Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 10 – 17 January 2014

Conflicts Forum

In the lead up to Geneva II, the picture emerging from the Middle East remains complicated, with political currents often moving in contrary directions.  On Lebanon, for the first time, there are signs of a softening Saudi position – even to the extent of accepting tacitly at least - some co-operation with Iran (see below).  But on Syria, Saudi policy seems ostensibly to be in support of the talks, whilst also being content to see Geneva II derailed by a walk-out of much of the SNC-dominated opposition 'coalition'. Qatar and Saudi presently are competing to blame each other for this fragmentation of the 'coalition', and its attenuation down to a small unrepresentative exile core (lacking any concerted political strategy) on the eve of the talks. The talks are presently scheduled to begin on 22 January.  (Please note that this Comment is written before the outcome of Friday’s Opposition meeting to decide their policy towards Geneva II, is held).  Overall the picture is of - on the one hand - a limited softening of the Saudi position on Lebanon (see below), and (unconfirmed) reports that Prince Bandar has approached Adnan Khashoggi to open a channel of communication to Tehran; and on the other hand, no sign of  pull-back of Saudi hardline stances toward Syria, Iraq (or the Muslim Brotherhood).  We also see some evidence of the Iraqi military command increasingly reacting adversely to Saudi activities intended to weaken the government of Prime Minister Maliki.

On SyriaAl-Quds Al-Arabi, for example, reporting on the recent election to the SNC leadership (viewed as crucial to determining the political make-up of the opposition delegation to Geneva II) noted the intense and bitter squabbling between candidates, which ended with Ahmad al-Jarba (Bandar’s man) keeping his post as leader, at the expense of Riyad Hijab (who is closer to Qatar), “amid polarization and accusation of buying votes”. Sharp tension prevailed at the meeting, prompting 41 out of the SNC's 121 members to threaten to resign, including important figures like Mustafa al-Sayigh, former SNC secretary general; Lu'ayy al-Miqdad, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's General Staff; Nizar al-Hiraki, SNC representative to Qatar; and Khalid Khuja, the SNC representative to Turkey.

Kamal al-Labwani, prominent member of the Syrian opposition and member of the Political Council of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, then threw a (verbal) "grenade" into the turmoil by asserting to Al-Watan that the withdrawal of parts and constituents of the coalition "is a tactical operation that has been prepared in advance" in order to abort participation in Geneva II conference.  “We have aborted the participation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition through an operation prepared in advance. All this has been in order to prevent going to the Geneva II conference. We do not want to engage in a dialogue with the criminal regime of Al-Assad.  In the coalition there are those who accept engaging in a dialogue with the regime, but they are countered by those who reject such a dialogue, and they are the ones who have withdrawn from this coalition, which seems to have started to sink in its mistakes. We can say that we have committed political suicide in order to prevent engaging in a dialogue with this regime, which has killed more than 130,000 of the sons of the honourable Syrian people." Al-Labwani adds: "We have brought down the coalition in order to avoid the Geneva II conference" (emphasis added). (It should be noted however that Al-Watan is owned by the Qatari ruling family.)

It seems too that Geneva may have to proceed without representation from Syria’s leading internal political opposition group as well:  Haytham al-Manna, a senior leader in the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), was quoted by Al-Mayadeen as saying that the group would not attend Geneva II.  The NCC - an internal umbrella political opposition grouping made up of a number of left wing and nationalist parties - had hoped it could coordinate with the SNC to finalise a unified delegation to attend the talks.  “We called on them to coordinate with us,” Ahmad al-Esrawi, a member of the NCC’s Executive Bureau, told Al-Monitor, adding that the coalition has yet to reply to the NCC request.  Also, according to a senior official in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), Ali Haidar, minister of national reconciliation and head of the SSNP, will not attend the talks due to differences with the coalition.  “He (Haidar) will not be with the government delegation, definitely. As long as there’s one delegation headed by the coalition, we’re not going. Absolutely not,” said Elia Samaan. (The political opposition have from the outset largely been sidelined both by exiled opposition groups, as well as their Western and Gulf supporters, due to their complete opposition to foreign intervention and to their support for dialogue and negotiations with the Syrian government).

What seems to be happening is that for sometime past, Saudi Arabia has being playing very coy in responding to western attempts to coax it to support Geneva II.  It has chosen to nurse its hurt and grievance at America’s baulk at taking military action against President Assad.  Saudi has said it definitely would not lend the enterprise any support were Iran to have a seat at the table (and Iran has not been invited, despite the string of urgings from Moscow, whereas peripheral states such as Algeria and Indonesia have been invited).  Saudi Arabia has also said (to the Russians) that if it was to attend then the delegation should be composed by what (effectively) are its proxies (i.e. the SNC). This is the result that was fixed at the recent SNC meeting. But the fallout is evident: the 'opposition' delegation – in its present composition - will represent nobody but a small clique of exiles, with other elements of the opposition so angered at the gerrymandering that they are now disposed to pull the pillars to the Geneva II house down upon them.  Indeed the Syrian Opposition Council had already pre-prepared their written statement stating their refusal to attend Geneva II. But perhaps this suits Saudi policy aims; however, the limited and un-representative nature of the prospective opposition delegation; the absence of a key actor, Iran; and the rejection by the internal political opposition groups; plus the absolute opposition of all the jihadist groups all suggests that Geneva II – if it materializes – will inevitable be the start of a "long process", as Kerry noted.

Of course, western pressures for the SNC's attendance at Geneva II (actually taking place at nearby Montreux) are intense, and there may yet be changes to come.  But interestingly, as Hurriyet reports, as one SNC official, speaking in London noted, other backers of the opposition were not applying the same pressure as Britain and the US: “France [which is seeking to displace the US as the Saudi ‘homme d’affaires’] is asking us to go; but saying that we are with you whatever your decision. That is the same as the Saudi and Turkish stance”.  In other words there are differences within the SNC, but also clear differences within the "Friends’" grouping - with some patently luke-warm about Geneva II - fearing presumably, that President Assad will emerge without having made concessions.

In brief, Saudi Arabia (and to an extent a sizeable constituency in America - see below) are precisely indicating that there can be another ‘game in town’, other than Geneva – in direct opposition to Kerry's insistence that Geneva is the "only game in town".  This 'play' is signalled by the bloody infighting now taking place between the jihadist groups in northern Syria. This has taken a grisly turn, with many casualties, jihadist executing jihadists, and the raping of the wife and mother by jihadists of a rival jihadist leader.  Initially, Da’ish (ISIS) lost ground, but in recent days the movement has been recovering.  The Syrian Army has been taking advantage of the situation by itself moving into vacated areas as the internecine fighting waxed and waned.  As we have noted in recent Weekly Comments, the military situation generally has been turning to President Assad's advantage.

Edward Dark (a nom de guerre for an Aleppo resident, previously an opposition activist in Aleppo) writes “It is no secret that the Islamic Front now trying to wipe out ISIS is heavily backed and funded by Saudi Arabia, and in this light we can understand the real reasons and timing behind this sudden, all-out war. After the Islamic Front last month effectively destroyed the moderate Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army led by Gen. Salim Idris, it effectively rendered the Geneva talks meaningless and their outcome void … The next stage is to get rid of the al-Qaeda bogeyman and to promote the less extreme versions.  Ironically, Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda affiliate endorsed by Ayman al-Zawahri and designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, has joined in the fight against ISIS. Will they be the next to go? Or will they be assimilated, repackaged and sold to the world as a more palatable jihadist group, along with the Islamic Front?” "Make no mistake", Dark warns, "this is not a ‘resurgence’ of the Syrian revolution; nor is it another popular uprising against a different tyrannical oppressor, as the Syrian people are now too split, demoralized and war-weary to attempt any of that. It is simply a cutthroat struggle for power, between jihadist groups of similar ideology, distinct only in name and the identity of their backers, albeit with slightly differing methods of imposing their doctrines on the ground” (emphasis added).

So it seems that Saudi Arabia is highly circumspect about Geneva II, and still sees a possibility of re-branding ‘their’ jihadists, such as the Islamic Front (and possibly Jabhat al-Nusrah - with tacit Western support) as the "moderate" jihadists/ "mainstream rebels", thus keeping open the option that Saudi Arabia might yet mesh with the shifting narrative of US neo-cons (regional and American), pro-interventionists and Western think-tank  experts (including Washington-based lobby groups), who still insist that President Assad must by weakened by any means (including through Saudi Arabia empowering ‘moderate’ takfiri jihadists), as a required, and necessary precondition, to ‘making him’ negotiate seriously with the opposition.  In short, Saudi Arabia is pointing in two different directions – both tepidly supporting Kerry, whilst preparing against the prospect of failure in Geneva II which could result in the strengthening of the hand of American interventionists.  Although it is early days, it is by no means clear that Bandar’s Islamic Front will will succeed in defeating Da’ish.  At present, it is succeeding only in weakening and dividing the armed jihadist opposition.

The Russians beg to differ strongly on this neo-con/interventionist ‘moderate takfiri option’: Vitaly Naumkin, reflecting Russian FM Lavrov’s recent similar comments writes: "Russian decision-makers and diplomats do not share US illusions about the difference between terrorists fighting in Syria with an international agenda and those with a local agenda [that is to say between global jihadists and jihadists who say their jihad is confined to Syria. In the Russian view, the difference is not so significant that the Islamic Front, which US officials are in contact with, can be qualified as a moderate group, as opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIL) as an extremist and terrorist group. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose organization has been declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government, are almost doves if compared with members of the Islamic Front”.

In Lebanon, by contrast, the hard line Saudi opposition to a unity government seems (for now) to have softened.  Following Iranian FM Zarif’s two-day visit to Lebanon at the beginning of this week - for a round of discussions with Lebanese political parties with a view to establishing an unity government - Zarif succeeded in persuading Walid Jumblatt, who holds the ‘swing’ votes in parliament, that the potential for a unity government was present – if only Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to agree.  So Jumblatt asked Riyadh – and received a positive answer.

It is not easy to see why Riyadh should have made this u-turn at this point. March 14th have not been back-pedalling on their demand for a ‘Hizbullah-free’ government.  It may be, however, that the US and the European countries have received a wake up call following the growing presence and terrorist activities in Lebanon of the ISIS: they realized that Lebanon also could fall victim jihadist movements – as in Syria - and have intensified their efforts and pressure to stabilize the situation in the country by forming a national government.  But if this Iranian initiative is successful (and Riyadh does not block it), it will ease many of the problems of a Lebanese political administration that has been paralysed for the last year and a half.

In relation to one aspect of this paralysis - gas and oil exploration - a colleague of CF writes for us: “The long hiatus in effective decision-making under which Lebanon has been suffering, has also affected plans for gas and oil exploitation in the territorial waters and the EEZ.  The current government, acting – as it must – only in a caretaker capacity, was not in a position to approve the two necessary decrees, which are required to determine the number of gas blocks on offer, and to define the proportionment of revenue sharing.  Caretaker Energy and Water Minister, Gebran Bassil, was pushing for an extraordinary Cabinet session to pass the two decrees, but the caretaker Prime Minister, Mikati, insisted that the Constitution does not allow for the convening of a Cabinet session for that purpose. Therefore, Minister Bassil postponed the launching of the offshore gas auction from 10 January until 10 April 2014.

"Despite the current political divisions, there was unanimity among different political groupings in Lebanon, apart from Minister Bassil and his bloc, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), on delaying.  The March 14 bloc, which is in the opposition, as well as some governing coalition partners of the FPM, do not want to allow Gebran Bassil and the FPM to take all the political and public credit for launching the gas and oil exploration. There are also some very real concerns about the whole process, which is lacking in transparency, and which has no strategic plan linking to the wider gas potential in the East Mediterranean basin. Under these circumstances, no political party wanted to enter into long-term contractual binding arrangements with foreign oil companies. They all preferred to hold their options open.  Against such a background, there was no option but to delay the auction.

"Some political actors suggested tying the date of the auction to the approval of the two decrees, and for the auction to take place six weeks or three months after the date of the signing of the decrees – whenever it was that they issued. However, there was a concern that such an outcome – with no firm date specified - would send a discouraging signal to the oil companies - and that they might lose interest and withdraw altogether. This was the reason behind the decision to have a “technical delay” of three months, and to fix 10 April as the new auction date. This delay, however, is not caused by fundamental disagreement over the two decrees, nor is it about the issuing of licenses for exploiting the oil and gas. The crux of the problem lies with the sharing of power on the political level. It is difficult to expect any movement on this front before there is a political agreement to form a new government. Nevertheless, once the government is formed, the process will move swiftly because all the preparatory work has been done and the functioning of the Petroleum Authority seems unaffected.”

 

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