Trump’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Trump’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

The White House announcement that US President Donald Trump will carry out his first foreign visit and that Saudi Arabia will be a major stop is a message on a major shift in his foreign policy priorities.

Since Obama’s term came to an end in 2016, relations with Saudi Arabia have changed. During Obama’s last visit to Riyadh, ties were at their lowest in more than half a century. With Trump in power, we are witnessing changes in all aspects: Syria, Iran, Yemen and bilateral relations.

The televised interview of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense clarified the stances from these issues that are expected to be part of the discussions in Riyadh.

Regarding Syria, Riyadh eased its stance to reach a political solution that satisfies Russia and doesn’t grant the regime and its allies a free hand. In the Astana talks, there were two prime developments – approval to differentiate national factions from terrorists and readiness to establish safe zones, two of Trump’s pledges while campaigning for the presidency.

On the Yemeni war, the deputy crown prince was persuasive when he boldly admitted that the rush in liberating Sana’a and other cities might cause huge losses on both sides of the conflict.

“Time is in our favor and we are not in a rush. We can liberate it in two days with a costly human price or liberate it slowly with fewer losses,” he said.

Iran is a mutual huge concern for Riyadh and the US as well as other governments in the region. The deputy crown prince specified the Saudi government’s vision and its current policy. He said the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran leaves no doubt that Tehran has been targeting it even in times of rapprochement.

He added that the kingdom will defend its existence and will not remain in a state of defense for long. Trump has already delivered clear messages against the policies of the Tehran regime in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Gulf waters.

Talks on arranging regional relations meant mainly Egypt. In the televised interview, the deputy crown prince hinted to the Muslim Brotherhood’s media of standing behind growing Saudi-Egyptian differences. His statement put an end to speculations about the relations with Cairo, depicting them as a passing summer cloud.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a problem restricted to one country. This is a political group using religion as a means to reach power and is similar to communism which puts it on collision course with the rest of the regimes in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a unified group from Gulf, Egyptian, Sudanese, Tunisian and other nationalities waging collective wars. The group tried to besiege the government in Egypt through the media and by provoking the Egyptians against it as well as urging the region’s people to cut ties with it.

Though supported by dozens of TV channels, websites and social media, the group failed to achieve its objectives. The Egyptian government is now stronger than when Mohamed Morsi’s government was ousted more than three years ago.

The Muslim Brotherhood project in Egypt has failed. Its losses grew when Trump reversed the foreign policy of Obama who had boycotted the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

More Posts

This Is A Re-blog Of A Very Serious Article; Everyone Needs To Understand Their Reality, Both Sides

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Final Chapter of Dialogue with Iran

While Iran is fighting Saudi Arabia and Gulf states through its militias in Yemen and directly in Bahrain, and combats for its interests in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, reconciliation and peacemaking attempts continued between Iran and the Gulf States, prominently Saudi Arabia.

Occasionally, calls for negotiations would come from former US President Barack Obama, or through European foreign ministers, and sometimes – shockingly – through Gulf countries’ efforts.

Each party credits itself for strengthening their positions even if it came on the expenses of Arab and Gulf states, though these calls would benefit Iran.

Everyone knows that Iran can’t go on with a reasonable dialogue while executing its expansion and interference in internal affairs policy.

Yet, it seems that the final chapter of these callings is irreversibly over after Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman explained his country’s position saying it is impossible to reach mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran: “There is no common ground between us and the Iranian regime.”

So, it is rather impossible to hold negotiations with Iran which Prince Mohammed said was busy with its “extremist ideology” and ambitions to “control the Islamic world.”

The more important and clearer message here is that the battle will be in Iran and not Saudi Arabia.

Why the final chapter?

Precisely because Gulf efforts should be exerted to stop Iran’s expansions rather than being occupied with mediations that are only exhausting and offer the Iranian regime with an opportunity to catch its breath and promote its revolution before western state, and not country, as a peace agent.

It is about time things are set straight and positions are made based on facts, reality and the consequences the area will face because of Iran’s sabotage project. It is no longer useful for the collective Gulf official statements to follow a hostile policy towards Iranian extremism, and then it all changes once the meetings are over.

Iran’s position towards Arab interests became unprecedentedly hostile that it exceeds its eight years’ war on Iraq during the eighties of the last century. Tehran’s main goal is to reach Muslims’ Qiblah, as the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince said in his televised interview.

After all the one-way hostility that spreads from the east to the west of the Gulf, is it right to accept the requests for dialogue and mediation which occupy the region rather than focusing on the real battle?

Surely it is understandable for every country to run its policies based on its own interests. It is also clear that no state can force its own statements on another that doesn’t share the same ideas. But, it is important that the old tools of diplomatic exploitation be stopped, like this endless boring tale of dialogue. It is also crucial to end Iranian regime’s penetration of the Gulf system in a way that helps Tehran proceed with its extreme strategies.

It is about time policies match the reality of the stances given that Iran is literally waging wars on its neighbors via sending weapons and training militias.

Those who believe that their interest doesn’t include collectively fighting the Iranian regime should at least let someone else do this mission in a way that doesn’t complicate the decisive confrontation and thus lessen its strategic success once in a while.

No one wants to go into war with Iran or any other for that matter. Stopping Iran’s extremist project surely doesn’t mean anyone is banging the drums for war. But at the same time, an easy policy is never productive with a state like Iran. The administration of former US President Obama followed that policy for eight years and failed catastrophically.

The issue is now clearer to end Iran’s expansion. Offense is the best defense. It began with putting an end to Iran’s external interventions and exposing the Tehran regime for its domestic reality after it had deprived its people of development for over thirty years. Or, as the Saudi Crown Prince said: “We know we are a main target of Iran. We are not waiting until there becomes a battle in Saudi Arabia, so we will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Aldosary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

More Posts

Syria Has Changed The World

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT AND THE NEW YOUR TIMES)

Syria Changed the World

Istanbul- The world seems awash in chaos and uncertainty, perhaps more so than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

Authoritarian-leaning leaders are on the rise, and liberal democracy itself seems under siege. The post-World War II order is fraying as fighting spills across borders and international institutions — built, at least in theory, to act as brakes on wanton slaughter — fail to provide solutions. Populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are not just riding anti-establishment anger, but stoking fears of a religious “other,” this time Muslims.

These challenges have been crystallized, propelled and intensified by a conflagration once dismissed in the West as peripheral, to be filed, perhaps, under “Muslims killing Muslims”: the war in Syria.

Now in its seventh year, this war allowed to rage for so long, killing 400,000 Syrians and plunging millions more into misery, has sent shock waves around the world. Millions have fled to neighboring countries, some pushing on to Europe.

The notion that the postwar world would no longer let leaders indiscriminately kill their own citizens now seems in full retreat. The Syrian regime’s response to rebellion, continuing year after year, threatens to normalize levels of state brutality not seen in decades. All the while Bashar al-Assad invokes an excuse increasingly popular among the world’s governments since Sept. 11: He is “fighting terror.”

“Syria did not cause everything,” said the Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a secular leftist who spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner under Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez. “But yes, Syria changed the world.”

The United Nations Security Council is paralyzed. Aid agencies are overwhelmed. Even a United States missile strike on a Syrian military air base, ordered by President Trump in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held town, seems little more than a blip in the turmoil, the latest unilateral intervention in the war. Two weeks later, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, continues its scorched-earth bombings.

There remains no consensus on what should have been or could still be done for Syria, or whether a more, or less, muscular international approach would have brought better results.

The Obama White House kept Syria at arm’s length, determined, understandably, to avoid the mistakes of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And Western leaders surmised that unlike the 1990s civil war in Bosnia, the Syrian conflict could burn in isolation from their countries.

Moral or not, that calculation was incorrect. The crisis has crossed Europe’s doorstep and is roiling its politics.

The conflict began in 2011, with political protests. Syrian security forces cracked down, and with Western support stronger in rhetoric than reality, some of Assad’s opponents took up arms. The regime responded with mass detentions, torture, starvation sieges and bombing of rebel-held areas. Extremist jihadists arose, with ISIS eventually declaring a caliphate and fomenting violence in Europe.

More than five million Syrians have fled their country. Hundreds of thousands joined a refugee trail across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Images of crowds of desperate refugees — and of the extreme violence they had faced at home — were used by politicians to fuel fears of Islam, and of Muslims. That lifted far-right European parties already riding on resentment of immigrants, from Finland to Hungary.

The refugee crisis has posed one of the biggest challenges in memory to the cohesion of the European Union and some of its core values: freedom of movement, common borders, pluralism. It heightened anxieties over identity and culture, feeding off economic insecurity and mistrust of governing elites that grew over decades with globalization and financial crises.

Suddenly European countries were erecting fences and internment camps to stop migrants. While Germany welcomed refugees, other countries resisted sharing the burden. The far right spoke of protecting white, Christian Europe. Even the Brexit campaign played, in part, on fears of the refugees.

In the United States, as in Europe, right-wing extremists are among those embracing authoritarian, indiscriminately violent responses to perceived “Islamist” threats. White nationalists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, post adoring pictures on social media of Assad, who portrays himself as a bulwark against extremism.

In my decade of covering violence against civilians in the Middle East, mass murder by states has often seemed less gripping to Western audiences than far smaller numbers of theatrically staged killings — horrific as they are — by ISIS and its Qaeda predecessors.

The United States’ own “war on terror” played a part in making violations of humanitarian and legal norms routine: detentions at Guantánamo Bay, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the continuing drone and air wars with mounting civilian tolls in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Then, too, Syria’s war broke out when the global stage was set for division and ineffectiveness. Russia was eager for a bigger role, the United States was retreating, Europe was consumed with internal problems. Russia and the United States saw opposite interests in Syria, deadlocking the Security Council.

The New York Times

How The World Sees Trump, 100 Days In—(And It Isn’t Pretty)

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

How the world sees Trump, 100 days in

Updated 4:53 PM ET, Sat April 29, 2017

(CNN) The world was dumbfounded by the election of Donald Trump, and his first 100 days in office have done little to alleviate a deep sense of uncertainty and unpredictability. Indeed, as one observer put it, the last few weeks alone have caused a severe case of global geostrategic whiplash.

The number of campaign promises that have morphed into presidential U-turns is staggering. Allies and adversaries alike are trying to figure out whether a Trump Doctrine is emerging, or whether, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden recently told me, a discernible doctrine does not exist in what resembles a family-run business of policy from the White House.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster “has hired a very bright woman to write the US National Security Strategy,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I did it twice for George H.W. Bush. But I was building on precedent and historic consensus. It’s really going to be interesting to see what an America First national security strategy looks like when you’ve got to write it down.”
Long-time American allies are comforted, though, knowing McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis make up an experienced national security team. NATO partners also welcomed Trump’s declaration that he no longer considers the transatlantic military alliance obsolete.
They, along with regional allies, supported Trump enforcing the previously declared US red line in Syria against the regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people. After such an attack that the West attributed to the Syrian government earlier in the month, Trump launched retaliatory strikes.
But Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, are worried about US policy on North Korea. They welcome the tougher stance against Kim Jong Un’s ramped up nuclear missile program, but they were rattled by the USS Carl Vinson debacle, when for a time it was unclear if the aircraft carrier was steaming towards North Korea or not. It raised the question of whether the administration really has its deterrence policy in order, and South Korea was said to feel utter confusion, even betrayal, when the carrier was actually found to be steaming away from, not towards, the Korean Peninsula.
On Iran, signals are slightly harder to read. On the one hand, the State Department again certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Yet a day later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson strongly hinted the US could walk away from it, or try to link it to other issues it has with Iran. So far the deal remains in place and neither the EU nor the UN would agree to reimpose international sanctions on Tehran, which helped bring the country to the negotiating table.
On the Paris Climate Accord, Trump’s closest advisers seem to be having an almighty tussle about whether he should stay or stray from the historic deal. Big US companies like ExxonMobil are urging the US to abide by the deal and thereby have more say at the table.
Trump has also hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and seems to have reversed many of his pledges to play hardball with Beijing. But on trade, just recently a Financial Times newspaper headline blared: “Trump Fires First Protectionist Warning over steel Industry,” saying this paves the way for a global showdown on steel and possible sweeping tariffs on steel imports.
In his first 100 days, President Barack Obama visited nine countries. President George W. Bush visited two. Trump has visited none. But next month he visits Brussels for a NATO summit, and Sicily, for a meeting of the G7. Whether he can convince America’s allies that they have a trust-worthy friend with a strategic worldview as their most powerful ally remains to be seen, abroad and at home.
“I think I know what the policy is,” Hayden told me. “I have more difficulty, Christiane, putting this policy into a broader global view. And I think that’s causing unease with you, with me, and with a whole bunch of other folks who are trying to see, ‘Where are the Americans going globally?'”

Afghanistan

Nick Paton Walsh
It was the mother of all statements, but he may have had nothing to do with it.
The MOAB (officially know as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast) wiped out an ISIS tunnel complex in the volatile eastern part of the country last week, killing around 90 militants.

Why did the US use the MOAB?

Why did the US use the MOAB?
It was the largest non-nuclear bomb used by the US in combat, but whether the new commander in chief personally approved its use is unclear.
The airstrike was immediately followed up by National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster visiting Kabul and assuring President Ashraf Ghani his country had a friend in the US and a strategic review was under way.
Yet outside of the huge bomb and its message of might, little has changed — as the new White House is inheriting the exhaustion of both resolve and policy options of the last.
A massive troop surge? Talks with the Taliban? A lighter footprint training Afghan security forces to secure the country? All have been tried, and all have failed to stop the insurgency controlling or contesting over half Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed rise of ISIS. Add to that the intense and escalating in-fighting in the Kabul political elite, and there is a very messy summer ahead, with few decent options.

China

David McKenzie
It’s arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
But when President Donald Trump was inaugurated back in January, several Chinese policy experts told me there was a lot of nervousness about the incoming leader.

China's delicate balance with North Korea

China’s delicate balance with North Korea
After all, during the campaign Trump said he would name China a currency manipulator on Day One of his term and threatened a trade war.
As President-elect, he spoke to Taiwan’s president on the phone and openly questioned the ‘One China’ policy, a cornerstone of Washington-Beijing relations in which the US recognizes Taiwan as part of China. And Trump accused China of not doing enough to put pressure on North Korea.
100 days on? Well, it’s a 180-degree shift.
In his first phone call with President Xi Jinping, Trump reaffirmed the One China policy. He has praised Beijing for taking some positive steps on the North Korea issue and he recently said that China is not manipulating its currency.
Trump denies these positions represent a flip-flop; the businessman-turned-president is saying it’s all part of a deal.
“I actually told him (Xi Jinping), I said, ‘You’ll make a much better deal on trade if you get rid of this menace or do something about the menace of North Korea.’ Because that’s what it is, it’s a menace right now,” Trump said last week.
Trump said he has developed a strong relationship with Xi Jinping and that their scheduled 15-minute meetings at the Mar-a-Lago summit stretched into “hours.”
But Yan Xuetong, a foreign policy expert at Tsinghua University, told me that the Chinese are skeptical. He said that if North Korea goes ahead with its nuclear program, then China will take the blame.
“Trump will use China as scapegoat to tell (the) American public that it is not his problem,” said Yan.
In Yan’s eyes, at least, the Chinese suspect more Trump policy turns.

Egypt

Ian Lee
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate President Donald Trump after he won the November 2016 presidential election. The two leaders had instantly hit it off when they met a few months earlier in New York.
Their views are more aligned than were those of President Barack Obama, which reacted coolly to the 2013 coup by Egypt’s military — led at the time by Sisi. When he became president soon afterward, he ushered in a new low between Washington and Cairo.

ISIS claims responsibility for church blasts

ISIS claims responsibility for church blasts
It was an open secret that Cairo wished for a Trump victory over Obama’s former secretary of state, Hilary Clinton. Trump was perceived by Cairo as a pragmatist who had little interest in human rights.
In his first days in office, Trump invited Sisi to visit him in Washington. The Egyptian president arrived with three main objectives: deepen military cooperation, strengthen the war against terror and revive Egypt’s economy. The invitation to the White House also gave the Egyptian president a legitimacy that the Obama administration had previously denied him.
Recently, in a gesture of good will and eagerness to cooperate, American Aya Hijazi was released from an Egyptian prison after Trump directly intervened to secure her release.
Expect relations to remain warm as long as Trump’s administration keeps the lid on any criticism of Sisi.

Germany

Nic Robertson
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took heat from Donald Trump even before he was sworn in as president.
He accused her of making a “catastrophic mistake” on migrants, only being as trustworthy as Vladimir Putin, and intentionally trying to take business from the US.

Pence reassures NATO allies in Munich speech

Pence reassures NATO allies in Munich speech
For Europeans, Trump’s attitude to Merkel is symptomatic of wider issues: his like of Brexit and his dislike of the EU’s single market and liberal trade values.
At the EU leaders summit in Malta this February, both French and German leaders said openly that Trump’s attitude was uniting Europe to stand on its own feet.
Since then, Trump has said the EU is “wonderful” and he is “totally in favor of it.” Yet he still supports Brexit and seems unaware of the instability and frustrations Europe feels because of it.
It’s not the only cross-Atlantic reversal he has had. Coming into office, he said NATO was “obsolete.” He told the alliance nations they need to pay their way, and has given them a deadline to promise they will.
In recent weeks Trump has changed his tune. NATO, he said, is “not obsolete” — but he still wants members’ money.
Merkel’s March visit to see Trump at the White House did little to quell European concerns over his attitude to Europe, and trade in particular.
That Merkel was ignored by Trump when asking for a handshake in the Oval Office, and embarrassed by him again at the news conference that followed with an awkward comment about being spied on, reveals this relationship has some way to go before it gets on an even keel.
Iran
Frederik Pleitgen
Iran’s leadership realized that Donald Trump was an unknown commodity, but many in the country’s senior leadership hoped they would be able to deal with the new man in the White House.
“We hope that he will have a pragmatic approach,” Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister, Amir Hossein Azamaninia, told me in an interview during the transition period shortly before Trump took office. He suggested that perhaps President Donald Trump would similar to the businessman Donald Trump — a shrewd dealmaker, whom the Islamic Republic with its oil wealth could possibly even strike deals with.

Iranians worried about US-Iran relationship

Iranians worried about US-Iran relationship
But Iran soon learned that the new administration was going to take a harder line towards Tehran than President Barack Obama had. When Iran tested ballistic missiles in late January — which the US believes could strike targets in Israel — then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn came down hard and fast on Tehran, announcing there would be new sanctions. He also said the US was “putting Iran on notice,” without specifying what that meant.
This harsh reaction and subsequent statements by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have sowed further uncertainty in Tehran about America’s strategy on Iran. The tough talk and action have put a severe damper on any notion the Rouhani administration had that its fairly constructive relations with Washington during the Obama years would continue.
At the same time, the Trump team’s hard line seems to be having an effect on Iran’s behavior.
There have so far been fewer reports of incidents and close encounters between US and Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf’s narrow Strait of Hormuz than during the end of the Obama administration. And during Iran’s National Revolution Day in February, the leadership did not display ballistic missiles as it usually has.
This has led some experts to believe that Tehran — for all its harsh rhetoric — is making an effort to not further antagonize an American president and Cabinet whom the Iranians view as erratic and very hostile towards the Islamic Republic.
If this was the Trump administrations intent, it could be working.

Iraq

Ben Wedeman
“I would bomb the s**t out of them,” declared candidate Donald Trump, summarizing his strategy to defeat ISIS. “I would bomb those suckers … and I’d take the oil.” The crowds loved it.
A decisive victory over ISIS, plus a grand prize of a lot of cheap oil, sounds great, but the real world just doesn’t work that way and slowly, perhaps, the new administration has learned this in its first 100 days.

Trump's son-in-law visits Iraq

Trump’s son-in-law visits Iraq
For one thing, the battle to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq — now into its seventh month — has underscored just how hard it is to defeat the extremists. Since the push in the western part of the city began in February, both the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces have been bombarding ISIS as promised, using much heavier firepower than during the battle for west Mosul in the waning months of the Obama administration.
But the tactic has come at a high cost in terms of civilian casualties, brought home by what US officials concede was probably a US-led airstrike on March 17 that mistakenly killed almost 150 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are still in western Mosul, often exploited by ISIS as human shields.
But even with the heavy assault, the Trump administration is largely settling down and following the same slow, deliberate approach of the Obama administration.
The battle for Mosul has taken more than half a year and may take many more months. In neighboring Syria, there are nearly a thousand US boots on the ground, backing a mixed Kurdish-Arab force that aims at overrunning the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. When this will happen is anyone’s guess.
And then there’s that other topic Trump has toyed with: taking Iraq’s oil. That was decisively shot down by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who flew to Baghdad in February and told reporters, “We’re not in Iraq to seize anyone’s oil.”

Israel

Oren Liebermann
Donald Trump’s fiery pro-Israel rhetoric during the campaign had the right and far right in Israel salivating at the prospects of a Trump administration, while Palestinians worried about an American government adopting a more hostile stance.
Trump pledged to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, “dismantle” the Iran deal, reduce funding to the United Nations and cut aid to the Palestinians. At the same time, Trump said he wanted to close “the ultimate deal” — a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Trump ties to Israeli settlements

Trump ties to Israeli settlements
Save for the last, Trump has moderated his stance and backed off his positions in his first 100 days in office. The Trump administration has said its still considering an embassy move, but has also called Israeli settlements in the West Bank unhelpful for peace and acknowledged that Iran is sticking by the terms of the nuclear deal. Some analysts in Israel have pointed out that Trump’s positions on the region are beginning to resemble Obama’s positions.
The Israeli right wing’s fervor over Trump has cooled somewhat, but it still expects him to be a friend in the White House. From Israel’s perspective, the big star of the Trump administration so far is US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who has repeatedly criticized the United Nations for focusing disproportionately on Israel. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Trump, refusing to suggest even the slightest hint of criticism, since he entered office.
Meanwhile, a recent visit by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left Palestinians cautiously optimistic that prospects weren’t as grim as initially feared and that Trump was serious about attempting to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet Trump in Washington shortly after Trump hits the 100-day mark. The meeting could be a litmus test of how the dynamic between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas develops.

Mexico

Leyla Santiago
President Trump still has yet to meet face-to-face with Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, after an awkward encounter during the 2016 campaign. According to Mexican government officials, no plans are in the works, signaling tensions remain between the two leaders.

Mixed messages as top U.S. diplomat visits Mexico

Mixed messages as top U.S. diplomat visits Mexico
Twitter exchanges, however, have cooled down since a public war of words in January between @EPN and @realDonaldTrump over payment for a wall along the US-Mexico border. Mexico still maintains it will not pay for Trump’s muro (wall).
Many Mexicans still fear Trump could cut off a portion of their income, if he imposes taxes on remittances as a form of payment for the wall.
The Mexican government says, though, that its No. 1 concern is human rights violations. It has invested $50 million to expand legal services at its consulates and embassies in the US in an effort to help Mexicans fearing deportation.
Major questions also loom over the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has called the 23-year-old deal that allows free trade between Mexico, Canada and the US a one-sided agreement.
If a good deal is not renegotiated, Mexico plans to walk away from the pact. The uncertainty in trade relations has led Mexico to strengthen ties with other countries and explore opportunities in Asian, European and South American markets instead of the US.
After Mexico featured repeatedly in the US elections, Trump himself is now playing a role in who will become Mexico’s next leader. Anti-Trump rhetoric has become a central part of Mexican campaigns heading toward the 2018 election. Leading candidates are hoping a stance against Trump will protect Mexico’s interests and win over voters.

North Korea

Will Ripley
When I ask ordinary North Koreans about the impact of President Donald Trump on their lives, they give strikingly similar answers. The response is usually something like this: “It doesn’t matter who the US president is. All that matters is that they discontinue America’s hostile policy against my country.”

North Koreans celebrate 'Army day'

North Koreans celebrate ‘Army day’
Of course, they are only repeating the same message given to them by their state-controlled media, the only media North Koreans have access to. Because US politics are not a primary focus of North Korean propaganda, the vast majority of citizens are blissfully unaware of Trump’s twitter account or the cloud of controversy that has swirled around the first 100 days of his administration.
But they are aware of a few key facts. They know that Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian regime air base, viewed by many as an indirect threat to Pyongyang. They also know that Trump dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, albeit by an indirect route.
The reason North Koreans know these things is simple: The actions of the Trump administration play right into their government’s long-standing narrative that they are under the imminent threat of attack by the ‘imperialist’ United States.
People have been told for their entire lives that America could drop a nuclear bomb at anytime. Citizens always voice their unanimous support of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Of course, in an authoritarian country where political dissent is not tolerated, there are no opposing voices.
The North Korean government uses this ‘imminent threat’ to justify its substantial investment in weapons of mass destruction, even if this means citizens must sacrifice. And government officials in Pyongyang told me the policies of the Trump administration in its first 100 days only add to their sense of urgency to accelerate development of a viable intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the mainland US.
They say such a weapon is key to their survival as a nation, even as critics fear North Korea continuing down the nuclear road will only lead to further diplomatic isolation, economic hardship or worse.
There are signs that North Korea is monitoring and responding to the unpredictable rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. After news broke that the USS Carl Vinson strike group was headed to the Korean Peninsula, I was hand-delivered a statement in Pyongyang saying, “The DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US.”
We’ve never seen dynamics like this before. An untested US President who tweets in real time and isn’t afraid to launch missiles to prove a point. And a North Korean leader who has consolidated his power by purging opponents (including his own uncle) and has launched more missiles than his father and grandfather combined.
This could be a recipe for disaster. Or a recipe for lasting peace. Or perhaps a recipe for the continuation of a decades-long stalemate. If Trump’s first 100 days provide any clues, it’s going to be a wild ride regardless.

Russia

Matthew Chance
President Donald Trump entered the White House on a promise of improving the strained relationship between Washington and Moscow.
He was full of praise for his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, suggesting he might recognize annexed Crimea as Russian, cooperate over international terrorism and join forces in Syria.

Lavrov to US: Respect Syrian sovereignty

Lavrov to US: Respect Syrian sovereignty
It was all music to the Kremlin’s ears and talk was of a pivotal moment, of the Trump administration transforming the way in which the United States and Russia saw each other.
But 100 days on, none of that has come to pass.
“One could say the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved,” said Putin on April 12, “but rather has deteriorated.”
US officials have criticized Russia for fueling conflict in Ukraine, castigated the Kremlin for its treatment of sexual minorities, even bombed Russia’s Syrian ally while implying Moscow might have been complicit in dozens of agonizing deaths there caused by chemical weapons.
Part of the reason is undoubtedly the toxic political atmosphere in Washington, where lingering allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election are being investigated by Congress.
But there is also a growing sense that the Trump administration, at 100 days old, has finally encountered a stark reality: Russia and the United States simply have different geopolitical priorities — whether in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere — that won’t be easily reconciled.

Syria

Clarissa Ward
When President Donald Trump first assumed office, his strategy on Syria, like much of his foreign policy, was opaque. On the campaign trail he had said that his priority was to eliminate ISIS — indeed, he promised to put together a plan to do so in his first 30 days. He attempted to place a ban on any Syrian refugees entering the US, calling them a security threat. But on the subject of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and the brutal civil war he has presided over that has claimed more than 400,000 lives, he was noticeably silent.

Syria, a war on children?

Syria, a war on children?
Trump’s strong admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and interesting in getting the relationship with Russia back on track led many to assume that he would do little to interfere in Syria, where Moscow is closely allied with Damascus. This was reinforced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment in March that it would be “up to the Syrian people” whether or not Assad would go, a demand long made by the Obama administration. Regime change, it seemed, was no longer desirable for the US.
Yet, within a few weeks, everything changed.
After seeing the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed dozens of children, Trump suddenly took action against the Assad regime. Two days later, dozens of American tomahawk missiles rained down on the regime’s Shayrat air base.
The Syrian people were stunned. Those who oppose Assad had dreamed of this moment for many years, but after President Barack Obama had chosen not to enforce his red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, their dream had died. Suddenly, Trump was hailed as something of a hero. Some took to calling him by a new nom de guerre, Abu Ivanka al Amriki.
The strikes on Shayrat changed very little on the ground in Syria. The regime was continuing its daily bombardment within hours.
Still, after six years of standing on the sidelines, the shift in US policy (if it is a sustained shift) has given some cause for optimism. There is hope that perhaps Assad will think twice before using chemical weapons against his own people, that the US may now have more leverage at the negotiating table.
Yet the question still remains: What is the US’s policy on Syria? 100 days into the Trump presidency, we still don’t really know.

Turkey

Ian Lee
Relations with the Obama administration warmed under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when that suited him and then soured accordingly. They have yet to be really tested under President Donald Trump.
Since taking office, Trump has taken a softer tone in dealing with Turkey. Ankara responded positively to the United States’ missile strike on a Syrian air base. Trump congratulated the Turkish president for the success of his referendum, giving him significantly expanded powers, despite the process being deeply flawed according to international monitors, an opinion echoed by the State Department.

Turkish demonstrators protest vote result

Turkish demonstrators protest vote result
By the time President Barack Obama left office, US-Turkish relations had cooled. The two leaders had differing opinions regarding Syria. Where Obama wanted to focus on defeating ISIS while Erdogan wanted to oust President Bashar al-Assad. The United States saw Syrian Kurdish militants, the YPG, as an ally against ISIS, while the Turks viewed them as terrorists. And Obama criticized Turkey’s crackdown on the political opposition, intellectuals, activists and journalists and wouldn’t extradite spiritual leader Fetullah Gulen, on whom the Turkish blames July’s coup attempt. Elements of Erdogan’s party even accused the United States of supporting the failed effort.
There is optimism in Turkey among the government and its supporters that a new page can be turned, especially when both leaders plan to meet in Washington in May.
But Trump is likely to face similar tensions as Obama did. One of the toughest will be the upcoming operation against ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. Turkey wants to take part but won’t fight along side the YPG. Trump will likely have to choose between a NATO ally and a proven fighting force.

The UK

Phil Black
President Donald Trump helped create what is so far the most iconic image of Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May — the American president holding May’s hand as they walked outside the White House in January.
May later said Trump was “being a gentleman.”

Scotland calls for independence referendum

Scotland calls for independence referendum
She provided the opportunity for his gallantry by swiftly moving to be the first world leader to visit the new president.
May has unashamedly pursued a close bond with Trump, believing “the special relationship” between the UK and US is especially important as Britain prepares for a future outside the European Union.
May has pushed for a quick post-Brexit trade deal while also trying to persuade Trump to align with Britain’s traditional positions on key foreign policy issues like NATO (crucial) and Russia (deserves suspicion).
The British Prime Minister also threw in a sweetener. She invited Trump to visit the UK with full state honors. That usually means time with the Queen, banquets, parades and gilded carriages.
Such invitations are rarely offered to new presidents and it’s proved to be hugely controversial in a country where many disagree with Trump’s policies, including his attempts to block immigration from select, majority-Muslim countries.
More than 1.8 million people signed a petition opposing a state visit “because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Thousands protested on the streets and have promised to do so again when Trump arrives. That could create some awkward moments.
May’s efforts to stay close to Trump will likely be judged by whether she secures a free trade agreement with the United States. But they can’t even begin talking about that officially until after Brexit has taken place, so that’s at least two years away.

The Kidnap of the Qataris (By Iranian Militia) Is a Defeat to Iraq’s Sovereignty

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

The Kidnap of the Qataris Is a Defeat to Iraq’s Sovereignty

Former Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance Hoshyar Zebari said that the kidnapping of the Qatari hunters represented a defeat for Iraq’s sovereignty and institutions, knowing that it was not the first time it had happened. Turkish workers had also been kidnapped while working on the construction of a football field in al-Sadr city in Baghdad. Both crimes were conducted by a militia affiliated with Iran.

Is it possible that, upon Iran’s directives, armed militias abduct a group of Qatari visitors who legally entered Iraq with visas and were under the protection of Iraqi security forces?

Iran-linked militia Iraqi Hezbollah dared to publically challenge the government by kidnapping Qatari civilians for 18 months and, on behalf of Iranians, negotiated their release un conditions.

Iran is doing today in Iraq what it did in Lebanon during the 1980’s. It transferred Lebanon into an arena against the West, and at the time Iranian territories were secured, Lebanon was a target for Israeli occupation, US bombardment, and the Syrian troops for looting. Until this day, Lebanon is suffering within a semi-sovereign state.

Tehran’s regime was active in Iraq over the past few years establishing multiple militias to subdue other Iraqi forces. The largest of all the militias is the Popular Mobilization Forces which became a militia equivalent to the army in order to weaken the centralized Iraqi authorities, just like it did in Lebanon.

But, can the Iranian regime abolish the Iraqi state with its enormous resources and which is larger than Lebanon and has a far more important strategic value?

Iran is trying to control Iraq in a big battle where different Iraqi parties are fighting power and dominance. This is all happening amid difficult circumstances. The government in Baghdad remains silent, avoiding confrontation without any objections to Iran’s continuous interventions and breach of sovereignty.

In case Iranian intelligence manages to control Iraqi official and other institutions, the expected result will be the division of the country.

Kurdistan region can’t remain a part of a frail state run by Tehran. Kurds have always complained that Baghdad is no longer the center of the state because of its weak institutions. Similarly, the five Sunni governorates would refuse to be under the jurisdiction of Baghdad even though over the past eight years, Iran managed to recruit several leaderships, members of parliaments and media figures of those governorates.

It is not unlikely that most Iraqi voices rejecting the Iranian control and its militias in governorates of Shiite majority is because of direct control attempts.

During the years that followed the withdrawal of US troops, Iran managed to infiltrate and control the institutions of the Iraqi states. Tehran went as far to enforce its own interpretation of the Algiers border agreement between Iran and Iraq, changed the stream of Arabian Sea, and forced the Iraqi government to fund its militias in Iraq and Syria claiming they were fighting terrorist organizations.

Because of its area, Iraq won’t be as easy as Lebanon for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Weakening Baghdad will create a dangerous vacuum which will affect the region’s security, including that of Iran.

Iraq is a very important country for superpowers like US and Russia and none of these countries will allow the regional countries, be it Iran or any other, to dominate Iraq without a direct or indirect confrontation.

The repetitive Iranian acts of abduction and extortions in Iraq pose a clear threat to Iraq’s security, stability, and unity.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

More Posts

Egypt: Turkish Strikes on Kurd’s in Iraq ‘Unacceptable Violation of Sovereignty’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE OFFICIAL RUSSIAN NEWS AGENCY SPUTNIK)

Members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces gather in the town of Sinjar, Iraq. File photo

Egypt: Turkish Strikes on Kurds in Iraq ‘Unacceptable Violation of Sovereignty’

© Sputnik/ Ari Jalal

MIDDLE EAST

00:06 28.04.2017Get short URL
333664

Egypt has strongly condemned the recent strike conducted by the Turkish Air Force on Kurdish positions in the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar, as the incident could hinder efforts in the fight against terrorism, a spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

CAIRO (Sputnik) — On Tuesday, the Turkish General Staff said that about 70 Kurdish fighters were killed as a result of the airstrikes in both the northeast of Syria and the north of Iraq.

“[Cairo] condemns the Turkish airstrike in the area of Sinjar mountains… such actions will complicate the situation in the region and hamper anti-terrorist efforts… these [airstrikes] are an unacceptable violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and unjustified aggression against its lands. The Arab Republic of Egypt says that it stands together with the government and people of Iraq in the face flagrant attack, which cannot be justified,” the statement said.

Tensions between Turkey and Kurds escalated in July 2015 when a ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK collapsed because of a series of terror attacks allegedly committed by PKK members. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey, the United States and the European Union.Syrian Kurds on Tuesday called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to express its opinion regarding Turkish airstrikes against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) operating in the north of the country.

The enigma of Assad: How a painfully shy eye doctor turned into a murderous tyrant

(I PULLED THIS ARTICLE FROM ‘MAX DE HALDEVANG’S’ QUARTZ WEBSITE AND REUTERS)

A DOCTOR’S DOWNFALL

The enigma of Assad: How a painfully shy eye doctor turned into a murderous tyrant

April 21, 2017

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad never seemed cut out to be a dictator. As a young man, Assad—the second son of strongman president Hafez al-Assad—was so painfully shy that in conversation, “he wouldn’t look in your eye…he covered his mouth with his hands when he talked, and spoke in a low voice,” says Ayman Abdel Nour, a university friend. Indeed, Assad generally avoided gatherings of more than handful of people, and would hunch over to make his tall frame less conspicuous. “He was a totally regular citizen; you wouldn’t guess he was the son of the president unless you knew him personally,” Abdel Nour remembers.

While Bashar’s flashy older brother Bassel quickly rose through the ranks of the military, Bashar chose to study ophthalmology and took a softer posting as an army doctor. “The doctors aren’t considered real army,” Abdel Nour says. “They’re not real fighters—there’s no army in the world where the major general is a doctor.”

But Assad’s relatively quiet life changed dramatically when Bassel died in a car accident in 1993. Studying in London at the time of the crash, Assad was called back to Syria where his father dubbed him the new “hope” of the Syrian people. Seven years later, after his father’s death, he took over as president. In 2013, the urbane, Phil Collins-loving would-be eye doctor reportedly slaughtered around 1,400 people in what the UN called the “most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein” in 1988. On April 4th, Assad used chemical weapons (paywall) on his own people again.

 “There’s an irreconcilable Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde tension in the person of Assad.” “There’s an irreconcilable Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde tension in the person of Assad,” says Nadim Houry, who directs Human Rights Watch’s terrorism program and spent 11 years monitoring Assad’s regime. “There’s this clean-cut guy who gets interviewed by outlets, always has an Apple laptop on his desk and speaks very calmly. He’s very far from the image of an Arab dictator like Saddam or Gadaffi with their rifles in the air. Yet when you look at the behavior of the regime, it behaves very much like a typical, brutal Arab dictatorship—massive torture, massive killing of civilians, indiscriminate and deliberate bombing.”

The world has reacted with horror to Assad’s brutality, but while his cruelty is nothing new in the region, his transformation is more perplexing. What could possibly have so changed this soft-spoken man, who promised to reform his late father’s heavy-handed dictatorship, into a tyrant so desperate to hold on to power that he would eventually gas his own people to do so?

Ask 10 different Syrian experts and you’ll get 10 different answers. No one really knows if Assad ever genuinely cared about the reformist ideas he initially championed, but there was at least some early inclination towards economic liberalism. What we do know is that these desires were repeatedly trampled by two factors: the entrenched authoritarianism of the forces around him, and the instincts that shaped him.

“He’s a child of the Cold War on the side of the USSR; of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the side of the Arab states; and, most of all, he’s the child of his father,” says David Lesch, a history professor at Trinity University in Texas, and the author of two books on Assad’s Syria. “These are the influences that shaped his worldview, rather than being a computer nerd and liking Western music.”

The “Damascus Spring” and high early expectations

After 29 years of Hafez al-Assad, a ruthless air force commander who came to power in a coup, Bashar’s sleek suits and British investment-banker wife seemed like a breath of fresh air. His inaugural speech in July 2000 called for “democracy,” “transparency,” and “constructive criticism”—it even contained implicit criticisms of his father. “The speech created a great deal of hope,” says Lesch.

French President Jacques Chirac (R) meets Bachar Assad, son of Syrian President Hafez Assad, prior to their meeting and luncheon at the Elysee Palace to discuss the stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks November 7. MAL//ME - RTRS4ZO
From a quiet life as an ophthalmology student, Assad was plunged into meetings with the likes of French president Jacques Chirac in 1999. (Reuters)

The inauguration was followed by a period of relative openness, known as the “Damascus Spring.” Some opposition parties were allowed, the press got a little bit freer, and hundreds of political prisoners were released. Liberal intellectuals founded discussion salons across the Syrian capital and put together political pamphlets and petitions for reform.

 His inauguration was followed by a period of relative openness. It didnt last long. But this openness didn’t last long. “Of course, it didn’t take more than a few weeks before people were demanding regime change because the regime was so corrupt,” says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center and author of the Syria Comment blog. “It stunk. The whole thing stunk—so, any kind of critique had to lead to regime change.” Within months, Assad was warning (pdf, p. 5) that civil society groups criticizing the government were, consciously or unconsciously, helping “the country’s enemies” and, ominously, would be “dealt with.” A few months later, 10 opposition leaders were imprisoned.

Even now, there’s little agreement among analysts on whether Assad actually wanted the “Damascus Spring” to last. Dovish voices like Lesch believe his mildly progressive ambitions were thwarted by hardliners from his father’s government. Many others believe the early rhetoric was merely a front to attract international investment to Syria’s backward economy. “It was a PR campaign to normalize the government,” says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Radwan Ziadeh, a human-rights activist and fellow at the Arab Institute in Washington, DC, agrees. “The Damascus spring was only a cosmetic step to try to get legitimacy,” he says. “Assad actually got this because lot of international leaders praised him early on.”

 “The Damascus spring was only a cosmetic step to try to get legitimacy.” Ziadeh has good reason to be skeptical of Assad’s motives—he was one of the opposition intellectuals Assad targeted in 2001. Never persuaded by Assad’s promises of reform, Ziadeh criticized him in articles published under a pseudonym in Lebanese newspapers. When the crackdown started, the government took his passport away, censored his writing, and had him followed by the security services for almost a year, he says. He eventually fled to the US in 2007 under the pretext of buying medicine for his father, who had cancer, and has never returned to Syria.

The family ties that bind

Even if political reforms were a veneer, Assad did seem committed to economic liberalization. His father had shored up power through what Landis calls an “authoritarian bargain.” In this Soviet-style model, the regime provides the means for basic sustenance for the rural working class, who in exchange give their political allegiance to it. However, during the 29 years of Hafez’s reign, the country’s population had more than doubled, and as the world globalized, the country badly needed to open its economy up to allow non-oil sectors to develop.

Despite resistance from old hands in the security services who worried that any openness would lead to opposition, Bashar did bring about some economic reforms. Banks were privatized, the internet was introduced, and foreign investment was made easier. However, his motivation for such changes was hardly altruistic, argues Abdel Nour, Assad’s university friend, who worked as a voluntary government adviser in the early 2000s. In reality, he says, changing the economy to help ordinary Syrians was far from the top of Assad’s priorities; what was most important was enriching his friends and, especially, his family.

A Lebanese pastes a picture of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (L) near another one of his son and likely successor, Bashar, in Beirut on June 11. Assad died on Saturday, aged 69, after ruling Syria for 30 years. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon. ASSADLEBA6.jpg - RTR56A2
A picture of new Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is pasted alongside one of his dead father in 2000. (Reuters)

Abdel Nour says this ulterior motive finally dawned on him in 2003, when Syria’s parliament passed a reform bill he had worked on. Assad’s uncle persuaded him not to sign the bill until it had been changed to include six or seven clauses that would directly benefit his cousin’s businesses.

 “I realized then that I’m not working for a country, I’m working for a family business”—Ayman Abdel Nour, former friend of Assad That was the last time Abdel Nour spoke to his old university friend. “I realized then that I’m not working for a country, I’m working for a family business,” he says. “I discovered that all this about reforms was wrong; it was bullshit and propaganda. So I decided to inform the Syrian people about what has happening so they would push for reforms themselves.” Abdel Nour stopped advising Assad, and set up the opposition news website All4Syria, which he now runs from Los Angeles.

In keeping with another common dictatorial trope, Assad’s cronyism eventually backfired, Landis says, as it undermined the “authoritarian bargain” that kept his father in power. “The class gap suddenly just widened,” he says. “That created tremendous resentment because the elite would get wealthy beyond belief.” This division would set the stage for Syria’s 2011 revolution—an event that would also solidify Assad’s transformation into a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Assad would also learn that even limited change can embolden the opposition. For example, by insisting on bringing the internet to Syria, he made surveillance impossible at the levels his father had maintained. The security services had managed easily when snooping meant tapping phone lines and reading mail— but they just weren’t capable of covering the giant spiderweb of the internet. The web also gave people access to information and enabled debate. Both factors helped spark the 2011 uprising.

The Iraq war and the power of paranoia

Assad’s shift away from reform dovetailed with a change in his personality, as he withdrew into a bubble of authoritarian power. Lesch notes this behavior has been a hallmark of Syrian leaders for decades. “The Syrian leadership since the 1950s has been a very paranoid leadership because of constant coups and counter-coups. There have been enough imperialist shenanigans to make them believe that any opposition is a conspiracy,” he says.

Lesch says he first glimpsed this alternative reality when talking to Assad shortly after his re-election in 2007. The only candidate in what was technically a referendum on his presidency, Assad waltzed to victory with 97.6% of the vote. Lesch had spent hours and hours interviewing the president while writing a book about him in 2004 and 2005, and says he got to know a “self- deprecating, unpretentious, humble guy.”

 “I remember thinking…that he had drunk the Kool-Aid of power and that he would be president for life.” But when Lesch asked him his thoughts on the sham vote that had brought him back to power, he was taken aback by the reply. “I really thought he’d say, ‘You know, it’s not a real election,’” Lesch said. “But he sat back and said, ‘The people love me; this shows they really love me.’ I remember thinking to myself at that moment that he had drunk the Kool-Aid of power and that he would be president for life.”

Assad’s paranoia, too, began to noticeably increase. “He became a psychopath, believing that if you are not with me, you are against me, and you should be killed,” says Abdel Nour. Assad’s fears were only heightened by the Iraq war and US president George W. Bush’s rhetoric of “democracy promotion” and “regime change.” Dictators throughout the region saw their fears of external enemies validated.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) welcomes Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi at the opening of the two-day Arab Summit in Damascus March 29, 2008. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi (SYRIA) - RTR1YVGU
Assad greets Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, a fellow dictator imperiled by Bush’s democracy promotion. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

Assad’s tough talk regarding the Anglo-American invasion further soured his relations with the US, which had been fraught ever since Bush widened the “axis of evil” in 2002 to include Syria, Cuba, and Libya. Then came a more direct attack: In December 2003, Bush placed sanctions on Syria over its decades-long occupation of Lebanon and backing of terrorist groups.

Assad initially refused to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. But after being accused of ordering the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, he bowed to the international pressure and pulled out. The capitulation stung and “fed the feeling that [Assad] is insecure, and that he can’t handle these regional or international crises,” says Ziadeh.

An insecure dictator playing with fire

By the time journalist Reese Erlich interviewed Assad in 2006, he found an insecure dictator, obsessed with the conceit that his people loved him and reforms were not needed. The forces that would shape the 2011 civil war were becoming clearer. And yet, Assad refused to address prominent issues like the possibility of free elections or opposition parties, whether Syria should grant citizenship to its hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, or how to deal with the country’s rampant inequality.

“He basically brushed off all these things as either unimportant or plots from the West,” says Erlich, whose book Inside Syria documents the dynamics that led to the civil war.

 “…when I turned the mic to him he would suddenly jump.” Paranoia marked those interviews too. Assad became jittery at the sight of Erlich’s radio microphone, which ever so slightly resembles a gun. “The security people had checked it so they knew it wasn’t a weapon,” Erlich said. “But he got all nervous… I would point the microphone at my own mouth when I spoke and then when I turned the mic to him he would suddenly jump.”

In public, however, Assad was defiant. In 2010, despite his promises to help constrain the Lebanon-based militant Islamist party Hezbollah, the US received clear intelligence that Assad’s government had given it Scud missiles. When John Kerry, later US secretary of State but then a senior senator, confronted Assad with this discovery, the Syrian president was unflustered, Tabler says: “At first, Assad denied that they are Scud missiles, and then he said, ‘No, no, these are [fake] Israeli films.’”

For Tabler, this episode highlights Assad’s duplicity, his nefarious priorities, and his relationships with nations like Iran and Russia. Iran’s support and strategic backing of Hezbollah enabled Assad to openly lie to Kerry, just as Russia’s political and military assistance continues to give him cover to use chemical weapons.

The other effect of the Iraq war was increasing sectarianism and the spread of radical Islamism across the region. According to Tabler, Assad contributed to this increase by “allowing jihadists into the country through Damascus airport to go and fight US forces in Iraq.”

But like his economic policies, this decision, too, would eventually hurt him. By the end of the Iraq war, large groups of the disenfranchised, radical Sunnis he had let in were based in the east of the country—Syria’s poorest region. They would eventually become recruits for ISIL. Meanwhile, Assad’s power relied in part on the support of Christians and other minorities, along with Sunni urban elites. As a member of the minority Alawite sect in a country with a heavy Sunni majority, Assad’s meddling was playing with fire.

From father of the people to executioner

Syrians attend an anti-Bashar Assad protest after Friday prayers on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria, Friday, June 8, 2012. (AP Photo)
Anti-Assad protestors on the outskirts of Idlib, 2012. (AP Photo)

The 2011 revolution crystallized Assad’s psychological and political decline. When protesters took to the streets—at first calling not for regime change, but for political reforms—his reaction was a telling one.

 “The West looks at this like he’s killing his own countrymen and unfortunately he doesn’t see it this way.” Assad “demonize[d] his opponents as Saudi terrorists who are bringing Islamic fascism to Syria,” Landis said. His narrative was that these were not Syrians, but foreign forces seeking to undermine one of the last bastions of pan-Arab secularism. “He began to see this as an existential struggle and that these people who were fighting against him were foreign terrorists—and he believed his own rhetoric,” Landis said. “The West looks at this like he’s killing his own countrymen and unfortunately he doesn’t see it this way.”

Once you’ve persuaded yourself of this falsehood, Lesch says, fighting an existential threat can justify terrible means. Assad’s forces “don’t have the resources to go town to town to retake them from the opposition,” Lesch says, “so they need to use the asymmetric methods [like chemical weapons] to brutalize them.”

Another view, from dissidents like Ziadeh and Abdel Nour, is that Assad didn’t justify his slaughter by “othering” the rebels. Instead, he was invoking something akin to medieval Western monarchs’ belief in the “divine right of kings.” “Like his father, he always believed that he had the right to do whatever he wants to his own people; to kill them, torture them, disappear them: ‘They are my own people and that’s the sovereignty that I have,’” explains Ziadeh. Assad, he says, sees himself as a father punishing his errant sons. “The father is allowed to do whatever when the sons make mistakes. He doesn’t understand that this is a social contract between the Syrians and elected officials.”

 “The real test comes when your authority is really challenged.” Abdel Nour agrees: “His brain doesn’t keep him up at night telling him not to do these terrible things because he thinks he’s the representative of God; that people who are against him are sinning against God,” he said.

The question of what turns a man into a monster is never an easy one. For Assad, it’s possible the seeds of brutality were planted very early on, lying dormant but ready to emerge when the time was right. Or perhaps he simply succumbed to a system that for decades had existed with the principle goal of keeping hold of power. Certainly, after 2011 there would be no turning back.

As Houry points out, a leader’s true colors come out when their regime is under threat. “Gaddafi did not start out as a crazy man, he ended up that way,” he says. “The real test comes when your authority is really challenged, and Assad’s authority was never challenged before 2011.” When the challenge came, Assad met it, in the eyes of hawks like Tabler, by being “more brutal on his own people than Saddam or Gadaffi ever did.”

Turkish Military Bombs U.S. Backed Kurdish Militia Forces Fighting Against ISIS

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) The Turkish military on Tuesday killed more than 20 members of Kurdish militia groups, some of which the United States is assisting in the fight against ISIS.

Five of the casualties were among Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as Peshmerga.
Others were reported by the YPG, a Kurdish group in northern Syria.
Both groups have proven to be some of the most effective fighting forces on the ground against ISIS. Yet Tuesday’s airstrikes exposed the complicated tangle of Kurdish militant groups in the region, and the tough choices that the United States faces in its regional alliances in the battle against ISIS.
The five Peshmerga fighters were killed apparently in error when Turkish warplanes carried out airstrikes on nearby positions of another group that Turkey considers to be terrorists, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which is usually based in Turkey.
The strikes hit at dawn on Mount Sinjar, west of Mosul, Iraq, according to a spokesman for the Peshmerga ministry.
Nine others were injured and transferred to a nearby hospital. The Peshmerga later released a statement blaming the strikes on the presence of the PKK group, which it said it has long asked to leave the Mount Sinjar area.
“One of our Peshmerga military posts is located very close to the airstrikes and was hit by mistake,” Halgord Hikmat, spokesman for the Peshmerga ministry, told CNN.

YPG calls attack ‘cowardly’

YPG militia members were also killed in Turkish airstrikes Tuesday.
In a statement, the YPG said Turkish planes launched a “large-scale attack” on its headquarters in Mount Karachok near Syria’s border with Turkey, killing “a number of our comrades.”
A YPG spokesman said in a later statement that 20 fighters were killed and 18 others wounded. But it’s not clear if all the dead and injured were members of YPG, or People’s Defense Units.

A YPG fighter surveys the site of Turkish airstrikes Tuesday in northeastern Syria near Turkey.

“We as the People’s Defense Units say that this cowardly attack will not discourage our determination and our free will to fight and confront terrorism,” the YPG said.
The YPG is a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces — backed by the United States in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Those forces have been closing in on the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa.
But Turkey opposes the YPG because it fears Kurdish separatism.

Turkey says PKK was the target

Turkey’s operations Tuesday were targeting the PKK, which Ankara, the United States and the European Union consider to be a terror group.
For decades, Turkey has been facing a violent insurgency from the PKK — a banned group that first took up arms in 1984 seeking an independent state for the Kurdish minority concentrated in the country’s southeast.
Turkey has often suggested that the PKK and YPG operate closely, although the YPG denies such ties.
Tuesday’s airstrikes were not the first time that Turkish warplanes have targeted PKK positions in Iraq and Syria.
In a statement issued via Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu, the Turkish General Staff said the airstrikes hit PKK targets in both countries.
It described the strikes as a “counterterrorism” operation “within the scope of the international law” to prevent the PKK from sending “terrorists, arms, ammunition, and explosives” to Turkey.

Sadr Delegation Holds Talks with Kurdistan Leadership

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Middle East

Sadr Delegation Holds Talks with Kurdistan Leadership

Sadr

Headed by Ahmed al-Sadr, son of the movement’s leader Moqtada, the delegation was welcomed in Irbil by President Masoud al-Barzani.

The president’s media officer Kifah Mahmoud told Asharq Al-Awsat that the two sides discussed the political situation in Iraq and the ongoing war against ISIS in the city of Mosul.

They also tackled the post-ISIS phase, especially in Iraq, he revealed.

The Sadr delegation said that they are making preparations for the upcoming elections, he said.

Meanwhile, Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim announced that Baghdad is not offering any aid to the city.

He told reporters during a celebration in honor of Kurdish journalism: “There are over half a million refugees in Kirkuk, including 30,000 families that have fled al-Huweija district.”

“This is posing a major burden on the city and the residents are sharing medicine, water, electricity and other services with these refugees. Their patience will not last long,” he warned.

He therefore demanded that Baghdad work on allowing the displaced to return to the liberated areas “as soon as possible.”

“The delay in liberating al-Huweija does not serve Kirkuk or Iraq,” Karim said.

He said that Baghdad’s aid to refugees in Kirkuk is so slim that it is bordering on nonexistent, urging the Iraqi government and Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to seriously address Kirkuk’s demands.

“Everyone in Baghdad and anywhere else should know that the residents of Kirkuk will not accept this attitude,” he warned.

Coexistence In The Middle-East (And Every Where else On Earth): Or Self Inflected Armageddon?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY  ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

More Posts