September 27, 2017
Written by Evgeny Stanovsky
When speaking of the Middle East, Domestic and international MSM pay close attention to the American administration’s relation strategies with the countries of the region as well as on what pitfalls it encounters. Nevertheless there are enough problems even without the USA. Saudi Arabia is poised in front of monarchical change and is faced with outright revolt of the powerful forces from the royal family with the rise power of the king Salman’s son. Turkey is stuck in Syria, where Ankara suffers a defeat in Idlib at the hands of the pro-Saudi militants and tries to dissociate itself from neighbours, including Syria, Iraq and Iran. The crisis of Qatari relations with the Egypt, UAE, KSA, Bahrain and their allies’ coalition brought to a stalemate: neither Qatar, nor its opponents are able to achieve any benefits.
The referendum in Iraq, which the Kurds are threatening, regardless of the result will not bring independence to Kurdistan, although it will complicate relations with its neighbours, foremost with Baghdad. We will look into a few of these described situations basing on materials from the Middle East Institute expert Y. Schelgovin.
The Hustle around the Throne
Through the summer the expert community actively discussed rumours on the eminent abdication of the King Salman of the KSA in favour of his son and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman, recently nominated as Crown Prince. As much as can be judged, this question is presently put aside for the time being due to the complicated situation in the country, the conflict in Yemen and the crisis of relations with Qatar. What is left is the unresolved with all the leading Royal family branches the problem of appointing a new Crown Prince in the event of the proclamation of Mohammed bin Salman as King. The most likely candidate would be Prince B. bin Abdulaziz. There is another possibility, which is supported by influential members of the family, such as Prince M. bin Naef and his clan. This is an extension of the transition period with the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Prime Minister within the implementation of the proclaimed reforms. An example of an implementation of such verification scheme would be the precedent of King Faisal before his coronation being nominated as acting Prime Minister. In case of failure, it may bury the ambitions for power of Mohammed bin Salman.
In the monarchical family there are discussions about succession and the authority of the Crown Prince is not strong enough to control the situation in the Kingdom. Despite the fact that financial flows from arms contracts with the US and the UE are concentrated in the hands of people associated with him, and in the power block due to the recent appointments have increased the presence in the leadership of people close to the Crown Prince. It was taken into account that with the decision on the extension of the transfer procedures to the throne by King Salman, the change of power in a period of unpopular for a significant part of the population reforms, may lead to a decline in authority of the heir. A transformation programme, the fights against bureaucracy, rejuvenation of the civil servants workforce, have not been fully defined and spelled out. They do not promise to be simple, given the results of the first attempts to make Saudi entrepreneurs limit the use of migrant workers in favour of local personnel. These measures, taken at the initiative of Mohammed bin Salman, failed and now laws are being revised, including the connection with lobbying associations of commodity producers of the KSA.
All is not well with the implementation of the project of nationalisation of the oil company ARAMCO. The procedure will be rescheduled for 2019, although earlier it was planned for 2018. This is due to “technical reasons” but in reality there is a controversy in the ruling elite about the choice of the basic IPO operator location. Mohammed bin Salman insists on the American exchange, his opponents in the family and the economic block of the government favour the British. These disagreements intensified on the background of the fate of the May arms contracts, signed during President D. Trump’s visit to Riyadh. The US Congress barely approved the sale of precision weapons to the KSA. Opponents of this transaction mentioned the war crimes of bombing civilian targets in Yemen by Saudi aviation. The balance of contracts with the KSA was stuck. The question arose in relation to two of the most important topics for the Saudis: the contracts for seven billion dollars to purchase precision-guided munitions for aircraft and eight billion for the modernisation of the air force of the Kingdom, including the F-15. The problems in relations with the USA pulse through Mohammed bin Salman, as he took upon himself the whole system of Saudi-American relations.
The diversification of the country’s oil industry required also the introduction of corrective measures. In the royal family it is believed that the announcement of a reforms programme by the Crown Prince is too ambitious and challenging. So, the course on “Saudisation of the personnel” is confronted with the unwillingness of a considerable part of the younger generation of Saudis to work. The government promises to introduce necessary corrections by October. It is planned to increase transparency of decisions of the Cabinet and reform the public bureaucracy in line with the programme Vision 2030. The dependence on oil prices still continues in the KSA. During the crisis the revenue of the Kingdom from hydrocarbons fell by 17 percent in the past year. The plan for the first half of the year for replenishing the budget from oil exports fell through. This forces the delay of unpopular measures, cuts in government subsidies for electricity and water for the population. The transfer of power depends on how strong the reforms will damages the authority of the Crown Prince. The extremely unpopular intervention in Yemen took place on his initiative. King Salman takes all this into consideration, making a decision on the postponement of the transfer of power to his son.
Thus he continues to strengthen his position in the power block. Experts associate the appointment of the Director of Intelligence of the Ministry of the Interior of the KSA General A. al-Hawrani with the end stage of the complete submission of the internal and external intelligence agencies block of the Kingdom to the Crown Prince. Al-Hawrani is considered a supported of the Salman clan, although until the retirement of the previous head of the Ministry of the Interior, the Crown Prince’s main rival in the struggle for the throne Mohammed Bin Nayef, manoeuvred between them. In his new position he faces several problems, such as the eradication of the legacy of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his people in the structure of the Ministry of Interior. He needs to lead a new superstructure that combines all the intelligence services of the Ministry. Now they have entered the unified State Security Presidency (SSP), which is currently headed by A. al-Hawrani.
Among the main duties of the SSP is the investigation of criminal cases inside the Kingdom, the supervision of special operations forces, the support for counter-terrorism operations and support for aviation security. The total budget is five billion dollars, double the appropriations for the Office of General Intelligence of the KSA (OGI). From this ensue the priorities of the Salman clan − the tightening of internal security and the elimination of departmental confusion in this area. The new head of the SSP is reputed to be a professional, having received a special education in the USA and has good relations with the FBI. The investigations in the field of counter-terrorism in the KSA and counter-intelligence work in the Shiite Eastern province were under A. al-Hawrani’s supervision.
He is tasked in rebuilding the security system and to conduct a general “cleaning” of the internal opposition before the upcoming coronation of Mohammed bin Salman. One of the first steps was the arrest and detention of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in large cities, carried out in the last three weeks. And in this case they struck not so much the Brothers, but how many clerical and business elites of the country were opposing Mohammed bin Salman, advocating the restoration of the Qatari-Saudi relations. This stratum turned out to be surprisingly powerful, since the economic blockade of Qatar has hit the interests of Saudi businessmen. Al-Hawrani does not hide the fact that the main goal is not the elimination of the internal Saudi opposition belonging to the Brothers, Islamic State or economic crimes, but support for domestic reforms in the Kingdom. He must provide “proper conditions” for the commencement of the transfer of power in the KSA to Mohammed bin Salman.
The decision of King Salman to postpone the transfer of power to his son is opposed by a significant part of Saudi clerics, who as the Minister of the Interior were overseen by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and has trustworthy relations between them. In the King’s close circle the subject of the voluntary resignation of Mohammed bin Salman of the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” after his accession is seriously discussed, as well as the separation of the highest posts in the Executive and the religious hierarchy. This should be a compromise with the religious elite, who in exchange for loyalty to the new king will receive the highest religious post. Separating religion from the state, the new king risks the opposition of the clergy, which will affect the decision-making on domestic and foreign policy given the penetration of Islam in the daily lives of the Saudis. How such a confrontation would end is demonstrated by the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Iraqi Kurdistan: the Plebiscite will not Change Anything
The head of Iraqi Kurdistan M. Barzani reiterated his government’s willingness to proceed after the September 25 referendum on independence with full negotiations with the central authorities in Baghdad. The Kurdish leader declared as such, speaking in front of supporters of the plebiscite in the central stadium in Erbil, according to the TV channel Rudaw. Barzani noted that the paramilitary units of Peshmerga will ensure the safety of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan from any enemy. “After September 25 we are ready to discuss with Baghdad borders, oil, whatever”, he said. The Erbil delegation had to go for negotiations with the federal government two days before the referendum, but Baghdad refused negotiations with the Kurds.
Thursday [Translator’s note: September 21, 2017] the UN Security Council adopted a statement that the holding of a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan could destabilise Iraq and impede the fight against IS. The UNSC stressed that they support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq and called on to resolve all disputes between the regions of Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad “in accordance with the provision of the Constitution of Iraq, through dialogue and through compromise, with the support of the international community”. It is easy to conclude the consequences of the referendum. The point of no return in the issue of its conduct is passed. Barzani, if he turns on his position, will bury his political future. The referendum is his last chance to stay afloat in the state hierarchy of the Kurdish autonomy. The legal terms of his stay as head of the Iraqi Kurdistan have expired, but the argument for their extension (including, pressure from Washington) in view of the need to maintain stability in the fight against IS disappeared with the successes in Syria and Iraq. Pressure in growing on Barzani from his opponents with the demand that he leaves his post.
General support of all political parties for autonomy is of the idea of holding a referendum with a basic requirement that Barzani should leave the leadership and pledge that the post of head of the region will not be taken by members of his clan. This was a condition from the opposition party Goran for the support of the referendum and the resumption of work of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament. G. Talibani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) willingness to support the referendum stems also from within the Kurdish struggle and the problems of the division of oil revenues. On September 16 one of the main figures of the PSK, B. Saleh, announced that he would present himself to the upcoming parliamentary elections as an independent. There is a split in the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) as well, where supporters of A. Öcalan were forced out of leadership positions. One of the reasons for the elderly leaders of Kurdish politics for the referendum was the distraction of the population from the change of the elite crisis. The political struggles after the referendum will only increase.
The economic aspect is also important. Erbil is not ready to go without Turkish goods while blocking the export capacity for sending oil to Turkey and the termination of funding tranches from Baghdad. It will not survive this. This eliminates concerns about the fact that after the referendum the process for establishing state borders and the separation of the Kurdish Autonomous region will provoke fighting in disputed areas of Iraq and the intervention of the Armed Forces, Baghdad and Ankara in Iraqi Kurdistan and areas of dense habitation of Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Separate incidents are possible but to talk about the beginning of a full-scale Arab-Kurdish or Turkish-Kurdish war is not worth it. The Kurds will not go for this and the major regional players, Iran, Turkey and Iraq, are not interested in escalating the conflict. However in 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum and 98 percent voted for independence. In the end, nothing happened.
According to the Anatolian Agency, Turkey expects by the end of September to complete the construction of the concrete wall along the border with Syria. The builders have about 97 of 828 kilometres to finish. The work is carried out in the southern mountainous region of the province of Hatay, The project of the boundary barrier “Emergency system of physical border security” began in 2016. For the barrier concrete blocks are used with a height of three metres with barbed wire. Every 300 metres, a tower will be equipped with thermal and infrared cameras, night vision systems, radars, detectors of seismic and acoustic vibrations. They will have laser and missile systems with remote control for the destruction of live forces, ground equipment and UAV, devices for the suppression of radio signals at different frequencies. The Turkish Armed Forces intend to use blimps fitted with surveillance equipment to monitor the situation and movements on the Syrian territory.
The Turkish authorities are building a wall on the border with Syria to protect its territory from the infiltration of terrorists and illegal migrants, weapons, explosives and drugs smuggling. Ankara will not stop accepting refugees from Syria and will not close the borders, but all movement will go through the border crossings. The technical arrangement of the border suggests that the Turks are not planning an invasion of the Kurdish areas in the adjacent territory to eliminate the units of the Democratic Union Party (DUP). The likelihood of military confrontation between the Turkish army with the Americans stationed in the north of Syria in the Kurdish areas and the support of the DUP is negligible. The Americans would probably try to avoid the confrontation if Ankara aggravated the situation. But R. Erdogan is not ready to force a solution on the Kurdish question.
This does not mean that Turkey will leave the Kurdish problem on its borders unresolved. It will try to influence through controlled armed groups from two directions, from the area between Azaz and Jarabulus and from Idlib. However, expensive technical equipment of the Turkish-Syrian border means that Ankara is preparing for the establishment in northern Syria of an independent Kurdish enclave. No one officially in Turkey will ever mention this, but such a scenario is recognised there as a reality, firstly by the forceful position of Washington, what the Turkish leadership will not forget (what President Erdogan keeps reminding the Americans).
On September 22 in the Kurdish region of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) municipal elections were held in 3,700 communities. Deputies were elected in November to participate in the elections of local councils and in January, for the Parliament. Thus, on the territory of the region a Federal Council already operates. This, along with the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum and the “neutral position” of the US, who are interested in staying longer in the north of Syria thanks to loyal local Kurds, renders the alternative of a semi-state separation of Rojava solved. Although this is largely declarative and a propaganda point, by no means a real separation.
As for the state border equipment of the Turks, in addition to the Kurdish issue, they establish control over the channels of material and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition in Idlib. Given the presence of the Turkish military in the de-escalation zone in that province in the capacity of monitoring the mission, this should play a crucial role in countering Saudi influence in Idlib to minimise the fighting potential of Jabat al-Nursa and gaining similar opportunities for the pro-Turkish groups. Without feeding them with weapons and manpower, the Turkish domination there is under question. Ankara’s efforts to minimise Saudi influence in Syria will determine the medium-term developments of the situation in Idlib province, which fully meets the interests of Moscow.
*Evgeny Satanovsky is President of the Middle East Institute