Arabs overwhelmingly hope Biden parts ways with Obama legacy: poll

The survey found 40 percent thought Biden, on the campaign trail, below, would be better for the region; 12 percent felt Trump would be good for the region, while 49 percent said neither candidate would be good for the Arab world. (AFP)
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Updated 27 October 2020

Arabs overwhelmingly hope Biden parts ways with Obama legacy: poll

  • Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey shows lack of clarity about the implications of a Democratic election win
  • Skeptics of the Iran nuclear deal want Biden to dump his Obama-era baggage and adopt a hard line on Tehran

BEIRUT: Barack Obama, the former US president, left the Middle East in far worse shape than when he assumed office in 2009, according to about 53 percent of respondents in a pan-Arab poll conducted by YouGov for Arab News.
With this in mind, you might expect Arabs to broadly favor Republican candidate Donald Trump over his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 3.
Yet the Arab News/YouGov survey found Biden would be better for the region with 40 percent, against 12 percent who said Trump would be good for the region. That said, some 49 percent said neither candidate would be good for the Arab world.
However, as Obama’s vice president, some observers wonder whether a victorious Biden would simply pick up where his old boss left off. This is a particular concern for those who want to see a tough US stance on Iran.
Indeed, it was during Obama’s second term that the US signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for abandoning its ambitions to build a bomb.

Trump, who is up for re-election, withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, reimposing a raft of crippling sanctions on Iran. With European signatories fighting to salvage the landmark accord, Biden could conceivably turn back the clock.
Some 35 percent of Arabs polled in the Arab News/YouGov survey said they believe the US withdrawal from the JCPOA had a negative impact on the Middle East. Residents of Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were most likely to say the withdrawal and increased sanctions have made the region safer.
“There’s no question that the Iran nuclear deal failed to block the Iranian regime’s path to nuclear weapons,” said Ali Safavi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
“Indeed, the regime took the billions the JCPOA provided and propped up the criminal regime in Syria, armed and funded the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon, the terrorist Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.”
For Safavi and his NCRI colleagues, the only effective policy is one that exerts “maximum pressure” on the regime in Tehran and “holds it to account for its countless human rights violations.”
It appears his skepticism is widely shared. Now critics of the JCPOA want to know whether Biden is prepared to dispense with his Obama-era baggage. “Iran is the key issue in understanding much of the Arab world’s bad aftertaste of the Obama administration,” David Romano, Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University, told Arab News.
“They know that the Obama-Biden administration gave Iran a free pass on all kinds of nefarious activities in the region in order to coax them into the nuclear agreement.”
Mindful of Tehran’s perceived malfeasance, about 58 percent of Arabs polled want Biden to distance himself from Obama’s hands-off approach to Iran and instead tackle the problem head-on.
Simultaneously, Arabs want the US to maintain its tough stance on Iran, even if they are divided over what strategy Washington should employ, according to the Arab News/YouGov survey.

READ: The methodology behind the Arab News/YouGov Pan-Arab Survey

Respondents in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which are willy-nilly intimately tied to Iran, were especially in favor of a tough line. Asked what strategy the next US president should take in future dealings with Iran, a large proportion — 53 percent in Iraq, 49 percent in Saudi Arabia and 54 percent in Yemen — favored maintaining strict sanctions and a war-like posture.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council, says it is understandable that many in the region view the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency with some unease.
“A reversion to any form of acceptance of the Iranian regime’s regional policy or sending ‘plane loads of cash’ to Tehran risks undermining peace in the Middle East,” he told Arab News. “Both presidential candidates must look to build on the good work of the Abraham Accords in fighting back against this narrative.”
While the Arab world overall is split on the potential impact of the killing in January by the US of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iran’s extraterritorial Quds Force, the geographic differences highlighted by the Arab News/YouGov survey are perhaps more significant.

People living in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were very supportive, with respectively 71, percent, 68 percent and 57 percent viewing it as a positive move for the region. In contrast, 59 percent of respondents in Lebanon and 62 percent in Qatar said it was a negative move for the region.
“The poll accurately assesses the interests of Arab states,” said Dr. John Hulsman, president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consultancy.
That said, one factor the Arab world must not underestimate, according to Hulsman, is the depth of the desire among American leaders of all political stripes to find an exit from the Middle East and pivot elsewhere.
“Oddly enough, despite Obama and Trump being the two least likely people in the world to share any commonalities at all, they do have a similar view of the Middle East, and that is ‘let’s get out,’” he told Arab News.
“We have had presidencies destroyed (over the US presence in the region) and there is no benefit to staying in. We have overestimated the importance of the region. All the risk and reward, all the future global growth — that all lies in Asia now.”
For Hulsman, the real challenge for whoever wins the election is how to disengage from the region while retaining some semblance of stability.

Significantly, Iran figures high on the list of what Arabs think are the greatest threats facing the US, according to the Arab News/YouGov survey. It occupied third place, after white nationalism and China.
Despite their concerns about Iran’s malign influence in their own neighborhood, why did not more than 9 percent feel Tehran poses a bigger threat to Washington than China? “It shows that the typical Arab is not convinced that the US is on his side when it comes to Iran,” Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Washington DC-based Arab Center, told Arab News.
Although Biden has branded Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran a failure, there are scant clues as to what line he might take should he assume office, leaving Arab leaders guessing.
This uncertainty is reflected in the Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey, with the largest proportion of Arab respondents rejecting both Trump and Biden. For critics such as Safavi, it makes little difference who wins unless the US is prepared to come down hard.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the election, the experience of the past four decades has made it palpably clear that no amount of political and economic concessions will result in change in the behavior of the theocracy that has ruled Iran with an iron fist,” Safavi said.

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor



Syrian victims of chemical attacks file case with French prosecutors

Updated 02 March 2021

Syrian victims of chemical attacks file case with French prosecutors

  • France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees
  • The case follows a similar one opened in Germany last year

PARIS: Lawyers representing survivors of a chemical weapons attack in 2013 in Syria have filed a criminal complaint against Syrian officials whom they blame for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a rebel-held area.
France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.
The case, which about a dozen people have joined, follows a similar one opened in Germany last year. It offers a rare legal avenue for action against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria have been blocked by Russia and China at the UN Security Council.
“This is important so that the victims have the possibility to see those responsible being brought to justice and held accountable,” Mazen Darwish, who heads the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), told Reuters.
The SCM filed the complaint along with two other NGOs: the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive.
France’s intelligence services concluded in 2013 that a sarin gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta region just south east of Damascas that killed 1,400 people had been carried out by Syrian government forces.
The Syrian government denies it has used chemical weapons against its own civilians.
The complaint is based on what the lawyers say is the most comprehensive body of evidence on the use of substances such as sarin gas in Syria.
They include testimonies from survivors and defectors, an analysis of the Syrian military chain of command, and hundreds of items of documentary evidence, including photos and videos.
“We have compiled extensive evidence establishing exactly who is responsible for these attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta, whose horrific effects continue to impact survivors,” said Hadi al Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive.
A UN-commissioned investigation to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces had used chlorine and sarin gas.
Darwish said he expected another case to be opened in Sweden in the coming months.

Morocco cuts contacts with German embassy in WSahara spat

Updated 02 March 2021

Morocco cuts contacts with German embassy in WSahara spat

  • Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said the decision to suspend dealings with the embassy as well as German cultural organizations was taken in response to “deep misunderstandings”

RABAT: Morocco has suspended contacts with the German embassy, the foreign minister announced in a letter published late Monday, in what officials said was a protest over Berlin’s stance on the Western Sahara dispute.
In the letter addressed to the prime minister and published by Moroccan media, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said the decision to suspend dealings with the embassy as well as German cultural organizations was taken in response to “deep misunderstandings” on “issues fundamental for Morocco.”
“Morocco wishes to preserve its relationship with Germany but this is a form of warning expressing unease over many issues,” a senior foreign ministry official told AFP late Monday.
“There will be no contact until we have received answers to the various questions we have posed.”
Morocco was angered by German criticism of former US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for moves by Rabat to normalize its relations with Israel, the official said.
It was also dismayed that it was kept out of discussions on Libya’s political future at a congress in Berlin in January 2000.
Morocco insists its claim to sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara is non-negotiable, despite the rival claims of the pro-independence Polisario Front, with which it fought a 1975-91 war.
Morocco has had generally good relations with Germany, which is a major donor.
Three months ago the foreign minister hailed the “excellence of bilateral cooperation” after Berlin released 1.387 billion euros in support for Moroccan financial reforms and coronavirus countermeasures.

Iraq receives first Covid vaccines, gift from China

Updated 02 March 2021

Iraq receives first Covid vaccines, gift from China

  • Health ministry spokesman Seif Al-Badr told reporters that the first delivery in the early hours meant inoculations could begin
  • Sinopharm affiliate Wuhan Institute Of Biological Products says its vaccine has an efficacy rate of 72.51 percent

BAGHDAD: Iraq on Tuesday received 50,000 Sinopharm vaccines donated by China, the health ministry announced, launching a long-awaited vaccination campaign.
Health ministry spokesman Seif Al-Badr told reporters that the first delivery in the early hours meant inoculations could begin.
“The doses will be delivered to Baghdad’s three main hospitals, and maybe to some provinces,” said Badr, who confirmed the jabs were donations.
“We will start vaccinations today, Tuesday,” he said.
The health ministry simultaneously announced it had agreed with the Chinese ambassador in Baghdad to purchase another two million doses, with no details on payment or timing.
Sinopharm affiliate Wuhan Institute Of Biological Products says its vaccine has an efficacy rate of 72.51 percent, behind rival jabs by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which have 95 percent and 94.5 percent rates respectively.
Hours earlier, on Monday afternoon, the health ministry launched an online platform for citizens to register for vaccinations, but it had not said the campaign would begin the next day and the page was not functional on Tuesday.
It has said health workers, security forces and the elderly would be prioritized and that the vaccine would be administered free of charge, but has given few other details.
The first jabs arrived as the Iraqi government faces growing criticism of its handling of the pandemic.
The country has been hit by a second wave of COVID-19 infections, with more than 3,000 new cases reported daily, a few months after they had dropped to around 700 a day, and deaths also tripling to around 25 a day in recent weeks.
To stop the spread, Iraq has imposed overnight curfews during weekdays and full lockdowns on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with obligatory mask-wearing in public.
But there is little commitment by either the public or security forces deployed to enforce the measures, in a country whose health sector has been ravaged by decades of war, corruption and slim investment.
Some Iraqi officials have already been vaccinated.
Two current and one former Iraqi official told AFP in January they had already received doses of “the Chinese vaccine.”
They said 1,000 vaccine doses had been gifted to a senior Iraqi politician through contacts in China and had been distributed to top politicians and government officials.

First Emirati ambassador to Israel arrives to start post

Updated 02 March 2021

First Emirati ambassador to Israel arrives to start post

  • Official reception held for the UAE Ambassador where he handed over his credentials to the President of Israel
  • The two men discussed bilateral relations and the significant growth they have witnessed since the signing of the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement

JERUSALEM: The United Arab Emirates’ first ambassador to Israel arrived Monday to start his posting in Tel Aviv, barely half a year after the countries formally established diplomatic relations.
Ambassador Mohamed Al KHajja met with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Jerusalem ahead of a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin to formally present his credentials.
The new relations between the countries “will remain a beacon of light and hope in human history, for all of the peace-loving people,” Al Kaja said in Arabic.
Israel and the UAE announced what have become known as the “Abraham Accords” in August to normalize ties under a US-brokered deal. The name refers to the patriarch of the world’s three major monotheistic religions.
The two countries had nurtured clandestine security ties for years over a shared distrust of regional foe Iran. They signed the deal to establish full diplomatic relations on the White House lawn in September.
Since August, the US has brokered deals to initiate diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Until then, Egypt and Jordan were the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel, in 1979 and 1994, respectively.


How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

Updated 02 March 2021

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

  • Deaths of 13 hostages held by the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Gara region came to light after Turkish airstrikes
  • President has used the incident to whip up nationalistic fervor and dial up pressure on opposition parties

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: In the immediate aftermath of a failed cross-border, hostage rescue attempt earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened further military action against Kurdish fighters abroad and ratcheted up the rhetoric against his secularist opponents at home.

Erdogan’s latest foray against the PKK, an armed group fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey, has quickly expanded into a fresh crackdown on the pro-Kurdish HDP political party as well as a war of words with Washington over its ado-hoc alliance with a Syrian Kurdish PKK affiliate in the fight against Daesh.

It all began on February 13, when Turkey launched a raid against the PKK in the Gara region of Iraqi Kurdistan. After clashes, 13 Turkish citizens, most of them police officers and soldiers in PKK captivity since 2015 and 2016, were found dead.

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on the cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. (AFP)

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on a cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. Even as many Turks cast doubt on the government’s version of the events, security agencies arrested more than 700 people, including members of the HDP accused by Erdogan of being “official terrorist accomplices.”

Using the same political logic, Erdogan also accused the US of supporting terrorism. “What kind of NATO alliance is this? … They (the Americans) still act with terrorists,” he said on February 22, referring to US alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group in the campaign against Daesh in northeast Syria. The leading political entity in northeast Syria is the Kurdish PYD, which was founded as the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Many analysts view the combination of the crackdown at home and the outburst against the US as a cynical attempt by Erdogan to divert attention away from the bloody outcome of the hostage-rescue operation.

The developments also come as the Turkish people continue to struggle financially, student frustrations spill over into violence, and the country's management of the coronavirus crisis is rated a lowly 74th out of 98 by the Lowy Institute's COVID Performance Index.

In addition to Iraqi Shiite militia groups, many of them backed by Iran, PKK affiliates present in Sinjar will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there. (AFP)

“Erdogan and the Turkish government do not view the hostage-rescue operation as a failure,” Emily Hawthorne, Stratfor Senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, told Arab News. “The whipping up of patriotic fervour and the crackdown on the HDP are a familiar tactic employed by Erdogan to drum up support of his nationalist base for anti-PKK operations.”

She said the mileage Erdogan could get out of the crisis was not unlimited. “If the PKK did in fact kill the hostages, it will help build support at home in Turkey for more anti-PKK operations abroad and might strengthen Ankara case for more leeway in its Iraqi operations," Hawthorne said. “But it won’t help much with negative Iraqi public opinion vis-a-vis the operations.”

Clashes between Turkey and the PKK in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast markedly decreased in 2020, compared with the years when the Turkish-PKK conflict (which began in 1984) flared following the collapse of a ceasefire in July 2015. Fighting now takes place mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of late, Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. In January, Turkish officials met with the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership and discussed, among other things, removing the PKK from that region.

However, in addition to PKK affiliates, Iraqi Shiite militia groups, many of them backed by Iran, are present in Sinjar and will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there.

Under the circumstances, Hawthorne doubts that Erdogan can effectively invoke the deaths of the Turkish hostages during the Gara raid to win some support from the Biden administration for another bloody offensive against the PKK.

“The Turkish government has tried and failed for years to appeal to the US government regarding its concerns about the PKK,” she said. “It is unlikely that the US will become softer towards Turkey because of one particularly difficult and deadly operation in a decades-long struggle.”

More generally, the Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. But if fresh incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, or even a new foray into Sinjar, happen, Hawthorne anticipates that the “further south the operations are, the more complicated the issue will be with the Iraqi government.”

Her views are echoed by Kurdish analyst Gunes Murat Tezcur, the Jalal Talabani Chair and Professor at the University of Central Florida, who believes the failed Gara operation is unlikely to “have any influence over the Biden administration’s current policy towards Turkey, which is characterized by a divergence of interests at multiple levels.”

These include US opposition to Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defense missiles and Turkey’s opposition to American cooperation with the SDF in Syria. Furthermore, Tezcur said it is an indisputable fact that the Gara raid was a failure since it led to the deaths of all the hostages.

“The contrast with a successful rescue operation, such as the one conducted by Israel at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976, is instructive in this regard,” he told Arab News, adding that one of the Gara raid’s negative outcomes is that Erdogan will not be able to “score any political points domestically.”

Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. (AFP)

Even so, the opposition cannot hold the President Erdogan accountable for the loss of Turkish lives in view of “the prevailing power asymmetry” in Turkey, arising from his government’s domination over the media and the weakened state of parliament.

Analysts also say Erdogan’s relentless hounding of the HDP is part of a strategy, in play since 2015, of demonizing and criminalizing its leadership by equating it with the outlawed PKK and denying it autonomy as a political party.

“That strategy, which has had its ebbs and downs, has been very consistent for the last several years,” Tezcur said. “It keeps the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), the junior partner of the ruling coalition, content, and aims to drive a wedge between the HDP and other Turkish opposition parties.”

He also noted that the HDP has become more dispensable for the government since the Turkish military and security forces have established stronger military leverage over the PKK in recent years, at least partially through technological developments such as the use of sophisticated and lethal armed drones.

“The government feels that it no longer needs the messenger/mediating role of the HDP given its relentless military operations that significantly limit the PKK’s room for maneuver,” Tezcur said.

While he foresees more Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan aimed at PKK bases throughout this year, he doubts that the Turkish military will open a new front by launching an unprecedented ground assault on Sinjar.

The Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. (AFP)

At least three factors have led Tezcur to this conclusion. First and foremost is the presence of Iraqi military and Shiite militia groups in the Yazidi homeland.

Then there is the “considerable international concern and sympathy” for the beleaguered Yazidis, who were subjected to a vicious campaign of genocide by Daesh in 2014.

Finally, the distance from the border would make logistical support for a ground operation considerably more difficult for the Turkish army.

Among those who view the arrests of HDP members as Erdogan’s way of shifting blame for the Gara raid failure is Mohammed Salih, a Kurdish affairs analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

The actions of Erdogan “reveal the impunity, at both the domestic and international levels, with which he can behave in an authoritarian way,” Salih told Arab News.

“The Turkish leader will certainly continue military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan because foreign operations are now a sure way for him to deflect attention from the many problems at home.”

As for the Biden administration, Salih said it “has already made clear, with its silence over the mass arrests, and the violations of Kurdish rights in Turkey in general, that the human and democratic rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey are practically of no value.”

Twitter: @pauliddon


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