Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran -New York Times

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I think the main point of the article is quite correct: the Saudis are playing a bad hand poorly.

There are a few points that I am not too sure about though. First, the author claims “The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful. The effort to tame that country’s assertive regional policies has worked and the crisis has now been put on the back burner of international diplomacy.” However, Qatar is now closer to Iran than ever, and at a time when the Saudis needed to be building a durable anti-Iranian front, they have fractured the GCC. I don’t see this as successful, even if only relative to Riyadh’s other attempts to deal with Iran. In fact, I’m pretty sure Iran sees this as a win.

Second, the author warns that the war in Yemen may turn “the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Even if this is just be a turn of phrase, the Houthis-Iranian relationship is not comparable to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah. The social/historical/religious connections are not there, and Iran’s military support for the Houthis has been limited.

Third, and finally, the author describes Saudi Arabia as “keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions” and that “King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami”. This has not been the case. Riyadh has never been keen to court Iran. In fact, it’s been the other way around. Tehran has been the suitor, and Riyadh has played hard to get. Rafsanjani spent most of the 1990s trying to start a dialogue with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed. Before Rafsanjani’s death earlier this year, both he and Rouhani  reached-out to Riyadh, but again with no success. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis’ strategy for dealing with Tehran has been to try to keep Iran as isolated in the Persian Gulf as possible. Given the regional situation post Arab-Spring, I doubt diplomacy would have worked, but I think the article mischaracterizes this part of their relationship.

A similar article was also published in Foreign Policy entitled, Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East (https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/11/21/tehran-is-winning-the-war-for-control-of-the-middle-east-saudi-arabia/) and I expect there will be more in the near future claiming that the the Iranian-Saudi Cold war is swinging Tehran’s way. Some, like the one above, will cast Iran as the aggressor and the Saudis as the victim, albeit a clumsy self-destructive victim. Others will portray the Saudis as the belligerents and Iran as misunderstood. Both narratives have a grain of truth. But both miss the main point: the rivalry in its present form is being driven by the regional instability caused by the Arab Spring. Ideology and incompetence have only made things worse.

Saudi princes among dozens detained in ‘corruption’ purge -BBC

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Anti-corruption campaigns are a tried-and-true mechanism for dealing with opposition in authoritarian regimes. Perhaps the most notable example comes from the Assad regime in Syria during the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad used the tactic to clean house and build legitimacy. The purges allowed him to claim to be a champion of the people. More importantly, because corruption was endemic within the regime, everyone was potentially vulnerable. To a large degree the regime was built around corruption. Without oil money to distribute, the regime used government corruption as a form of patronage. Loyal officers and bureaucrats were given positions where they could extract bribes etc… as their reward. Therefore, almost be definition, if someone was in a position of authority, they were guilty of corruption. Assad could arrest anyone he wanted and everyone else was so terrified they made sure to toe the party line. After Hafez died, his son Basher repeated the exercise to ensure he would not be challenged by any of the old guard.
It should not be surprising then that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is launching a similar campaign. The Saudi political system is somewhat different from Syria’s but the logic of the anti-corruption game remains the same. Almost everyone is vulnerable, and those that escape are usually so relieved they don’t complain.
The initial public reaction has been positive, at least if the twitterverse can be trusted. However, there are a few things the King and Crown Prince should keep in mind. First, the regime is already going through a major transformation. The reforms instituted by the Crown Prince and his Father, King Salman, challenge the complex ruling formula that has held Saudi Arabia together since before the oil boom of the 1970s. As part of the Vision 2030 project, King Salmon and son are cutting back on government spending, privatizing parts of the national oil company, ARAMCO, and adopting an assertive and expensive new foreign policy posture in the region. Even gender roles are being challenged, with women being given the right to drive. The anti-corruption campaign is likely intended to preempt opposition to these changes. However, with so much happening the regime may be too fragile to withstand a major purge.

Second, the regime’s main strength has always been the cohesion of the royal family. Even before the oil boom, the main pillar of the regime was the al Saud itself. The logic was always simple: stay together or hang separately. Backing this logic up were a complex set of rules concerning succession and norms for governing within the family that smoothed out the rough edges and kept disputes to a minimum. However, by promoting the Crown Prince so quickly, the King has already violated most of these rules and norms. Moreover, Saudi specialist Joseph Kechichian suggests the intent is to “modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too”.  If that is true, they may undermine the logic of maintaining cohesion may also be undermined. If the other members of the al Saud figure they are going to hang anyway, there may not be much incentive for them to stick together.

See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41874117

and

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-arrests-crownprince-insight/a-house-divided-how-saudi-crown-prince-purged-royal-family-rivals-idUSKBN1DA23M

and

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/bin-salman-saudi-consensus-rule-171107052615928.html

and

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-arrests/future-saudi-king-tightens-grip-on-power-with-arrests-including-prince-alwaleed-idUSKBN1D506P

See also: https://iranonline.blog/2016/09/30/eight-unprecedented-hours-with-mr-everything-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-bloomberg/

 

More hope for Kurdish unity in Syria after release of KNC prisoners -ARANEWS.NET

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The schisms within the Syrian Kurdish community have never been as deep as the PUK-KPD split in Iraq, however it has been a significant division. This article provides some reason to believe they are making progress:

“The Syrian Kurdish security forces of the Asayish, that are affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), released several politicians from the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC) on Wednesday and Thursday after mediation by former French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner and former US diplomat Peter Galbraith that visited Rojava [or Syria’s Kurdistan] this week”.

“Zara Salih, a member of the KNC-linked Yekiti Party, told ARA News: “We look at this step [release of KNC members] as a positive sign and good start. After releasing all political prisoners from the Asayish detention centres we are ready to begin negtoations with PYD and TEV-DEM to reach a new deal.”

“The KNC is the main rival of the PYD, and backed by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PYD, on the other hand, is closer to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Both the KDP and PKK have significant influence over the Kurdish parties in Syria, but failed to reach an agreement to share power. As a result, the PYD became the most dominant actor in Syrian Kurdistan, after the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of most of the Kurdish regions in Syria in July 2012.”

More hope for Kurdish unity in Syria after release of KNC prisoners

Syria ceasefire deal explained -al Jazeera

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Here is a basic rundown of the September 2016 ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

  • “A nationwide ceasefire by Assad’s forces and the US-backed opposition is set to begin across Syria at sundown on Monday.
  • That sets off a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has faced a recent onslaught.
  • Fighting forces are to also pull back from the Castello Road, a key thoroughfare and access route into Aleppo, and create a “demilitarised zone” around it.
  • Also on Monday, the US and Russia will begin preparations for the creation of a Joint Implementation Centre that will involve information sharing needed to define areas controlled by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and opposition groups in areas “of active hostilities”.
  • The centre is expected to be established a week later, and is to launch a broader effort towards delineating other territories in control of various groups.
  • As part of the arrangement, Russia is expected to keep Syrian air force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition. The US has committed to help weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has intermingled with the US-backed opposition in several places.
  • A resumption of political dialogue between the government and opposition under UN mediation, which was halted amid an upsurge in fighting in April, will be sought over the longer term.”

For more details on the deal see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-ceasefire-deal-explained-160910111132967.html

The Surprising Science of Cease-Fires: Even Failures Can Help Peace -1New York Times

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No one expects the current ceasefire in Syria to last very long or provide a long-term solution to the conflict. However this article suggests that ceasefires agreements like the present one are still important:

  • “One of the best predictors of a peace agreement’s success is simply whether the parties had prior agreements, even if those earlier cease-fires failed. Not even a war’s duration or its intensity can so reliably predict a peace deal’s outcome. Neither does the poverty or ethnic diversity of the combatants.”

Ceasefires, even if they don’t last can create what the article refers to as “virtuous cycles”, wherein the parties build a degree of trust by making reciprocal concessions. If transgressions are also punished, they also learn that cheating on agreements is counter-productive. Together, these two dynamics shape the preferences of the parties making a lasting settlement more likely.

Of course, if handled poorly, the opposite lessons may be learned. If defection is widespread and inconsistently punished, then the parties learn that cooperation does not pay and cheating may actually pay-off. This result can be thought of as a “vicious cycle”.

Two points come to my while reading this article. First, the logic is very consistent with rational choice/game theory. The parties are rational actors responding to the contingencies in their environment and playing iterated games is extremely important. Second, There may be some issues with causality here. Perhaps settlements are not more likely because there are more ceasefire agreements, but instead ceasefire agreements are more likely because the conflict is winding down. If this argument is true, then it is the wider conditions in the conflict that are driving events, including the number of ceasefires and whether or not they create virtuous cycles or viscous cycles.

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/09/16/world/middleeast/another-cease-fire-in-syria-it-could-matter-even-if-it-fails.html?referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FxZiLWXMT6P

 

10 new wars that could be unleashed as a result of the one against ISIS -Washington Post

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“The borders of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” are shrinking fast. The group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria are collapsing one by one. The U.S.-led war has reached a point where questions are being raised about what comes next.

So far, the answer seems likely to be: more war.”

 

This article probably oversimplifies things in the sense that it suggests that these wars are discrete events. Rather, the conflicts being played out in Syria are the product of long submerged tensions that were unleashed first by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then the Arab Spring. Once the state system began to collapse in 2010, they were bound to come to the fore. The article is effective though, in the way it identifies the various schisms and how they have been effected by recent events.

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/07/10-new-wars-that-could-be-unleashed-as-a-result-of-the-one-against-isis/?postshare=9411473249551782&tid=ss_tw