Saturday 19 Sep 2020 | 18:38 | SYDNEY
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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Kurdistan precarious but steadfast on eve of referendum

It is hard not to be sympathetic to the decades-long Kurdish struggle for independence and self-determination. The long-suffering Kurdish nation was summarily divvied up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a document that continues to vex the Middle East to this day) and the Treaty of Lausanne after World War I. Ever since, the dream of Kurdish statehood has been dashed, Kurdish culture and language the targets of liquidation, Kurdish people the target of massacre and genocide and Kurdish political considerations stifled by regional and international geopolitical interests. Ever since, Peshmerga fighters and astute Kurdish political leaders have been struggling for statehood.

All of the moral, emotional and democratic arguments for Kurdish national independence are there. They always will be. The referendum on Kurdish independence planned for today in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area in northern Iraq seems long overdue.

But (and there is always a but) when it comes to Kurdish independence, the geopolitics remain as treacherous as ever; the security situation as precarious as ever; and the economic viability of a new Kurdish state, amputated off of a hobbled Iraqi state, as fragile as ever. Even as the democratic arguments for Kurdish independence remain self-evident, so too do the daunting geopolitical risks. It is this conundrum that has constantly vexed the Kurdish people in their struggle for a nationhood.

Since the 2003 Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy and influence. They control their own borders, elect their own parliament, draft their own laws and maintain their own security. Without actually declaring a state, the KRG is a de facto one. It is a tribute to the savvy political tradecraft and strategic vision of Iraqi Kurdish leaders and a sign of Baghdad's dysfunction and weakness. Civil wars, the Islamic State and successive revolutions and coups have kept the region and the KRG's neighbours in a state of disoriented flux. The KRG has deftly exploited the situation to its advantage, never officially declaring statehood but creating facts on the ground and expanding their autonomy. So with an autonomous de facto state, a weak central government in Baghdad, and entrenched opposition to formal Kurdish statehood from international and regional interests, the question is: why now? Why hold a referendum at all?

Proponents of the referendum argue that the same old justifications – Turkey's seemingly intractable opposition, the lack of international support, the need to keep the territorial integrity of Iraq and the potential spillover effect – will always remain, and will not be removed by further delay or negotiations with the KRG's neighbours.

The Kurds could never rely on international support. Baghdad already withdrew budgetary support a few years ago when the KRG and the central government could not reach an agreement on sharing resource revenue. Baghdad has few cards to play. The KRG has been surrounded by security threats since its inception. Despite Turkey's warning of guaranteed retaliation, Turkey is also distracted by political and security problems. Syria is not much of state and can no longer mount serious opposition to the KRG. There will never be a perfect moment and the time is particularly ripe now, particularly off the back of a Peshmerga-assisted victory against Islamic State.

Besides, proponents argue, the referendum is not an official declaration of independence, but one step below. The referendum will only ask 'Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?'. It is an aspirational question, not an outright declaration. There is no official timeline attached and a 'Yes' vote won't trigger any immediate moves towards independence. All an affirmative vote would do is strengthen the KRG's hand in coming negotiations with Baghdad. With Iran's tightening grip on the rest of Iraq, proponents of the referendum argue that the KRG has little time to waste before Iran's growing influence makes favourable negotiations less likely. Kurdish Peshmerga also now have de facto (though controversial) control over Kirkuk, a city the Kurds call their Jerusalem. The analogy is far from perfect, but control over this resource-rich city is central to the KRG's push for independence.

Moreover, one cannot discount the strong desire for this current crop of KRG leadership, particularly President Masoud Barzani, to be the ones to deliver independence. They are leaders of a certain age who have literally been through the wars. They have personally experienced decades of military and personal struggle, and want to be the ones to deliver independence before they are overshadowed by the next generation of Kurds, who have largely grown up in an autonomous Kurdistan.

Then there are the local political dynamics. The KRG's many successes are often hailed in the media, but there is an underlying instability that this referendum aims to mask. Barzani's term ended two years ago but he remains in his position. He runs his section of the KRG like a tribal chieftain, not a democratically elected leader. Tensions been his KDP party and the PUK and Gorran are high. Opposition figures have been persecuted. The media and civil society have been stifled. Prior to this month, parliament hadn't met for two years, ever since the leader of the opposition was barred from entering. The KRG's budget remains fragile ever since Baghdad stopped payments. The KRG, and Barzani in particular, want to distract from the economic and political troubles and allegations of corruption leveled against KRG leadership. This referendum is a perfect way to do it.

There is also a pervasive sense that, despite the many perils of declaring independence, the Kurds will never be secure as part of Iraq. The chemical attacks of Halabja are seared into the national memory. Saddam's Arabisation policy destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and killed 100,000 people. Iraqi Kurds fear that the same chauvinistic tendencies remain.

But while the reward of statehood might be great, the risks are all too real and could quickly overshadow any victory a 'Yes' vote may bring. The UN Security Council, which failed to pass declarations against the Assad regime during six years of a brutal civil war, issued a unanimous statement expressing concern about the referendum, calling the vote destabilising. The US, the Kurds' strongest military ally, has come out against it. Iran, Turkey and Iraq announced on Friday that they would consider 'countermeasures' if the KRG goes through with the vote. Turkey has begun military exercises along the Turkey-KRG border. And the KRG is being guilt-tripped into calling off the referendum because it could affect ongoing operations and regional cooperation against Islamic State.

But the referendum is going ahead and a 'Yes' vote will be the likely outcome, despite the many Kurds who are sceptical of the timing. An affirmative vote won't result in immediate independence, but it will result in swift retaliation.

Nevertheless, the allure of Kurdish independence has overridden the practical implications and very real risks. The Kurds have a poetic saying that 'the Kurds have no friends but the mountains'. Since World War I, no one has agreed to Kurdish statehood, despite purported sympathies. The Kurds' allies have routinely abandoned them and their adversaries remain steadfast. The unrealistic and audacious vision of Kurdish statehood is reflected in those mountains: precarious but steadfast.


Cutting a deal with Islamic State

Negotiated deals between government forces and various armed groups have been a feature of the Syrian conflict. But a controversial deal involving several hundred Islamic State fighters who vacated the rugged Lebanese-Syrian border area is yet another example, if any more were needed, of how complex this conflict remains.

The story began after simultaneous (but officially uncoordinated) operations by the Lebanese military and a combined Syrian military-Hizbullah force operating from the Syrian side attacked IS forces. It ended after a negotiated deal allowed just over 300 IS fighters and the same number of their dependents to leave the area on buses and transit Syrian territory to join other IS fighters at Bukamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Here the story becomes messy, as the participants in this operation had varied reasons for dealing IS a decisive blow in Lebanon. The Lebanese military wanted to recover the bodies of nine of their soldiers captured in 2014, whose families' protests in central Beirut will now presumably end. The Syrians wanted to recover ground and thereby free up military resources for use elsewhere, while Hizbullah wanted to recover prisoners and bodies of its own, as well as the body of one Iranian soldier.

The agreement was also unusual in that, unlike what has been seen in the fighting in northern Iraq and around Raqqa, IS didn't hold its ground and die in place. This may be a reflection of the much more open (and hence less defensible) ground it occupied and the possibility of gaining more from redeployment east, or the makeup of the fighters themselves. Or it could be that, among the forces arrayed against IS, the desire to retrieve bodies and prisoners was greater than the desire to annihilate IS fighters. Perhaps we'll never know.

The deal was criticised by Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, given that Iraq (fighting IS in its own country) clearly stands to lose from a Syria-Hizbullah deal that moves hundreds of fighters from the Lebanese-Syrian border to the Iraqi-Syrian border. The deal was also condemned by the US-led anti-IS coalition, who then scuppered it by bombing the road and a bridge on its route, as well as some IS vehicles in support of the convoy. At the time of writing, the convoy was stuck in the desert in Syrian government-controlled territory.

However this episode concludes (and current reports as to the whereabouts of the convoy and its members are somewhat confusing), it is unlikely to be a precursor for future deals with IS. There is little appetite anywhere to negotiate with IS, and it is unlikely that its dislocated parts will have the same leverage elsewhere that it did on this occasion. While there has been a relatively minor spat between Damascus and Baghdad over the deal, this will be temporary. And though the relocation agreement appears to have soured once the Coalition became aware of it, the Syrians and Hizbullah got what they wanted. Several hundred lightly armed IS fighters in buses stuck in Syrian government-held territory with Coalition aircraft flying overhead is only a problem for those fighters, not the other actors. Little in this conflict has been straightforward, and this latest little episode continues the trend.

Riyadh’s Shia two-step

Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's reconciliation tour of Sunni-run Gulf states continued this week, following up his visit to Riyadh to see Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a visit to the UAE. There he was met by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayad.

There is little doubt that Gulf states have decided to try a carrot-based approach towards Iraq Shia leaders in attempting to blunt Iranian influence in Iraq, rather than flail around by either ignoring or working against the system. These actions haven't gone unnoticed in Tehran, with the media largely reacting negatively to Saudi Arabia's transparent moves.

It is a common mistake to treat Shia communities anywhere, let alone Iraq, as a homogeneous bloc. When they operate within a sectarian political system, their ideological differences are exacerbated by the normal competition for allies, resources and influence that federal politicking involves. Iranian and Iraqi Shia are both connected and separated by history and geography, and their religious-political leaders have a keen understanding of the way in which regional and local politics works.

Hence Sadr's willingness to be seen to be courted by Gulf Sunni ruling families. Sadr has shown himself in the past to be a particularly flexible politician, and with Iraqi parliamentary elections due next year, he would have understood that it was good politics to be seen in the presence of wealthy Gulf political leaders at the same time as Riyadh is making noises about greater economic links with Iraq.

But we should also not confuse Saudi Arabia's 'carrot' approach towards Iraq's Shia as a major change in response to what it sees as Iranian-inspired adventurism around the region. Rather, it is a small change in tactics. There is still plenty of stick. One need look no further than the Kingdom's Eastern Province, where a rather different Sunni-Shia dynamic is playing out in the sometimes restive province. This time, fighting in the town of Awamiyya (the home town of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia cleric executed in Saudi Arabia last year) has resulted in numerous casualties.

The Arab-Persian-Sunni-Shia-Riyadh-Tehran relationship is a complex one, and the events of recent weeks simply go to show that the complexity continues.

Some lessons from the foiled Sydney terror plot

We don’t yet know all the details, but from what we do know there are both disturbing and perplexing elements to the Islamic State-supported terrorist plot to blow up an airliner departing from Sydney. Here are some early thoughts on the issues that should engage our minds as a result of the incident: 

1. Islamic State remains an adaptive terrorist organisation that seeks new ways to penetrate the defensive measures of security agencies. To the best of my knowledge, the method of sending components and instructions for a do-it-yourself improvised explosive device to a Western country has not been tried before. The element of surprise has a limited shelf life, however, and having taken authorities by surprise in developing this planned terrorist attack, it is unlikely to work a second time.

2. This incident proves once again that the threat posed by foreign fighters is not simply the people themselves. Skills degrade, but in the jihadi milieu, connections rarely do. The actual network of terrorists, as opposed to the individuals themselves, was perhaps the biggest security threat to emerge from the war in Afghanistan – the same is likely to be the case following the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. In this case, the connection between the Islamic State ‘handler’ and the Australian end of the plot was made by an Australian terrorist living in Syria, Tarek Khayat. In this instance the Australian end was Tarek’s brother, but the important fact was that the ability to link a neophyte Australian terrorist on home soil with a seasoned operator in Syria came about because of the interconnected nature of the terrorist network established over the years in Syria. Analysts are going to spend decades unravelling the complex networks that have been built up over years of inter- and intra-jihadi cooperation in Syria and Iraq.

3. If Islamic State was able to place a military-grade explosive onto air cargo in Turkey, it doesn’t say much for Turkish airport security (equally concerning is the porousness of security procedures at the Australian end, where it was collected). Given that the majority of foreign fighters and Islamic State members will attempt to exfiltrate the battlefield through Turkey, the incident adds to concerns about the ability of Ankara’s security services (already in doubt, given their focus on the Kurds and the impact of the post-coup purges of Gulenists on their capability).

4. There is a difference between being structured and bold, and being simply bold. While the plotters appear capable enough of smuggling in explosives and components for an improvised explosive device and being in contact with each other without alerting Australia’s security services in order to construct the device, there doesn’t appear to have been much thought given to how to smuggle onto the aircraft. Police said that they had reconstructed the device and tried penetration tests at Australian airports with a 100% detection rate. Unless they believed they had someone on the inside (of which there is no indication), then the terrorists don’t appear to have thought this rather crucial aspect through. All we know is that the device was taken to the airport but never checked in and then taken back to one of the residences. They certainly didn’t lack the intent to kill hundreds of Australians and other nationals, but perhaps the difference between seasoned terrorists providing guidance from Syria and wannabe terrorists from southwest Sydney is their individual capability.

5. If there was any doubt previously, this incident should reinforce the value of our intelligence liaison partnerships. It appears the information regarding the plot and the individuals involved in it was gained as the result of information passed on by a partner agency or partner agencies overseas. In the counter-terrorism field, the public rightly demands 100% success from our intelligence agencies, which depends on prompt and accurate information. The healthier liaison relationships are, the more likely it is that terrorist plots will be foiled.

6. I hope that this once and for all ends references on Q&A, The Drum and other commentary outlets to the rather vacuous statement that ‘more people are killed by falling out of bed/lightning strikes/choose other random act’ than terrorism, and therefore the money spent on counter-terrorism is out of proportion to the risk as measured by the number of people killed in Australia by terrorists.

One of the main reasons why so few people are killed is because of the number of plots that are foiled by our security agencies. Given this foiled plot was designed to kill hundreds of people, it would be interesting to see whether the ’terrorism threat is blown out of all proportion’ brigade still holds to that view.

Saudi Arabia’s change of tack on Iraq

For too long, the Saudis have complained about the 'loss' of Iraq to Iranian influence without acknowledging that their almost complete refusal to establish ties with Baghdad achieved little other than creating the vacuum that Tehran has sought to fill. But there are signs that Riyadh has changed tack and has decided to contest Iran's influence in Mesopotamia.

Work on reopening the border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia at Arar has been completed and there are plans to open the other seven crossings. Having been closed for the most part since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, this is a potentially significant event.

The border reopening follows on from an increasingly active effort at establishing some person-to-person links through senior visits. In February, Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir broke a 20-year drought by visiting Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Saudi Arabia in June this year and last month the Saudi Chief of General Staff Abdulrahman al-Bunyan reciprocated, at which time the decision to reopen the border crossing was made.

Iraq has sent trade delegations to Saudi Arabia seeking investment, but perhaps the most interesting visit occurred in the past few days, when Muqtada as-Sadr made a very public visit to the Kingdom and had a meeting with the Crown Prince. As-Sadr represents an interesting line of contact for the Saudis – an ambitious and enigmatic Shi'a cleric-politician who portrays himself of late as an anti-corruption Iraqi nationalist. Both he and the Saudis potentially benefit from a closer relationship in the future. Regardless, the public nature of the meeting itself has served as a further message to Tehran that Saudi Arabia may finally have decided that the only way to limit Iranian influence in Iraq is to actively challenge it.

Syria: A farewell to arms

Last week’s confirmation that the CIA-run program to vet and arm Syrian rebel groups in the north of the country was coming to an end was a tacit acknowledgement of the flaws in the scheme. It should also have come as little surprise as, if there has been one thing that Trump has been consistent about, it has been his view of the priority in Syria. Trump has tried to simplify what is a complex conflict by saying the focus was on the defeat of Islamic State and that essentially everything else (including regime change) was secondary to that. As to his view of the CIA-run program of training and arming rebel groups, Trump told The Wall Street Journal last year: 'Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who those people are.'

There are two main views as to the efficacy of the decision to pull the plug on the program. One group protests that such a move yet again cedes Syria policy to Russian (and Iranian) interests and that this represents a ‘loss’ for Washington. The other argues the decision strengthens the hands of Islamist groups, even though there is little evidence the US-backed groups were much of an ameliorating factor on their behaviour. In one Washington Post opinion piece, Trump was accused of trading US leverage (such as it is or was) for nothing.

The reality is that it had been difficult to roll out the program effectively in the chaotic environment of northern Syria. The legal obligation to limit the flow of arms to a conflict zone where end users couldn’t be absolutely guaranteed, shifting loyalties, and unrealistic expectations on the part of the rebels all conspired against its success. Add to this the entry of Russian forces to guarantee their interests in Syria (which have been, still are and will likely remain much greater than Washington’s), and it was inevitable the program would end. If a policy designed simply to achieve a stalemate and force parties to negotiate a political solution is faced with a situation where it can’t achieve that aim, then all that remains is a policy that continues to provide the military means to kill people without the likelihood of a political solution resulting from those actions.  

Naturally advocates of the program can always offer a ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ retrospective, but in some cases programs with either uncertain, or even impossible aims (trying to apply just enough pressure - but not too much - while also striving to account for all weapons even though the CIA didn’t control them was always too big an ask) just can’t succeed. Still, there were reasons at the time for trying it, perhaps the most convincing of which was trying to corral cashed-up Gulf states with little care for end users, or Turkey’s laissez faire approach to border control, into some semblance of systematic (read controlled) support.

Of course, while it appears the armament tap is being turned off in the north, it may well continue in the south where a separate dynamic exists given the concerns over the proximity of pro-Iranian groups close to the Israeli border. A local ceasefire brokered with the help of the Russians (although Washington is at pains to say this event was not linked to the cessation of the CIA arms pipeline) appears to be holding relatively well. But as this lengthy but worthwhile piece argues, while killing off the fatally-flawed arms program may well make sense, there is a strong argument for Washington to maintain a line of non-lethal humanitarian support to those same groups. It’s the least it can do after all.  

Defence exports to the Gulf: No price on values

A recent interview with Christopher Pyne in his capacity as Minister for Defence Industry was somewhat unusual in the way in which he apparently advocated defence export-led closer engagement with Middle Eastern countries.

The problem with defence exports, of course, is that ideally we would like our customers to reflect our own secular liberal values, thereby ensuring that the use of such exports would be subject to the type of constraints that parliamentary democracies impose on their militaries. But this world does not exist, and to governments, defence trade is like other any other trade sector – subject to certain constraints of course, but at the end of the day a business. And there is no better example of where business trumps values than the Middle East – the Gulf states are voracious consumers of defence equipment and the main exporters spare little effort in trying to entwine the monarchies, emirates and sultanates in their arms exports webs. It is a potentially lucrative and extremely competitive environment. But perhaps more importantly, it is a potentially morally difficult one. 

Minister Pyne’s view that we could use defence exports to cement closer relations with the United Arab Emirates because ‘...why wouldn't we want to cement our relationship with a country like the UAE, which shares many of our values…’ is breathtaking in its naivety. Let’s be frank here. The UAE is happy to have Australian and other Western nations based in their country because it suits their purposes and sends a clear message to its real enemy Iran that Abu Dhabi has friends that Tehran doesn’t. Our basing arrangement reveals a commonality of interests, not a sense of shared values. They are not signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nor the Refugee Convention, and they have in the past few years come under criticism for a range of human rights issues. And yesterday the Washington Post reported a claim from US intelligence officials that Abu Dhabi may have been responsible for hacking Qatari government news services and planting a story that set off the current blockade of Qatar. The UAE has denied the claim.

And if the gap between values held by Australia and the UAE is large, then that between Australia and Saudi Arabia is a chasm. Yet in December last year the Minister issued a media release in which he said that 'promoting Australian defence exports has underpinned the Minister’s visits already to the United States and the Middle East and will be his key priority for his visits to Saudi Arabia.’ Given both Saudi and Emirati forces are still involved in their ill-conceived military intervention in Yemen (in which both sides stand accused of human rights violations) more than two years after it began, the pitfalls in exporting defence equipment in this environment are readily apparent, as the UK has found. And even short of a full-scale conflict (as is the case in Yemen), the willingness of regional states to suppress political expression can also provide headaches for defence exporters. When Bahrainis called for political reforms in March 2011, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent forces to help the Bahraini government suppress the protests. As Saudi forces drove along the causeway, the presence of Canadian-built vehicles brought its own concerns as to the end use of such equipment.

This is the environment into which the Minister is seeking to export Australian materiel. On the one hand, trade is trade, and as he has pointed out there are always protocols in place to restrict the purposes for which export materiel can be used (although the degree to which the end users adhere to them requires a degree of trust). But what we should always be clear-headed about is the degree to which it is our interests, rather than shared values, that tie us to states in the region. And if the Minister wishes to be the chief salesman for defence exports to the Middle East, then he should also be highly informed about the customers to whom he wishes to sell.

Stalemate in Qatar dispute

It was Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone who uttered the famous words ‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse’. In the current imbroglio between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, the 13-point list of demands issued by Riyadh could well be described as making Doha an offer it can’t accept.  We are led to believe the demands included the closure of al-Jazeera television, the downgrading of diplomatic relations with Iran, the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar and the payment of reparations for the opportunity costs claimed by the document’s authors. And a reporting mechanism to check adherence monthly for the first year and then annually for the next decade.  And Qatar was given just 10 days to accept these terms. There is obviously no way that a state could agree to such attacks on its sovereignty.   

Tension between Qatar and its neighbours is not new, but this time both the public nature of the dispute and the significant diplomatic and economic sanctions against Doha are of an order of magnitude not seen previously. For all the talk of sponsoring terrorists and of a too-close relationship with Iran, perhaps the most open point of friction is Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Gulf states understand that it is political Islam in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than terrorism or Iran, that is a real existential threat to them. Doha’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups was the key element of the last diplomatic imbroglio between Doha and its neighbours in 2014. 

There are, of course, other contextual aspects involved. These include an emboldened Saudi Arabia that is looking to establish itself as the regional leader now it feels the Trump Administration has done away with the Obama Administration’s circumspection regarding Riyadh’s ability to be a force for regional stability. There is also a belief that Doha has not followed through with the actions expected of it following the 2014 diplomatic upset. And there is the need to demonstrate how essential Sunni Arab solidarity is in the face of fears that Iran and its proxies are on the move.

The problem of course at this point is the nature of the 13 demands made by Riyadh. Satisfying these would require complete capitulation by Qatar. The making of such precipitous demands bears an unflattering resemblance to Riyadh's equally hard-nosed but poorly thought out military action against Yemen. Punitive action without any clear sense of a strategic end state can often weaken a state's power rather than enhance it. If Saudi Arabia can't make Doha dance to its tune, then Riyadh runs the risk of further reducing regional states' confidence in its leadership capabilities. Last night's meeting in Cairo of the boycotting states' foreign ministers produced a statement and a commitment to meet again later in Bahrain and the statement's principles may serve as the basis for future negotiations, replacing the existing draconian demands.

With support from Turkey and Iran, and a bifurcated response from Washington between the White House and the State Department, there is little pressure on the Qatari ruling family from outside the Arab League. For their part, those who authored the 13-point list would surely have known what they were asking was too onerous to ever be agreed to (if they didn't, it exhibits the type of hubris that doesn't bode well for the future) and militarising the dispute is not a realistic option. So there are few options open to bring an end to the dispute. Riyadh and its allies could perhaps squeeze members of the Qatari business elite and use them to pressure the al-Thanis from within, but the ruling elite can also play the Qatari nationalism card and draw on enormous national wealth to survive.    

Qatar of course has some of its own weapons that it can employ – it has already announced a 30% increase in its production of LNG (with potential downsides for other expoters including Australia) - and half of UAE's electricity needs are met by Qatari gas through a jointly-owned pipeline. And although there is a port ban for Qatari vessels the supertankers that often carry a mix of crudes from different countries appear to be exempt.

This dispute may well continue for longer than many anticipated when it began. As the Kuwaitis act as the mediators and go-betweens in this drama, and the region goes into its school holiday slumber, it is likely to be a long, hot summer of negotiations. 

Lifting the veil on jihad

In April 2015 a fresh-faced Australian-born doctor appeared in a slick Islamic State video extolling the virtues of making hijra to what he portrayed as a utopian Islamic society. The video showed the doctor, Tareq Kamleh, in a pristine and well-equipped paediatric ward tending to a premature baby.

Fast forward two years and the picture is somewhat different, as shown in this video, released yesterday. Kamleh's clean-cut face now sports a wispy beard and he no longer looks fresh, while the hospital surrounds are less salubrious as the dystopian Islamic society that Kamleh helped create crumbles around him. This time the children he tends to are dying, a tragedy that is a grim and apt analogy for the violent and intolerant caliphate that Kamleh and thousands of other Western Muslims rushed to join. Aside from a reminder of the tragedy of war, what is particularly interesting about this video is that part-way through (around 3:15) Kamleh's humanitarian guise gives way to an AK-47 wielding jihadi speaking from an underground cave calling for true Muslims to join the hopeless fight but to also realise that their jihad should not be geographically defined. The video ends by telling President Trump that Kamleh is glad US soldiers are in Syria because jihadis love death more than they love life. A familiar if somewhat tired jihadi refrain.

This latest video, that shows Kamleh has gone about as far from the Hippocratic Oath (or Declaration of Geneva in modern parlance) as a doctor can, is a timely reminder to people who rely on social media grabs to determine the actions of someone traveling to Syria or Iraq allegedly to provide ‘humanitarian support’. That 2015 video of Kamleh in a paediatric ward should have fooled no one (it certainly didn't fool the authorities who charged him with three terrorism offences) as to his true intentions. Clearly he and Islamic State only showed what they wanted us to see.

The same holds for others who have travelled to Syria to join IS or al-Qa’ida but, wishing to avoid the legal unpleasantries that membership of a terrorist organisation brings, claim they have gone to provide humanitarian aid. This type of fabricated claim has been a constant feature of this conflict since its earliest days. Adam Brookman from Melbourne, for instance, claimed he entered Syria to provide humanitarian assistance without any evidence of links with a humanitarian aid group. Authorities didn't believe it and charged him. Another Australian Muslim convert, Oliver Bridgeman, has also presented himself as a humanitarian aid worker, largely through the selected release of video clips that show him working with children, and a soft expose on 60 Minutes. Again, the authorities have formed a different view of his activities, and in March last year issued an arrest warrant for 'incursions into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities'.

In the social media age in which we live, it is right to be cynical about those who claim to be traveling to jihadist conflict zones for humanitarian purposes only. Unless they also provide verifiable evidence of connections with legitimate humanitarian aid groups, their claims should carry little weight. Whatever other purpose it serves, Tareq Kamleh’s latest video is a jarring demonstration of the jihadi propensity to cite humanitarian activities in a bid to disguise their true motivations and actions. The Lowy Institute will be releasing a research paper on this issue later this year.  

Saudi succession shuffle

Today's announcement that Saudi Arabia's King Salman has reshuffled the line of succession in favour of his son Mohammed bin Salman is surprising, but not unexpected.

MBS, as he is often referred to, has been moved from Deputy Crown Prince to Crown Prince, while Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), the King's nephew, has been moved aside as Crown Prince, and has also lost his powerful position as Interior Minister.

The move itself was not unexpected given that Salman has been concentrating power in his son's hands from the moment he became King in 2015. MBS rapidly became the key figure in the country's internal and foreign policies, but MBS also knew that his chances of becoming King might have been forestalled if his father died before he could consolidate his power, especially vis-à-vis his key rival in the family, MBN.

What is more surprising is the timing. There were few hints that the King was about to make such a dramatic move. Less than a week ago the King stripped MBN of his powers to oversee criminal investigations. This suggested that the gradual process of consolidating MBS's position was continuing. Why strip MBN of some of his power if you are going to remove him from power altogether just a few days later?

We can only guess at what might have brought matters to a head: perhaps MBN cavilled at the recent moves; perhaps the aged King's health has deteriorated in some way; it may also be that MBN's health was a factor here, given that he too has reportedly been in poor health.

Such is the opacity of moves within the Saudi Royal Court that it is always going to be a guessing game – even for members of the royal family.

The move itself is not an unprecedented one. The Saudi royal family has a long history of shuffling and reshuffling the succession. In the past it has made decisions to jump princes in the line of succession if they were considered unsuitable to become King.

King Salman himself removed his brother, Prince Muqrin, from the post of Crown Prince shortly after coming to power, giving the job to MBN. That move was significant because it was the first time that a member of the next generation had become Crown Prince. Prior to that, all the Kings of Saudi Arabia had been sons of the founder of the modern Saudi State, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

Nevertheless, the turnover in senior positions in the Kingdom has been very rapid since Salman became King. This may have generated discontent within the family. The question is, however, whether that discontent would be sufficient to cause members of the family to challenge either King Salman or MBS, or to link up with domestic forces opposed to them.

History shows us that Saudi royals might grumble and moan but they tend to stick together in the knowledge that if the family goes down then everyone in the family goes down too. And it is difficult to see where the challenge to Salman or MBS might come from, given how assiduously they have centralised power and how few senior princes there are left in the family. If I had to put my money on anything, I would bet that this move will pass unchallenged.

Nevertheless, what makes me a little more cautious about continuing to wager on Saudi stability are the aggressive reforms and policies that MBS has been driving in a country long known for its conservatism and caution.

MBS has led the Saudis into an inconclusive war in Yemen, albeit one that is not causing too many Saudi casualties (although it has been a humanitarian disaster for the Yemeni population). His economic reform plans have been ambitious and have met with resistance. He was also probably behind recent moves to isolate Qatar that now seem to be overreaching, with the United States starting to question them.

As Interior Minister, MBN was also heavily credited with successfully containing the terrorist threat within the Kingdom. Should terror attacks resume, should the war in Yemen become costlier in Saudi treasure or blood, or should MBS's economic reform plans fail, it may give some in the family or in the country motive or opportunity to challenge the young Prince's position.

This would be a bold move and there are real questions about how anyone might actually go about challenging MBS. Here the role (and health) of MBN could be a factor and it will be interesting to see how the former Crown Prince responds to his demotion in coming days, weeks and months.


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