Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
Given the attenuation of hostilities in Syria, problems appeared in the Arab monarchies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Jordan, which are directly related to its civil war.
For the Hashemite regime, these problems are objective. The Saudis created them on their own. The murder, as far as can be understood, on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of journalist Jamal Kashoggi not only aggravated relations to the extreme with the western establishment, but also insulted Turkey, on whose territory it occurred in the Saudi diplomatic mission. But relations between Ankara and Riyadh are already difficult.
Amman’s Hopes and Risks
National Interest (USA) claims that the next country where the terrorist organisation Islamic State (banned in Russia) can strengthen its position will be Jordan. The publication notes that its citizens are in third place in terms of the number of foreign fighters of IS (three thousand people). Unemployment, poverty, weak governance and religious extremism are weakening the country. The threat and refugees from Syria (about 658 thousand with a population of 9.5 million). Extremism in the kingdom has been growing since 2015.
The publication recalls that in August 2018, as a result of the terrorist attack in Es-Salt, four Jordanian security officers were killed and 16 local residents were injured. Five extremists were arrested. The official version said that the intelligence services of the country began the elimination of “sleeping” terrorist cells, to which the Islamists reacted. IS ideology is really popular in the south of Jordan. But the willingness of the local Bedouin elite to succumb to such influence is primarily associated with a sharp antipathy to the current Jordanian monarch. In addition, prior to the previously mentioned terrorist attack, an assault was carried out on the offices of the General Intelligence Agency (GIA) of the kingdom in the Bakaa Palestinian refugee camp north of Amman, which resulted in the shooting of five people, including two officers.
These episodes led to the intensification of the operational activities of the Jordanian Special Services. Raids and searches began in the Palestinian refugee camps of Bakaa and Wahdat, in the cities of Ma’an, Es-Salt and Zarqa, where the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by the Americans in 2006. Among other things, Zarka is a traditional place of residence of local Chechens to where after the Russian military campaigns in North Caucasus came a lot of militants with their families.
Searches were carried out in Irbid, where in March of this year there was an armed clash between the Islamists and the Jordanian Special Forces. Irbid is one of the centres of radicalism, from where the current head of the local Salafists al-Zarqwi Nasser Gargamuni comes from. At the same time, he is from IS and gravitates towards al-Qaeda, and in these cities the position of the Muslim Brotherhood is strong. In Jordan, Islamists are heterogeneous in ideology, which means in foreign sponsors as well. They are united only in the rejection of Abdullah II and his economic reforms. Simply put, in Jordan, the struggle of internal elites who use the Islamist factor has intensified.
It should be noted that the attacks on the security forces in the Palestinian camp were not related to IS, but to the fact that during the illegal trade of American weapons, which were destined to the “moderate opposition”, where officers of the Jordanian GIA sold through Palestinian intermediaries-smugglers to radicals in Syria, problems arose. The Americans made a racket and demanded an investigation. GIA operatives and their leadership decided to clean up the Palestinian smugglers under the pretext of fighting the IS “sleeping” cells, saving on their share in the business and getting rid of witnesses. It wasn’t successful in liquidating all of them at once, and one of the smugglers shot their curators from the GIA. The authorities sealed the investigation data on the murder of the security forces during the attack in November 2017 on the Jordanian International Police Training Centre, where six people were killed, including agents of the private international security company Dyncorp.
The Jordanian monarch minimised the scandal of weapons smuggling after the purge of the Security Services and the Army in March-April. Former leaders of the security units were retired, including the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry. The GIA is headed by General Adnan Issam al-Jundi (a personal enemy of the former head of the GIA Faisal al-Shoubaki, who was at the time dismissed), and the General Staff by General Mahmoud Freihat (he commanded until the scandal broke out the military district on the border with Syria, and gave leaked information to the Americans in the smuggling of their weapons). The appointments were agreed with the American and British advisors.
The internal instability, the need for unpopular economic reforms, the conflict in Syria and the presence in the kingdom of a large number of opponents and radicalised Syrian refugees are forcing Abdullah II to ask western allies to deploy on the territory of the kingdom additional forces that can become a military counterbalance in the event of an uprising of Bedouins and Islamists. In early September, an agreement was signed between the Jordanian GIA, the CIA and other US intelligence and security agencies. The arrangements include an increase in the number of Jordanian trainees from the GIA, trained in the US, and retraining of fighters from the elite division of Fursan al-Haqq (the Knights of Justice Brigade), which was created to hunt jihadists, but has shown disappointing results since February 2017.
However, Paris now has a major role to play in increasing international efforts to maintain the Jordanian regime. Last month, Jordan received 20 military Masstech Offroad vehicles. The delivery was made after a meeting in Amman of Rear Admiral Didier Maleter, who is responsible for the operational support of Operation Shammal (to support the Jordanian regime and the French efforts in Syria) with senior Jordanian military officials. Currently, Paris is considering meeting the American request for the participation of the French military for a joint base with the US Special Forces in Jordan.
To date, the French Air Force is already located in the kingdom, which consists of four Rafale and almost 400 personnel, including specialists in electronic intelligence. Officially, the base is part of the coalition’s efforts to fight ISIS, but Amman would like the French military presence in the country to become permanent. It seeks to consolidate Paris as the second most important military ally after Washington. Jordan is ready to learn from the French experience in combating terrorism and conducting search and rescue operations. The French Ministry of the Armed Forces has been studying the Pentagon’s proposal to establish a joint task force in Jordan. So far, no decision has been made.
The forces, which will include the French command of special operations (Commandement des opérations spéciales, COS) and the command of special operations of the United States (USSOCOM), should serve as a training centre for local groups to combat terrorism. Among the advantages of this scenario, the fact that it is located at the Jordanian-Syrian border, they will be able to act quickly and against targets in the region. In addition, the establishment of the base in Jordan is of interest to COS units, as they will be able to work out there plans of action beyond the restrictions that are imposed on such activities in the Fifth Republic and, more recently, on the French base in Djibouti. This refers to extra-judicial killings and interrogations. The cons are the financial costs and the risk of being drawn into the intra-Jordanian conflict with the prospect of a guerrilla war.
The project to strengthen the stability of the Jordanian regime by increasing the presence of foreign forces was launched personally by Abdullah II this spring, as he has less confidence in his army. Jordan provides a number of key facilities for operations in Syria, including the Azrak airbase, which is used by coalition drones. The United States assisted in the opening of a new training centre in Savka at the beginning of the year, as well as in the expansion of the military base in Zarqa, where the Jordanian Special Forces are based.
The new initiative will strengthen the efforts of the coalition in the development of Operation Gallant Phoenix with the participation of the United States and more than 20 other countries, including France, Israel and Germany. But there are doubts that the West is ready to expose the military in the event of an actual complication of the situation in Jordan during the inter-elite struggle, backed by the Islamist factor. This is also understood in the royal palace, hence the intensification of contacts between the intelligence services of Amman and Damascus and Moscow, which Abdullah believes are another pillars of the stability of his regime.
Ankara versus Riyadh
The Turkish prosecutors refused to hand over to the Saudi investigators all gathered pieces of evidence and material evidence in the case of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This was announced on October 30 by CNN-Türk TV channel. According to them, the request came from the Attorney General of the KSA Sheikh Saud al-Muadib, who is in Istanbul in connection with the investigation of the case. It is noted that al-Muadib reiterated the position of the state authorities that 18 of those arrested by Riyadh on suspicion of involvement in the murder of the journalist are subjects of the kingdom and will be brought to justice at home.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the Saudis to transfer them to Ankara for trial in the Republic. Al-Muadib arrived in Istanbul and on the same day held a meeting with the Attorney General of the metropolis Irfan Fidenam. He previously inspected the consulate general of Saudi Arabia. The journalist Jamal Khashoggi, known for critical articles about politics in Riyadh, went missing in the KSA Consulate General in Istanbul on October 2. On October 20 the Saudi authorities announced that he was killed in the diplomatic mission building. The body was not found. There are 18 subjects of Saudi Arabia under investigation, whose identity is not disclosed.
Erdogan described the murder as planned, and the Attorney General of the kingdom said that the suspects acted intentionally. Ankara’s refusal to hand over the evidence to Riyadh is logical, because the Turks do not want to disclose their wiretapping system of the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul. In addition to the technical aspects, it is fraught with accusations of violation of diplomatic relations conventions and international law.
According to American experts, the aftermath of the Khashoggi case will have an undeniable impact on the struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence in the Sunni world in the religious, political and economic spheres. Ankara may try to use this incident for bargaining on a number of regional policy issues, primarily convincing Saudi Arabia to stop cooperating with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, to reducing economic pressure on Qatar, its main ally in the region, as well as making concessions on the withdrawal of pro-Saudi groups from Idlib. Thus, defense and economic ties between the states reduce the chances of a complete break between Ankara and Riyadh.
For several weeks, accusations of this crime were the main topic of Turkish media. Three weeks after the incident, the Turkish President told Parliament that the Saudi authorities had planned to kill the dissident. However, he chose not to mention in his speech the role of Crown Prince M. bin Salman, who is believed to have played a major role in the organisation of the murder.
Ankara is trying to carefully dose the pressure on Riyadh, whose worldview and regional policy are contrary to Turkish ones. Erdogan is not going for the global destruction of relations with Saudi Arabia, given that the Crown Prince can get away from the scandal with minimal reputational costs and maintain the post of first heir to the throne. Although if Ankara realises that the Americans have taken a course on his political obliteration, it will join this campaign.
Turkey is trying to carefully change the balance in the royal family of Saudi Arabia, emphasising that the monarch continues to be a reliable partner, and pedaling the theme of the main patron of the crime, without mentioning the Crown Prince. The antagonism between him and the President of Turkey is mutual. In comments to the Egyptian press earlier this year, the Crown Prince called Turkey and Iran and political Islam the “axis of evil”. The history of the Saudi-Turkish rivalry goes back decades. Economic priorities remain a major factor in their policies, but this does not negate the fact that each party will try to benefit from the weakness of the other. Today the advantages are on Ankara’s side.
Its conflict with Riyadh is due to their different political views on the Sunni world. For the kingdom, which is the custodian of the major Muslim shrines, Turkey’s claims to leadership are seen as attempts to question the legitimacy of the al Saud family and revive the Ottoman Empire, which included Saudi Arabia.
The issue of leadership in the Sunni world has been on the agenda since the Turkish Republic abolished the Caliphate in 1924. According to the Turkish republicans, the true expression of Islamic thought, supported by honest Muslim citizens, should guide and rule the Sunni world. The Saudis also believe that this world should be guided by traditional hierarchical constructs, the power of which belongs to the Ulema appointed by Riyadh.
Turkey claims that the legitimacy of the leadership comes from the grassroots authenticity of Muslims, and for the KSA the hierarchy of traditions is a priority. Turkey’s worldview appeals to Muslims who believe that it is not tradition or social status that should determine leadership, but commitment to faith. This explains Riyadh’s antagonism to movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which have similar views with Turkey and have received political protection from Ankara. Thus, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been operating from Turkey since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi carried out the coup, removing the democratically elected “Brothers” from power. This is a direct political threat to the legitimacy of the royal family: the more ordinary Saudis are exposed to such thinking, the more they can question the social contract underlying the power in their country.
The Saudis claim that they follow the true concepts of Islam, but their demand for the preservation of royal privileges makes it possible to put forward the thesis that their religious norms are not as consistent as they say. This creates competition, and the KSA is trying to contain the Turkish ideological influence on Saudi subjects. In relation to this, both countries want to restrain the spread of Iranian hegemony in the region, which makes them US allies. However, relations between Ankara and Riyadh with Tehran are very different.
Saudi Arabia avoids contacts with Iran. Turkey is developing ideological, economic and strategic relations with it, pursing pragmatic objectives. This can cause sanctions pressure on Turkey from the United States, but gives Ankara the freedom of manoeuvre, which Riyadh does not have in the Syrian conflict. The common border between Turkey and Iran, as well as a large number of Kurds on both sides, provide these countries with a basis for deterring Kurdish separatism.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are interested in supporting a number of political movements in the Sunni world, although in different ways. They support Palestinian statehood with opposing approaches of providing economic and political assistance to the community. Turkey is closer to Hamas, ruling in the Gaza strip. Saudi Arabia is on the side of Fatah on the West Bank.
Turkey and the KSA opposed President Bashar al-Assad for most of the civil war in Syria, but sponsored different rebel groups. Recently, Saudi Arabia’s designated support for Syrian Kurds irritates Turkey, which views their groups as terrorists. Both countries rely on different political players. For Turkey it is Qatar, for the Saudis, it is Egypt and the UAE.
In Africa, both countries are seeking to expand their political, religious, economic and security influence. In the Horn of Africa and North Africa, their competition is taking active forms in support of opposing political movements. In Tunisia, Turkey tried to take the side of the Islamist al-Nahda party against secularists, which prompted Saudi Arabia (with little success) to take their side. The KSA seeks to weaken Turkey’s export potential on the Black continent, undermining its efforts with targeted donations and investments. By strengthening the economics of the African countries, Saudi Arabia is building a common base of support for these states, contributing to their tough negotiations with Turkey on joint economic projects, creating alternative markets for imports. This fight will last a long time.
The article is based on materials of MEI expert Yu. Schelgovin.