Posts by James M. Dorsey.:

    Playing with Fire: Israel and its problematic friends solidify ties

    October 9th, 2017

    By James Dorsey.

     

    Remarks at United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore, 3 October 2017

    There are no nice guys in the Middle East, a region that is in the sixth year of transition. It’s a transition that is likely to take up to a quarter of a century. It’s a transition that is being exacerbated by states that are battling either one another for regional hegemony or to maintain an unsustainable status quo or to shape the region in their mould. There are no good or bad guys in this battle, at best there are bad and worse ones.

    That is the playing field on which long existing relations between Israel and status quo powers, primarily in the Gulf, as well as in Jordan and Egypt, have grown far closer and more overt. Closer relations are primarily based on perceived common interests in stymying Iran as well as political change. It’s an alliance in emergence, particularly with the Gulf, that irrespective whether it results in formal diplomatic relations as already is the case with Egypt and Jordan or may soon occur with Bahrain, is likely to be fragile, not because the parties view it that way, but because far-reaching change on the Arab side is inevitable.

    The parameters and dynamics of what the Middle East is experiencing and the risks Israel runs with the alliances it is cementing centre on five fundamental developments or disputes:

    • The impact of the 2011 popular Arab revolts
    • The Gulf crisis
    • The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
    • Transition in the Gulf
    • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    The roll back of the 2011 popular revolts by a UAE-Saudi led counterrevolution has prompted many to write off the chance for democratic change in the Middle East and to refer to the uprisings as the Arab winter. That may prove to be a short-lived analysis. For one, it’s a mistake to see the revolts as a quest for Western-style democracy. Rather, they were a quest for dignity, greater freedoms and liberation from corrupt, nepotistic regimes that, with few exceptions, had failed to deliver in terms of public goods and services. Those revolts may or may not have succeeded in the longer term but ultimately, they were prematurely defeated by domestic status quo forces backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whether it is the 2013 military coup in Egypt, Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen, or UAE and Egyptian backing of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. To be clear, Qatar was a player in this too.

    The legacy of the revolts is far greater than simply defeat or failure. It has changed mentality and attitudes. The quest for change is alive and kicking. That is not to say that masses of people are about to take to the streets again – despite recent months long protests in the Rif in northern Morocco. Events in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen may by and large have for now chilled the quest for revolutionary change. So has severe repression across the Middle East. The desire for change is however alive and kicking in social media.

    It is also alive in kicking in the radicalization of Arab youth, who make up the bulk of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic States is on the verge of territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, but that only means that political violence will no longer have a central address; it will be more decentralised, more amorphous, more spread out, and probably more lethal. Political violence has been a fixture of human history, but blunting its current phase will take a lot more than military might and law enforcement. It will take economic and social policies as well as forms of governance that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

    Which leads to the third legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts: the future of Middle Eastern nation states as they were known until now.  Neither Iraq nor Syria will return as nation states in the borders prior to 2011 in Syria or 2003 in Iraq when the United States invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth, whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia. It parallels the efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Syria, or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own. It also parallels the dispute in the Gulf between Qatar and various other Gulf states.

    Most conflicts in the Middle East have a pot blames the kettle quality, but no one dispute more so than that between Qatar and a UAE-Saudi-led alliance of financially and politically dependent states. At the heart of the crisis are four issues: the ability of small states to chart their own, independent course; diametrically opposed perceptions of national security threats; fundamentally different strategies for regime survival; and radically differing definitions of what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

    Also at the heart of both the Gulf crisis and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry are opposing approaches to political or activist forms of Islam. We can go in question and answers into greater detail about the Gulf crisis. Qatar has the naïve belief that it can support political change anywhere in the Middle East while at the same time ringfencing itself as well as other Gulf states from the fallout. Qatari support as well as its soft power strategy has meant that it has maintained contact and/or supported a host of militant groups, in some cases with the approval of the United States, as well as Islamists. It was a policy that clashed with that of the UAE, first and foremost, which sees any form of political Islam as a threat and under the influence of the UAE with Saudi Arabia’s evolving threat perception.

    Fact of the matter is that all the Gulf states have maintained and/or supported militants and Islamists; no country more so than Saudi Arabia, not only in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in a covert war for the past 40 years. It is a war that explains much of Iranian actions today. Yet, Saudi Arabia is fighting an uphill battle. Its future in the Middle East is that of a second fiddle state. There are three major powers in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, and Israel, in certain regards. Turkey, Iran and, Egypt have what Saudi Arabia does not: large populations, huge domestic markets, industrial bases, highly educated populations, and deep-seated identities grounded in histories of empire. Iran, moreover, has resources. Saudi Arabia has oil and Mecca, not enough to compete. Saudi Arabia is a regional power because of past containment policies towards Iran. Once Iran is unfettered, it will unlikely be able to compete for long.

    A major aspect of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the ideological and religious battle that Saudi Arabia has waged for the past four decades, the fallout of which is being felt across the globe. Saudi Arabia has invested an estimated $100 billion to promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. To be clear, the bulk of that money did not go to militants, it went to religious, cultural and educational facilities that Saudi Arabia largely did not micro-manage or control. There are only a handful of countries where the Saudis funded violence: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Also to be clear, ultra-conservatism does not by definition breed militancy but it does create an enabling environment in conjunction with other factors, first and foremost lack of social and economic opportunity.

    The blowback of ultra-conservatism is felt in the kingdom as is evident in the economic and social transition Gulf states are embarking on. To put the transition in perspective, keep in mind that every person born in the Gulf today is likely to witness the end of oil in his or her lifetime. Economic streamlining and diversification was long overdue but was made unavoidable by the drop in oil prices sparked by Saudi oil policy that focussed on market share rather than price.

    Economic reform and limited social change but no political liberalization amounts to ruling families unilaterally rewriting social contracts by rolling back the cradle-to-grave-welfare state. The reforms cater to aspirations of significant segments of the youth who constitute the majority of the region’s citizenry. But they also go against the grain of vested interests and deep-seated ultra-conservatism. With few exceptions, there is little indication that the reform process is being well-managed, certainly not in terms of the gap between expectations and delivery. With other words, the jury on the reform process is still out. Moreover, nowhere in the Gulf is the legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts potentially more potent than in Saudi Arabia given its size and repressed diversity in terms of popular aspirations. It goes without saying, that what happens in the kingdom would ripple across the Gulf.

    The short-term silver lining of events in the Middle East may be developments in Palestine with the reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank as a result of engineering by the UAE and Egypt. It will no doubt bring relief to Gaza which has effectively been blockaded by both Egypt and Israel. The decisive factor however will be the ability of the government to provide jobs and services, the outcome of elections and how Hamas fares in those polls,

    For sure, in theory the deal removes a major obstacle to peace talks: the division among the Palestinians themselves. Yet, fact of the matter is, even if a peace can be negotiated, it may not be worth the paper it is written on without Hamas being part of it. The good news is that the United States and Israel have been muted in their response to the reconciliation. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Palestine Authority have not been resolved, including the terms of any peace talks and a unified military command.

    The bottom line of all of this is that short-term, opportunistic policies will not provide solutions unless they lead to a tackling of fundamental problems. Without that, they could exacerbate situations, meaning that ultimately the threats and problems mushroom rather than shrink. If that happens, Israel’s alliance with Gulf could shift from an asset to a liability.

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    China contributes to doubts about Pakistani crackdown on militants

    August 16th, 2017

     

    By James Dorsey.

     

     

    China, at the behest of Pakistan, has for the second time this year prevented the United Nations from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist. China’s protection of Masood Azhar, who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, comes days after another militant group, whose leader is under house arrest in Pakistan, announced the formation of a political party.

    The two developments cast doubt on the sincerity of Pakistan’s crackdown on militants a day after a suicide bomber killed 15 people when he rammed a motorcycle into a military truck in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Balochistan, a troubled province in which the military has supported religious militants an anti-dote to nationalist insurgents, has suffered a series of devastating attacks in the last year.

    Taken together, the developments are unlikely to help Pakistan as the Trump administration weighs a tougher approach towards the South Asian country as part of deliberations about how to proceed in Afghanistan where US troops are fighting the Pakistani-backed Taliban.

    US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster warned a week before the Chinese veto and the announcement of the new party, Milli Muslim League (MML), by Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity that is widely viewed as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), a group designated as terrorist by the UN, that President Donald Trump wanted Pakistan to change its ‘paradoxical’ policy of supporting the militants.

    “The president has also made clear that we need to see a change in behaviour of those in the region, which includes those who are providing safe haven and support bases for the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others,” Mr McMaster said.

    Mr. McMaster said that the US wanted “to really see a change in and a reduction of their support for these groups…. They have fought very hard against these groups, but they’ve done so really only selectively,” he added.

    Pakistan’s military and intelligence have used militant groups to maintain influence in Afghanistan and to support protests as well as an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir. China’s repeated veto of a UN designation of Mr. Azhar, whose group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been proscribed by the international body as well as Pakistan, is not only bowing to Pakistani wishes but also a way of keeping India on its toes at a time of heightened Chinese-Indian tension.

    Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed.

    Mr. Azhar, a portly bespectacled son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher and author of a four-volume treatise on jihad as well as books with titles like Forty Diseases of the Jews, was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

    Freed from Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, Mr. Azhar is also believed to be responsible for an attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war. JeM despite being banned continues to publicly raise funds and recruit fighters in mosques.

    JuD sources said the charity’s transition to a political party was in part designed to stop cadres from joining the Islamic State (IS). They said some 500 JuD activists had left the group to join more militant organizations, including IS. They said the defections often occurred after the Pakistani military launched operations against militants in areas like South Waziristan.

    Pakistan listed LeT as a terrorist organization in 2002, but has only put JuD “under observation.” Pakistan’s media regulator in 2015 banned all coverage of the group’s humanitarian activities by the country’s news media.

    JuD’s head, Muhammad Hafez Saeed, a UN and US-designated terrorist and one of the world’s most wanted men, has been under house arrest in Pakistan since early this year. Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed who was once a LeT leader. He has since disassociated himself from the group and denied any link between JuD and LeT.

    “What role (Saeed) will play in the Milli Muslim League or in Pakistan’s ongoing politics will be seen after Allah ensures his release. (Once he is released) we will meet him and ask him what role he would like to play. He is the leader of Pakistan,” MML leader Saifullah Khalid told a news conference. Mr. Khalid added that Mr. Saeed’s release was high on the MML’s agenda.

    Mr. Saeed was not present at the conference, which was attended by Yahya Mujahid, a close aide of his, who is also subject to UN terrorism sanctions.

    Treating men like Mr. Azhar and Mr. Saeed with kid gloves is unlikely to earn Pakistan any goodwill in Mr. Trump’s Washington. China’s protection of Mr. Azhar, moreover, undermines its sincerity in claiming that it is cracking down on militancy despite its harsh policy in the restive province of Xinjiang. If anything, it could put Beijing in Mr. Trump’s crosshairs too.

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    Playing both sides against the middle: Saudi engages with Iraqi Shiites

    August 4th, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    Saudi Arabia, with the Islamic State on the ropes in Iraq, is forging ties to Iraqi Shiite leaders and offering to help fund reconstruction of Mosul and other predominantly Sunni Muslim cities that were devastated in the military campaign against the jihadist group.

    The Saudi outreach to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and controversial Shiite scholar, politician and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who last week held rare talks in Jeddah with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to contain significant Iranian influence in Iraq. Mr. Al-Sadr is widely seen as having balanced his strong sense of nationalism with his relations with Iran. It was his first visit to the kingdom in more than a decade.

    Mr. Al-Sadr’s visit was a far cry from the days not so long ago when as a firebrand he railed against the kingdom, prompting an Iraqi poet to declare that “with Moqtada’s help we will destroy Saudi Arabia.”

    Mr. Al-Sadr, who has criticized powerful Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army as well as Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preceded by Mr. Al-Abadi who was received in the kingdom in June despite having voiced days before his visit opposition to the two-month old Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

    Rivalry with Iran is one of the core issues in the Gulf crisis. The Saudi-UAE alliance has demanded that Qatar curtail its relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field.

    The Saudi outreach also signals a rare Saudi recognition that Iranian influence is a fact in a vicious proxy war that so far has been largely fought by the kingdom as a zero-sum-game. The proxy war prompted Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen that has brought Yemen to the brink of the abyss as it battles famine and epidemics, aggravated Syria’s brutal civil war, and sparked sectarian tensions across the Muslim world.

    Ibrahim al-Marie, a retired Saudi colonel and Riyadh-based security analyst, voiced Saudi expectations of its outreach when he noted that “the significant improvement in Saudi-Iraqi relations, official and non-official, doesn’t mean that Iran’s domination of Iraq has decreased or will decrease. Dealing with all political currents in the Arab world is expected from a country of the kingdom’s size and stature.”

    The Saudi outreach, despite Saudi Arabia’s designation of Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, constitutes the second time in six months that the kingdom has opted for engagement rather than confrontation.

    Saudi Arabia in February reversed its cancellation of $3 billion in military aid to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is one of the country’s foremost political forces and part of the government; appointed a new ambassador; rescinded its advice to Saudis not to visit Lebanon, a popular Saudi tourism destination; increased flights to Beirut by its national carrier; and welcomed Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, on a visit to the kingdom.

    Prince Mohmmed reached out to Mr. Al-Sadr as the kingdom’s security forces were cracking down on activists in the predominantly Shiite, oil-rich Eastern Province. The Saudi interior ministry reported earlier this week that a police officer was killed and six others injured when their patrol was attacked in the town of Al Awamiyah. Al Awamiyah was home to Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia scholar whose execution in early 2016 sparked a rupture in Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations.

    Canada, which sold $15 billion worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, last week launched an investigation into claims that they had been employed in crackdowns on Shiites. The investigation was based on videos released by Saudi human rights activists that purported to show the use of Canadian vehicles in past crackdowns in the Eastern Province rather than the current operation in Al Awamiyah.

    Saudi engagement with Iraqi leaders comes in advance of Iraqi provincial and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. Mr. Al-Sadr’s visit to Jeddah took on added significance because of his opposition to Mr. Al-Abadi’s rival, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is widely seen as a major Iranian asset. The visit raised questions of what role Mr. Al-Sadr may want to play in countering Iranian influence in cooperation with the kingdom.

    Messrs. Al-Sadr and Al-Abadi hope that Saudi Arabia will not only help in funding reconstruction of predominantly Sunni Muslim cities that have been left in ruins by the campaign against the Islamic State, but also in building bridges to a community that feels that it has been marginalized since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime. They believe that Saudi Arabia will be able to leverage not only its financial muscle but also the fact that many Iraqi Sunni tribes share a common lineage with Saudi clans.

    Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city prior to its takeover by the Islamic State in 2014, has been virtually destroyed. Its infrastructure will have to be rebuilt from scratch at an estimated cost of tens of billions of dollars. Rebuilding other cities ravaged by the anti-Islamic State campaign has been slow to get off the ground.

    Some optimists suggest that there may be more to Saudi moves. They hold out the possibility that Prince Mohammed is looking for a back channel to Iran, a role Mr. Al-Sadr could fulfil as one of the few Iraqi Shiite politicians who has reasonable relations with both the Islamic republic and the kingdom. More likely, however, Prince Mohammed sees an opportunity to exploit differences within the Iraqi Shiite community towards Iran and the government’s need of help in forging bridges to its Sunni citizens.

    “One thing is for sure. The Saudis did not invite a major Iraqi Shiite cleric to Jeddah just to inquire after his health,” quipped Middle East scholar Juan Cole.

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    All the UAE’s men: Gulf crisis opens door to power shift in Palestine

    July 10th, 2017

    James M. Dorsey. 

     

    Mohammed Dahlan

    By James M. Dorsey

    With attention in the Middle East focussed on the Gulf crisis, the United Arab Emirates is elsewhere seeking to reshape the region in ways that could alter its power dynamics. The UAE’s latest effort concentrates on clipping the wings of Hamas and installing its own man in the Gaza Strip in a move that would likely strengthen cooperation with Israel, potentially facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and take the Jewish state’s increasingly close ties to the Gulf state out of the shadows.

    The UAE effort involves a carrot and stick approach in which Israel and Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmood Abbas play bad cop while Egypt is the good cop in a pincer move that is intended to weaken Hamas, the Qatar-backed Islamist group and Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls Gaza.

    A lowering of public sector salaries in Gaza by Mr. Abbas and reduced electricity supplies by Israel at the Palestinian leader’s behest drove Hamas into the arms of the UAE and Egypt as the International Red Cross and other international agencieswarned of an impending calamity.

    Hamas was conspicuously absent from a list of demands presented to Qatar two weeks into the five-week-old Saudi-UAE-led campaign to force Qatar to halt its support of militants and Islamists. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir had initially included Hamas at the beginning of the Gulf crisis among the groups the campaign was targeting.

    Hamas’ exemption coincided with a series of meetings in Cairo between Hamas, Egyptian intelligence and Mohammed Dahlan, a UAE-backed, Abu Dhabi-based controversial former Palestinian security chief and arch rival of Mr. Abbas who is manoeuvring to succeed the Palestinian leader.

    Mr. Dahlan, who is believed to be close to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as well as Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is alleged to have played a role in other covert UAE operations, including a failed effort to boost the country’s human rights image at the expense of that of Qatar. Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control in Gaza. Mr. Dahlan has since been indicted by the PA on corruption charges.

    The deal being hammered out in Cairo would allow Mr. Dahlan to return to Gaza in a power sharing agreement with Hamas that would undermine the position of Mr. Abbas and loosen the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has choked the impoverished strip.

    Egypt and the UAE have already moved to alleviate the economic crisis in Gaza in a bid to sweeten the deal. Egypt has begun to send diesel fuel at market prices, but without taxes imposed by the PA, and has signalled that it would open the crucial Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai.

    Associates of Mr. Dahlan were reported to be preparing the border station for re-opening with a $5 million donation from the UAE. Egypt reportedly is supplying barb wires, surveillance cameras and other equipment to enhance border security. The UAE, moreover, has earmarked $150 million to build a power station and has hinted that it would fund construction of a port.

    “If the plan does come to fruition, it could make an Israeli-Egyptian dream come true… It will ensure a fine profit for all sides, except for Abbas and Palestinian aspirations to establish a state,” said prominent Israeli columnist Zvi Bar’el.

    Mr. Bar’el argued that the deal would widen the gap between Gaza and the PA-controlled West Bank, halt ties between Hamas and Islamist insurgents in Sinai where an Islamic State-affiliate this week claimed responsibility for the killing of 23 Egyptian soldiers, allow Egypt to lift the blockade of Gaza and flood it with Egyptian goods, empower a Palestinian leader that Israel believes it can do business with, ease pressure on Israel that has repeatedly been condemned for the blockade, and roll back the influence of Qatar and Turkey, Hamas and Gaza’s main supporters.

    The effort to weaken Hamas and return Mr. Dahlan to Palestine is part of a six-year, UAE-driven, Saudi-backed effort to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia and reshape the Middle East and North Africa in the two Gulf states’ mould.

    The campaign included support for the 2013 military coup in Egypt that removed Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected president from office, and brought general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to power. It has culminated in the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar that has so far failed to force the Gulf state onto its knees.

    Along the way, the UAE has supported forces in Libya opposed to the internationally recognized Islamist government and joined Saudi Arabia in a disastrous military intervention in Yemen even though the kingdom and the emirates differ on what a future Yemen should like and what Yemeni forces the alliance should align itself with.

    In the process, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel have found common ground in their opposition to Iran and Islamist forces.Pilots from Israel and the UAE flew side-by-side in March in an exercise with the air forces of the United States, Italy and Greece. The UAE has bought military equipment from Israel worth hundreds of millions of dollars and allowed Israel to open in 2015 a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi that is accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency rather than the Emirates.

    Turkey, which has backed Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has sent troops to the Gulf state, has suggested that the UAE funded last year’s failed coup aimed at overthrowing Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a watershed event in modern Turkish history.

    Daily Sabah, a, a newspaper with close ties to the government of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as anonymous Turkish foreign ministry sources accused the UAE of having pumped $3 billion into the failed coup that the president blames on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in the United States.

    Hamas appeared in May to want include Gaza in efforts to rewrite the political map of the Middle East when it adopted a new statement of principles that for the first time accepted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document endorsed “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of June 4, 1967,” a reference to Israel’s borders on the eve of the war in which the Jewish state captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    The UAE-driven, Saudi-backed effort to reshape the Middle East has so far had mixed success. Its main success story is Egypt. Military intervention has driven Yemen to the edge of the abyss; Libya is in the throes of a civil war and jihadist insurgency; Syria has been wracked by civil, jihadist and regional proxy wars; and Qatar has so far refused to bend to the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s will. A UAE-Egypt engineered power sharing agreement in Gaza between Hamas and Mr. Dahlan would constitute a welcome second success.

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    Gulf Crisis Set To Escalate

    July 1st, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

     

     

    The Gulf crisis that pits Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar is set to escalate with Doha certain to ignore Monday’s deadline that it complies with demands that would undermine Qatari sovereignty and humiliate Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at a time that he is riding high on a wave of Qatari nationalism sparked by the Gulf crisis.

    Four weeks into the crisis, the demands appear to have been crafted for what is becoming a longer battle that the two Gulf states hope will end with Qatar, with or without Sheikh Tamim, adopting policies crafted in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declared the demands to be non-negotiable, offered Qatar no face-saving way out of the crisis, and appear to have designed them to be deliberately insulting.

    The Saudi-UAE-led coalition against Qatar is likely to further tighten the boycott of Qatar once the Monday deadline passes. However, UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash’s prediction of a parting of ways, which ultimately could include Qatar leaving the six- nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups the Gulf’s monarchies, would neither reduce tensions or end the crisis. Neither would an effort to suspend Qatar’s membership of the Arab League.

    Saudi and UAE perceptions of Qatari policies as a threat to the survival of their regimes would not be allayed by a divorce that would allow Qatar to continue to chart its own course. It is those perceptions that drove the two countries to launch their zero-sum game. Moreover, a Qatar capable of defying its more powerful neighbours would put on public display limits to Saudi and UAE power.

    The lesson of the past weeks is that Qatar can survive the boycott as long as countries like Turkey and Iran help it meet its food and water requirements, retains access to international shipping lanes, maintains its oil and gas exports; and has uninterrupted, normal dealings with the international financial system.

    Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have so far exempted oil and gas from their fight. Qatar continues to pump natural gas to the UAE through a partially Emirati-owned pipeline. Dubai is dependent on Qatar for 40 percent of its gas.

    Similarly, Saudi Arabia has been careful not to disrupt the tanker market and complicate Qatar’s energy exports by blocking shared vessel loadings. Such a move would create logistical challenges not only for Qatar but also for the kingdom’s own clients who would be forced to reorganize dozens of cargoes. It could also reduce the number of available vessels and drive up shipping costs.

    Qatar hopes that its ability to defy the boycott will force Saudi Arabia and the UAE to tighten the boycott in ways that could backfire. Potentially, that could happen if Saudi Arabia and the UAE act on a threat to take a you-are-with-us-or-against-us approach towards their trading and commercial partners.  That would put to the test, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s ability to impose their will on others.

    So far, it’s not been easy going for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar refuses to bend, most Muslim countries are unwilling to follow the Saudi-UAE lead, and many in the international community are irritated by the two countries’ approach that threatens to complicate the fight against the Islamic State, risks volatility in energy markets, and increases instability in what is already the world’s most unstable region.

    Despite denials, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s take-it-or-leave-it approach appears to include the option of fostering an environment conducive to regime change if Qatar proves capable of circumventing the boycott for an extended period of time.

    State-controlled media in the kingdom and the Emirates contributed to efforts to undermine Sheikh Tamim’s position with for the Gulf almost unprecedented attacks on Qatar’s ruling Al Thani clan and interviews with little known dissident family members as well as former military officers opposed to the emir’s policies.

    The Saudi and UAE strategy risks painting the two countries into a corner with Qatari support for Sheikh Tamim complicating suggestions voiced by a prominent Saudi journalist with close ties to the government and a Washington-based Saudi lobbyist that the brutal 2013 Egyptian coup that brought general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power could be repeated in Qatar in some form or fashion.

    Saudi and UAE tactics as well as some of the demands that include halting support for militants and Islamists, closing a Turkish military base in the Gulf state, reducing relations with Iran, and shuttering Qatar-sponsored media, including the controversial Al Jazeera television network, could however prove to be a double-edged sword.

    In a move that likely contributed to turning Qatari public opinion against them, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, citing unsubstantiated allegations that the Gulf state supported Houthi rebels, expelled their nemesis from the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the insurgents in Yemen a day after six Qatari soldiers were wounded defending the kingdom’s southern flank.

    The two Gulf states implicitly included Houthi rebels in Yemen in their demand that Qatar break off its relations with militants and Islamists. While there is little doubt that Qatar at times went too far in nurturing those relationships, it is equally clear that some of them enjoyed tacit Western and Saudi backing.

    In the case of the Houthis, Qatar likely maintained clandestine contacts while joining the Saudi-led fight against them given Qatar’s repeated efforts over a period of more than a decade to mediate between the rebels, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the kingdom. Qatar negotiated since 2004 various ceasefires in intermittent wars between the government and the Houthis only to see them thwarted with the support of Saudi Arabia.

    Former US diplomats in cables to the State Department while serving in Yemen and more recently in interviews suggested that Saudi Arabia’s obsession with the Houthis predates the rebels closer relationship with Iran since the invasion began in 2015. If anything, Saudi obsession drove them further into the hands of the Iranians.

    Moreover, closer analysis of the Saudi and UAE demands creates the impression that certainly in the case of the kingdom the pot at times is blaming the kettle. Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Al-Humayqani, the only Yemeni on the Saudi-UAE list of alleged terrorists associated with the two Gulf states’ demands, is a US Treasury designated terrorist linked to Al Qaeda who, reportedly lives at least part-time in the Saudi capital.

    The Treasury designation in 2013 did not prevent the Saudis from including Mr. Al-Humayqani in the delegation of the Saudi-backed government to failed peace talks in 2015 or from serving as an advisor to Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is resident in the kingdom.

    All of this makes hopes for a negotiated solution of the Gulf crisis all but an illusion. Maintaining the status quo is not an option for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Escalation of the crisis is risky not only for the Gulf states themselves but also for the international community. Yet, pulling the protagonists back from the brink without loss of face is a non-starter as long as both sides of the divide target absolute victory at whatever cost.

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    The longer the Gulf crisis lasts, the higher the stakes get

    June 14th, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

    A Qatari LNG vessel / Source: Nakhilat

     

    Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to be contemplating engineering a military coup in Qatar with the stakes in the Gulf crisis so high that a negotiated solution may prove difficult, if not impossible.

    Neither side in the Gulf divide can afford to back down or be seen to have failed in achieving its objectives.

    Caving in to Saudi and UAE demands that it break its ties to Islamists and militants and curb, if not shutter, Qatar-funded media like Al Jazeera, would amount to Qatar surrendering its ability to chart its own course, and like Bahrain becoming a Saudi vassal.

    Bahrain has been walking in step with the kingdom since Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Qatari support helped its minority Sunni Muslim ruling family brutally squash a popular uprising in 2011.

    Similarly, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE can tolerate a repeat of 2014 when Qatar appeared to put on public display the limits of their power by refusing to bow to the two states’ demands after they and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha.

    Saudi Arabia and the UAE have this time raised the stakes by not only breaking off diplomatic relations but also declaring an economic embargo. The longer tiny Qatar with a citizenry of only 300,000 people resists Saudi and UAE pressure, the more embarrassing it is for the two Gulf states.

    Amid indications that Qatar may have the political will and economic backbone despite the economic obstacles and commercial losses to hold out for some time to come, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely look for ways to increase pressure on the recalcitrant Gulf state.

    Increased economic pressure could involve the withdrawal of Gulf deposits from Qatari banks, the closure of a partly UAE-owned pipeline that pumps Qatari gas to the UAE and Oman, and pressure on other Muslim states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan to join them in taking punitive economic measures.

    The majority of Muslim and non-Muslim nations, except for the economically dependent six nations, including Bahrain, Egypt, the Maldives and Mauritania, who joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in acting against Qatar have sought to remain on the side lines of the dispute. States like Pakistan and Bangladesh are, however, vulnerable because they rely to a significant extent on migrant workers’ remittances in the Gulf for their foreign currency reserves.

    US President Donald J. Trump has come closest among outside powers to endorsing the Saudi-UAE-led action, but even he has so far refrained from turning words into deeds that would exert real pressure on Qatar.

    Turkey and Iran are helping Qatar meet its food and water needs after Saudi Arabia closed the two countries’ land border, preventing one third of the Gulf state’s food and water imports from reaching it. Turkey, moreover, is sending troops to Qatar, which is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, a possible reason why the US has not gone beyond words in its support for the Saudi-UAE campaign.

    Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of predominantly Shiite Iraq appeared to also come to Qatar’s defense by countering some of the allegations that the Gulf state had funded militants. Mr. Al-Abadi told Shiite militias, according to Al Jazeera and other Qatar-controlled media, that a ransom paid by Qatar for the release of 26 members of its ruling family who were kidnapped in December 2015 while hunting in Iraq remained in Iraq’s central bank. News reports suggested that the ransom had been paid to Syrian militants and Iraqi security officials and was one straw that broke the Saudi and UAE camel’s back.

    Oman, one of two Gulf states to have refrained from joining the Saudi-UAE campaign, has opened its ports to Qatari shippingthat no longer can access key Saudi and UAE ports. Qatar maintains its access to international shipping lanes and can refuel its LNG vessels at alternative ports, including Singapore.

    The UAE, with Qatar’s ability to retain its energy exports, its main source of revenue, undeterred would be damaging itself if it closed the partly Abu Dhabi pipeline from Qatar that supplies Dubai with 40 percent of its natural gas requirement.

    International ratings agency Standard& Poor (S&P) reported that Qatari banks were strong enough to survive a withdrawal of all Gulf deposits plus a quarter of the remaining foreign funds the banks keep.

    Deposits and other funding sources from Gulf countries represent about eight percent of total liabilities of Qatari lenders or $20 billion, S&P said. It said that in a worst-case scenario, only two lenders of Qatar’s 18 lenders would have to dip into their investment securities portfolio.

    Failure to force Qatar on its knees any time soon would force Saudi Arabia and the UAE to look at other ways of forcing Qatar to comply, including regime change, either by invading the tiny Gulf state or engineering an internal coup.

    UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash insisted last week that the Saudi-UAE campaign was “not about regime change — this is about change of policy, change of approach.”

    Saudi and UAE media reports nonetheless suggest that the Gulf states may be gunning for a coup given that unlike in the case of Bahrain and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015, the legitimate, internationally recognized government of Qatar is unlikely to seek their military assistance.

    In the latest episode of the Gulf  media war, Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah-based Arab News, in the clearest sign yet that, the kingdom and the UAE were fishing in Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim’s military backyard, this week published an interview with retired General Mahmoud Mansour, an Egyptian military officer whom Saudi and Egyptian media described as the father of Qatari intelligence.

    General Mansour has long been on the war path against Sheikh Tamim, and his father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who abdicated as emir in 2013. General Mansour asserted that Sheikh Hamad and his long-standing prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Mohammed bin Thani Al Thani, had attempted to foment unrest across the globe in the Gulf, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Russia.

    Speaking separately to Al Arabiya, the Saudi tv network established to counter Al Jazeera, General Mansour accused Qatar of aiding and abetting Iranian efforts to penetrate the Arab world. “Iran needed to penetrate some Arab countries, needed an Arab force to introduce them more and more within the Arab fabric, so it addressed her intentions through the friend who lost their mind, Qatar,” General Mansour said.

    UAE newspapers reported earlier that a little-known member of Qatar’s ruling family, Sheikh Saud bin Nasser Al-Thani, who lives in Europe was forming an opposition party in exile.

    Despite criticism of the emir, Qataris largely appeared to be rallying around the government in rejection of the effort to force their country to surrender its ability to graft its own policies.

    It was not clear whether General Mansour maintains close contacts within the Qatari military and intelligence community.

    An effort to replace Sheikh Tamim with a member of the ruling family more amenable to Saudi policies would not be the first time the kingdom has tried to influence who rules Qatar. In a gesture to former Saudi King Abdullah, Sheikh Hamad pardoned in 2010 a group of Saudis for their involvement in an attempted coup to overthrow him in 1996.

    Qatar by holding out against Saudi Arabia and the UAE and garnering international support for a negotiated solution to the crisis is raising the stakes in what increasingly amounts to a risky poker game. Both the kingdom and the emirates feel emboldened and believe they need to strike while the iron is hot.

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    Two conferences spotlight Muslim world’s struggle to counter militancy

    May 26th, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

    Two conferences this week spotlight the Muslim world’s struggle to come to grips with extremism and militancy. The conferences, the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh and a gathering in East Java of youth leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim movement, laid bare the difficulty of reforming cultures in the battle against extremism, called into question the commitment of Muslim states to combat radicalism and political violence, and put on display US President Donald J. Trump’s prioritization of commerce at the expense of principle.

    Saudi Arabia used US President Donald J. Trump’s visit to the kingdom to drive its anti-Shia and anti-Iran agenda. Mr. Trump and Muslim leaders turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s role barely two weeks before Mr. Trump’s arrival in blocking his administration’s proposal to impose United Nations sanctions on the Saudi branch of the Islamic State (IS).

    A majority of world leaders, including many of Muslim nations, condemn Iranian policies, but view the Islamic State as the world’s foremost terrorist threat. Supporters of IS celebrated Monday’s attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in which at least 22 people were killed and 59 others wounded. Claiming responsibility for the attack, IS described the concert as a Crusader gathering.

    Saudi Arabia blocked the sanctions to ensure that the world’s focus would remain on Iran, which it sees as the world’s leading state sponsor of political violence. Sanctioning of the Gulf branch of the Islamic State moreover risked drawing attention to the fact that the kingdom sees militant Islamists as useful tools in its proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

    In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has given IS rival Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) a new lease on life. Prior to the war, AQAP had been driven to near irrelevance by the rise of IS and security crackdowns.

    In a report in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that AQAP was “stronger than it has ever been… In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority… Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events,” the ICG said.

    In a statement issued by the Riyadh summit attended by representatives of 55 countries, the leaders vowed “to combat terrorism in all its forms, address its intellectual roots, dry up its sources of funding and to take all necessary measures to prevent and combat terrorist crimes.”

    It “welcomed the establishment of a global centre for countering extremist thought to take base in Riyadh, and praised the centre’s strategic objectives of combating intellectual, media and digital extremism and promoting coexistence and tolerance among peoples.”

    The statement made no reference to Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that propagates a supremacist worldview, encourages prejudice against Muslim and non-Muslim minorities and that according to many policymakers and analysts, enables an environment that potentially breeds militancy.

    In a nod to Saudi Arabia’s four-decade long proxy war with Iran that increasingly appears to enjoy Mr. Trump’s endorsement, the statement paid lip service to confronting “sectarian agendas,” but linked it to countering “interference in other countries affairs,” a reference to Iranian support for groups like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, the Houthis in Yemen, Iraqi Shiite militias fighting IS alongside the Iraqi military, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    The statement avoided calling on Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative political and religious leaders to refrain from contributing to sectarian strife. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the eve of the summit ruled out dialogue with Iran on the grounds of its religious beliefs.

    Prince Mohammed, turning its power struggle into an existentialist sectarian battle, charged that Iran was planning for the return of the Imam Mahdi (the redeemer) by seeking to control the Muslim world. Shi’ites believe that the Mahdi was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed who went into hiding 1,000 years ago. They trust that he will return to establish global Islamic rule before the end of the world.

    The NU conference held in the Bahr Ulum Islamic Boarding School Foundation in Jombang in East Java, the movement’s birthplace, could not have been more different from the summit. The two-day gathering brought together top NU leaders and young activists who appeared to be driven by a sense of apocalypses if they failed to counter extremism in Indonesia.

    The activists’ commitment contrasted starkly with that of political leaders in Riyadh who appeared motivated by political opportunism, power-driven conflict, and a passion for a photo-op that positions them as being in the forefront of the struggle against the scourge of political violence. (For transparency, this writer was invited to address the conference).

    Attending the NU conference were members of Barisan Ansor Multipurpose Nahdlatul Ulama (Banser), an autonomous security unit within the movement, that confronts militants. In recent incidents, Banser intercepted convoys of busses of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), a pan-Islamic group that advocates a global caliphate.

    Banser commander H. Alfa Isnaeni recalled one intercept of a convoy ferrying HuT supporters to a rally. A majority of people on the busses were villagers. They were told by military officers, who paid them to board the busses, that they were travelling to a religious gathering. “Hizb-ut-Tahrir has successfully targeted the military,” a NU leader said.

    In a draft statement scheduled for publication on Wednesday, the NU conference warned that Muslims need to bridge the gap between teachings of Islamic orthodoxy and the contemporary Muslim reality. In a reference to Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, the draft asserted that “social and political instability, civil war and terrorism all arise from the attempt, by ultra-conservative Muslims, to implement certain elements of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) within a context that is no longer compatible with…classical norms.”

    The statement charged that “various actors—including but not limited to Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS (another acronym for the Islamic State), Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban and Pakistan—cynically manipulate religious sentiment in their struggle to maintain or acquire political, economic and military power, and to destroy their enemies. They do so by drawing upon key elements of classical Islamic law (fiqh), to which they ascribe divine authority, in order to mobilize support for their worldly goals.”

    In a frontal attack on Saudi Arabia, the statement, issued by a group that was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s strand of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism, argued that “it is false and counterproductive to claim that the actions of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other such groups have nothing to do with Islam, or merely represent a perversion of Islamic teachings. They are, in fact, outgrowths of Wahhabism and other fundamentalist streams of Sunni Islam…,” the statement said.

    “For more than fifty years, Saudi Arabia has systematically propagated a supremacist, ultraconservative interpretation of Islam among Sunni Muslim populations worldwide… The Wahhabi view of Islam—which is embraced not only by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also by al-Qaeda and ISIS—is intricately wedded to those elements of classical Islamic law that foster sectarian hatred and violence. Wahhabism is characterized by extreme animosity towards Shi’ites. It is also characterized by antipathy—at times violent—towards Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sunni Muslims who do not share the Wahhabis’ rigid and authoritarian view of Islam… Saudi opposition to Iran, ISIS and al-Qaeda does not and should not absolve it from responsibility for promoting the very ideology that underlies and animates Sunni extremism and terror,” the statement went on to say.

    There is little doubt about the statement’s sincerity and its bold willingness to focus Muslim discourse on the need to clean up Islam’s own house. The conference’s proceedings nonetheless laid bare the fact that NU still has its own demons to fight.

    Conference participants took no notice and failed to counter a popular Islamic scholar who asserted in remarks pockmarked by sexist jokes that “digitalisation, globalization and hedonism is the immoral path that Jews and Christians want us to follow.” To be fair, the moderator of the scholar’s panel, a human rights activist, took him to task on his gender remarks but not on his references to Jews and Christians.

    Similarly, remarks by a NU leader that appeared to differentiate between, on the one hand, the use of religion by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state, albeit one that practices a more liberal interpretation of the sect’s teachings, and Iran on the other, went unchallenged.

    The NU official couched his assault on the Gulf Arabs in terms of nation states that exploit Islam opportunistically and warned that they need to be confronted because they “want to destroy us.” Discussing Iran however, he referred to Shiism without qualification and cautioned that “if we don’t fight back they will behead us.”

    To confront extremism, Muslim political leaders and religious groups will not only have to stand up to political manipulation of their faith, but also to prejudices, conspiracy theories based on ingrained bias, and implicit as well as explicit supremacism that have long been common currency across the Muslim world. It is a jihad that is a lot more difficult than paying lip service and playing politics, but is a prerequisite for effective countering of extremism and political violence.

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    Conflict in the Middle East threatens Pakistan and lynchpin of China’s One Belt, One Road

    May 16th, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

    Increasingly caught up in the Middle East’s multiple conflicts, Pakistan is struggling to balance relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran amid concern in Islamabad that potential US-Saudi efforts to destabilize the Islamic republic could turn its crucial province of Balochistan, a lynchpin in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, into a battleground.

    Concern about Balochistan is buffeted by a sense in Islamabad of problems along its multiple borders. Pakistani officials fear that China may be seeking closer ties with India at Pakistan’s expense, despite its massive $56 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure that centres on linking the troubled Baloch port of Gwadar, a gateway to the Gulf, with China’s restive, north-western province of Xinjiang.

    Pakistani officials see a statement by China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, that China had no interest in being dragged into the Pakistani-Indian dispute over Kashmir, as an indication that Beijing is cosying up to New Delhi at Islamabad’s expense.

    Mr. Zhaohui was trying to persuade India to engage with One Belt, One Road on the eve of a summit in Beijing to promote China’s geopolitical ploy in Eurasia. Twenty-eight heads of state, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawal Sharif, were expected to attend the summit that starts this weekend.

    Adding to Pakistani fears are increased tensions with Afghanistan following a clash in early May between Pakistani and Afghan forces in which 15 people were killed and dozens wounded. The clash occurred days after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected an invitation to visit Pakistan conveyed by Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. General Naveed Mukhtar.

    Sources close to Mr. Ghani quoted the president as telling General Mukhtar that none of the 48 agreements signed with Pakistan during his 2014 visit to Islamabad had been implemented. The agreements included an understanding that Pakistan would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. “I spent political capital on that. That was the deal,” the sources quoted Mr. Ghani as saying.

    Sources close to the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence said Mr. Ghani’s rejection of the invitation followed two meetings in Norway on January 8 and 18 in the waning days of the Obama administration between an unidentified member of the US Congress, a CIA official, and representatives of the Taliban.

    The officials said the meetings focussed on the possible of release of an American-Canadian couple who have been held by the Taliban since 2012. The sources said the talks also explored unsuccessfully ways of negotiating an end to the fighting in Afghanistan. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Islamabad declined comment.

    Meanwhile, two attacks in the last 48 hours highlighted mounting tension in Balochistan against the backdrop of thinly veiled Saudi threats to stir ethnic unrest across the Baloch border in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and among the Islamic republic’s minority Iranian Arab, Kurdish and Azerbaijani minorities.

    Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) gunmen on motorbikes opened fire on construction workers in Gwadar, killing ten. The attack exploited widespread discontent among Baloch that they were not benefitting from massive Chinese investment in their province that was providing employment primarily for workers from elsewhere in Pakistan. The victims of the attack were from the Pakistani province of Sindh.

    “This conspiratorial plan (CPEC) is not acceptable to the Baloch people under any circumstances. Baloch independence movements have made it clear several times that they will not abandon their people’s future in the name of development projects or even democracy,” said BLA spokesman Jeander Baloch. Mr. Baloch was referring to Chinese investment in what has been dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

    The Islamic State’s South Asian wing claimed responsibility a day earlier for a bombing near the Baloch capital of Quetta that targeted Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the deputy chairman of the upper house of parliament, and a member of Jamiat e Ulema Islam, a right-wing Sunni Islamist political party that is part of Prime Minister Sharif’s coalition government. Twenty-five people were killed in the blast that wounded Mr. Haideri.

    The two attacks as well as Friday’s US Treasury designation of Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist highlighted the murky world of Pakistani militancy in which the lines between various groups are fluid, links to government are evident, and battles in Pakistan and Afghanistan and potentially Iran are inter-linked.

    Mr. Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s with Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups.

    Putting Saudi Arabia on the spot, the Treasury announced the designation of Mr. Abu Turab, a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported Pakistani Wahhabi group and board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV, who serves on Pakistan’sCouncil of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed, as he was visiting the kingdom and Qatar on the latest of numerous fund raising trips to the Gulf.

    Mr. Abu Turab also heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain) whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil has also been designated by the Treasury.

    After years of flying low, Mr. Abu Turab appeared to have attracted US attention with his increasingly public support for Saudi Arabia as well as Pakistani militants. Mr. Abu Turab regularly shows pictures of his frequent public appearances to Saudi diplomats in Islamabad to ensure continued Saudi funding, according to sources close to him. Mr. Abu Turab called on the Pakistani government in April to support Saudi Arabia and endorse Pakistani General Raheel Sharif’s appointment as head of the Saudi-led military coalition.

    The Treasury described Mr. Abu Turab as a “facilitator…(who) helped…raise money in the Gulf and supported the movement of tens of thousands of dollars from the Gulf to Pakistan.”  The Treasury said funds raised by Mr. Abu Turab, an Afghan who was granted Pakistani citizenship, financed operations of various groups, including Pakistan’s Jama’at ul Dawa al-Qu’ran (JDQ); Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT), a Pakistani intelligence-backed group that at times has enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia; the Taliban; and the Islamic State’s South Asian wing.

    The Treasury announcement came less than two weeks before Donald J. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia on his first trip abroad as US president to discuss cooperation with the kingdom and a Saudi-led, 41-nation Sunni Muslim military alliance led by General Sharif in combatting terrorism and isolating Iran.

    Any discussion of efforts to destabilize Iran between US officials and the Saudi-led alliance during Mr. Trump’s visit to the kingdom would likely heighten Pakistan’s difficulty in balancing its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran and cast a cloud over Chinese hopes that economic development would pacify nationalist and religious militants in both Balochistan and Xinjiang.

    Sources close to Pakistani intelligence and Shiite leaders fear that increased conflict in Balochistan and Saudi and Iranian operations in Pakistan could not only suck it into proxy wars between the two Middle Eastern powers but also rekindle sectarian violence in Pakistan itself.

    The intelligence sources said they had noticed that Shiite military officers were becoming more assertive in their empathy for Iran in discussions about regional security.  Pakistan’s Shiite minority is the world’s second largest Shiite community after pre-dominantly Shiite Iran.

    The sources asserted further that Iran had recently recruited at least 3,000 Pakistani Shiites into its Xenobia brigade that is fighting in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The sources said that Pakistan had detained in early May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was on a recruiting mission in Balochistan.

    They said the arrest marked a shift in Iran’s recruitment strategy that in the past had relied on Pakistani religious scholars and travel agents. “The Iranians have been clandestinely coming to Balochistan since the fall of the Shah (in 1979),” said a retired Pakistani intelligence chief.

    “Tenuous relations have rekindled a latent Iranian interest in furthering its territorial ambitions. Iran has tried hard to mask this latency but Pakistan remains wary of such intent,” added former vice commander of the Pakistani air force, Shahzad Chaudhry.

    Pakistani Shiite leaders fear that sectarianism could be fuelled by Saudi funding of militant anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba, a virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian group that since being banned has rebranded itself as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, as well as its various offshoots that target Iran. Like Mr. Abu Turab, both groups operate large networks of religious seminaries in Balochistan.

    Sources close to the militants said Saudi and UAE nationals of Baloch heritage were funnelling Saudi funds to Islamic scholars like Sipah’s Balochistan leader, Maulana Ramzan Mengal, and Mr. Abu Turab. They said the money was being transferred through hawala agents operating in the Middle East and South Asia.

    Iran’s Tabnak News Agency charged that Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was designed to strengthen an anti-Iranian US-Arab alliance against Iran. “The Iranophobic project began a couple of months ago… It appears that the Arab NATO project – which has been under discussion for some time – is entering its implementation stage with American President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the invitation to 17 Arab countries to Riyadh,” the agency said. The agency is believed to be controlled by former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei.

    Pakistan’s foreign policy woes appear to have sent its intelligence services into a paranoid tailspin. The services have stepped up in one’s face surveillance, harassment and intimidation of foreigners, prompting some diplomats in Islamabad to lodge complaints with the foreign ministry. Similarly, representatives of Western non-governmental organizations have had extensions of their visas rejected. In some cases, Pakistanis have been interrogated by intelligence agents within the hour of having met with foreigners.

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    Rising Iranian-Pakistani tensions render Pakistani policy unsustainable

    May 11th, 2017

     

    By Jame M. Dorsey.

     

     

    An Iranian warning that it may attack militant bases in the troubled province of Balochistan threatens to bring Pakistan’s house of cards crashing down.

    Pakistan’s tenuous house is built on a torturous effort to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran amid rising tension between the two regional rivals, prevent Pakistan from becoming an operational base for possible Saudi and US efforts to destabilize the Islamic republic, and employ militant groups as proxies in achieving its geopolitical objectives.

    The Iranian warning was the latest indication that Pakistani policies may be unsustainable. It targeted Pakistan’s long-standing policy of turning a blind eye to the operations of Saudi-backed militants, including Sipah-e-Sahaba, a virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian group that since being banned has rebranded itself as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, as well as its various offshoots that target Iran.

    The warning followed last month’s killing of ten Iranian border guards by Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), one of Sipah’s offshoots.

    The attack further exacerbated Iranian-Pakistani relations that have become increasingly strained after Pakistan allowed recently retired chief of staff of its military, General Raheel Sharif, to become commander of a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance that Iran sees as a Sunni Muslim force established to confront the Islamic republic.

    General Shareef had barely taken command when Iran also issued a stark warning to Saudi Arabia. Iran was responding to a statement by the kingdom’s powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, that Saudis would not sit and wait for war but would “work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

    Speaking to Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV, Iranian Defense Minister General Hossein Dehghan said that if Saudi Arabia engaged in “such a stupidity” nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina,” Islam’s two holiest cities.

    The war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be enough to make it all but impossible for Pakistan to remain neutral. It would also be sufficient to make it impossible for General Sharif to walk a tightrope between the two regional powers.

    The problem for Pakistan and General Sharif is that the escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unlikely to stop there.

    Circumstantial evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia and the United States may seek to pressure Iran by supporting potential unrest among Iranian ethnic minorities, including Balochis who straddle both sides of the Iranian-Pakistan border.

    Militants in Pakistan and sources close to them assert that Saudi funds are pouring into religious seminaries in Balochistan that are operated by Sipah and its affiliates.

    Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reported moreover that US President Donald J. Trump would focus in talks with the kingdom’s leaders as well as those of the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman – on further isolating Iran.

    Iranian attacks on militant targets in Balochistan would leave Pakistan with one of two choices: crack down on anti-Iranian militants operating from its territory, a move it has long resisted and that would put it at odds with Saudi Arabia, or get dragged into a tit-for-tat with Iran that would push it even closer to the kingdom.

    A stepped-up US-Saudi campaign against Iran raises the stakes for Pakistan far beyond its balancing act in the Gulf. Balochistan is the lynchpin of China’s $56 billion One Belt, One Road investment in Pakistani infrastructure and energy. Chinese projects in the province, including the crucial deep sea port of Gwadar, are already troubled as a result of low-level ethnic violence.

    A Saudi-Iranian proxy war fought among others in Balochistan would not only drag Pakistan into the conflict but would also put it add odds with China, which privately has expressed concern about Pakistani support of militant groups.

    To be fair, China has not been consistent in its criticism. Earlier this year, China, at the behest of Pakistan, prevented the United Nations from listing Masood Azhar, a prominent Pakistani militant who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, as a globally designated terrorist.

    US backing of activist ethnic minority groups in Iran would likely prove to be a doubled-edged sword for Pakistan. On the one hand, it could help legitimize Pakistani support for militants in Washington’s books. On the other hand, that would risk putting Pakistan at odds with China that like Pakistan is trying to walk a thin line between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but would see its interests in Balochistan threatened.

    Pakistan may have tighten its noose a notch with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s acceptance of a Saudi invitation to attend the summit in Riyadh with Mr. Trump.

    The question for Pakistan is: how long can it play both ends against the middle? The risk is that Pakistan will find it increasingly difficult to claim neutrality in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran given the position of General Sharif and the recent dispatch of Pakistani troops to the kingdom. Pakistan’s fate would be sealed if Balochistan becomes one of the dispute’s battlegrounds.

    Pakistan could see a silver lining in playing along with a potential US-Saudi playbook that seeks to capitalize on possible ethnic unrest in Iran. Cooperation with the United States could possibly ensure that US policy in South Asia does not exclusively focus on India. That however would likely expose it to severe pressure from China, which Pakistan sees as the salvation for its multiple geopolitical, domestic and economic problems.

    At the bottom line, the odds are that Pakistan rather than balancing on a tightrope may see its house of cards collapsing.

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    Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground

    May 8th, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

    Pakistani General Raheel Sharif walked into a hornet’s nest when he stepped off a private jet in Riyadh two weeks ago to take command of a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance. Things have gone from bad to worse since.

    General Shareef had barely landed when Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dashed the Pakistani’s hopes to include Iran in the alliance that nominally was created to fight terrorism rather than confront Iran.

    The general’s hopes were designed to balance Pakistan’s close alliance with Saudia Arabia with the fact that it shares a volatile border with Iran and is home to the world’s second largest Shiite Muslim community. General Sharif’s ambition had already been rendered Mission Impossible before he landed with Saudi Arabia charging that Iran constitutes the world’s foremost terrorist threat.

    In a recent interview with the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting television network, Prince Mohammed, who also serves as the kingdom’s defense minister, has toughened Saudi Arabia’s stance. Prince Mohammed appeared in line with statements by a senior US military official to hold out the possibility of exploiting aspirations of ethnic minorities in Iran to weaken its Islamic regime.

    In doing so, Prince Mohammed and General Joseph L. Voltel, head of US Central Command, seemed to raise the spectre of increased violence in Balochistan, a volatile, once independent region that straddles both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border, as well as in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, the Islamic republic’s oil-rich region that is home to Iranians of Arab descent.

    Ethnic and sectarian proxy wars could embroil rivals China and India in the Saudi-Iranian dispute. The deep-sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan is a lynchpin of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and a mere 70 kilometres from the Indian-backed port of Chabahar in Iran, viewed by Saudi Arabia as a potential threat to one of the most important sea routes facilitating the flow of oil from the Gulf to Asia.

    The risk of China’s initiative as well as its regional rivalry with India becoming a Saudi-Iranian battleground appeared to increase with Prince Mohammed’s warning that the battle between the two regional powers would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

    In his interview, Prince Mohammed not only ruled out talks with Iran but painted the two countries’ rivalry in sectarian terms. The prince asserted that Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, believes that “the Imam Mahdi (the redeemer) will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for the arrival of the awaited Mahdi and they must control the Muslim world…. “How do you have a dialogue with this?” Prince Mohammed asked.

    Saudi Arabia had already signalled its support for Iranian dissidents when last July former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States and Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, attended a rally in Paris organized by the exiled People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a militant left-wing group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution. “Your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime,” Prince Turki told the rally.

    Since then, General Voltel, avoiding any reference to sectarianism, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee, that “in order to contain Iranian expansion, roll back its malign influence, and blunt its asymmetric advantages, we must engage them more effectively in the ‘grey zone’ through means that include a strong deterrence posture, targeted counter-messaging activities, and by building partner nations’ capacity… (We) believe that by taking proactive measures and reinforcing our resolve we can lessen Iran’s ability to negatively influence outcomes in the future.,” General Voltel said.

    Prince Mohammed did not spell out how he intends to take Saudi Arabia’s fight to Iran, but a Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) argued in a recent study that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

    Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, identified as an Iranian political researcher, the study, published in the first edition of AGCIS’ Journal of Iranian Studies, argued that Chabahar posed a threat because it would enable Iran to increase greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic and increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

    Mr. Husseinbor suggested Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran could serve as a countermeasure. “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch… The Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” Mr. Husseinbor said.

    Noting the vast expanses of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Mr. Husseinbor went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.”

    The conservative Washington-based Hudson Institute, which is believed to have developed close ties to the Trump administration, has also taken up the theme of ethnic minorities in Iran. The institute has scheduled a seminar for later this month that features as speakers Baloch, Iranian Arab, Iranian Kurdish and Iranian Azerbaijani nationalists.

    Saudi Arabia may already have the building blocks in place for a proxy war in Balochistan. Saudi-funded ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate Balochistan’s educational landscape.

    “A majority of Baloch schoolchildren go to madrassas. They are in better condition than other schools in Balochistan. Most madrassas are operated by Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith,” said one of the founders of Sipah-i-Sabaha, a virulent anti-Shiite group that is believed to enjoy Saudi and Pakistani support.

    Although officially renamed Ahle Sunnah Wa Al Jamaat after Sipah was banned in Pakistan, the group is still often referred to by its original name. The co-founder, who has since left the group but maintains close ties to it, was referring to the Deobandi sect of Islam, a Saudi backed ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite movement originally established in India in the 19th century to counter British colonial rule, and Ahl-i-Hadith, the religious-political group in Pakistan with the longest ties to the kingdom.  The co-founder said the mosques funnelled Saudi funds to the militants.

    The co-founder said the leaders in Balochistan of Sipah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sipah offshoot, Maulana Ramzan Mengal and Maulana Wali Farooqi, enjoyed government and military protection because their anti-Shiite sentiments made them targets for Iran. He said the two men, who maintained close ties to Saudi Arabia, travelled in Balochistan in convoys of up to ten vehicles that included Pakistan military guards. Policemen stand guard outside Mr. Mengal’s madrassa, the co-founder said.

    “Ramzan gets whatever he needs from the Saudis,” the co-founder said. Close relations between Sipah and LeJ, on the one hand, and pro-government tribesmen in Balochistan complicate irregular government efforts to reign in the militants. So does the militant’s involvement in drugs smuggling that gives them an independent source of funding.

    Iran has accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistani intelligence of supporting anti-Iranian militants in Balochistan, including Jundallah (Soldiers of God), an offshoot of Sipah. Jundallah, founded by Abdolmalek Rigi, a charismatic member of a powerful Baloch tribe, was one of several anti-Iranian groups that enjoyed US and Saudi support as part of US President George W. Bush’s effort to undermine the government in Tehran

    Mr. Rigi was captured when a flight he took from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to Dubai was diverted at Iran’s request to Sharjah in 2010.  He was executed in Iran. Pakistani forces have at times cooperated with Iran in detaining militants, including Mr. Rigi’s brother, Abdolhamid Rigi, but have often insisted that they are overwhelmed by internal security problems, and could not prioritize securing the border with the Islamic republic. “Our policy has been consistently anti-Iran,” said Khalid Ahmad, an author and journalist who focuses on militants.

    Jundullah’s US contact point in the early 2000s was reported to be Thomas McHale, a 56-year-old hard-charging, brusque and opinionated Port Authority of New York and New Jersey detective and former ironworker, who had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of his work for a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark. Known for his disdain for bureaucratic restrictions, Mr. McHale maintained contact with Jundallah and members of the Rigi tribe in an off-the-books operation

    Mr. McHale, a survivor of the 1993 attack on New York’s World Trade Towers, had made a name for himself by rescuing survivors of the 9/11 attack on the towers. He played himself in Oliver Stone’s movie, World Trade Center, in which Nicolas Cage starred as a Port Authority police officer.

    Jundallah ambushed a motorcade of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 but failed to kill him. Mr. Rigi’s boyish, grinning face became as a result of the ambush the defining image of Baluch jihad in Iran. A year later, the group bombed a bus carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Jundallah and associated groups such as Jaish al-Adly (Army of Justice), another Sipah offshoot, have since targeted Iranian border posts, Revolutionary Guards, police officers, convoys and Shiite mosques

    General Sharif and Pakistan’s position were not made easier with the recent killing by Jaish al Adl militants operating from Pakistani Balochistan of ten Iranian border guards and with Iran’s expressions of displeasure with the general’s appointment as commander of the Saudi-led military alliance.

    US officials insisted in Mr. McHale’s time that government agencies had not directed or ever approved Jundallah operations. The US designated Jundallah as a terrorist organization in 2010, but that did not stop Sunni Muslim militant anti-Iranian operations. In what analysts see as an indication of Saudi influence, Jaish al-Adel issues its statements in Arabic rather than Baluchi or Farsi.

    In response, Iran has attacked the militants and raided villages in Balochistan. Arif Saleem, a 42-year old villager recalls being woken in the wee hours of the morning in November 2013 when bombs dropped just outside the mud walls that surround his family compound in Kulauhi, 67 kilometres from the Pakistani border with Iran. Located in a district that is an epicentre of a low-level proxy war with Iran, Kulauhi’s residents survive on subsistence farming and smuggling. “Some buildings collapsed. Luckily, none of the kids were inside those. The blast was so strong, we thought the world was ending,” said Saleem, convinced that Iranian planes from an airbase on the Iranian side of the border carried out the bombing.

    The spectre of ethnic proxy wars threatens to further destabilize the Gulf as well as Pakistan. The Baloch insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan has complicated Chinese plans to develop Gwadar and forced Pakistan to take extraordinary security precautions. A stepped-up proxy war could embroil Indian-backed Chabahar in the conflict. The wars could, moreover, spread to Iran’s Khuzestan and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

    Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic who has since been dropped from the paper’s roster after she wrote positively about Israel, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that “the al-Ahwaz district in Iran…is an Arab territory… Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925… It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.” Other Arab commentators have since opined in a similar fashion.

    Fuelling ethnic tensions risks Iran responding in kind. Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of instigating low level violence and protests in its predominantly Shiite oil-rich Eastern Province as well as being behind the brutally squashed popular revolt in majority Shiite Bahrain and intermittent violence since. Rather than resolving conflicts, a Saudi-Iranian war fought with ethnic and religious proxies threatens to escalate violence in both the Gulf and South Asia.

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    Towards a New World Order in Eurasia: The 21st Century’s Great Game

    April 11th, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    Remarks at conference on Regional Cooperation Initiatives in the Asia-Pacific and the Emergence of New Eurasian Geopolitics, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

    One thing this week’s US air strikes in Syria highlight is the fact that the sands are continuously shifting as regional and world powers jockey for position in a future Eurasian world order. The strikes raise questions that go far beyond potential greater US involvement in the Syrian conflict. The answer to those questions will likely impact the role America may play in Eurasia and the Asia Pacific.

    What is surprising is not the fact that US President Donald J. Trump ordered the launching of missiles. He has signalled with his appointment of generals in key national security positions as well as his budget proposals a more muscular, military-oriented approach to foreign policy. What that meant has been evident since he came to office in January in greater US military engagement in Yemen.

    What is surprising is that days after Mr. Trump declared that he was president of the United States, not president of the world, that he, clearly taken aback by the horror of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, acted to uphold international law and packaged it in terms of compassion. The US strikes obviously countered allegations that he may be beholden to Russia as well as not unfounded perceptions of Islamophobia or an anti-Muslim bias.

    Mr. Trump may not have a clearly formulated policy framework. Or maybe he does, but wants to keep everybody guessing. He has repeatedly stated that he would not broadcast his intentions to the world. Whichever it is, he is keeping China on its toes with regard to North Korea. He is also keeping Iran on it toes, particularly given the chances that President Hassan Rouhani could lose the forthcoming May election to a hard-liner.

    On the notion, of the king is dead, long live the king, predictions of a US withdrawal from its role as the guarantor of a world order and US isolationism are premature, even if one is seeing a rollback on liberal US values such as human rights. For Eurasia, this alongside numerous other factors, means that the often unspoken notion that China may emerge as an unchallenged power in Eurasia and beyond is equally premature.

    No doubt China will be a dominant player, but it will be one of two, and more probably three players, the United States and India being the others. No doubt, China has advantages: it has a first starter advantage with the scale and breadth of its One Belt, One Road initiative, its willingness to take short-term losses for long-term gain, as well as its economic, financial and growing military strength. Yet, all of that is insufficient to guarantee that it will ultimately operate in a unipolar world. More likely it will have to manoeuvre in a multi-polar world. And that may well be one of the takeaways from this week’s missile strikes in Syria.

    Several factors are likely to play key roles in the shaping of a future Eurasian world order:

    • States across Eurasia may be pivoting towards China, but many are hedging their bets. As Saudi Arabia’s King Salman toured Asia last month, his son and powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, travelled to Washington. Middle Eastern autocrats have embraced Mr. Trump lock, stock and barrel, including his controversial travel ban. If anything, the missiles strikes in Syria cemented that. The same hedging strategy is true for democracies like Sri Lanka or Myanmar.
    • And that is the Achilles Heel of the approach of whatever power, China, the United States or Russia, jockeying for position in Eurasia. The 2011 Arab popular revolts are perceived to have failed, a discussion that goes too far to embark on here, but the lesson of those uprisings stands. Autocracies that fail to deliver are inherently unstable and history teaches that most autocracies fail to deliver. The United States, China and Russia are placing their bets to a large extent on autocracies. In recent years China, has experienced the extent of the risk involved in that approach, witness Libya, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. No bet is shakier than the one Russia and Iran have placed on Bashar Al-Assad. Mr. Al-Assad is damaged goods, a pariah, no matter what happens in Syria. Russia and China as does the United States to a lesser extent run a similar risk in Central Asia.
    • China’s riskiest bet may well be in Pakistan, the country where it is investing perhaps the most. The risks are multi-fold. They include unease about the terms of Chinese investment involving massive returns on investment expected by China that sink countries into debt traps and raise questions about impact on local economies and the lack of a trickledown effect. Energy is the one aspect of Chinese investment, in what supporters describe as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and critics have dubbed Colonizing Pakistan to Enrich China where the positive impact on an energy-starved country is likely to be most immediate.
    • In anticipation of the construction boom, the Mian family in Lahore invested $30 million to build a second plant of Fast Cables, one of Pakistan’s largest cable producers. Instead of benefitting from Chinese investment, the family fears bankruptcy. Cables for Chinese-built energy projects are not procured in Pakistan. They are imported tax free from China. For much the same reasons, protests have disrupted China’s plans for a port and special economic zone in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota. The city’s gleaming, Chinese-built airport operates all of four flights a day. The story repeats itself elsewhere in Eurasia. The Federation of Pakistani Chambers of Commerce and Industry has raised grave doubts about the impact of CPEC, noting that the demography of Balochistan, a thinly populated area of 70,000 inhabitants would dramatically change with the influx of up two million Chinese and Pakistanis from other parts of the country. The cost of the debt trap in terms of land concessions that change demography is already evident in countries like Tajikistan and has sparked protests in Myanmar. A Pakistani financial brokerage calculates that the Chinese rate of return on investment is a whopping 40 percent.
    • What makes Pakistan China’s riskiest investment goes beyond the pattern of commercial terms that are perceived as not being equitable. The port of Gwadar, a key node in China’s string of pearls, a network of ports across Eurasia, was first inaugurated some nine years ago. It’s not much more active than the airport in Hambantota. Balochistan is engulfed in an insurgency whose connotations go far beyond ethnic and nationalist aspirations. Political violence in Balochistan is as much an expression of long-standing local grievances as it is linked to a Pakistani state that sees militant proxies as part of its security, defense and foreign policies. Pakistan has been able to do so with the support in the 1980s of the United States during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and since then with the backing of Saudi Arabia and China. The result is a state in which Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism has been embedded in significant segments of society as well as key branches of the state creating an environment in which the potential of violence is significantly enhanced. While Gwadar idles, Chabahar, an Indian-built port in Iran, some 60 kilometres further West is likely to push ahead.
    • Competition between Gwadar and Chabahar leads one automatically to the role of Middle Eastern players, primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran in shaping the future architecture of Eurasia. Pakistan is emblematic of the impact of Saudi backing of ultra-conservatism in cooperation with governments willing to opportunistically play politics with religion. Yet, the rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and limited Iranian successes in countering it contributes to the groundwork for domestic strife and instability across Eurasia.
    • Despite widespread perceptions and Saudi success in ensuring that ultra-conservatism is an influential player in Muslim majority countries and minority communities alike, Saudi Arabia has a weak hand that ultimately makes it unlikely that it will come out on top. That is nowhere more evident than in energy and particularly gas. What will determine the future of Eurasia’s energy landscape will not be Saudi oil but Iranian and Turkmen gas. Energy scholar Michael Tanchum estimates that Iran will likely have 24.6 billion cubic metres of gas available for export in the next five years. That is enough to service two of Iran’s three major clients, Turkey, Europe and China. Likelihood is that it will certainly keep Turkey, leaving it with having to choose between Europe and China.
    • The jockeying for position in Eurasia resembles a game of Risk. The game’s outcome is unpredictable. Wracked by internal political and economic problems, Europe may not have the wherewithal for geopolitical battle. Yet, despite a weak hand, it could come out on top in the play for energy dominance. US backing of India in the Great Game and efforts to drive wedges into mostly opportunistic alliances such as cooperation between China and Russia and Russia and Iran could help Europe compensate for its weakness. Similarly, a hard US approach towards Iran, particularly if Mr. Rouhani is defeated in the next election buys Saudi Arabia time. Assuming, last week’s missile strikes in Syria were not a one-off after which the United States reverts to a more isolationist attitude, greater US assertiveness could temporarily drive China and Russia and Russia and Iran closer together. That, however, would not make potential, if not inevitable differences between them go away.
    • The missile strikes may well have had another effect that is crucial for Eurasia. If much of Trump’s initial period in the White House was marked by a sense of insecurity and defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election, the missile strikes that enjoyed bipartisan and broad international support may have put that behind him. That has implications for the impact of US investigations into Russian meddling in the US elections that benefitted not only Russia but also China. And it has an impact on populists in Europe with hopes for electoral success in France and Germany who in many ways are inspired by Trump’s success and may not want to stray too far away from his policies despite initial criticism of the strikes by the likes of French populist leader Marie le Pen.

    The long and short of this all is:

    • First and foremost, the future of Eurasia is up for grabs.
    • Multiple players, major ones like China, India and the United States, and lesser ones like Russia, Japan and Middle Eastern states, are jockeying for position.
    • No one player is likely to emerge as the clear winner.
    • Energy and ports are key pawns in Eurasia’s Great Game
    • Black swans could well determine the fate of various players. No swan is bigger than the inherent, if not always immediately apparent, instability of autocratic regimes that have yet to truly deliver. That is certainly true for Central Asian states but equally true for Middle Eastern ones, including those like Saudi Arabia that recognize that the status quo can no longer be maintained and that survival depends on successful efforts to upgrade autocracy and bring it into the 21st century.
    • In a world of interdependence, it may well be developments in states like those in Central Asia and the Middle East that determine the fate of strategies of the major players.

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    Defeating the Islamic State: A War Mired In Contradictions

    March 29th, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    US President Donald J. Trump’s vow to defeat what he terms radical Islamic terrorism forces the United States to manoeuvre the Middle East and North Africa’s murky world of ever shifting alliances and labyrinth of power struggles within power struggles.

    The pitfalls are complex and multiple. They range from differences within the 68-member, anti-Islamic State (IS) alliance over what constitutes terrorism to diverging political priorities to varying degrees of willingness to tacitly employ jihadists to pursue geopolitical goals. The pitfalls are most evident in Yemen and Syria and involve two long-standing US allies, NATO ally Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

    US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson travels to Turkey this week as US and Russian troops create separate buffers in Syria to prevent a Turkish assault on the northern town of Manbij. Manbij, located 40 kilometres from the Turkish border, is controlled by Kurdish forces, viewed by the US as a key ground force in the fight with the Islamic State.

    Until a series of devastating IS suicide bombings in Turkish cities, Turkish forces appeared to concentrate on weakening the Kurds rather than the jihadists in Syria. Stepped-up Turkish action against IS has not weakened Turkey’s resolve to prevent Kurds from emerging as one of the victors in the Syrian conflict.

    At the heart of US-Turkish differences over the Kurds is the age-old-adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s liberation fighter. The US has a long history of empathy towards Kurdish cultural and national rights and enabled the emergence of a Kurdish state in waiting in northern Iraq. The differences also go to an equally large elephant in the room: the question whether Syria, Yemen and Iraq will survive as nation states in a post-war era.

    That may be the real issue at the core of US-Turkish differences.  Many Turks hark back in their suspicion that foreign powers are bent on breaking up the Turkish state to the 1920 Treaty of Sevre that called for a referendum in which Kurds would determine their future.

    Visionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. He mandated a unified Turkish identity that superseded identities of a nation whose population was to a large degree made up of refugees from far flung parts of the former empire and ethnic and religious minorities.

    Turkey charges that Syrian Kurdish fighters are aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish group that has been fighting for Kurdish rights for more than three decades and has been designated terrorist by Turkey, the United States and Europe.

    US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Abkar met in the southern Turkish city of Antalya in advance of Mr. Tillerson’s visit to lower tensions that threaten planned efforts to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital.

    In many ways, the pitfalls are similar in Yemen, where Mr. Trump has stepped up support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating intervention that this month entered its third year and has increased attacks on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) viewed as one of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates.

    It took Al Qaeda attacks inside the kingdom in 2003-4 and jihadist operations since as well as growing international suggestions of an ideological affinity between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and jihadism for the kingdom to view Islamic militants on par with Iran, which Saudis see as an existential threat.

    Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia, despite a litany of denials, has seen militant Islamists as useful tools in its proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Sunni ultra-conservatives are frequently at the forefront of Saudi-led efforts to dislodge the Yemeni Houthis from their strongholds.

    Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has in fact given AQAP a new lease on life. Prior to the war, AQAP had been driven to near irrelevance by the rise of IS and security crackdowns. In a report in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that AQAP was “stronger than it has ever been.”

    The group “appears ever more embedded in the fabric of opposition to the Houthi/Saleh alliance …that is fighting the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed interim government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi,” the report said. It was referring to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who are aligned with former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

    AQAP’s resurgence is as much a result of Saudi Arabia’s single-minded focus on the Iranian threat posed in the kingdom’s perception by the Houthis as it is potentially related to a murky web of indirect or tacit relationships with the group.

    “In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority… Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events,” the ICG said.

    The kingdom’s willingness to cooperate with Islamists such as Yemen’s Islah party, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, and unclear attitude towards AQAP has sparked strains within the anti-Houthi coalition, particularly with the staunchly anti-Islamist UAE.

    AQAP has been able to rearm itself through the indirect acquisition of weapons from the Saudi-led coalition as well as raids on Yemeni military camps. AQAP is believed to have received advance notice and to have coordinated with the Saudis its withdrawal from the crucial port of Mukalla before an assault by UAE and Yemeni forces, according to the ICG.

    Saudi Arabia was conspicuously low key when in January a US Navy Seal died in a raid on AQAP in which the US military seized information that this month prompted the Trump administration and Britain to ban carry-on electronics aboard U.S. and London-bound flights from select airports in North Africa and the Middle East, including two in Saudi Arabia.

    Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language newspaper, this week quoted Saudi officials as saying that AQAP, widely believed to be well advanced in its ability to target aircraft with explosives smuggled on board, had lost its capability to operate overseas.

    The officials said that Saudi Arabia, which has cozied up to the Trump administration and endorsed the president’s ban on travel to the US from six Muslim majority countries, was concerned about IS and Shiite militants rather than AQAP. “They (AQAP) don’t have the power to export their activities,” Arab news quoted Abdullah Al-Shehri, a senior Saudi interior ministry official, as saying.

    The ministry’s spokesman, Mansour Al-Turki, noted that ´ “Qaeda actually has not been involved in any real kind of terrorism-related incident in Saudi Arabia for three years. Most of the incidents came from Daesh (the Arab acronym for IS) or militant groups related to Shiites in the eastern province.”

    The United States and some of its key allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, may be able to paper over differences that allow for short-term advances against IS. But in the longer term, it could be the failure to address those differences head on that will create new breeding grounds for militancy. It’s the kind of trade-off that in the past has produced short-term results only to create even greater problems down the road.

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    Pakistani military engagement: Walking a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran

    March 21st, 2017

     

    By James Dorsey.

     

     

     

    Pakistan is emerging as an important military player in the Gulf as its struggles to balance complex relations with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and diverging approaches by different branches of its government.

    Pakistan’s military engagement with the Gulf goes far beyond increased involvement in a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance that officially was established to counter terrorism, but is widely suspected to also be a bid to garner support for the kingdom’s troubled intervention in Yemen and create an anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim grouping.

    As it discusses the deployment of troops to the Saudi-Yemeni border and a senior, recently retired Pakistani military commander appears poised to take command of the Riyadh-based alliance, Pakistan alongside Turkey and China is also emerging as a more cost-effective supplier of military hardware to a region that is home to the world’s largest arms importers.

    “You can’t afford having these very expensive contracts with western companies and contractors, so what (the Gulf) will do is go toward cheaper contractors, so that’s why they are looking towards China, towards Pakistan, towards Turkey – it’s just the natural move.,” Andreas Krieg, a professor at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom’s Joint Command and Staff College, told The National.

    Pakistani engagement in terms of troops may be most advanced with Saudi Arabia, while Qatar appears focused on cooperation in development and production of hardware. “Over the last two years the Qataris have really turned their backs towards the West and looked toward the East, as all the Gulf countries are doing right now,” Mr. Krieg said.

    Qatar is discussing with Turkey and Pakistan joint production of new defence systems, including Turkey’s T-129 attack and reconnaissance helicopter. Qatar has also expressed interest in the fifth generation JF-17 fighter jet which Pakistan developed with China. Pakistani pilots of the JF-17 last year demonstrated their skills in a display in Qatar. The Pakistan Ordnance Factory, moreover, recently opened a marketing and sales office in Dubai.

    Qatar is further discussing the possibility of Pakistani forces providing security during the 2022 World Cup.

    Similarly, Turkey last year deployed 3,000 ground troops as well as air and naval units, military trainers and special operations forces to a newly created base in Qatar.

    Pakistani engagement in the Middle East has a long and storied history. It dispatched pilots in 1969 to fly Saudi air force Lightning jets that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border. In the preceding years, Pakistan had helped the kingdom attempt to build its first war warplanes and trained Saudi pilots. Pakistani pilots again flew missions during the 1973 Middle East War in defense of Saudi Arabia’s borders.

    Pakistan bolstered its position over the following years with military missions in 22 countries, training facilities for the region and by becoming the world’s largest exporter of military personnel. Pakistanis currently provide training to armed forces in various Gulf countries and thousands serve in Gulf uniforms in many of the region’s militaries, including entire battalions of Pakistanis in the Saudi military.

    Historically, Pakistan’s largest contingent of 20,000 soldier was initially based in the 1970s in the triangle where the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel bump up against each other. Pakistani combat troops were also dispatched to the kingdom after a group of religious Saudi militants attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.

    By the mid-1980s, most Pakistani units had shifted to the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, home to the kingdom’s oil fields. Pakistani Air Force units were stationed on the northern Gulf coast to shield the fields from a fallout from the Iran-Iraq war.

    More Pakistani troops were dispatched in 1990 to ostensibly protect the Muslim holy cities in the kingdom as part of the Pakistani military’s circumvention of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inclination to include a Pakistani contingent in the US-led coalition assembled to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

    Ironically it is Mr. Sharif who 25 years later appears to be circumventing. This time it would be to circumvent a refusal by parliament in 2015 to contribute troops to the Saudi war in Yemen despite Pakistan being the world’s foremost beneficiary of Saudi largesse and its dependency on remittances from Pakistani workers in the kingdom.

    Ironically, Mr. Sharif’s willingness in 2015 to comply with the Saudi request was opposed by Pakistani corps commanders, including Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa. That was before General Bajwa succeeded General Raheel Sharif (no relative of the prime minister) as commander-in-chief. In contrast to General Bajwa, General Sharif is believed to have favoured deploying troops in support of Saudi Arabia.

    “Yemen was hotly debated within the military. Ultimately the military feared that there would be a sectarian backlash within the military itself if it got involved in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen,” said Abdullah Gul, the son of former Islamist ISI chief, Hamid Gul, who maintains close ties to the command of Pakistan’s armed forces.

    Those concerns appear to have been abandoned with the likelihood of a Pakistani combat brigade being sent to areas of the Saudi-Yemeni border vulnerable to attack by the anti-Saudi Houthis as well as jihadi groups. The deployment would not violate the Pakistani parliament resolution as long as Pakistani troops remain on the Saudi side of the border.

    General Sharif may be rewarded for his support of the Saudis by taking over the command of the Riyadh-based military alliance, dubbed the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.

    General Raheel’s appointment would give the alliance credibility it needs: a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons.

    Yet, accepting the command risks putting Pakistan more firmly than ever in the camp of Saudi-led confrontation with Iran that Saudi political and religious leaders as well as their militant Pakistani allies often frame not only in geopolitical but also sectarian terms.

    Pakistani Shiite leaders as well as some Sunni politicians have warned that General Raheel’s appointment would put an end to Pakistan’s ability to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority.

    General Raheel has reportedly told his Saudi counterparts that he would seek to involve Iran in the alliance. Similarly, General Bajwa appeared to be hedging his bets by declaring that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”

    Saudi conditions for a reconciliation with Iran appear to all but rule out any effort by General Raheel and complicate General Bajwa’s balancing act.

    Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a speech last month’s Munich Security Conference, charged that “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.”

    Mr. Al-Jubeir stipulated that “until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”

    The possible deployment of troops and General Raheel’s appointment comes as the Pakistani parliament is forging closer relations with its Iranian counterpart in an effort to nurture economic and political cooperation.

    It also comes in the wake of the deportation by Saudi Arabia of 39,000 Pakistanis as part of a crackdown on militants and the arrest and alleged torture of Pakistani transgenders in the kingdom.

    Transgenders may not garner significant public empathy in conservative Pakistan but workers’ rights do, particularly at a time of reduced remittances. “The government and the military are walking a tightrope that is dangerously balanced both in terms of domestic as well as in terms of geopolitics,” said one Pakistani political analyst.

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    Why Saudi Arabia, China And The Islamic State Are Courting The Maldives

    March 14th, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    As Riyadh and Beijing nurture grandiose plans for military bases, New Delhi fears the archipelago could become a breeding ground for the terrorist group

     

    Saudi King Salman welcomes the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

    Saudi King Salman welcomes the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

    Saudi King Salman’s stop in the Maldives on his month-long tour of Asia brings into focus how this tiny archipelago – best known for high-end tourism and an existential battle against climate change – has emerged as a key player in a regional struggle for influence.

    Both Riyadh and Beijing are currying favour with the strategically located 820km-long chain of Indian Ocean atolls, in efforts analysts believe are aimed at gaining concessions for military bases.

    China sees the islands as a node in its “string of pearls” – a row of ports on key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls have the added advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran.

    The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases here would also complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.

    Exiled former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, speaks at a climate roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: AFP

    Exiled former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who lost power in 2012 following protests over rising commodity prices and the nation’s poor economy, has no doubt regarding Chinese and Saudi intentions.

    They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” Climate Change News quoted Nasheed as saying.

    Increased military cooperation

    The heightened Saudi and Chinese interest in the Maldives comes against a backdrop of increased military cooperation between the two nations.

    “China is willing to push military relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level,” Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan (常萬全) told his visiting Saudi counterpart, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, last August. Months later, in October, counterterrorism forces from the two countries held the first ever joint exercise between the Chinese military and an Arab armed force.

    What Saudi King Salman wants from his tour of China, Malaysia

    King Salman’s visit also comes as the kingdom negotiates the US$10 billion development, if not wholesale acquisition, of Faafu, 19 low-lying islands 120km south of the Maldivian capital of Male. That project would involve building seaports, airports, high-end housing and resorts and the creation of special economic zones.

    Legal experts suggest Saudi Arabia will probably be granted a freehold on the land if 70 per cent of the project is executed on reclaimed ground.

    President of the Republic of Maldives Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom meets Saudi King Salman in Riyadh. Photo: AFP

    Transparency Maldives, the local branch of Transparency International, has called on the government to publish its plans for Faafu amid protests against the proposed Saudi investment and allegations of widespread corruption.

    Critics claim the Saudis have gone out of their way to silence opponents by greasing their palms. In one incident, journalists reporting on the potential deal were handed cash-filled envelopes during an event at the Saudi embassy in Male.

    Saudi Arabia, to lay the ground for the investment, has in recent years funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students wanting to pursue religious studies at the kingdom’s ultra-conservative universities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The funding has pushed the Maldives, a popular high-end tourist destination, towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

    A fairytale trip and the truth about Indonesia’s importance to Saudi Arabia

    The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold,” Nasheed said.

    Potential threats

    Riyadh sees its soft power in the Maldives as a way of convincing China it is Saudi Arabia – and not its regional rival, Iran – that is the key link in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link Eurasia to the Middle Kingdom through Chinese-funded infrastructure.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping at his welcoming ceremony at the Republic Square in Male in 2014. Photo: AFP

    King Salman’s visit follows a 2014 trip to the Maldives by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) during which Beijing announced the construction of a US$210 million Friendship Bridge that would connect Male’s eastern edge to the western corner of the island of Hulhule, where the international airport is located.

    China also agreed to build a new airport runway as well as a port in Laamu, an atoll south of Faafu. That port would be a “pearl” in China’s string alongside those it has already established in Djibouti, Pakistan’s Gwadar, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and its US$10.7 billion development of an industrial city next to the Omani port of Duqm.

    But while recent focus has been on the military bases Beijing and Riyadh may want to build, another regional player, New Delhi, fears the archipelago could become a base of a very different kind.

    Indian intelligence sources claim hundreds of Maldivians have joined the ranks of Islamic State in Syria – raising the worrying prospect of a hub for the terror group just off the sub-continental mainland.

    Nasheed, the former president who now lives in London, has long railed that climate change will lead to the Maldives sinking and vanishing into the Indian Ocean. That concern has been replaced by worries that the atolls will become mired in mounting regional rivalry and stymied by ultra-conservatism that ultimately could threaten grandiose Saudi and Chinese plans.

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    Asian ports: Pitfalls of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

    February 28th, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    Source: Daily Mail

     

    Troubled ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, envisioned as part of China’s string of pearls linking the Eurasian heartland to the Middle Kingdom, exemplify political pitfalls that threaten Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project.

    Political violence over the past decade has stopped Pakistan’s Gwadar port from emerging as a major trans-shipment hub in Chinese trade and energy supplies while turmoil in Sri Lanka threatens to dissuade Chinese investors from sinking billions into the country’s struggling Hambantota port and planned economic hub.

    The problems of the two ports serve as pointers to simmering discontent and potential resistance to China’s ploy for dominance through cross-continental infrastructure linkage across a swath of land that is restive and ripe for political change.

    Chinese, Pakistani and Russian officials warned in December that militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State (IS) had stepped up operations in Afghanistan. IS in cooperation with the Pakistani Taliban launched two months later a wave of attacks that has targeted government, law enforcement, the military and minorities and has killed hundreds of people.

    China is investing $51 billion in Pakistan infrastructure and energy, including Gwadar port in the troubled province of Balochistan that is struggling to attract business nine years after it was initially inaugurated. The government announced this week that it had deployed 15,000 troops to protect China’s investment in Pakistan, a massive project dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

    For Gwadar to become truly viable, Pakistan will have to not only address Baluch grievances that have prompted militancy and calls for greater self-rule, if not independence, but also ensure that Baluchistan does not become a playground in the bitter struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    To do so, Pakistan will have to either crackdown on militant Afghan groups with the Taliban in the lead who operate with official acquiescence out of the Baluch capital of Quetta or successfully facilitate an end to conflict in Afghanistan itself.

    That is a tall order which in effect would require changes in longstanding Pakistani policies. Gwadar’s record so far bears this out. Phase II of Gwadar was completed in 2008, yet few ships anchor there and little freight is handled.

    Success would also require a break with long-standing Chinese foreign and defence policy that propagates non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. China has pledged $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan, is training its police force, and has proposed a four-nation security bloc that would include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

    A mere 70 kilometres further west of Gwadar lies Iran’s southernmost port city of Chabahar that has become the focal point of Indian efforts to circumvent Pakistan in its access to energy-rich Central Asia and serve as India’s Eurasian hub by linking it to a north-south corridor that would connect Iran and Russia. Investment in Chabahar is turning it into Iran’s major deep water port outside the Strait of Hormuz that is populated by Gulf states hostile to the Islamic republic. Chabahar would also allow Afghanistan to break Pakistan’s regional maritime monopoly.

    Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa warned Chinese officials in December that public protests would erupt if plans proceeded to build in Hambantota a 6,000-hectare economic zone that would buffet a $1.5 billion-deep sea port, a $209-million international airport, a world-class cricket stadium, a convention centre, and new roads. Protests a month later against the zone turned violent. Similar protests against Chinese investment have also erupted in recent years in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

    In Sri Lanka, the government has delayed the signing of agreements with China on the port and the economic zone after the protests catapulted the controversy onto the national agenda with opposition politicians and trade unions railing against them. A Sri Lankan opposition member of parliament moreover initiated legal proceedings to stop a debt-for-equity deal with China.

    China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang warned that the protests and opposition could persuade Chinese companies to walk away from the $5 billion project. “We either go ahead or we stop here,” Yi said.

    “The Hambantota fiasco is sending a clear message to Beijing: showing up with bags of money alone is not enough to win a new Silk Road,” commented Wade Shepard, author of a forthcoming book on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

    Adding to China’s problems is its apparent willingness to at times persuade its partners to circumvent or flout international standards of doing business. A European Union investigation into a Chinese-funded $2.9 billion rail link between the Hungarian capital of Budapest and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, could punch a hole into Chinese plans to extend its planned Asian transportation network into Europe. The investigation is looking at whether the deal seemingly granted to Chinese companies violated EU laws stipulating that contracts for large transportation projects must be awarded through public tenders.

    The sum total of problems China is encountering across Eurasia highlight a disconnect between grandiose promises of development and improved standards of living and the core of Chinese policy: an insistence that economics offer solutions to deep-seated conflicts, local aspirations, and a narrowing of the gap between often mutually exclusive worldviews. It also suggests that China believes that it can bend, if not rewrite rules, when it serves its purpose.

    To be sure, protests in Sri Lanka and Central Asia are as much about China as they are expressions of domestic political rivalries that at times are fought at China’s expense. Even so, they suggest that for China to succeed, it will not only have to engage with local populations, but also become a player rather than position itself as an economic sugar daddy that hides behind the principle of non-interference and a flawed economic win-win proposition.

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    Whither the Muslim World’s NATO?

    February 21st, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    Source: Dawn

     

    Controversy and uncertainty over the possible appointment of a Pakistani general as commander of a 40-nation, Saudi-led, anti-Iranian military alliance dubbed the Muslim world’s NATO goes to the core of a struggle for Pakistan’s soul as the country reels from a week of stepped up political violence.

    It also constitutes a defining moment in Saudi relations with Pakistan, historically one of the Gulf state’s staunchest allies and a country where the kingdom is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Finally, whether the general accepts the post or not is likely to be a bellwether of the Muslim world’s ability to free itself of the devastating impact of Saudi-like Sunni ultra-conservatism and bridge rather than exasperate sectarian divides.

    Retired Pakistani military chief of staff General Raheel Sharif’s acceptance of the command of the alliance, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, would kill several birds with one stone. The alliance, created in 2015 to bolster Saudi Arabia’s two-year old, flailing intervention in Yemen and counter Iran, has so far largely been a paper tiger.

    The alliance has staged military exercises that appeared to target Iran but has not yet established a joint command or command infrastructure. The appointment of General Shareef could potentially help the alliance evolve into a force that is credible, assuming that he can overcome widespread hesitancy towards it across the Muslim world.

    In personal terms, the appointment would award Mr. Sharif for opposing the Pakistani parliament  rejection in 2015 of a Saudi request for military support in Yemen.

    The decision took Saudi Arabia by surprise given that Pakistan has been one of the world’s foremost beneficiaries, if not the largest, of Saudi government and non-governmental largess and its dependency on remittances from Pakistani workers in the kingdom.

    The appointment of General Sharif would have also been a favour to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a politician and businessman with close ties to the kingdom who like the general favoured Pakistani military support in Yemen. It would remove the popular general as a potential political rival of the prime minister. Namesakes, Messrs Sharif are not related to one another.

    The uncertainty about General Raheel’s appointment that has been lingering since it was first announced two months ago, and then been called into question is indicative of strains in relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, once the closest of nations in the Muslim world.

    In a telling tale of the times, remittances to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia dropped 5.8 percent over the last seven months while cheaper and better trained Indians and Bangladeshis have begun to replace Pakistani manpower. Moreover, Saudi Arabia hasdeported 39,000 Pakistanis since October as part of its crackdown on militants.

    Abdullah Ghulzar Khan, a Pakistani national who lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years, last year blew himself up in a parking lot near the US consulate in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Fifteen Pakistanis have since been arrested on suspicion of being militants. Two of them were believed to be part of a plot to attack the city’s Al-Jawhara Stadium with a truck carrying 400 kg of explosives during a Saudi Arabia-UAE soccer match that was attended by 60,000 spectators.

    The arrests like the story of Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani woman who together with her American-Pakistani husband, gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, tell a much bigger tale about the risks inherent in Saudi backing at home and abroad, including Pakistan, of puritan, supremacist interpretations of Islam.

    Ms. Malik moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia when she was a toddler to escape sectarian skirmishes and family disputes. In the kingdom, the family turned its back on its Sufi and Barelvi traditions that included visiting shrines, honouring saints and enjoying Sufi trance music, practices rejected by the kingdom’s austere Wahhabi form of Islam. The change sparked tensions with relatives in Pakistan, whom the Maliks accused in Wahhabi fashion of rejecting the oneness of God by revering saints.

    Ms. Malik turned even more conservative when she returned to Pakistan in 2009 to study pharmacology. She started attending religion classes at a branch of Al-Huda (The Correct Path) International Welfare Foundation, a controversial academy that has made significant inroads into Pakistan’s upper and middle classes, and propagates an ideology akin to that of Saudi Arabia.

    In a statement after the San Bernardino attack, Al Huda described itself as “a non-political, non-sectarian and non-profit organisation which is tirelessly serving humanity by promoting education along with numerous welfare programmes for the needy and destitute.” It said that it “does not have links to any extremist regime and stands to promote peaceful message of Islam and denounces extremism, violence and terrorism of all kinds.” The institution said that it could not be held responsible for “personal acts “of its students.

    To be sure, Al Huda like Sunni ultra-conservatism in its various guises does not breed violence by definition. Yet, like any inward-looking, intolerant and supremacist ideology it creates potential breeding grounds in a given set of circumstances. Similarly, as in the case of the Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda, the shared basic tenets of ultra-conservatism has lead to the formation of groups that have turned on Saudi Arabia itself.

    A newly formed alliance of IS and Pakistani Taliban that strives to impose strict Islamic law was responsible for the series of attacks in the last week that killed 83 people at a Sufi shrine in southern Punjab and targeted the Punjabi parliament, military outposts, a Samaa TV crew, and a provincial police station.

    Complicating Pakistan’s struggle with militancy is the fact that massive, decades-long backing of ultra-conservativism by successive Pakistani political, military and intelligence leaders and Saudi Arabia has made it part of the fabric of significant segments of Pakistani society and education as well as key branches of the government and arms of the state.

    That coupled with geopolitics and Pakistan’s increasingly troubled relationship with its religious and ethnic minorities is precisely what makes the proposed appointment of General Raheel so problematic.

    Pakistan, a country with a long border with Iran and the world’s largest Shiite minority, has long been a major frontline in Saudi Arabia’s almost four-decade long covert proxy war with the Islamic republic, dating back to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Pakistani military and intelligence as well as senior government officials, has long backed militant sectarian groups that have helped push Pakistan towards Sunni ultra-conservatism and are responsible for a large number of deaths among Shiites, Ahmadis, Sufis and others.

    General Raheel’s appointment would bring the chicken home to roost. By taking the command, General Raheel would give the alliance the credibility it needs:  a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons. The appointment would build on decades of Pakistani military support of Saudi Arabia dating back to war in Yemen in the late 1960s.

    Yet, accepting the command would put Pakistan more firmly than ever in the camp of Saudi-led confrontation with Iran that Saudi political and religious leaders as well as their militant Pakistani allies often frame not only in geopolitical but also sectarian terms. Ultimately, it was that step that the Pakistani parliament rejected in 2015 when it refused to send troops to Yemen. Acceptance of the command by General Raheel would fly in the face of parliament’s decision.

    Pakistani Shiite leaders as well as some Sunni politicians have warned that General Raheel’s appointment would put an end to Pakistan’s ability to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It could raise the stakes in Balochistan, the province bordering Iran where separatists are agitating for independence and China has invested billions of dollars as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative.

    Pakistani news reports suggest that General Raheel has sought to alleviate the risk by setting conditions that are unlikely to be acceptable to Saudi Arabia, including that Iran be invited to join the alliance and that he be the mediator in disputes among alliance members with no need to report to a higher i.e. Saudi authority. Iran reportedly advised Pakistan that it would work with General Raheel if he took the command to reach a negotiated resolution of the Yemen war.

    Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a speech last weekend to the Munich Security Conference, laid out a vision that rules out General Raheel’s thinking. “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world… So, until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.,” Mr. Al-Jubeir said.

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    Militants put half-hearted Pakistani counter-terrorism at crossroads

    February 16th, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    A militant faction associated with the Pakistani Taliban has put Pakistani authorities, already under pressure from the United States and an Asian money laundering watchdog, at a crossroads in their hitherto half-hearted efforts to crack down on violent groups, some of which maintain close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military.

    Jamaat-ul-Ahrar earlier this week fired its first shots in a new offensive that aims at Pakistan government, military and civilian targets with a suicide attack on the Punjabi parliament. Fifteen people were killed in the attack. The group also attacked three military outposts in the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand.

    The offensive dubbed Operation Ghazi came as Pakistan sought to fend off potential steps against Pakistan, including inclusion on a possible revision of President Donald J. Trump’s embattled list of countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States, and punitive steps by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG). APG has been looking into Pakistani financial transaction of internationally banned groups that continue to operate with Pakistani acquiescence.

    Jamaat-ul-Ahrar demonstrated its ability to force Pakistan to act against militants, no matter how half-heartedly, with its December 2014 attack on a public military school in which 141 people, including 132 school children, were killed.

    The attack sparked public outrage and forced the government to announce a national action plan to crack down on militants and political violence. The plan has largely proven to be a paper tiger.

    With its announcement on February 10 of Operation Ghazi and this month’s attacks, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar could force Pakistan’s government and security establishment to again review its counterterrorism strategy, employment of militant proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and implementation of the action plan. The operation was named after Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, who was killed in clashes in 2007 with the military.

    While any review is likely to amount in the short term to finetuning rather than a fundamental revision of Pakistani policies, it would probably nudge Pakistan one step closer to realizing that its strategy is backfiring and increasingly proving too costly. Pakistan has long denied supporting militant groups and has repeatedly charged that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was a creation of Indian intelligence.

    Pakistan last month put one of the world’s most wanted men, Hafez Muhammad Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), under house arrest. Although internationally listed as a globally designated terrorist, Mr. Saeed was restricted in his freedom of movement rather than incarcerated while his movement has started operations under a new name, Tehrik-e-Azadi Jammu o Kashmir.

    Earlier, Pakistan’s State Bank, the country’s monetary authority announced the freezing of accounts of 2,000 militants that militants and analysts said did not hold the bulk of the militants’ assets.

    Projecting himself as a key figure in radical Islamist opposition to the state, Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, the brother of Mr. Ghazi and current head of the Red Mosque, a notorious militant nerve centre, spelled out the philosophy of the militants in a recent interview. Sporting a white wild growth beard as he sat cross-legged on a mattress on the floor of a booklined room in a rundown compound that houses the mosque’s seminary, Mr. Abdul Aziz rejected the Pakistani government’s authority.

    “These corrupt rulers are not fit to rule. They don’t have moral authority. They live in wealth while the people live in abject poverty. If the state is not within the boundaries of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, we have no right to recognize its authority. Pakistan is not a Muslim country. We still have the law of the colonial power. We disagree with those who believe in democracy,” Mr. Abdul Aziz said with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye.

    The International Crisis Group warned in a just released report that “ethno-political and sectarian interests and competition, intensified by internal migration, jihadist influx and unchecked movement of weapons, drugs and black money, have created an explosive mix” in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. The report said the city was a pressure cooker as a result of a failure of government policy, lack of action against militant and criminal groups, and “a heavy-handed, politicised crackdown by paramilitary Rangers.”

    The report noted that “anti-India outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (LeT/JD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate madrasas and charity fronts with scant reaction from the Rangers or police.”

    The ICG called on federal and local government to “replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets jihadist groups using violence within or from Pakistani territory; regulate the madrasa sector; and act comprehensively against those with jihadist links.”

    Pakistan has a vast number of uncontrolled madrassas or religious seminaries that are run by militant groups, many with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, that teach an intolerant, supremacist, often sectarian interpretation of Islam. Complicating any government effort to supervise madrassas, is the fact that the government has no reliable data on how many seminaries exist.

    A military campaign in 2009 against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s tribal areas prompted the group to set up shop in Karachi. Its estimated 8,000 operatives in the city heightened tension and increased levels of violence.

    “Karachi thus changed from a city in which jihadist combatants mainly rested and recuperated from fighting elsewhere to one that also generated vital funding. TTP (Pakistani Taliban)-run extortion rackets, for instance, targeted marble factory owners in strongholds such as Manghopir, while kidnapping for ransom and robberies generated additional revenue. The police were regularly attacked, bans were enforced on ‘immoral activities’ and ‘peace committees’ (mobile courts and jirgas – councils of elders) were established to win over constituents and consolidate local authority,” the ICG report said.

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    Protecting Militants: China blocks UN listing of Pakistani as a globally designated terrorist

    February 9th, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

     

    China, at the behest of Pakistan, has prevented the United Nations from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist. China’s protection of Masood Azhar, who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, raises questions about the sincerity of a Pakistani crackdown on militants as well as China’s willingness to use its influence to persuade Pakistan to put an end to the use of militants as proxies.

    The United States, Britain, France and India have long wanted the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee to designate Mr. Azhar on the grounds that his organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has already been proscribed by Pakistan as well as the international body.

    Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

    Mr. Azhar, who was freed from Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, is also believed to be responsible for an attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war.

    JeM despite being banned continues to publicly raise funds and recruit fighters in mosques.Indian journalist Praveen Swami quoted Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, Mr. Azhar’s elder brother, as telling worshippers gathered in a mosque in Punjab in late January to commemorate a militant who had been killed in India: “Islam is a world power and cannot be destroyed. Whoever tries to destroy it will be destroyed himself. Jihad is the most important obligation of our faith.”

    Pakistani indulgence of JeM and Chinese connivance in preventing Mr. Azhar, a portly bespectacled son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher and author of a four-volume treatise on jihad as well as books with titles like Forty Diseases of the Jews, from being designated has raised eyebrows in both Pakistani and Chinese policy circles.

    Opening a window on apparent differences between civilian and military branches of government, Pakistani Foreign Minister Aizaz Chaudhry last year reportedly warned a gathering of political, military and intelligence leaders that Pakistan risked international isolation if it failed to crack down on militant groups. Mr. Chaudhry noted that Pakistan’s closest ally, China with its massive $46 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, was increasingly questioning the wisdom of protecting Mr. Azhar at Pakistan’s behest.

    Chinese vice foreign minister Li Baodong last year defended his country’s repeated shielding of Mr. Azhar by suggesting that attempts to designate the JeM amounted to using counter-terrorism for political goals. “China is opposed to all forms of terrorism. There should be no double standards on counter-terrorism. Nor should one pursue own political gains in the name of counter-terrorism,” Mr. Li said.

    Chinese policy analysts with close government ties squirm when asked about China’s repeated veto of efforts to designate Mr. Azhar. The analysts suggest that the Pakistani military and intelligence’s use of proxies like Mr. Azhar in their dispute with India over Kashmir has sparked debate about the wisdom of sinking $46 billion into Pakistan.

    China’s hopes that the investment in infrastructure would persuade the Pakistani military and intelligence to seriously back away from using militant proxies have so far remain unfulfilled.

    The investment is part of China’s larger effort to link Eurasia to China through infrastructure. It expects that the linkage will spur economic development both in Pakistan and China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang where China’s harsh measures against the cultural practices of the Uighurs have sought to pre-empt Islamist violence.

    Responding to the civilian government’s effort to crackdown on Jaish-e-Mohammad, including last year’s freezing of its accounts by the State Bank of Pakistan, Mr. Azhar defended the group’s contribution to Pakistan’s defence of Kashmir as well as the jihadist movement at large.

    “When we entered the tent of the jihadist movement. it had no branch in Kashmir, nor was there lightning in Iraq or Syria. There were just two fronts, in Afghanistan and Palestine, one of them active and one of them shut. We have watched as the jihad we befriended grew from a glowing ember into the sun; from a small spring into a river, and now, as it is about to become a great ocean,” Mr. Azhar wrote in the group’s magazine.

    A BBC investigative documentary last year traced jihadist thinking in Britain to a month-long visit to Britain in 1993 by Mr. Azhar, who at the time headed Pakistani militant group Harakat ul Mujahideen.

    Mr. Azhar gave 40 lectures during his fund-raising and recruitment tour and was feted by Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network. More and more scholars joined his entourage as he toured the country before moving on to Saudi Arabia. A passionate and emotive speaker, women reportedly took off their jewellery and handed it to Azhar after listening to his speeches.

    “It was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it,” says BBC reporter Innes Bowen

    Indian analysts believe that shielding Mr. Azhar serves China’s purpose of keeping India preoccupied with the threat of political violence. China’s is moreover grateful for successful Pakistani efforts to stop the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (IOC) that groups 57 Muslim nations from criticizing Chinese policy in Xinjiang. Finally, the analysts say, shielding Mr. Azhar constitutes retaliation for India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama.

    In defending Mr. Azhar with one eye on India, China is walking a fine line that threatens to undermine its massively funded policy objectives in Pakistan, a country that for years has been reeling from militancy that has fuelled sectarianism at home and created militant groups that at times have turned on their Pakistani masters.

    By doing so, China risks allowing militancy to further fester in a country where militancy is not confined to small groups but has been woven into the fabric of significant segments of society. Attempting to heal what is an open wound requires not only economic development but also a Pakistani and Chinese counter-terrorism strategy that refrains from making politically opportunistic compromises.

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    Tackling Iran: Trump fuels the fire

    February 3rd, 2017

     

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    Source: IBTimes

     

    The Trump administration risks fuelling sectarianism across the Muslim world and exacerbating multiple conflicts that are ripping the Middle East and North Africa apart by singling out Iran rather than tackling root causes.

    Iran moved into President Donald J. Trump’s firing line when his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, an anti-Iran hawk, put the Islamic republic “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile. The test was likely a provocative probing of US policy towards Iran, one of seven countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced the nuclear agreement concluded by the United States and other world powers with Iran as a bad deal.

    It remains unclear what Mr. Flynn’s notification entails. A resolution circulated in the House of Representatives before Mr. Trump’s inauguration would authorize US military action against Iran if the president believes it is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

    Most analysts, including supporters of Mr. Trump, believe that Iran has largely honoured the international agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, making an immediate military response to the missile test unlikely.

    Gulf states alongside Israel have moreover urged Mr. Trump to adopt a tough approach towards what they see as belligerent Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and support for terrorism, but to stop short of annulling the agreement.  Mr. Trump is expected to move away from his campaign pledges to tear up the agreement, but with Mr. Flynn’s warning appears to be adopting the advice of US allies.

    A Saudi read out of a phone conversation last weekend between King Salman and Mr. Trump said the two leaders agreed to counter “those who seek to undermine security and stability in the region and interfere in the affairs of other states.” The White House said the they also had a meeting of the minds on the “importance of rigorously enforcing” the nuclear deal.

    The consensus notwithstanding, Mr. Trump’s travel ban, despite including Iran, puts King Salman in a bind, as he balances the kingdom’s foreign policy objectives with its self-proclaimed leadership of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from commenting on the ban despite pressure from some of its allies to do so.

    Saudi Arabia’s predicament and it’s welcoming of the rise of Mr. Trump in the expectation that he will fight some of the kingdom’s battles creates the opportunity for the new president to put disruption to constructive use.

    It could allow Mr. Trump to tackle not only Iran but also Saudi Arabia on a fundamental issue that drives volatility, sectarianism and political violence in the Muslim world in general and Iranian and Saudi policies specifically: the rise of supremacist, intolerant, anti-pluralistic ultra-conservatism.

    Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have already hinted at the opportunity. “Iran has every interest in reducing tension with Saudi Arabia at a time when the Trump presidency in the United States is creating new uncertainties,” said an editorial in the pro-Rouhani Entekhab daily.

    The opportunity that arises is not limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Leaving aside the ethics of banning travel on the basis of religion or nationality, Mr. Trump’s  ban as well as his intention to  focus US counter-terrorism exclusively on Islam rather than on all forms of political extremism, including far-right supremacism, would also allow him to pressure other countries where divisive ultra-conservatism has been allowed to fester.

    That is evident in efforts by the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to stay out of Mr. Trump’s firing line by refraining from criticizing the ban. Both Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, have witnessed the rise of ultra-conservative intolerance towards non-Muslim and Muslim minorities such as Shiites and Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed by conservative followers of the faith as heretics, that are informed by Saudi-backed puritan interpretations of Islam

    There is little to suggest that Mr. Trump recognizes the opportunity. A failure to exploit the opportunity and exclusively target Iran is however likely to backfire, embolden Saudi policies that create problems rather than offer solutions, and fuel sectarian and other cycles of violence.

    While Iran has refrained from promoting a supremacist world view of its own, there is little doubt that it implements its ultra-conservatism with the application of medieval, punitive measures of Islamic law, including amputation and stoning. It has also reshaped the politics as well as the very integrity of Arab countries like Lebanon where it supports Shiite militia Hezbollah, Syria that has been torn apart by a vicious civil war, the creation of Shiite militias in Iraq, and Yemen where Iran has come to the aid of the Houthis. The problem is that so have Saudi Arabia and its allies or in other words: there are no nice guys in this fight.

    A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government that it sees as an existential threat to the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family by funding ultra-conservative political and religious groups has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism across the Muslim world and created potential breeding grounds of extremism.

    The rise of ultra-conservatism has fuelled sectarianism and violence against Shiites and Ahmadis; hardened attitudes towards women and alternative lifestyles; and curbed fundamental freedoms under the guise of blasphemy.

    Iranian interference in the affairs of other countries stems as much from long-fading revolutionary zeal in the wake of the 1979 revolution as it constitutes a response to the Saudi-led Sunni campaign that involved not only support for non-violent, ultra-conservative groups, but also the funding of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s devastating eight-year long war against Iran in the 1980s as well as virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi forces in Pakistan that are responsible for the deaths of thousands, and militant groups in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

    At the bottom line, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been locked into a struggle for dominance in the Muslim world that has fuelled violence, created breeding grounds for extremism, and brought the Middle East and North Africa to the edge of an abyss. Tackling symptoms or only specific players rather than root causes threatens to fuel the fire rather than extinguish it.

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    Pakistani crackdown: One hand works to neutralize the other

    February 1st, 2017

    By James M. Dorsey.

     

    Pakistan has put one of the world’s most wanted men under house arrest in a half-hearted crackdown on a militant group with close ties to the military and intelligence in a bid to persuade President Donald J. Trump from adding the country to those whose citizens were last week banned from travelling to the United States.

    Pakistani media reports and analysts said the move against Hafez Muhammad Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Din (JuD), came after US officials days before the inauguration of Mr. Trump gave Pakistan until January 31 to respond to complaints by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG) about various JuD financial transactions.

    Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed for information leading to his capture.

    Writing in The News, Pakistani investigative reporter Azaz Syed said US officials had told Pakistan’s ambassador in a meeting on January 11 that “if the objections raised in the report were not addressed, the US may put Pakistan in the blacklist of the countries in the International Cooperative Review Group (ICRG).”

    Apparently pre-warned that action may be taken against him, Mr. Saeed suggested during a press conference in Islamabad three days later that JuD may start operating under a new name, a practice frequently adopted by militant groups with government acquiescence. Mr. Saeed hinted that the new name would be Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Freedom Movement).

    Mr. Syed, in a telephone interview alongside other analysts, said the move against Mr. Saeed, several other JuD leaders, and the group itself, were cosmetic. The symbolism was evident in the fact that Mr. Saeed was confined to his home in Lahore that was declared a sub-jail rather than carted off to prison.

    The symbolism was also reflected in public displays such as the removal of JuD flags from streets and the hoisting of Pakistani flags at the group’s 81-hectar headquarters in Muridke, a city of two and three-storey pillboxes famous for its fruits and vegetables 22 kilometres north of Lahore. The International Crisis Group has reported that the complex which contains an ultra-conservative religious school and housing for 3,000 students and staff was built in 1998 with Saudi funding.

    Mr. Saeed has had long standing links to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom-backed Ahle-Hadith movement, a group whose ultra-conservative religious views are most closely aligned with Saudi-supported forms of Wahhabism and Salafis. A graduate of an Ahle-Hadith madrassa and King Saud University in Riyadh, Mr. Saeed, backed by Saudi money founded Islamic schools in which potential jihadis not only studied Islam but also acquired computer and communication skills.

    Mr. Saeed was appointed in the 1980s by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq as a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body of clerics and scholars established to assist the Pakistani government in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed. He has long left that post.

    Mr. Saeed reportedly met while studying in Saudi Arabia with Saudi scholars involved in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It was those scholars who launched him in his career as a militant. Abdullah Azam, the Palestinian scholar who taught in Saudi Arabia, before founding the precursor to Al Qaeda is believed to have been one of LeT’s original inspirations.

    Analysts and journalists compared the moves against Mr. Saeed and JuD to an announcement in October by the State Bank of Pakistan that it had frozen the accounts of more than 2,000 people associated with political violence. Major groups like JuD, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM), who mainly focus on Kashmir were not included in the list.

    “Nothing has changed,” one analyst said.

    The degree of official protection Mr. Saeed and his group have enjoyed over the years has long been an issue of concern to the United States.

    US Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer noted in a cable in 2009 in the wake of the Mumbai attacks published by Wikileaks that JuD “is still operating in multiple locations in Pakistan, and that the group continues to openly raise funds. It is unclear what, if any, steps the GOP (Government of Pakistan) has taken to freeze JUD’s assets or otherwise implement UN 1267 sanctions, which include an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo.”

    An earlier cable warned that charities connected to Let and JeM that had been funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had increased the local population’s dependence on extremist groups and undermined the influence of moderate Sufi religious leaders.

    Mr. Saaed was in recent years a familiar figure in the news and in the public eye. He attended in December alongside other prominent militants such as HuM founder Fazlur Khalil Rehman a solidarity rally in the Pakistani Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad.

    Mr. Rehman is a specially designated terrorist on the US Treasury Department’s list who counts a Saudi among his wives. He operates a madrassah guarded by AK-47 toting guards on the outskirts of Islamabad. Mr. Rehman, a signatory of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa declaring the International Front Against Jews and Crusaders, has leveraged his close ties to the Pakistani world of militancy, his advocacy of armed struggle in Kashmir and his well-established connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence to position himself as a go-between.

    Mr. Saeed was accorded VIP treatment two weeks after the Muzaffarabad rally on board a state-owned Pakistan International Airways flight to the Baloch capital of Quetta where he gave a news conference together with Shahzain Bugti, the government-backed grandson of killed Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.

    Months earlier, Mr. Saeed headed a pro-Kashmir Azadi or Freedom caravan of buses, trucks, and cars from Lahore to Islamabad that stretched for kilometres along the Grand Trunk road that connects the two cities. The caravan swelled as it travelled the 270-kilometre-long road under the slogan: “The cure to India is nothing but jihad,” participants shouted.

    In another twist of irony, Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority has tasked an institute run by a former JuD official who left the group because of a labour dispute rather than ideological differences with research on reform of madrassas, the religious schools many of which are suspected of being breeding grounds for political violence. The issue may be one of only appearance given that the institute’s researchers make a serious impression in interviews. It nonetheless raises questions.

    Cracking down on JuD may solve Pakistan’s most immediate potential issue with the United States. It does however little to tackle the fundamental problem represented by JuD: a belief in key branches of the state that militant groups can serve a geopolitical purpose without endangering the fabric of society, a fabric that has already been infused by ultra-conservative strands of Islam many of which are akin to Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islam.

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