U.S. and that allies have withheld aid so as to not anger Washington. As reported by Greg Miller on October 5, an ongoing CIA training program “is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces [.]”

The August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus neighborhood changed everything—it seemed. With 1,400 dead, evidence mounting, and outrage rising, the Obama administration prepared to strike Syria. Warships were positioned off the coast and the White House appeared deadly serious. It encouraged the Saudis to rally Arab opinion at the Arab League and beyond. Saudi officials made the case for war and, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer, they even asked for target lists to study, so that they could join an attack.

But the strikes never came. British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to secure enough votes to intervene. In the U.S., Obama decided to seek congressional authorization after a brief public debate turned against an attack. The Saudis, for their part, made their case loudly and in many venues, even offering to pay in full for an expanded effort to oust Assad rather than teach him a lesson. They did so with confidence that the U.S. would follow through and were subsequently humiliated by the U.S. climbing down. Settling for a Russian deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, while pursuing a deeply flawed peace process in Geneva and not punishing the regime in any meaningful way, has created a sense of abandonment in Riyadh.

This may sound absurd to those who hate Saudi Arabia because they think the system is morally bankrupt—but there is a moral component to Saudi foreign policy in Syria. Their support for rebels is not simply a cold calculation to cut off Iran’s right hand in the Arab world. Leaders like King Abdullah see a country under siege from outsiders, both Sunni jihadists and Iranian agents, and a brutal regime defended by Russia and China at the United Nations. They believe the only way to save Syria and stop the killing is to remove Assad by force.

Then there’s Iran. It’s widely assumed that the Saudis fear a “grand bargain” that would allow them to dominate the region. According to this reading, a comprehensive nuclear deal would really be a prelude to a regional security agreement that lessens the burden on the U.S. and gives Iran more breathing room. This fear isn’t new. It dates back to before the Shah fell. Gulf Arab leaders worry that Iran—with its larger population, stronger military and formidable nationalism—could dominate the neighborhood unless outsiders help secure the Gulf.

But why would the Saudis be unhappy with nuclear deal that satisfies the rest of the world? What they’re most alarmed by, I’m guessing, is the public outreach that creates immense pressure to reach a deal even if it’s flawed. A thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations is not out of the question for Saudi Arabia. It’s easy to forget, in a time of heightened sectarianism and bloody proxy battles, that the Saudis have an embassy in Tehran and the two sides occasionally do business in spite of mistrust.

Egypt is another point of contention. The Saudis genuinely believe they backed a popular uprising in Egypt this summer, when the democratically-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, was ousted by a military supported by millions and millions of Egyptians. The ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mursi belonged, has killed over one thousand people. Thousands of others are in jail. But the general who led the coup is hugely popular and could win the presidency if he ran for office today. This is good enough for Riyadh.

At the same time, the Saudis sees the growing insurgency in Sinai and Islamists resorting to terrorism as proof that violence is part of the Brotherhood’s DNA. The Saudis are quick to frame their support for Egypt’s military as a response to this threat.

In an effort to bolster the interim government, discredit the Brotherhood, and improve Egypt’s fiscal standing, the Saudis have committed $12 billion in aid along with Kuwait and the UAE. By contrast, the U.S. decided this month to strip Egypt of military aid, leaving the Saudis to scratch their head in astonishment. Such confusion could have been avoided if the U.S. acted decisively in the early days of the coup and withdrew aid immediately. But the delayed reaction has only complicated the relationship. Why do it now when the worst of the crackdown is over and terrorism is a serious threat gaining momentum?

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What other factors are driving Saudi policy today? Please comment.

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Lacking coherent vision, U.S. strikes against Syria would be vain

Today’s guest author is Matthew Gilchrist (@gilchristms). He holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs, specializing in U.S. foreign policy and security studies. He previously lived in Lebanon while studying at the American University of Beirut and worked at the news website NOW Lebanon. Gilchrist now works in Washington, DC.

Over the past week the Obama administration has built its case for what it claims could be one-time airstrikes in Syria to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons, which, according to U.S. estimates, killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians on August 21. The administration says that an airstrike is necessary to preserve the integrity of the “red line” Obama drew a year ago and to protect Syrian civilians from further attacks.

If the U.S. stands passively by, Assad will use his chemical stockpiles with impunity, setting a dangerous international precedent. But, the administration adds, an American response must be neither too soft nor so strong that it results in the fall of Assad. American actions are intended neither to bring about regime change nor as a pretext for greater involvement in Syria’s civil war, we are told.

Unfortunately, airstrikes are unlikely to achieve anything that could lessen the suffering of the Syrian people or push Assad to the negotiating table. It will most certainly not stop his government’s use of conventional weaponry that has already killed tens of thousands. The strikes will only serve to assuage the Obama administration’s doubts about its own international credibility while creating greater instability and uncertainty in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel.

Furthermore, discussion of these strikes – seemingly only  popular in the White House, a few congressional offices and the Élysée Palace – fail to take into account the views of Syrian and Arab publics, who overwhelmingly oppose another American military intervention. American military involvement will do further damage to its image in the Arab world, make a bad situation worse in Syria by exacerbating refugee flows to neighboring countries, and risk reprisal attacks by Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or their proxies that could escalate the Syrian conflict and inflame the region.

Meanwhile, American efforts to prove Syrian government culpability in the August 21 chemical attack have ignored key questions, which without U.N. Security Council approval of a military response further undermines the administration’s claim to legitimacy for any possible military action. Why, for example, would the Syrian government carry out an unprecedented chemical attack a mere 20-minute drive from the U.N. weapons inspectors’ headquarters in Damascus? With U.N. inspectors on the ground in Syria, it is fortuitous for the rebels that the attack came when it did and should raise concerns about their own involvement.

Much of the evidence cited in the unclassified U.S. assessment of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons released on Friday is circumstantial and relies on assumptions of prior government culpability in chemical attacks. The most vital piece of evidence the administration cites is a communications intercept “involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.” However, no transcript was provided in either English or the original Arabic, nor was it divulged whether this individual is thought to have played a role in the alleged attack. Lacking context, this “senior official” may have been merely speculating on an event to which he had no connection. With the option of military force on the table, more transparency, evidence and context are necessary for the administration’s claims to be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt.

While suspicion must fall first and foremost on the party in possession of both massive stockpiles of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them – the Syrian government – the U.S., its European allies and the U.N. have an obligation to consider alternative scenarios and investigate the possibility of rebel involvement. Contrary to the administration’s claims, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a rebel faction or a group of defected Syrian military officers could have acquired an amount of sarin gas from among Syria’s own stockpiles or from abroad, and staged the attack to bring about a Western military intervention. Knowing that the Americans will blame Assad for the attack, and with so many dead already, might not a thousand more be justifiable if it hastens the end of the war?

Unfortunately, questions such as these are all too often dismissed and discredited by virtue of their popularity with Russia, China, and most damningly, the Syrian regime itself. The Syrian civil war has so polarized the Middle East and the international community that a critical and thorough debate no longer seems possible.

The U.S. must be careful if it chooses to pursue airstrikes against the Syrian government. If the American response is miscalculated and does greater damage to Syrian government assets than intended, the scales could tip in favor of the rebels and throw Syria into a new, bloodier stage of its civil war. The ascendant rebel forces might push deeper into Damascus, seeking to fully dislodge the regime from its capital stronghold, while Assad would quicken the pace of his unrelenting campaign against rebels and civilians alike. Hezbollah or its proxies could strike at Israel, whose own retaliation would be catastrophic for Lebanon and the region.

The Obama administration does not have the best interests of the Syrian people at heart, but rather its own vanity and sense of purpose – one not shared by the Syrian people or its Arab neighbors. Without a strategic vision for how airstrikes could bring about a  resolution to the Syrian conflict or facilitate real negotiations, the administration’s actions are either folly that will accomplish little and be forgotten, or will lead to deeper American involvement and greater suffering in Syria and the region.

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Baghdad and Washington at Odds Over Syria’s Future

U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry was sworn in on February 1, 2013

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Iran is still using Iraqi airspace to shuttle weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. This arrangement was first reported a year ago, to the dismay of U.S. officials who hoped Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would stop it. Baghdad promised last year to inspect Iranian cargoes. However, according to anonymous sources quoted by the Times, they have not done so since two planes were brought down in October, one of which was inspected after its cargo was discharged in Syria. On February 25, the New York Times quoted an American official who said the shipments were so routine they could be called “a milk run.”

No doubt these shipments have taken on greater importance in recent weeks. Syria’s rebels “scored a string of strategic victories” early this year and aid from outside sources is strengthening the resistance. Even though the war has not reached a tipping point, Assad needs all the help he can get. And Iran is happy to help. He may need more assistance now than ever before, as the U.S. reconsiders its options, the second anniversary of the uprising approaches, the capital becomes less secure, and the death toll eclipses 70,000.

The sectarian conflict in Syria is deeply unsettling for Maliki. Assad and his most loyal forces belong to the Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam, while certain religious minorities have gravitated to his side or remained neutral out of fear. By all accounts, the resistance draws its power from the country’s Sunni majority; it represents both secular and ultra-conservative trends, all of which aim to drive Assad from power.

Maliki’s logic is simple. The prime minister, who belongs to Iraq’s Shia majority, is worried that Assad’s ouster could inspire Sunnis to rise up in Iraq or—at the very least—resist his rule, which many complain is autocratic. He fears the spill-over effects of a new insurgency, like the one Maliki faced when he first became prime minister in 2006. “Neither the opposition [in Syria] nor the regime can finish each other off,” Maliki told the Associated Press in a February 27 interview. “If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq.”

More specifically, Maliki is worried about the strong cross-border ties that connect Sunnis in Iraq’s Anbar province with those fighting Assad next door. For years, Anbar was the beating heart of the anti-American, anti-government insurgency following the 2003 invasion. Violence there subsided only after Sunni militias joined forces with the U.S. to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.

At the end of last year, outraged Sunnis took to the streets in increasingly large demonstrations against Maliki’s government. They accuse Baghdad of systematic intimidation and abuse. As proof, they point to high-profile cases in which Sunni politicians, including Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, were charged with crimes against the state—despite a lack of evidence and the use of forced, televised confessions (a hallmark of Saddam Hussein’s rule). Hashemi has been sentenced to death five times in absentia; he now lives in exile. In December, the security detail of Sunni politician and Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi was arrested, kicking off the newest wave of protests. Channeling demands heard elsewhere in the Arab world, demonstrators are calling for the downfall of “the regime.”

Maliki says the Anbar protests can continue but he is eager to dismiss them. Like other Arab heads of state—both democratically elected and self-appointed—he swears the demonstrations are sponsored by foreign powers. At the same time, he has made some concessions, freeing about 4,000 prisoners in order to satisfy Sunni demands. Thus far, his calls for dialogue have not gained traction.

It’s worth noting that Maliki is already locking horns with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the semi-autonomous grouping of provinces in Iraq’s north (these are administered by Erbil rather than Baghdad). The two sides have exchanged threats over oil contracts, export rights, the constitution, and revenues. The KRG and federal government even deployed forces and heavy artillery to disputed provinces in November.

For the prime minister, raising the stakes and risking conflict in the country’s west at the same time may not be an option, especially if it backfires or changes attitudes ahead of Iraq’s upcoming provincial elections. Instead, Maliki has relied on a friendly judiciary to undercut his enemies, security forces to do his bidding, and the Assad regime to suffocate an insurgency before it can poison Iraq’s western territory. Turning a blind eye to Iran’s aid achieves this end.

Iraq’s refusal to intercept Iranian aid to Syria has not been overlooked by Washington. In a September 2012 hearing, Senator John Kerry told Robert Beecroft, now the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, that aid to Baghdad should be conditional. Informed that Iraq had already been engaged on the matter, Kerry said:

“Well, I mean, it may stop when it’s too late. If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact, that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response… it just seems completely inappropriate that we’re trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country and they’re working against our interest so overtly—against their interests too, I might add.”

Kerry is now Secretary of State. He is closer to President Obama than ever before and his counsel will carry additional weight. It’s unclear if he still thinks holding back aid is a wise choice. But it is one of the only remaining points of leverage the U.S. has now that the occupation is over. In FY 2012, the U.S. provided $1.7 billion of aid to Iraq. That sum could climb over $2 billion in FY 2013.  And, in 2014, Iraq is set to receive its first batch of American-made F-16 fighter jets. This administration doesn’t want to act directly in Syria by arming rebels or intervening militarily. So cutting off Iranian supplies to Assad may be the easier option, even if it complicates relations with Iraq.

Maliki, for his part, may seek to avoid being leveraged, however, as I’ve argued before. Last year, a $4.2 billion deal for Russian military hardware collapsed at the last minute when accusations of corruption were revealed. Officials later said that the deal would be renegotiated. This past week, another deal—this one for roughly $1 billion of Czech aircraft—also fell through.

If the U.S. attempts to leverage Maliki by making aid conditional or withholding military sales, look for both of these deals to be revived soon. Any American threat would be conveyed quietly at first, behind closed doors, so that Maliki is not humiliated. And given the tremendous investment made by the U.S. in Iraq over the past decade, we should expect Washington to give Maliki another chance to redeem himself. But if the Russian and Czech arms deals are seriously expanded in the coming months, it may be the first signal that Maliki is preparing other options in case he’s punished for enabling Syria’s crackdown.

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Syria: Preparing for Self-Government

Joseph Sadek is today’s guest author. He received his B.A. in International Relations from The Ohio State University and currently works for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs in Washington, DC.  Joe hopes to receive his M.A. in Foreign Policy Studies with a concentration in Middle Eastern affairs in the coming years. You can find more of his commentary at beitsadek.blogspot.com.

Last Tuesday, President Obama recognized the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the first time. A handful of European partners, the Arab League, and the GCC have already recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The following Wednesday, the Coalition and “Friends of Syria,” including the United States, met in Morocco to support the most urgent needs of the rebels. There has been much anticipation for the fourth summit beginning with the development of a new Syrian government.

Certain expectations have been set for the Coalition to speak to the needs of the Syrian people and their demands, including Assad’s departure. The body’s predecessor—the Syrian National Council (SNC)—failed to unite the opposition-held towns and military forces within Syria. Yet, it’s still unclear whether the new 60-seat Coalition, 22 of which belong to the SNC, will be able to do more than politic. Contrary to the cynicism and doubt that lingers, the National Coalition can be a positive force for Syria to achieve two very crucial ends.

Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib

Undoubtedly the primary goal of the Coalition is to secure food, medical supplies, and arms from the “Friends of Syria.” In the eyes of the United States and Europe, arming the rebels is worrisome, especially if forces are linked to al-Qaeda (e.g. al-Nusra Front). Here, the importance of the National Coalition and its inclusivity­—currently encompassing 90 percent of the rebel forces—is underscored. Although hesitant, the Friends of Syria must recognize that empowering the Coalition gives them legitimacy. It’s worth noting that the coalition’s leader, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, is a devout Sunni and former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He maintains a broad contingency of Christians and Druze. Further investment in the National Coalition will only strengthen these pluralistic forces.

The second and long-term task of the National Coalition is building their governmental framework as it was outlined by the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) on November 1. The SNI continues to build its legislative body, military council, judicial council, and transitional government, which are essential to a post-Assad order. So far, what has been neglected is developing a constitutional framework—an important foundation for any government.

Although seemingly daunting, the National Coalition must begin developing a constitutional blueprint for self-government. The primary task of Sheikh al-Khatib and George Sabra, head of the SNC, will remain to support the ground war against Assad. But the three Vice Presidents of the Coalition and leaders such as Riad Seif, architect of the SNI, can begin developing this framework and its most important document. These individuals along with representatives from Syria’s 14 provinces that make up the Coalition are broadly supported domestically and internationally. Preparing a constitutional blueprint will still require drafting the actual document once Assad presumably relinquishes his authority in Syria; yet, this preliminary step can hasten the process and give robustness to a potentially contentious post-Assad transition.

Currently, Egypt is witnessing its difficult transition to democratic pluralism because deep-rooted institutions of Egyptian government and civil society made reform difficult. Egyptians did not harvest all the fruits of their revolutionary labor because the Muslim Brotherhood, judiciary, and military councils assumed power ahead of a pluralist constituency, and today Egyptians are struggling with their democracy, which may be compromised.

Syrians, on all accounts, will face even more adversity and diverging interests once they begin to rebuild their government. Specifically, they’ll have to navigate multi-ethnic and multi-religious politics as well as soothe popular mistrust of Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs. The protection of minority rights will safeguard the fragile transition of power. If the Coalition can draft a new constitutional framework effectively, and they have the political capital to do it now, they’ll set a precedent of pluralism as the foundation of their new government—a principle that will protect their diverse social fabric.

Today the Syrian people are fighting the battle of their generation. As they become more entrenched in this bloody struggle it is increasingly important to ensure their revolutionary goals are achieved, including democracy, civil and human rights, and economic prosperity. The National Coalition has a huge role to play in the revolution and it must boldly look to the future to cultivate pluralism and to move Syria towards self-government.

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Turkey’s Influence Gap

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Source: Biyokulule Online

Turkish influence within the Middle East was widely hailed only a few months ago. The reasons for the laudation of Turkey are not hard to find. Turkey is an economically successful country, fairly rich and well developed, an important trading partner for many states in the region, militarily quite powerful, and a stable democracy. There is much in the “Turkish Model” to admire and aspire to, although the recent on-going assault on the free press and concerns about minority rights (the Kurds primarily) do tend to darken its record.

The AKP government expanded on these benefits with its “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy which sought to minimize state to state problems and focused on mutually beneficial interactions, mostly trade related. This approach has since collapsed. Turkey now has major problems with all of its neighbors and the recent Gaza conflict showed just how marginal Turkey is in the wider Arab world.

But why? Why is Turkey unable to take translate its numerous advantages into real political clout and influence in the Middle East?

One reason is that Turkey has missed opportunities. The Mavi Marmara incident is an excellent example. The botched Israeli raid was a chance for Turkey to shift away from the long association with Israel and to enhance its standing with Arab countries and publics. Following the UN report on the incident, Turkey “suspended its military ties with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats, pledged to campaign in support of the Palestinians’ statehood bid, and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.” This stance generated a wave of support for Turkey and Erdogan among Arab citizens.

Erdogan, however, failed to capitalize. There was no attempt to make the Arab-Israeli conflict a central tenet of Turkish foreign policy, or even to push for new talks. Aid to Gaza or the PA was business as usual. No positive actions resulted. The AKP torched their relationship with Israel and failed to solidify another with the Palestinians.

The shift towards the Palestinians has largely been rhetorical while even the break with Israel has been largely symbolic. (There are rumors that Turkey is moving to resume ties with Israel; talks have been confirmed although Turkey stands by the demand for an Israeli apology.) Even a year later, Erdogan was still talking about the event saying that the incident was a “cause for war” which was avoided only due to Turkey’s “patience.” Erdogan continued to attempt to gain concrete benefits through rhetorical re-hashing and intensification instead of making policy adjustments or corrections.

This style of foreign policy may be popular. Israel bashing (deserved or not) in the Middle East is certain to boost your support among the street. Today Erdogan is the most popular world leader in the Arab world, but will be of limited utility in state-to-state relations.

Erdogan also puts a great deal of stock in his personal relationships with world leaders. Erdogan believed that Turkey could influence Syria during the early days of the civil war thanks, in large part, to his personal friendship with Assad (see also: here). Syria’s failure to agree to reforms was taken as a personal affront by Erdogan and, many claim, that this accounts for the rapid deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations.

This failure is indicative of the dangers of a foreign policy strategy relying on personal relationships. Much of the AKP and Erdogan’s foreign policy rests on the pillars of personal relationships and rhetoric. These are certainly helpful, assuming good relations and the lack of any conflict between states. Once conflict erupts, however, the utility of good personal relationships rapidly diminishes.

Beyond personal quirks and missed opportunities, however, the goals of AKP foreign policy also work to limit Turkish influence. Turkey’s foreign policy is really epitomized in the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy. The goal is to prevent instability and encourage trade. Not necessarily status quo, as evidenced by Syria and the rapid acceptance of the KRG, nonetheless Turkey seeks stability in the surrounding countries.

Stability helps to weaken the PKK and Kurdish insurgency (or at the least prevent any strengthening due to border instability) since stable powers are more capable of cracking down on terrorist activities within their territory. Similarly, stability helps to encourage trade and Turkish-Arab trade has historically been vital to the southeast and disproportionably impacts the southeast compared to the rest of Turkey.

Economic well-being in the region will also weaken the PKK and give Kurdish residents a stake in stability and quiet along and within the frontier regions. Economic development of the region is also one of the main goals of the GAP dam building project, which has a similar goal of increasing economic activity and limiting the appeal of the PKK.

The Kurdish problem is one shared by neighboring states but the centrality of the issue in Turkey’s Middle East policy is unique. The specificity of the Kurdish focus, combined with missed opportunities and an over-reliance on communication/rhetorical skills, have been the driving factors behind Turkey‘s lack of influence within the Middle East.

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Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Elections

The American election season is rarely kind to the Saudis. In fact, it can be downright hostile when oil prices are high. In 2008, when Americans last voted for president, a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. cost $4.00 before the economy lurched into a death spiral. Today the price is closer to $3.75, which is still high given the seasonal drop in demand that comes with colder weather.

When the price of crude oil reached record highs in 2008, American politicians turned to Saudi Arabia for help. President Bush visited King Abdullah twice that year, once in January and again in May, hoping that the world’s only swing producer would cut down prices by increasing production. Saudi production increased by 300,000 barrels per day (b/d) in June but the move was quickly overcome by events.

One month later, crude oil sold for a record high of $147 per barrel. Saudi Arabia and OPEC were attacked relentlessly on the campaign trail as a result. “I’m not interested in holding hands with the Saudis! I’m interested in holding them accountable!” Hillary Clinton told rallies around the country, reminding voters that President Bush was widely mocked for holding hands with the Saudi king (see above). Lingering suspicions over 9/11 made the Saudis a convenient villain also.

A similar drama might be expected to play out in 2012. Oil prices are high again and some American politicians want the Saudis to do more. In February, Senator Charles Schumer of New York told Clinton—now Secretary of State—that Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to max out production and make the leap from 10 million b/d to 12.5 million b/d. Schumer’s call for bold action never gained much traction, however, and in spite of similarities between 2008 and 2012, this American election cycle has been much kinder to Riyadh.

For Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, it never made sense to blame foreigners for soaring gas prices. Instead, he unveiled his own energy plan and accused President Obama of failing to unleash America’s potential. He promised to make the U.S. energy independent by 2020 and create millions of jobs in the process. He also accused Obama of holding back the hydrocarbon sector and focusing too much attention—and wasting too much money—on failed alternative energy projects. To blame the Saudis, in this case, would have been counterproductive. Romney’s message was simple: voters should blame President Obama for high gas prices.

For his part, Obama has worked closely with Saudi officials over the past 4 years. Counter-terrorism cooperation–one of the cornerstones of the relationship–has resulted in a number of disrupted plots. And since the beginning of this year, when it became clear that the U.S. and EU were going to sanction Iran and slash its oil exports, Saudi Arabia has played an essential role by making up for lost Iranian crude. The Saudis now pump nearly 10 million b/d—a high not seen in 30 years.

Diplomatically, this administration has been on the same page as leaders in Saudi Arabia, excluding a brief episode in early 2011, when President Obama called for the ouster of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. We can safely assume the Saudis wanted that situation to work itself out differently, perhaps with Mubarak being ushered from power in a less dramatic fashion. But that disagreement was overstated at the time. And strategic interests—and bigger issues—quickly converged to accelerate cooperation again on a variety of fronts, including terrorism.

In Syria, both the U.S. and the Saudis want Assad out. The Saudis appear more eager to aid rebels, while Washington refuses to offer lethal aid at this point–but the two sides agree on the ultimate goal. Riyadh has worked hard with other Gulf Arab states to isolate the regime in Damascus by cutting it off from the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It has also offered vital aid to countries struggling from revolutions at a time when Washington is not prepared to expand programs. On both counts, the Saudis have bolstered the U.S. position.

On Iran, both Washington and Riyadh believe that the danger is real. Last year’s failed assassination plot targeting the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. made the threat even clearer.  Sanctions would be impossible without Saudi oil and the White House knows this. As prices declined in late summer, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on more than one occasion, “We also welcome Saudi Arabia’s continued commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure the market is well supplied and to help moderate prices.”

The 2008 election was a tough one for the Saudis but 2012 has been very different. These candidates stood to gain more by blaming each other–and they did so every day for months. During the third and final presidential debate, when the candidates sparred over national security and foreign policy, Romney claimed that Obama had not worked closely enough with our allies in the Gulf—and the Saudis in particular—to hasten the demise of Assad.

Americans have good reason to be exhausted by this election season. But it’s a breath of fresh air for Saudi Arabia.

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In Syria, Echoes of the Conflict in Yugoslavia

Andrew Kirkby is our guest author today. He is an M.A Candidate in Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He also holds an M.A in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut. In addition to living in Israel and Lebanon, he has also traveled through the Middle East, the Former Yugoslavia and the Former Soviet Union. Previously, Kirkby worked at the Center of Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at AUB. He will be interning at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv this Fall.

If there was an obituary for the Annan plan it would read:

The Annan plan was an idealistic attempt to mediate a conflict with a regime that possessed a mentality that browbeating its opponents into submission was its only option. Because of Russian and Chinese intransigence in the Security Council, the Assad regime was shielded from any consequence for not abiding by the plan, thus predetermining its demise. In its short life, the Annan plan was cynically manipulated as a means to buy time by the Syrian government and its patrons, China and Russia. If the Annan plan has taught us anything, it is that conducting polite diplomacy against the backdrop of mass violence is bound to fail just like previous attempts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

As the Syrian crisis approaches its eighteenth month, a new reality is beginning to take hold. The Syrian government is looking less like a government and more like a powerful sectarian militia. According to a recent International Crisis Group report:

“[The Regime] is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate. Opposition gains terrify Alawites, who stand more firmly by the regime’s side. Defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for sake of concentrating on “useful” geographical areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing. That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power.”

For this reason it is increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad with fall like other Arab despots, such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Assad and his Alawite-dominated regime formulated two military options from the beginning of this crisis. Option one was to crush the uprising and reassert totalitarian control; Option two, the contingency plan, was to withdraw to the Alawite mountains and coast, where they are a majority, and carve up a secure enclave. In light of troop withdrawals from large swaths of eastern Syria and the Golan, the regime’s inability to crush the opposition, and intense fighting in cities such as Aleppo and Homs, it appears the more sinister contingency plan is starting to take shape.

An appropriate historical model to view military developments in Syria is that of Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija or JNA). During the course of the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992, the JNA morphed into the Bosnian Serb Army and the Serbian-Montenegrin Army. This was driven by the fact that Federal control over the JNA was asserted from Belgrade, which was dominated by the Serbian ethno-nationalist Slobodan Milosevic after 1989. It was from Belgrade that Milosevic, in January 1992, issued the secret order instructing the General Staff to transfer all Bosnian Serb JNA troops back to their native Bosnia while withdrawing all Serbian troops back to Serbia. (By this point in the conflict most troops from the other Republics had deserted.)

In doing so, Milosevic set the groundwork for the future Serbian Army and Bosnian Serb Army (Army of Republika Srpska or VRS). In May 1992, the JNA withdrew from Bosnia and dissolved itself. The JNA’s huge military arsenal fell into the hands of Serbia and its Serbian allies in Bosnia. As a result, Bosnian Serbs vastly outgunned their Bosnian Muslim and Croat opponents. After three bloody years and numerous atrocities committed by VRS—including the massacre at Srebrenica and the Siege of Sarajevo—NATO finally stepped in and defanged the Bosnian Serbs in Operation Deliberate Force, thus pressuring their patron Milosevic to sign the Dayton Accords, ending the long conflict.

Although the Syrian Army has yet to withdraw to the Alawite region and become an Alawite Army, events on the ground are driving it in that direction. Up to this point in the conflict most defectors have been Sunnis; experts say that virtually none of the 80,000 young men—mostly Sunni—expected to show up for mandatory military service this year have responded. As a result, the regime, out of fear of arming potential opponents, has not deployed ordinary units. Rather, it has relied almost exclusively on elite Alawite units such as the Republican Guard’s Fourth Armored Division and the four main intelligence services. (The Republican Guard and Fourth Armored Division are both commanded by Maher al-Assad, the President’s brother, and have a combined strength of 60,000; the intelligence services have an estimated 150,000 members.) These units also control Syria’s huge chemical weapons arsenal—believed to be one of the largest stockpiles in the world. According to Akil Hashem, a former Syrian tank commander: “When the military gets new weapons like a new tank, it goes immediately to the Fourth Division and the Republican Guards. This is the main force the regime depends on to end the revolution. It is not likely to have defections in these units.”

Serving, as an auxiliary unit for the official government forces, have been the ruthlessly loyal—however unofficial—Shabiha, reportedly commanded by Namir, Fawwaz and Munzir al-Assad, all members of the Assad clan. The supposed motto of the Shabiha is, “Bashar, do not be sad: you have men who drink blood.” Similar to the notorious Tiger paramilitary of the Yugoslav wars, which often recruited soccer hooligans, Shabiha recruits tend to possess brute strength, low intelligence and blind allegiance. The Shabiha’s use by the Assad regime also resembles Arkan’s Tigers during the Yugoslav wars. Their unofficial status as “armed gangs” offered both governments plausible deniability in cases of ethnic cleansing. Tactically speaking, the Shabiha, like the Tigers, have committed their worst attacks often after large government artillery barrages. Examples include Houla and Al-Qubeir.

The increased use of paramilitary forces such as the Shabiha is also reminiscent of the Yugoslav conflict in that sanctions and war gave rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling thrived. In such economies, groups such as the Shabiha or Arkan’s Tigers, which operate unofficially and have criminal histories, are empowered. Syria only needs to look to its neighbor Lebanon to see how a protracted conflict can criminalize an economy and empower militia warlords who, in turn, further perpetuate the violence for economic gain. The longer this conflict continues the more powerful such groups will become. It is often said that kings make wars. However, it can also be said that wars make kings. In the case of Serbia, the Yugoslav wars elevated Zeljko Raznatovic (aka Arkan), the commander of the Tigers, to a level rivaling only Milosevic himself.

If analysts view recent developments through the prism of securing an Alawite enclave, a new picture of the conflict begins to emerge. The extreme violence inflicted on cities along the Aleppo-Damascus highway—in Hama, Rastan, Homs, Haffeh, Talbiseh and Houla—can be seen as an attempt to drive Sunnis east of the Orontes River in order to create a strategic buffer zone for a future Alawite statelet. (It has been reported that up to 600,000 Sunnis have fled Homs.) Moreover, the strategic abandonment of large swaths of land—in eastern Syria, Kurdish areas in the north, the Golan and a number of border crossings—can be seen as a way for the regime to augment its forces elsewhere.

Although Damascus and Aleppo are outside the traditionally Alawite regions, they are geographically significant for the regime. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and main commercial hub, is vital. If the rebels are able to take Aleppo, they could link up with the rebel-held Idlib province, thus creating a significant “safe haven” along the Turkish border. Aleppo, like Benghazi in Libya, could also serve as a seat for an alternative government. And lastly, Aleppo’s economic significance will be critical to Syria’s future  no matter who runs the country.

According to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, “[the regime] will contract. Maybe first towards Damascus, and then perhaps to the coast.” Damascus is vital for the regime in that any public announcement of a withdrawal to the coast would be a clear admission of defeat, in a struggle that Assad is determined to win at any cost. Also it is important because it is the seat of government in Syria. Currently, Maher al-Assad and his elite Fourth Division are tasked with protecting the capital. The Assad regime (under Hafiz and Bashar) has also for years lured Alawites to settle in Damascus. Aash al-Woro and Mezzah 86 are two predominantly Alawite neighborhoods. Mezzah 86, which is on the western edge of Damascus, is home to many members of the security forces and the ruthless Shabiha, for example.

The future of any independent Alawite state is questionable. It would not be economically viable; the main commercial hubs are outside the Alawite region and Syria’s oilfields are located in the northeast. Most important, however, is the fact that all regional players as well as the international powers—Russia, China and the U.S.—are against the Balkanization of Syria. Russia and Syria’s neighbors, which have restless minorities also, would loathe the emergence of independent sectarian states. The withdrawal of government troops from most of the Syrian Kurdish region and their subsequent replacement by Kurdish groups—including Syria’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—has alarmed Turkey. Because of the regional consequences, a wholesale partition of Syria into independent states is unlikely.

Although it is unlikely that Syria will completely disintegrate, it’s equally improbable that any new government will be able to assert the same level of authority as Assad. Because of the presence of numerically large but geographically compact minorities (e.g. Druze in the As-Suwayda Governorate, Alawites in the Latakia and Tartus Governorate, Kurds in Al-Hasakah Governorate, etc.) and the tactics employed by the regime to create a rift between those minorities and the Sunni majority, a future Syria will likely be decentralized.

The Kurds will surely want a larger role in a new Syria and will probably push for regional autonomy like their ethnic brethren in Iraq. Relative to their position before the conflict—lack of citizenship, the neglecting of Kurdish education and restrictions on opening a business—the Kurds could ultimately be the biggest winner in this conflict.

The Druze are another important minority. Because they tend to accommodate themselves to the status quo, they could serve as a bell-weather for the direction of the country. What ultimately happens to the Druze in Syria will also be of great interest to Israel. Most of the Druze living in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, have refused Israeli citizenship and still identify themselves as Syrians. As a result, the future Syrian government’s treatment of the Druze could also impact relations between the Druze of the Golan and the Israeli government. For example, a less inclusive Sunni Islamist government in Damascus could actually lead to the Golani Druze to accept Israeli rule.

It is highly unlikely, if the regime loses Damascus, that it and its Alawite supporters will relinquish control over the elite military units. Although many people are banking on a palace coup to end the bloodshed, this result is doubtful. Even if Assad were to be killed in a palace coup, anyone who would be able to conduct such an operation would probably be Alawite too. In a statement made last week on CBS, King Abdullah of Jordan said, “If he [Bashar al-Assad] does go, by whatever means, I don’t see that the system around him is capable of changing.”

So if the regime loses Damascus, I believe it will reconstitute itself—with or without Bashar—in an Alawite enclave, where it could demand a role in a new Syria or be subject to a prolonged siege that only the international community could break. Although we have yet to witness large troop moments to Alawite territory, there are reports of Iranian armaments going to the Alawite Mountains. Hundreds of thousands of Alawites have reportedly moved back to the relative safety of the Tartous and Latakia Governorates.

Ultimately, the Assad regime will lose control of Damascus. However, because of the growing sectarian nature of the conflict and the regime’s “divide and rule” tactics, a future Syria will likely see a weak central government with strong autonomous regions. It could look a lot like Iraq or Bosnia.

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