Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
In addition to the confrontation between the world powers and local players in Syria and Yemen, they compete on other platforms, including Palestine and Iraq. The US is trying to influence the nuclear programme of the KSA and talk about a new Islamist threat, slated to replace the Islamic State. It is seen in the resurrected al Qaida.
The article is based on materials from the expert Y. Scheglovin from the Middle East Institute.
Sector Without a Prize
The motorcade in which rode the Prime Minister of Palestine, R. Hamdallah, the head of intelligence in Gaza, T.A. Rajab, blew up upon entering the section by a bomb laid out on the road. Wounding seven guards, the Premier was not hurt. The head of the Palestinian National Administration M. Abbas laid the responsibility for the attack on Hamas-controlled Gaza, pointing out that the bombing was intended to undermine Palestinian unity. Representatives of Hamas have rejected the accusation. Observers note that the attack on the Prime Minister should not be connected with the confrontation between the Palestinian movements, but the struggle for power within Fatah.
On March 1 representatives of Fatah appointed a successor. Abbas rejected a number of candidates, and nominated Mahmoud Aloul. The head of the preventive security services (STB) of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) M. Faraj, whom the organisation believed to be one of the main contenders for the post, was “disqualified” because of close ties with the Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet and the American CIA. Off the list were the former head of the Palestinian intelligence service and a member of the Fatah Central Committee D. Rajoub, one of the leaders of the World Bank and former Prime Minister S. Fayyad, sitting in an Israeli prison M. Barghouti and the head of the Palestinian delegation to the talks with Tel Aviv S. Arikat. Faraj dropped his chances in the last two years, having organised several demonstrative arrests of close associates of Arikat, accusing him of spying for Israel.
Thus he strengthened his position in the Fatah Central Committee and relied on the main contender for the post of successor. The failure of all ambitions caused inevitable irritation and this may be one of the reasons for the demonstrative attack against the Prime Minister, which should be regarded as a signal and reminder to Abbas that with the STB in the condition of “treacherous position” Hamas is a better friend. With that, Aloul has a reputation as the closest supporter of the current head of the PNA and opponent of any compromises with Hamas.
Abbas himself now holds the same position, that is: the real goal of the consolidation between the two Palestinian movements patronised by Cairo and Abu Dhabi, consisting of the removal of Faraj. These suspicions and related rhetoric intensified last month, when it became known that two senior officers of the Egyptian army, S. Nabil and A. Faraj, arrived in Gaza for secret consultations with the leadership of Hamas, who, in addition to enhancing coordination during the counter-terrorism operation by Egyptian security forces in Sinai, discussed the continued consolidation of Palestinian factions.
Recall that on October 12, 2017 in Cairo, Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement on the final reconciliation, which was supported by other political organisations. The understandings provided that the government of national accord would assume full authority in the Palestinian territories until December 1. Prior to that, control was to be transferred to the coalition cabinet and presidential guard, which are subordinate to the PNA, over the only border terminal in Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border.
However, later disagreements have appeared. As a result, the movements had to admit that they could not agree on the modalities of the PNA government’s operation in Gaza and its joint operation with the authorities in the West Bank, as well as on the timing of the plan’s operation.
There is also a more important reason for the freeze of the deal: the position of Cairo and Abu Dhabi, who are trying to remove Abbas and replace him with the former head of the STB Mohammed Dahlan, who intensified contacts at all levels with the Hamas leadership in the sector through the mediation of the Egyptian Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Directorate). He heads the special UAE fund of 15 million dollars for the development of humanitarian projects in the sector. The fund provides direct financing of Dahlan’s influence in Fatah and Hamas. Recently, he secretly visited Rome and Paris, where he met with the heads of the national intelligence services. It is fully in his power (and in his style) to organise a campaign to intimidate Abbas, who began to actively oppose the deal proposed by Egypt and the UAE to achieve intra-Palestinian consensus.
Iraqi Plebiscite under the Direction of Iran
The US Secretary of Defence D. Mattis accused Iran of attempts to influence the parliamentary elections in Iraq. The election of members of the Council of Representatives (parliament) is scheduled for May 12. According to data from the Supreme Independent Electoral Commission, about seven thousand people have put forward their candidacy. Twenty four million Iraqis have the right to vote. Representatives to the council are elected from 18 provinces, as well as from the Kurdish Autonomy. The campaign officially starts on April 10.
So how is Tehran influencing the Iraqi elections?
On March 9, the paramilitary forces “al Hashed al Shaabi” (popular militia, which constitutes the backbone of the Shi’ite groups) became part of the power structures of Iraq. The corresponding decree was issued by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The militia involved in the campaign against ISIS (banned in Russia), along with the army and police, received the privileges of soldiers. In particular, it concerns salaries and the right to education in the country’s military colleges. According to Western media, the troops of al Hashed al Shaabi, which include about sixty thousand men, are supported by Iran. Al-Abadi denies such statements. However, the chief architect of this formation is the head of al Quds of the Iranian IRGC General K. Soleymani.
The order on the introduction of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite group into the Iraqi armed forces means the end of discussions between Tehran, al-Abadi and the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shi’ites Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on the feasibility and necessity of developing the Lebanese model in Iraq, regardless of who comes to power as Prime Minister and will form a government in the medium term. It was debated for the last three years, from the moment when Soleymani came to justify his project to the Iranian Shi’ites. They discussed it with varying success, as al-Abadi and al-Sistani feared a disproportionate increase in the influence of Iranians on domestic politics and the creation in Iraq of a dominant military force under their control.
They were not satisfied with the army reformation plans, proposed by the Iranians and its transformation into an analogue of Hezbollah. The army as an alternative was preserved, though with substantial increase of Sunnis in its composition (it was dictated by considerations of the fight against ISIS), which put again on the agenda the issue of the preservation of the military Shi’ite forces as the main protection guarantee in case of Sunni discontent.
The fact that al-Abadi finally dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in the framework of the incorporation of Shi’ite militias into the army says that the Shi’ite Iraqi leaders have made the choice and it conforms to the Iranian approach. Al Hashed al Shaabi in addition received the status of a political party and will participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
On this background, Ayatollah al-Sistani called for the formation of a single Shi’ite coalition. The spiritual mentor of the largest community of the country urged the citizens to actively participate in the elections to the Council of Representatives. The changes in his position in favour of the incorporation of al Hashed al Shaabi and the unification of all Shi’ite groups occurred in the last three months. In December he maintained another point of view, assuming that the militia fighters, fighting in the ranks of Iraqi government forces against ISIS, must surrender their weapons to the authorities. Earlier, another influential Shi’ite preacher, Muqtada al-Sadr, made a similar appeal. That is, Ali al-Sistani then obviously played in favour of the latter against the Iranians.
What changed? Kurds attempted to hold a referendum on independence. Iranians and their Shi’ite formations played a major role in limiting the negative consequences and the defeat of Kurdish separatism. The same thing happened before the purge of Kirkuk from Kurdish Peshmerga, and today, when in the fight for control over local oil fields, Shi’ite forces are eliminating pockets of Sunni and Kurdish oppositions. In addition, the Iranians agreed with al-Abadi to support his candidacy as the next Prime Minister in the parliamentary elections.
The result was that al-Sadr turned, and then the popular hereditary Shi’ite cleric and political leader Abdel Aziz al Khakim flew to Riyadh. The KSA took a course to increase its influence among the offended Shi’ite leaders in Iraq for the sake of strengthening positions, indicating a departure from the narrow professional choice of allies.
By the way, the Saudi Crown Prince M. bin Salman is planning to attend the opening ceremony for the new Saudi embassy building in Bagdad. The first visit of Saudi official of this rank to Iraq since 1989 attests to the importance of the Iraqi dossier to the KSA in the fight against Iranian influence. It is an alarming signal for Ayatollah al-Sistani and the Shi’ite elite, trying to maintain absolute control over the community. Hence, the rapprochement with Iran.
Nuclear Issue Coupled with Corruption
On March 13 the Saudi cabinet of ministers speedily approved a memorandum on the main directions of the Kingdom’s nuclear policy. The leading thread is the principles of “peaceful atom” and compliance with international law. That is, the development of the Saudi nuclear programme under the supervision of the IAEA. The KSA is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but the adopted memorandum envisages some differences from the similar document on the development of the UAE’s nuclear programme.
Unlike its neighbours, the Saudi vision implies self-management of waste and the development of national capacities in this area. The discrepancy with the Emirate programme already approved at the international level can cause problems at the upcoming consultations with Crown Prince M. bin Salman in Washington, since the work with waste implies the possibility of obtaining weapons-grade plutonium.
The UAE adheres to strict standards for nuclear energy, avoiding the establishment of domestic enrichment and reprocessing, which can give an opportunity to make a bomb. Abu Dhabi has enshrined its commitment to non-utilisation of nuclear waste in its domestic legislation.
Riyadh insists that the use of waste must take place in the kingdom. This, according to experts, will be the main obstacle to negotiations in the United States, even though Riyadh intends to make the United States its main partner in the nuclear programme. There is strong opposition in Israel for such an option. This is a serious argument for Trump, given the intensification of the Israeli lobby in Congress on this issue. Plus, the impending resignation of the main supporter of such a deal in the United States, Energy Secretary R. Perry, whose replacement with a competent specialist in nuclear issues will slow the negotiation process with the KSA and stimulate the emergence of new conditions and reservations on the part of Americans.
An important concession was made by Riyadh to ease the mistrust of American investors and strengthen the negotiating position of the Crown Prince is the creation of a special prosecutor’s office for corruption cases, as King Salman announced on March 11. This is a direct fulfilment of the US conditions for introducing “transparency” into the Saudi Arabia legal system. The new prosecutors will report to Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, the Attorney General, who answers directly to the King. They will complement Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee, which was founded in November 2017. The Crown Prince, who will participate in the investigation of high-profile cases of corruption and transfer them to the new Prosecutor’s office, heads it. The National Anti-Corruption Committee of King Abdullah will continue to investigate low-level abuses.
Despite the growth of institutions in the KSA focused on such struggles, questions of legality and transparency remain. On the eve of the Crown Prince’s visit to the US, the New York Times published a report, where it follows that at least one detainee died in prison as a result of the recent anti-corruption campaign in the KSA. Another seventeen detainees were tortured. It is also pointed out that all this was motivated by the family policy of the Salmans to neutralise political and economic competitors.
Given the allegations of bin Salman using a system of extra-judicial killings of opponents by American NGOs and businesses, the organisation of a special prosecutor’s office may not be sufficient to convince investors of the stability and transparency of the KSA for business. The task of the visit to attract investments in the economy of the Kingdom is under threat. The indirect evidence of this was the announcement of the postponement of the IPO “Saudi Aramco” for 2019.
Al Qaida Post-Mortem
Contrary to the claims of American experts about the revival of al Qaida, numbering, in their opinion, tens of thousands of militants around the world, as a centralised group has long been irrelevant to the major terrorist attacks (the latter were during the second Chechen campaign). The facts, which experts use, accusing al Qaida of attacks in the Sahel or attempts to blow up airplanes in Yemen, have little to do with it. In Yemen, the story of exposing the conspiracy to undermine civilian aircraft, then flying from Aden to the United States, happened as a result of the attempts of ex-President A.A. Saleh to enlist the support of the Americans of his “indispensability” in the fight against Islamist terror. Saleh’s security forces organised this provocation, and then deployed it.
Al Qaida supporters’ attacks in the Sahel and countries of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) are largely linked to the separatism of the Tuaregs, the activities of local drug lords and criminal groups controlling all smuggling and illegal migration from Africa to Europe, as well as the confrontation of local power elites. The al Qaida marker is actively used by all of these groups, giving its goals the character of a global struggle. And they are recently more willing to wear the ISIS label. Moreover, their local goals come into sharp conflict with the supranational ideas of al Qaida, originally laid by its creators. This is the main difference between al Qaida and ISIS, whose organisers emphasised the solution of the narrow-minded issues of the Sunni Ummah under the auspices of Islamism.
Consequently, it has become so popular in the Muslim world, where there is Sunni discrimination on religious and economic grounds. Al Qaida lost this ideological competition because ISIS is focusing on self-financing (primarily by establishing control over local sources of economic wealth, which is in the interests of the Sunni elite). Al Qaida, moving away from external financing, as in Chechnya, the Balkans and Iraq, could not provide any alternative to its supporters, because the main sponsor, Saudi Arabia, began to economise due to fluctuations in the oil market and the growing budget deficit.
Riyadh managed to lose even the support of the Yemeni sheikhs on its borders, the consequences of which they are experiencing in the course of their military adventure in this country, not to mention the far abroad. Broadly speaking, the KSA “overstrained”, trying to establish global influence in the Islamic world by using al Qaida. Hence, the transformation of its policy: the concentration of finances on key points of national interests using the ideology of al Qaida and distancing itself from the Pakistani leadership of this organisation. Today it is Syria and Yemen, where money and recruits go. The remaining areas are financed on a residual basis, which makes them peripheral and does not give prospects for the renaissance of al Qaida as a centralised structure, threatening the stability of the regions.
Lately nothing is heard about the Pakistani al Qaida centre, as Riyadh no longer needs it. However, the allegations of the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria exclusively by the US forces and their allies (on the role of Russia, Iran and local Shi’ites in this regard, American experts tend to forget) do not allow us to answer the question: what do, in fact then, in this region and not only in this region, American troops do? Washington needs a centralised Islamist structure to justify its presence in key parts of the Middle East and Africa. And in its capacity, American experts are trying to resurrect al Qaida in reports and in the media…
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute