Jonathan Fenton-Harvey – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 16 Jun 2021 21:03:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can Saudi’s Rogue Crown Prince Survive the Biden Presidency? Mon, 09 Nov 2020 05:03:01 +0000 London (Special to Informed Comment) – World leaders rushed to congratulate US President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris for their victory in a nail-bitingly tense election. Many Arab leaders including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and figureheads in other countries such as Oman, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, were also quick to praise Biden’s victory.

Yet one who has so far remained silent is Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. This will come as no surprise to those who witnessed Biden’s scathing criticisms of MbS’ erratic and power-hungry rule during his campaigning. A Biden presidency could put much at stake for the young Crown Prince.

Though Saudi Arabia is a long-standing regional partner of the United States, and supplier of oil and key weapons client, Biden took a seemingly radical stance towards MbS. On the second anniversary of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, who was killed in cold-blood by Saudi-regime hired thugs, Biden pledged to “reassess ties” with Saudi Arabia.

“Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil,” promised Biden.

Biden also accused Saudi Arabia of murdering children in Yemen during a debate in November 2019, and then also vowed to halt weapons sales to Riyadh.

“There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” adding he would “make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

This only boosted Biden’s presidential campaign and appealed to those understandably outraged at Washington’s undying support for Riyadh’s murderous campaign in Yemen, which has created an unfathomable humanitarian crisis.

It also distinguished him from his rival Donald Trump, who on the contrary boasted “I saved [MbS’] ass” from the US Congress’ scrutiny over Khashoggi’s killing, showing his own rogue and lawless in covering for MbS. Trump also vetoed several Senate bills to end US support for Riyadh’s war, of which MbS was the architect as then Saudi Minister of Defence in 2015.

Furthermore, it was under Trump’s auspices that MbS became Crown Prince and then consolidated power in an arbitrary “anti-corruption” crackdown on other Saudi royal family members, including putting his own mother under house arrest. MbS also swayed the Trump administration through lobbying and courting of Trump and his son-in-law and Middle East advisor Jared Kushner.

Moreover, though Biden’s position on Iran is still ambiguous, and may or may not deliver positive changes, Riyadh may fear he could be closer to Obama’s more lenient stance on its regional rival Tehran, and reverse Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which placed Iran’s clerical regime as a ‘common enemy’ of both the US and Saudi Arabia.

By taking an opposite view of Trump, Biden therefore put himself in good stead. Now observers will be anticipating him following through on his tough promises.

Yet many would have wondered: was Biden serious in his pledges or was it merely party politics? This would not be an unreasonable question to ask, as it was the Obama administration, under which Biden was Vice President, that first supported Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen in March 2015.

It is also crucial to remember that Trump also took a seemingly critical approach of Saudi Arabia during his campaigning prior to winning in 2016. For instance, he warned Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal that he “can’t [control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money] when I get elected,” yet this posturing shifted as he became president.

Given Biden’s apparent change of approach, it is plausible that he seeks to appease the Senate’s pressure. This means that he is someone that could work with more reasonable policies more.

Many believe that Biden while will probably continue to uphold many of the US’ detrimental policies at home and abroad, such as a likely refusal to end support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, his victory is a relief in that it has ended Trumpism, at least for now, and could enable more common-sense policies to emerge.

Biden may not push through with hard changes at his own accord, as it was the work of the US Senate and Congress, along with tireless efforts of inspiring activists, which raised the debate over ending US involvement in Yemen’s war. Yet as he sought to appease such voices, he will clearly be more accountable to them and easier to work with on issues like Yemen and support for MbS’ brutality.

Whether he makes some small changes to Saudi support for the war in Yemen or goes hard with his promises and withdraws a large amount of support, remains to be seen, however.

Even if changes to US and Saudi ties are minimal, the Crown Prince himself could still lose big from a Biden presidency. On the surface, it may seem that he has all but secured power, and he is the de facto ruler despite not yet securing the Saudi throne, though he has responded with harsh repression out of paranoia over potential challenges to his regime.

The removal of Trump’s protective hand for MbS could leave him more vulnerable to the wrath of Saudi domestic opponents to his rule, particularly within the royal family. Such challenges could certainly grow, particularly should criticism increase towards the regime’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, among other issues. Only time will tell how much MbS’ fragile rule can last without Trump.


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Reuters: “Biden win would reset Saudi ties”

Yemen still on the brink following coronavirus risks and fragile ceasefire Mon, 30 Mar 2020 04:02:45 +0000 London (Special to Informed Comment) – As Yemen’s catastrophic war enters its sixth year, the Saudi-led coalition offered a desperately needed ceasefire on Friday, which the current coronavirus pandemic has made more vital than ever.

The move came after the UN Secretary General on March 25 called for an end to hostilities in all regional countries, indicating his call has inspired Yemen’s a cease in violence.

Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen has led to a damaged state, including the crippling of Yemen’s healthcare system, as the Yemen Data Project reports that over 30% of bombing targets have hit civilian infrastructure.

Meanwhile the war has further spiked domestic tensions, and now it would be difficult to put the genie back into the box. The Houthis, the Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), all seek to secure their control over different parts of Yemen. Meanwhile as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in February announced its new leader Khalid Batarfi, after a US drone strike killed the previous Emir, the extremist faction could cause more deaths upon the country.

Though the former three sides welcomed the ceasefire, pre-existing tensions could override temporary desires for peace, especially as violence had skyrocketed after a misleading lull in the conflict. While the world looks away from Yemen’s chaos, continued external intervention and past failures to establish a peaceful solution could see violence soar again, which could harm efforts to combat a potential coronavirus outbreak.

Yemen’s war took a turn for the worst in January after a Houthi-linked missile attack on the Marib governorate triggered more clashes with Saudi-backed government forces. The Houthis have since made considerable gains to the north-east of Sanaa, the Houthi-held capital, as well as in al-Jawf on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

In a broadcast speech hours after the ceasefire, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi voiced traditional rhetoric that the Houthis are oppressed and stressed his commitment to the faction’s objectives, which involve securing control over northern Yemen.

The faction advanced further in Marib on Friday after targeting government and tribal forces. Saudi Arabia on Friday claimed that Riyadh-backed government forces intercepted three Houthi. Regardless of these claims’ legitimacy, parties have blatantly disregarded the ceasefire calls, and the violence has only temporarily reduced, rather than ending it. As of Saturday, heavy fighting was ongoing in al Jawf.

However Saudi Arabia’s war efforts will certainly diminish in Yemen, following a decrease of its operations prior to the coronavirus’ outbreak. Already hit by a fall in oil prices, while grappling with the virus’ spread domestically, some have suggested that Riyadh is looking for a ‘way out’ of Yemen’s war.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia may temporarily scale back its involvement. Even by Mohammad bin Salman’s erratic standards, it would be foolish for him to continue his high-risk intervention in Yemen amid the current global crisis, after heavy expenditure on a war which has produced no tangible benefits for Riyadh.

However, Riyadh is still backing the Hadi government to secure its influence over Yemen, which will delay a truly peaceful resolution to Yemen’s war. This could provoke further outbreaks from the Houthis, who have operated violently to counteract Saudi Arabia’s past and present efforts to consolidate its geopolitical hegemony over its southern neighbour.

It is not just the Houthis and Saudi Arabia who may act with duplicity following the ceasefire calls. The STC still seeks southern independence following last November’s shaky Riyadh agreement, designed to merge the warring STC and Hadi government into a power-sharing agreement. Deadlines to implement the deal have been ignored. Both sides have complained that the other has ignored the deal. Meanwhile on March 12, the Hadi government blocked STC officials from returning to Aden, the government’s administrative capital in Yemen. The STC, with Emirati backing, has still refused to agree to a withdrawal from various southern regions.

While the UAE still props up the STC in the south, from which it has shown no signs of stopping, this could trigger further violence within the country. Already receiving substantial global impunity for its provocative regional policies, Abu Dhabi may use the current worldwide confusion over coronavirus as a smokescreen to achieve its hegemonic ambitions over southern Yemen.

The USA has played a central role in facilitating Saudi Arabia’s war efforts, with a vast amount of military support. Yet on Friday, the Trump administration cut off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of aid to Yemen, in response to Houthi smuggling of aid deliveries, yet in a crucial time when it needs it the most. Meanwhile the UK, which has also backed the Saudi-led war and is now absorbed by its own populist bubble amid Brexit before the coronavirus outbreak, will further neglect its role as Yemen’s penholder in the UN Security Council.

Yet like the rest of the world, Yemen is experiencing a critical point in its history, as a coronavirus outbreak could trigger more overwhelming pressure on its healthcare system and worsen what the UN has already called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Even more concerning, though the World Health Organisation has confirmed zero cases in Yemen, tracking any spread of the virus would prove difficult, given Yemen’s devastated healthcare infrastructure.

Recent history has shown that the current ceasefire is more of a temporary lull to this war that has wreaked havoc in Yemen throughout the last five years. All these factors could prevent legitimate efforts to ease Yemen’s suffering, and the country’s war and humanitarian suffering will be far from over.


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UNFPA:”5 Facts You Need to know about the conflict in Yemen”

Yemen: The Good News is Peace Deal may halt Saudi-UAE Proxy Fight: Bad News, 6 Mn on Verge of Starvation Wed, 30 Oct 2019 04:01:18 +0000 London (Informed Comment) – Distant hopes for peace in Yemen were revitalized following the finalizing of a draft agreement on October 27, to unify the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council, after tensions had erupted between both sides. On the surface, the deal would aim to end a deadly stand-off between Hadi and separatist forces, and create a long-standing framework

Yet this should be looked at as an attempt for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to preserve their alliance in the country, and ultimately maximize their joint control there. As both states hold diverging interests in Yemen, having jostled for geopolitical influence, this deal enables them to compromise whilst not conceding much ground to the other. Yet this will undermine any legitimate peace hopes, considering years of outside intervention in Yemen has caused instability in the country.

Analysts had speculated over a fallout between Riyadh and the Abu Dhabi following the STC launching a coup in Aden on August 10, then pursuing a campaign to forcibly capture the south.

While the coup revealed to the world that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not on the same page in Yemen, having backed different sides, such trends had existed throughout the war, and had quickly been resolved between the two allies. For instance, this can be seen in the Saudi move to negotiate a partial UAE military withdrawal from Socotra island in May 2018, after Abu Dhabi had proliferated its militia presence there.

Both states have a vital regional alliance, often driven by mutual concerns such as crushing democratic transitions, which could inspire stronger calls for reforms within their own systems and countering Iranian influence. Furthermore, both have a mutual alliance which legitimizes each other’s intervention in Yemen.

Should the draft deal materialize, the Saudi-backed Hadi government will regain control over the south and the UAE-backed STC and its militias will merge into a new unity government. This will create a form of a power-sharing agreement.

Yet the Hadi government and STC are still not on the same page over who will control what in Yemen. Both sides have conflicting interpretations of what the deal entails. Hadi sees it as an opportunity to restore his legitimacy and reunify the coalition against the Houthis in the north, where his government still has minimal influence. Really, Hadi is aiming to maximize his control over the south after having conceded presence in the north following the Houthis’ September 2014 coup of Sanaa, which the rebel faction still firmly controls.

Meanwhile, the STC has not renounced its calls for southern secession and sees this deal as an opportunity to secure long-term independence and control over the south. Temporarily ceasing its pursuit of violence, the STC is following the lead of its key Emirati backers, pragmatically operating to secure greater influence in Yemen’s politics.

Furthermore, the STC, like the UAE, has a staunch opposition to Al Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood franchise. As Hadi’s government is allied with them, it is hard to imagine that either of these forces would accept a power-sharing agreement with Islah in the long-term.

As Riyadh and Abu Dhabi aim to empower their preferred factions, they will still utilize them as pawns in order to secure their long-term goals. Abu Dhabi could still use its clout with the STC to gain influence over Aden’s port, which president Hadi would oppose. Particularly after Hadi had originally scrapped the Emirati-owned Dubai Ports World’s control over it in 2012, showing he is a hindrance to the UAE’s ambitions.

As with past peace efforts, such as the December 2018 UN-led peace talks, which have stalled, this peace agreement only offers ambiguous solutions addressing the symptoms of the conflict. Meanwhile, the war’s causes are once again ignored. These efforts only address a section of the war, as Yemen hosts a diverse range of groups with various wishes. After all, it is mostly being pushed to alleviate the divisions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, rather than delivering peace and stability to the country. Other Yemeni factions such as the Houthis and local rulers may notice it as an outside attempt from these two powers to exert their will on the country, which could lead to further disagreements and conflict.

It also fails to address the widespread instability and humanitarian emergency in the country, which could give rise to further conflict. Not to mention that Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which the UN called the “worst in the world”, puts millions of Yemeni lives at risk of starvation, cholera and other severe ailments.

The deal only addresses the wishes of external powers in the country, imposing a top-down solution to the violence. Additionally, such external interference has caused problems in Yemen for decades. Meanwhile, independent factions and Yemenis themselves are not say in the process, which has been a trend since the unfinished 2011 Yemeni revolution, which left behind unsolved grievances.

Only by ending international interference in the country and giving a greater platform for Yemenis to determine their own future, can there be more hopes of ending the conflict.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

TRT World: “The War in Yemen: Jon Fenton-Harvey, Middle East analyst”

Egypt’s Sisi Regime again Engages in Mass Arrests of Protesters as West looks the other Way Fri, 27 Sep 2019 04:04:00 +0000 (Informed Comment) – The sheer brutality of Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s military regime once again came to light, following another crackdown and mass arrests on protesters. Meanwhile, many Western leaders at the latest United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York again show no sign of addressing such abuses from their ally.

Small but widespread protests recently erupted against corruption allegations lodged against Sisi, his wife and the military by Mohamed Ali, a former government contractor now exiled in Spain. Ali accused Sisi and his military of appropriating millions of dollars in public funds to build a colossal presidential palace and several luxurious villas. Following the protests, security forces arrested over 1900 protestors, while demonstration look set to continue.

Sisi’s Egypt has targeted web content and media platforms, with BBC News being blocked at times, and web services including communication apps, such as Wire. The regime wants to make it harder to communicate or access information.

With Ali having tapped into people’s deep frustrations, the protests are a response to the profound level of inequality across the country, while ordinary civilians fall deeper into poverty. The regime’s repression has clearly made it hard to protest this, which many seek to curtail too.

Such resentment towards this repression and inequality has brewed over several years of repression after the military, long acting as Egypt’s shadow government, launched a July 2013 coup against the democratically elected regime of Mohammad Morsi following the Egyptian revolution.

First the new Egyptian regime went for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was previously in power; then it sought to stamp out any form of democracy.

Over 60,000 political opponents are confined to Egypt’s prisons, hundreds of news outlets have been blocked, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports Egypt is the third worst imprisoner of journalists worldwide. Targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed after the military coup, has allowed the regime to increase its power and surveillance over civil society, and effectively stamp out any opponent to the regime’s corruption – Brotherhood or not.

While given a peak opportunity to do so at the UNGA, Donald Trump and other Western leaders show continued indifference to Egypt’s abuses, even at times praising Sisi, despite widespread reporting of his government’s abuses.

Why is this the case? For Trump at least, he has bluntly shown he has favouritism towards ‘strongmen’ rulers, no matter how oppressive them may be. This was crudely reflected when he greeted Sisi with “my favourite dictator!” at a recent G7 summit.

Trump shrugged off New York protestors against Sisi at the UNGA, saying “Everybody has demonstrations. No, I`m not concerned with it. Egypt has a great leader. He`s highly respected.” Not only is Trump clearly aware of Egypt’s repression, he openly tolerates it.

Meanwhile, prominent European figures have accepted Sisi’s regime, with the British government for instance only offering watered-down criticism at most, whilst not following up with any action. French President Emmanuel Macron has been accused of supporting the Egyptian leader, whilst ignoring his human rights abuses.

Sisi has obvious appeal. After assuming power in 2014, he has promoted a counterterrorism narrative, designed to appeal to Western leaders. His ‘war against terrorism’ in the Sinai Peninsula however, also riddled with human rights violations, has created further radicalization according to analysts, as has his repression of the Brotherhood.

Yet the war-on-terror era has created a greater tolerance of human rights abuses and authoritarianism, if the pretext of counterterrorism is used. Trump particularly has worsened this, having shown he is sympathetic towards targeting and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, which gives such states more justification to carry out abuses.

Therefore, many European states, along with Washington, willing tolerate such blatant violations against civil society, due to Sisi falsely being viewed as a bulwark against terror.

Meanwhile, Western states continue to profit from the Egyptian regime and its counter-terrorism narrative.

The London-based organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade called the UK ‘complicit’ in the recent repression against protestors just for London’s own profit.

Egypt has long been the second largest military aid recipient of the United States, right after Washington’s close ally and neighbouring country Israel. Not only do these highlight obvious political interests of the USA, originally to protect Israel, but like Britain they also directly profit from weapons sales.

There are other material benefits. The oil company British Petroleum (BP), which is closely aligned with the UK government, signed a $12 billion contract for an oil and gas project with Egypt in March 2015, while Mohammad Morsi’s government actually put obstacles in the way of such investment. Under the Sisi regime, France and Egypt have also consolidated natural resource deals.

While there is more awareness about Egypt’s abuses particularly after Germany had criticised it after the protests, other Western political figures need to address their own governments’ complicity, and put human rights at the forefront of their foreign policy towards Cairo.

This can help bring about more positive reforms, show solidarity with people pushing for change, and empower those within the Egyptian government who could transform the system from the inside.


Bonus Video:

France 24 English: “Protests and arrests: Egypt’s Sisi ‘recreating same conditions that fuelled Arab Spring uprising'”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s rivalry is driving Yemen’s Internal Violence Fri, 09 Aug 2019 04:08:43 +0000 (Informed Comment) – After misleading hopes that the United Arab Emirates will withdraw from Yemen, severe recent clashes in Aden show that peace is still a distant prospect, while highlighting the consequences of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Various violent incidents have led to numerous casualties. Lately on Wednesday UAE-backed southern secessionists clashed with presidential palace guards, in an unsuccessful attempt to seize Aden’s Maasheeq palace. Heavy shelling, including tank usage, puts thousands of lives at risk and could further destabilize the city, which lacks central government control and where UAE-supported forces are a dominant force.

“We announce a general mobilisation of all our southern forces to march toward the Maasheeq Palace,” said Hani Ben Breik, deputy chairman of the pro-secessionist Southern Transitional Council.

While the president of the UN-recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is exiled in Saudi Arabia, these militias are exploiting his absence, attempting to secure the designated ‘temporary capital’ while the Houthi rebels control Sanaa.

Though some mainstream media articles have focused exclusively on the Saudi Arabia-led war against the Houthis, it has often failed to address the UAE’s role in Yemen, which is far from benign. This has formulated an incorrect narrative that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are unified in Yemen and are both solely focused on defeating the Houthis.

Described by James Mattis as a “little Sparta” in the Middle East, the UAE pursues an assertively expansionist foreign policy to establish itself as a regional hegemon. Asides from fighting the Houthis in Yemen, it seeks control of southern Yemen’s ports to boost its global trade, and give itself a base to influence the wider region such as in East Africa. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia simply seeks to crush any form of independent rule in Yemen, hence its ruthless bombing campaign on Houthi areas, and maintain a weak government it can manipulate in its southern neighbour.

Hani bin Breik, vice president of the UAE-backed STC which seeks an independent southern Yemen state according to pre-1990 unification levels, called for an overthrow of the Hadi government amid the clashes. Clearly the fight for an independent southern Yemen state has currently peaked and could likely worsen.

Tensions had been brewing for a while, however. In February last year, Emirati-backed southern secessionist militias clashed with Hadi government forces in Aden, while they attempted a coup. While a truce was forged, albeit a temporary one, the tensions that sparked the clashes were not appropriately addressed, amid a focus on addressing the Houthis. These latest clashes were therefore inveitable.

Such geopolitical tensions had manifested elsewhere in Yemen, in places like Taiz. A large Yemeni city, Taiz has born the brunt of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s rivalry. The Emiratis have backed the Al-Qaeda-linked militia of Abu al-Abbas, not just to fight the Houthis but to curtail the Saudi-supported Al-Islah party while, who are soft Islamists and tied to the Hadi government. The UAE opposes Al-Islah not just for its alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, but that it has been an outspoken opponent to the Emirati occupation of Yemen.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s war on the Houthis, now in its fifth year, has failed to defeat the faction. If anything, they have become more empowered in northern Yemen since their initial insurgency from September 2014.

The recent Houthi-claimed attack on an Aden military parade is arguably an attempt to send a message to the Emiratis, opposing their occupation of south Yemen.

This will likely lead to a further proliferation of Emirati-backed militias, which could in the long-term deepen tensions between the Yemeni government and southern secessionists.

“This attack was planned to make all of Aden fall into the hands of Islah,” Hani Ali Breik said, showing that Emirati-backed secessionists seek to use the violence as a pretext to mobilize their own forces for their own ends, and are still less preoccupied with the Houthis.

As Abu Dhabi has shifted its focus from fighting the Houthis, rather than withdrawing from Yemen entirely, it shows a greater rift in Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s agendas. Their political rivalries will have further consequences for Yemen, beyond that which has already occurred.

Though the UAE was claimed to have commenced a withdrawal from Yemen, this is merely an illusion. Not only was there no official statement from the Emirati government confirming this, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash claimed that they were preparing for the ‘next phase’ of the Yemeni war.

For the UAE this means continued support for its various secessionist militia factions, which come under the umbrella of the so-called ‘Security Belt’.

Saudi Arabia has sent more military reinforcements to Aden, which could further aggravate tensions, and push the southern secessionists into taking a more hard-line stance among fears of a plan to crush its ambitions. That the Yemeni authorities are tightening their security after the latest incidents could develop into a sterner military response from them. Meanwhile the UAE backing of militias will continuously provoke violence.

The United Nations has called for a decrease in Aden’s violence, expressing that it is ‘alarmed’ at the latest clashes. Yet it has failed to address the root causes of it, or condemn those provoking it. Meanwhile UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths has visited the UAE frequently, while not taking the opportunity to use his position to call for a better and more positive solution or urging the Emirati government to support peace. Clearly the UN’s role has been ineffective so far.

Further reigning in on Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s provocative role, particularly giving greater attention to Abu Dhabi’s divisive actions, is therefore crucial in rescuing any dwindling hopes of peace in Yemen. Their Western backers and military suppliers, namely the United States, the United Kingdom and France, must play a key role in this.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

France 24 English: “Dozens killed in attacks on security forces in Yemen’s Aden”

Mideast Peril: How Hardliners in Washington and Tehran are Reinforcing Each Other Mon, 24 Jun 2019 04:04:46 +0000 London (Informed Comment) – Donald Trump’s increasingly aggressive stance towards the Islamic Republic of Iran to supposedly curtail its nuclear capabilities is doomed to fail, as the regime is becoming more hard-line and will become more assertive in the region in response to Washington’s aggression. Trump’s stance clearly has no real benefit to the United States or the West, and risks throwing the region into greater turmoil.

Europe’s voice to revive the Joint Cooperation Plan of Action (JCPOA), penned in 2015 to provide Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for curtailments to their nuclear program, is marginalized amid increasing Saudi and Emirati pressure on the Trump administration, along with influential US neoconservatives like John Bolton.

Meanwhile, more sensible voices in Washington are ignored, including from a recent letter to the US President, signed by 76 former prominent US military figures, ambassadors and diplomats.

Though some may interpret Trump’s backing down from striking Iran as a positive step, after Tehran downed the US drone, that US strikes were originally ordered shows hawkish voices are succeeding to sway Trump. There is clearly an endgame to isolate and even attack Iran.

Trump himself claimed he wanted to “destroy Iran”, echoing the aggressive narratives that have the ruling power in Washignton. This also trashes some claims in Washington that the US does not seek conflict with Iran.

Though Trump will likely not strike Iran pre-emptively, Washington seeks to punish and isolate the Iranian regime, while pushing them into a desperate situation where they would be forced to react.

“If the leadership of Iran behaves badly, then it’s going to be a very, very bad day for them,” Trump himself said.

Yet far from scaling back Iran’s ambitions, Iran will further assert itself regionally giving the hardliners a boost.

Tehran is divided between two camps: the conservatives, largely made up of the elite revolutionary forces after the 1979 Iranian revolution, and reformists like President Hassan Rouhani. The former evidently has the most influence over the latter, and now Trump’s isolation of Iran will empower these further, and potentially radicalize some of the moderates.

As Trump shows he is disinterested in talks with Iran, his increasingly hostile stance confirms to Iran that Washington cannot be trusted. While the United States had adopted an antagonistic position towards Iran after 1979, the 2015 JCPOA built trust in the Iranian regime that they had a real Western negotiating partner for the first time. Trump has shown an unprecedented hostility towards Tehran.

Hardliners in both Washington and Iran will become more empowered as a result, meaning that future US administrations will struggle for peace. Trump winning a second term in 2020 could worsen this crisis.

Trump’s decision to impose further sanctions on Iran after the drone shooting last week signifies that he is keen to escalate tensions with Iran. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported on Saturday that, in another provocative and unnecessary move, the US had conducted a cyber-attack on Iranian missile control systems and a spy network. Tensions are clearly going to worsen unless drastic changes are made.

Asides from striking Iran, further US support to the opposition MEK (People’s Mujahideen of Iran) which Tehran has outlawed as a terror group will likely continue. Washington considers MEK as a pro-Western vehicle of regime change in Iran.

Yet despite having comparatively limited military and technological capabilities, Iran is still a strong regime. Tehran will easily be able to crush MEK and continuing to oppose it will in turn give the state more power, as counter-terrorism responses often do for governments.

Iran still has allies such as China and Russia, who shore up the regime to secure their own economic and geopolitical interests. Along with crushing America’s credibility as a peacemaker, and thus further diminishing its global diplomatic influence, Iran could move further towards Beijing and Moscow’s arms.

Could Iran strike back at the US, to a harsher level? While much of its rhetoric, such as armed forces general staff spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi saying “Firing one bullet towards Iran will set fire to the interests of America and its allies,” is likely just that.

Yet despite two years of pressure from Trump on Iran, Tehran’s regional influence – particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, has not declined. It will likely try to further boost its own regional influence, in response to Washington’s antagonism, and further create friction.

Another perceived benefit of this anti-Iran propaganda is that it justifies more weapons sales to Washington’s Gulf allies. While the US Senate successfully blocked an $8 billion arms transfer to Saudi Arabia, to allegedly counter Iran, Washington’s unconditional support for the Gulf monarchies opposition to Iran drives a regional wedge.

Though Saudi Arabia’s coalition says it targets Iranian influence in its war on Yemen, despite Tehran only giving limited assistance to the Houthi rebels, their war with an anti-Iran pretext, backed by Washington’s wider regional policies, actually drives the Houthis closer to Iran.

Meanwhile, if Iran lashes out, by firing missiles or blocking the Strait of Hormuz, GCC countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates would be the first to suffer, throwing the region into more instability.

Clearly Washington’s own aggressive attempts to curtail Iranian hardliners and belligerence is having a reverse effect.

Trump has clearly not learnt from past US military failures, particularly the disastrous invasion of Iraq which handed the country to Iran on a plate, after Washington backed the same anti-Saddam Hussein and anti-Ba’athist factions and politicians as Iran did.

In the absolute worst-case scenario, that Washington invaded Iran, this would be a war which America could not win. It would cost America billions of dollars in military expenditure, and Washignton would be ingulfed in a futile, costly operation that could last several years.

Europe should push for a stronger, more unified voice, in order to bring about a more multilateral change. This means that the JCPOA deal should be tried to be revived, particularly as Iran has been the only state sticking to the deal so far. Meanwhile, more sensible figures in Washington should continue pressuring for a more peaceful solution, to revive any fragile hopes of peace with Iran.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

RT: “‘Stay tuned’: Bolton warns of more US sanctions on Iran”

Will Britain Cave to Trump’s Press for Conflict with Iran? Mon, 03 Jun 2019 04:18:55 +0000 (Informed Comment) – Donald Trump’s military proliferation in the Middle East and further sanctions on Iran, aimed at isolating Tehran, have driven a deeper rift between the United States and the European Union – which opposes such actions. While Washington is ramping up pressure, and some fear that a conflict is drawing closer, the United Kingdom, America’s traditional close ally, remains at a crossroads. Yet while Britain had previously aligned itself Europe, it risks drifting further towards America’s stance, in order to maintain the “special relationship”, as Brexit drives it away from the EU.

While full-blown hostility is a distant prospect, further escalations could still proliferate. Especially if Trump continues to ramp up the pressure against Tehran and if small clashes gradually emerge from Washington’s suffocation of Iran. Furthermore, hawkish figures like John Bolton whispering in the President’s ear, and pressure from America’s regional allies who antagonize Iran, could steer Trump’s seemingly incoherent Iran stance towards a coherently aggressive one.

Meanwhile, Britain is inevitably torn. Previously a signatory of the Iran P5+1 deal in 2015, granting sanction relief to Tehran, the UK still sought to keep trade ties open with Iran following Trump’s tearing up of the agreement, and re-imposing of sanctions. However, it shows signs of wavering, and Britain’s historic alignment of foreign policy could re-emerge if Washington’s aggression heightens.

British ministers, particularly Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had previously called for a de-escalation of tensions between Trump and Iran.

Yet it is important to look at how Britain has been involved in past America-led military campaigns in the wider region, and its susceptibility to following Washington’s lead on foreign policy issues, especially compared to other Western European countries.

Among the obvious cases, like Iraq and Afghanistan which had tarnished Britain’s foreign policy legacy, the UK even had a role in regime change in Iran in the past, with the MI6 and CIA jointly overthrowing Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 after attempting nationalize Iranian oil.

Despite its past attempts to seemingly commit to sanctions relief on Iran, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt effectively summed up Britain’s position, writing in a recent tweet that after meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May. “we share the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran.”

Soon after, at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Hunt then echoed the United States’ aggressive rhetoric, announcing: “if American interests are attacked, they will retaliate. And that is something that the Iranians needs to think about very, very carefully.”

Even Bolton himself seemingly declared this, stating that “there is no end to US-UK cooperation on global challenges and opportunities”.

British Special Ops forces have even reportedly joined US troops in the Gulf, in response to their proliferation, showing that Britain is covertly increasing its regional military presence.

Clearly the British government promotes Washington’s claims that Iran is a threat, and looks set to follow its lead on further proliferation.

Even if a conflict were to not break out, Iranian civilians continue to suffer anyway under harsh American sanctions, with living conditions plummeting and poverty rising as a result. Britain is offering little opposition to America’s sanctions, and could even support harsher sanctions on Iran, if it further aligns itself with America.

Yet along with the traditional ‘special relationship’, Brexit is also pushing Britain away from the EU’s stance and aligning it further with Washington. The UK parliament has failed to agree on a unified solution for Brexit, and therefore there is a risk that if the UK fails to agree on a deal with the EU, it will face great economic vulnerability and will drift towards its traditional allies like the US and regional countries like Saudi Arabia, to desperately secure trade.

Britain is already going down this path. The government already looks set to increase trade ties with Washington, leading to Britain becoming more dependent on American trade, and has therefore granted the US greater leverage over Britain.

A poorly planned Brexit may subordinate Britain further towards America’s foreign policy. With Trump at the helm in America, this could lead Britain to taking an even more aggressive foreign policy if the US President goes ahead with such a stance.

Furthermore, Britain could drift further towards Saudi Arabia, having drastically increased trade ties with Riyadh following the 2016 Brexit referendum. As analysts have suggested that a no-deal Brexit could leave Britain with less leverage over Riyadh and more dependency on ties with the Saudi Kingdom, this could lead Britain to supporting any face-off by Riyadh against Iran, or at least failing to subvert any Saudi antagonism towards Tehran.

There are voices within the UK establishment that have questioned Washington’s narrative about Iran, including a top British military official. Yet the fact this had gained much attention shows how rare it is for British figures to criticize Washington, and how London’s narrative is increasingly aligned with America’s.

Other figures like former Middle East Minister Alastair Burt have delivered surprising criticism towards Washington’s stance on Iran. Yet current ministers have shown no signs of listening.

Other determining factors of Britain’s future foreign policy stance could also include the next Prime Minister. Theresa May who is due to step down will be replaced by another Conservative Party candidate. Boris Johnson is considered a favoured candidate, and as a pro-Brexit candidate this would leave Britain more vulnerable towards drifting towards the United States, and therefore its political position. Trump has recently praised Johnson, suggesting that the two could share a similar stance on regional issues. Yet as the Conservative Party is driving Britain’s drift towards America, a general election would be a greater shot at changing Britain’s foreign policy alignment.

Clearly the UK risks drifting down a dangerous path. If Britain was able to unify with the rest of Europe’s stance on Iran, and more sensible, anti-war British political figures were able to push the UK government against joining Washington’s stance, this would give Europe greater leverage to oppose Washington’s increasingly aggressive stance and call for a positive solution for peace.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Sky News: “Could Iran break the US-UK special relationship?”

Why Trump can’t ban the Muslim Brotherhood without Damaging Democratic Prospects Mon, 06 May 2019 04:05:17 +0000 (Informed Comment) – Donald Trump’s already problematic and divisive Middle Eastern policy could create more problems as he seeks to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. Though presented as a national security move, it could ignite further Middle East and North African tensions, while giving another green light to authoritarianism – all in favour of the regional states who support the designation.

Such a move would give justification to targeting and discriminating against American Muslims, whilst potentially inspiring other Western nations to do the same. Yet the order, which would involve sanctions against the group, would also promote further violence and crackdowns against both factions supporting political Islam and even non-fundamentalist groups, in the name of MENA ‘security’.

Even though critics of the Brotherhood try to present it as a secretive worldwide Muslim conspiracy, each countries’ faction largely operates independently, and it is a decentralized organisation, with limited active communication among the branches. It had also partly become synonymous with democracy during the Arab Spring uprisings after seeking power via the ballot box and given that its Egyptian branch won elections in Egypt and a distant affiliate, the Renaissance Party (al-Nahda) won a round in Tunisia.

Yet Trump, evidently more tolerant of despotism and the ‘strongman’ approach, is focused on appeasing both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and securing stronger investment ties with them. Both have also spent much money lobbying the White House and both view the Muslim Brotherhood as a populist and revolutionary threat to their conservative absolute monarchies.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has cracked-down on the Muslim Brotherhood and is a close ally of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, also urged Trump to target the group in a visit on April 9, which evidently influenced the US President’s decision.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, aside from Riyadh backing Yemen’s branch al-Islah for tactical purposes in its war there, oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.

That many branches of the Muslim Brotherhood are interested in competing as parties in parliamentary systems poses a severe challenge to the authoritarian status quo in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have cracked down hard on Muslim Brothers in their realms. Abroad, the Emirates’ Mohammed Bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman for the most part prefer to back anti-Brotherhood dictators.

The UAE, the most vehemently anti-Brotherhood state, claims to promote a ‘pro-stability’, ‘anti-extremist’ narrative to justify supporting autocratic regimes across the region, and adopts a highly interventionist foreign policy.

Khalifa Haftar, leader of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army who enjoys extensive military and material Emirati support, has used the supposed threat of Muslim fundamentalism as an excuse to launch aggressive military campaigns in Libya. Having previously accused the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli of hosting ‘Muslim Brotherhood militias’, Haftar launched a campaign to seize the Libyan capital. To a lesser extent, Haftar receives Saudi Arabia’s backing, yet is still the UAE’s man in Libya.

Yet as Haftar opposes any Libyan democratic transition, his empowerment in Libya could instead grant him the excuse to carry out further abuses and install a despotic regime in the country. Haftar’s supposed targeting of the Muslim Brotherhood serves as a perfect justification for his campaign to forcibly capture Libya, which would enjoy continued support from Trump. Trump had already given Haftar his consent to fight ‘terrorism’ in Libya during a phone call in April, showing this pro-stability narrative was already swaying the President. Even if Haftar cannot completely seize power in Libya, his supposed fight against Muslim fundamentalists creates further instability in Libya, while dismantling the country’s long-sought peaceful democratic process.

Additionally, as if Egypt’s Sisi did not need further Western impunity to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents, Trump’s declaration will further embolden him to attack Muslim Brotherhood figures and continue to use this as a pretext to target non-Islamist reformists. After all, Sisi uses the Muslim Brotherhood as a bogeyman to repress civil society and arrest any regime critic, and Trump’s anti-Brotherhood agenda would allow the crushing of any reform in Egypt.

It would justify targeting Brotherhood in other parts of the region too. The popular revolution in the Sudan spearheaded by the left and middle classes, has opened up its politics, long dominated by a military sometimes allied with the Sudanese branch of the Brotherhood. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are evidently trying to empower a reactionary military regime as a way of permanently sidelining the Muslim religious Right. Significantly, Trump’s administration would conceivably turn a blind eye to a new military junta in the Sudan, which would foil the aspirations of a public yearning for new freedoms after overthrowing 30-year-long autocratic ruler Omar Bashir. After all, Trump has not shown any sign of supporting Sudan’s transition so far.

The US administration could therefore allow and support furthermore Emirati and Saudi crackdowns on democratic transitions across the region wherever a tendency supporting political Islam exists, to prevent an alleged Muslim Brotherhood empowerment.

As the Brotherhood is a loose-knit organisation, Trump’s designation could allow the targeting of any non-Muslim Brotherhood party the UAE and Saudi Arabia may dislike. The US itself could also move to sanction any such movement.

Even beyond the Middle East, including in Europe, Trump’s decision could embolden politicians and governments to adopt more anti-Muslim monitoring policies, allowing them to increase authoritarianism and surveillance of civil society in general. The UAE, which has listed 83 Islamic organisations worldwide as terrorist organisations, would also have increased freedom to monitor and interfere in Islamic groups worldwide, under the pretext of combating the Muslim Brotherhood.

Trump’s decision to pursue a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood is for the benefit of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. If he can pass it, it could guarantee a further increase of authoritarianism in the region, allowing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to undermine regional democratic transitions, all with Trump’s consent.

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Newsy: “US may name Muslim Brotherhood terrorists”

Sudan’s Revolution is vulnerable to Saudi & UAE Repression Sat, 13 Apr 2019 04:12:25 +0000 (Informed Comment) – Impassioned protests in Sudan saw the downfall of 30-year-long President Omar Bashir on Thursday, in what may be considered a new wave of regional uprisings, as demonstrations look set to continue. Sudan’s events has already attracted much international attention, including from the United Nations, world powers and the African Union, showing its future is of great concern for the international community.

Yet like the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, external political actors may sabotage the Sudanese peoples’ efforts. While other countries could play a role in future Sudan’s decision making, both Saudi Arabia and the United may likely staunchly attempt to interfere in the country’s political transition and halt progress. This would secure their own regional dominance and crush any positive democratic transition – which could inspire reformers within their own states; and undercut a potentially stronger Islamist presence post-coup.

A big upset of the Arab Spring was the death of Egypt’s revolution in 2013 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed the military takeover and ascent of general Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, which should serve as a warning to Sudanese protestors. Not only did this crush the Muslim Brotherhood government, elected in 2012 and supported by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s brewing regional rival Qatar, two sham elections have taken place since, showing the country’s democratic transition had failed.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since continued to shower Egypt’s military regime with billions of dollars of aid, to secure their own ideal regional order, which limits opposition forces and ultimately the process of democratization.

A similar scenario risks occurring in Sudan. Protesters have already raised the alarm of the military’s control over the revolution, which may not create a transitional agreement based on the people’s wishes. After all, as it stands the military aims to hold power for two years, like how Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces retained control after the January 2011 revolution ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.

Under Omar Bashir, Sudan took part in Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s war on Yemen, providing troops and fighter jets to their anti-Houthi coalition. While Sudan’s participation in the Yemen war caused further discontent among many Sudanese citizens, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw Sudan as a useful ally because of it.

Both countries have tried to keep Sudan on their side, largely to drag it away from Qatar and Turkey. Not only was Sudan previously a recipient of aid from them, Saudi and Emirati support increased particularly during the protests as Khartoum moved away from Qatar, reportedly to improve political and economic security. Yet this is arguably another soft power method.

Thus far, the military coup is favourable to the UAE especially, as the military has arrested several Muslim Brotherhood figures tied to the Sudanese regime. Abu Dhabi is hostile to political Islam and especially the Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia mostly opposes it too despite having a tactical alliance with the Yemeni branch. Both have generally worked to crush the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists to expand their own regional hegemony. Therefore, aiding the military could continue to benefit them.

There have been warnings of a further split within the military if the transitional period is extended; as well as some fears of potential political destabilization in the country. Such a scenario if it happened could embolden the Muslim Brotherhood and other rival factions, as happened in Libya and Syria. The UAE and Saudi Arabia would be fearful of any scenario which could strengthen Islamist forces and could instead work with the senior military officers they have strong ties to, to shore up an authoritarian military presence. This would further help them counteract the rise of ‘unfriendly’ forces, whilst securing their own influence in the country, as Sudan would be more dependent on its support.

Meanwhile they could try to back other candidates to rule Sudan in their favour. Salah Gosh, who was appointed Sudan’s intelligence chief last year, has favourable ties with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, who have wanted him to replace Bashir. Gosh recently met with a Mossad official in Berlin, planning how to help elevate him to power on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to a Sudanese military source cited by Middle East Eye. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could also try to shore up other pro-Saudi/Emirati figures in an interim government, putting them in a stronger position in Sudan’s political future.

This would be a continuation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s efforts to upset the growth of democracy and ensure the dominance of anti-Islamist, authoritarian rulers in other parts of the region, so long as they have increased soft power. By backing the prominent military general Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who opposes any democratic transition as well as any form of an Islamist faction, recently launching an assault on Libya’s capital Tripoli, their efforts risk jeopardizing the UN-backed peace process.

Tunisia has at times felt vulnerable to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s interference, who have reportedly attempted to support reactionary, pre-revolutionary political forces in Tunis, to not only weaken the coalition-governing Islamist Ennahda party, but to upset the country’s relatively successful transition towards democracy. The UAE could arguably support destabilization in Tunisia rather than having democratic forces it could not influence in power.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are both, though at times divergently, seeking increased soft power and influence across the Middle East and North Africa region, whilst seeking a regional order which threatens their own states’ status quo. Both watching the Arab Spring revolutions with distaste and caution, they sought to sabotage any democratic change. As Sudan shows signs of moving in a positive direction, they could arguably support a continuation of the status quo.

Unless efforts within Sudan are made to safeguard the revolutionary process from outside forces, history may repeat itself and the transition could ultimately serve the geopolitical ambitions of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, rather than the wishes of the Sudanese people themselves.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Leader of Sudan coup steps down day after ousting leader | ITV News