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Biden euphoria will quickly hit turbulence in Middle East

Biden euphoria will quickly hit turbulence in Middle East

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Well, it is only just 2021 and what a month we have already had. New and more transmittable forms of the coronavirus disease; a US president in denial about a lost election; an attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill; Iranian “suicide drones” on patrol and long-range ballistic missiles apparently falling within 100 miles of US naval ships in the Indian Ocean; Hamas and its fellow armed Islamists mounting joint military exercises in Gaza; Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar making up; and Israel striking Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria yet again.
The outgoing Trump administration has imposed a raft of new sanctions on a bunch of bad guys, including the former Iraqi national security adviser, and designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization — all meant (so we are told by the commentariat) to make life difficult for the incoming Biden administration. In return, the Biden administration has promised to try to reverse some, if not all, of these measures. The US has dispatched, recalled and then re-sent an aircraft carrier to the region, along with some highly visible B-52s. Iran continues to ratchet up its enrichment activity and talks of war while hoping to avoid it. Meanwhile, in the background, you can hear once again the steady beat of that old diplomatic dance favorite — J.C.P.O.A, J.C.P.O.A.
In the UK, Brexit has more or less happened. There aren’t desperate queues at Dover (though the BBC has tried very hard to find them) and life goes on. In Germany, we have a replacement at last for Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (though not necessarily as chancellor): A man who questioned the attribution of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings to Russia, accused the US of trying to weaken Bashar Assad in his righteous struggle against Al-Qaeda and Daesh, defends Vladimir Putin, and supports a policy turn to China.
The governments of France and Austria continue to battle Islamism. As a result, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whom Joe Biden has in the recent past criticized publicly — accuses Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz of Islamophobia or mental deficiency, doubles down on his purchase of the pointless S-400 Russian anti-aircraft defense system, and tries to make nice with Greece and Israel over the eastern Mediterranean, while the Turkish economy continues to stagnate. Meanwhile, over in Tehran, Ali Khamenei says it would be pointless negotiating with the US, while President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, by opposing a parliamentary demand to let enrichment rip, try to suggest they might want to do so if the conditions were right.
What connects all of this? It is that popular Broadway hit, “Waiting for Joe,” in which a chastened US emerges from the moral wastelands of the Trump years and finds itself reborn under the paternal guidance of a wise and genial patriarch who has taken care to appoint a range of old Obama-era hands — Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, Wendy Sherman, Samantha Power and Lloyd Austin (all played by Tom Hanks) — and some highly able, zesty and zeitgeisty newcomers (many of them women, people of color and/or LGBTQ, we are encouraged to understand), all of them committed to multilateralism, democracy, decency, integrity and public service. Brett McGurk is back too, perhaps rather to the dismay of many of those Iraqis, Kurds and Turks who dealt with him in his previous incarnations.
It is certainly true that Donald Trump seems to have been the sort of person, motivated by “ambition, avarice and personal animosity” and willing to foment electoral “tumult and disorder,” about whom the authors of the Federalist Papers warned us 230 years ago. Not that it matters, but I am glad he is going. I am also glad to see honorable and experienced people like Burns returning to government service. And I am very much in favor of hard-headed multilateralism and productive collegiality among like-minded countries.

If left unchecked, the swirling tides of various social justice movements will simply add to what is already a high degree of polarization

Sir John Jenkins

But it would also be wise to pause a moment or two before simply being carried away by our emotion at Trump’s departure and Biden’s arrival. However their personalities differ and however principled Biden and his team might be, some things remain intractably the same, and the challenges of managing a fractured world — and indeed fractured domestic politics — have not got any easier.
First of all, there is clearly an issue with domestic political cohesion within the US, as there is in many other Western democracies. For a variety of reasons — growing economic inequity, the increasing gulf in social, political and economic capital between highly educated, mobile and internationalist elites and others, a growing contempt for nation, community and religion, the rise of the cult of progressivism and so forth — political polarization has become startlingly severe. That is fueled by bizarre conspiracy theories on all sides, intolerance of dissent, the weaponization of language, and the online mobbing of opponents. All of which erodes social trust and poisons open and rational debate, both of which lie at the heart of the democratic project.
Already we have seen a variety of claims about what exactly happened during the invasion of the Capitol. Was it a genuine attempt to overthrow the government — and indeed do serious harm to those in Congress — or was it just a cosplay mob that got out of control? So far, the answer to this depends on your political position. But the truth will eventually emerge through the legal processes that have already started. And this gives me some hope. Trump was a menace, aided and abetted by significant numbers of senior Republicans, who should have known better. But the forces of law and order have in the end done what they are supposed to do. Biden became the president on Wednesday. The system has worked.
There is rebuilding to be done, not least within the Republican Party (the party, remember, of Abraham Lincoln). But the Democrats need to think hard about themselves too. Their self-indulgent obsession with a Russian plot to put Trump in the White House distracted them from the business of making things better. They failed to impeach him once and may well fail again. And people remember that many Democrats who fulminated against the “MAGA” insurrection were fine when social justice mobs were tearing down statues and torching federal buildings last summer.
If left unchecked, the swirling tides of various social justice movements will simply add to what is already a high degree of polarization. That is a recipe for political conflict and policy impotence. And it is not clear where the new administration as a whole will come down on this. Biden himself is an avuncular, old-fashioned pragmatist. But what about Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “The Squad?” And all those other Democratic activists now baying for revenge? With a significant proportion of the 74 million people who voted for Trump still believing there was something wrong with the election, it will be a major challenge for the Biden administration to fix this.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the problems of endemic conflict, governance, corruption, legitimacy, economic stagnation and social division remain deeply entrenched. Some of Biden’s incoming officials have publicly acknowledged that the Obama administration made mistakes in failing to act over Syria or Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including the subversion of its neighbors, funding of destructive Shiite militias, and missile proliferation. And there has already been some suggestion that the US will need to rethink its strategy, especially if it is serious about a successor to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — or a renegotiated version of what we already have. Tehran is demanding compensation for the losses it has allegedly suffered as a result of US sanctions. While that seems to me to be a non-starter, there are probably other things the US could offer as incentives, as Dennis Ross and others have suggested, including access to frozen assets and further waivers to third countries that import Iranian energy products in return for serious and verifiable steps from Tehran. Or it could hang tough and focus on more pressing issues elsewhere. But it is not going to be easy: It never is with Iran.

Reconstructing a more collegiate and strategically informed US position in the Middle East and North Africa will not be simple

Sir John Jenkins

Meanwhile, the Iranians continue to double down in their effort to get US military forces out of Iraq and Syria — and ultimately out of the region entirely. The Khomeinist militias in Iraq have been bellicose even by their standards, threatening US personnel and property and even their own government, firing rockets and planting improvised explosive devices, while Iran pretends to restrain them. Meanwhile, Khamenei, Rouhani and Hassan Nasrallah issue threats of revenge against Israel, which they have publicly blamed for the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November. And Iran’s friends and allies continue to embed themselves in the institutions not just of the Iraqi, Syrian or Lebanese state, but of daily life: Banks, schools, cooperatives, hospitals and clinics, the justice system, construction companies, real estate, insurance, transport, and so forth.
Some things that happened under Trump are highly bankable. The normalization process between Israel and certain previously hostile Arab states represents a potentially profound shift in the security architecture of the region. Much of the commentary on the “reconciliation” of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with Qatar strikes me as overblown: If Qatar does not seriously change its behavior or its relationship with Islamists, Iran and Turkey, fundamental problems will remain. But at least it removes the issue of closed borders and overflights from the to-do list.
If Erdogan, in turn, genuinely means to dial down the tensions with Turkey’s neighbors, that would be good. But Washington will still need to take a view on the question of Gulf security and the equally complicated politics of northeastern Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government, not to mention its relations with dysfunctional governments in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, where Ankara — a NATO ally after all — is unlikely to help much. It will be faced with elections in Israel, Iran, maybe Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, where the need for US re-engagement remains pressing. It will also need to decide how much effort to put into rolling back Russian influence, when China and the whole Pacific region are shaping up to be defining issues well ahead of schedule.
In Europe, all the noises about a reset will come up against the usual French self-aggrandizement and German ambivalence. They already have, with the European Commission’s signing of an EU-China investment agreement in the face of serious US reservations — and apparently without consultation. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, has said the EU needs to be a geopolitical player in its own right, which is an interesting and perhaps slightly worrying concept, given the historical role of NATO in guaranteeing European security. In truth, the only truly Atlanticist states within the EU are now the Netherlands and Denmark. And the only properly capable European Atlanticist state is the UK (as US administrations keep having to rediscover). This will be another area where triangulation will be difficult.
None of this is meant to suggest that a Biden administration is not a good thing. After Trump, it most certainly is. But not everything the Trump administration did was bad. It got China right, it changed the equation on relations between the Arab states and Israel, it didn’t try to promote half-understood political change and it squeezed Iran hard. There were also continuities with Barack Obama: Over military force reductions, an unwillingness to get drawn into unnecessary (and some occasionally necessary) conflicts, a focus on counterterrorism and trade, and a realist position on Turkey. And reconstructing a more collegiate and strategically informed US position in the Middle East and North Africa will not be simple, with the same competing demands as each of the three previous administrations have faced, only this time rebooted. After the euphoria of Biden’s inauguration, prepare for a different sort of turbulence. But also, prepare to help.

•  Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.

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White House says Biden will be discussing Iran with foreign partners

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki takes questions from journalists. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 January 2021

White House says Biden will be discussing Iran with foreign partners

  • Former President Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2018

WASHINGTON: The US seeks to lengthen and strengthen the nuclear constraints on Iran through diplomacy and the issue will be part of President Joe Biden’s early talks with foreign counterparts and allies, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Biden has said that if Tehran resumed strict compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement — under which Iran restrained its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions — Washington would too.

“The president has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern. Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for that to proceed,” Psaki said in a briefing.
“We would expect that some of his earlier conversations with foreign counterparts and foreign leaders will be with partners and allies and you would certainly anticipate that this would be part of the discussions,” Psaki added.

Former President Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and Iran in return has gradually breached its key limits, building up its stockpile of low enriched uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels of purity and installing centrifuges in ways barred by the deal.

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On Tuesday, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington did not face a quick decision on whether to rejoin the nuclear deal and the Democratic president would need to see what Iran actually did to resume complying with the pact.

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Israeli troops kill another unarmed Palestinian

Updated 19 August 2022

Israeli troops kill another unarmed Palestinian

  • Anger in West Bank after man, 58, is shot on his way home from morning prayers

RAMALLAH, West Bank: There was growing outrage in the occupied West Bank on Friday after Israeli troops killed another unarmed Palestinian man.

Saleh Sawafta, 58, was returning from dawn prayers at a mosque near his home in Tubas when he was shot in the head. Doctors fought to save his life, but Sawafta died from “critical wounds.”

The victim, who had been preparing for his daughter’s wedding next week — was not involved in previous clashes with Israeli forces and was not a target for arrest.

His death brought the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since the beginning of the year to 135.

Hundreds of people attended Sawafta’s funeral on Friday afternoon as anger spread in the city.

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Tubas Governor Maj. Gen. Younis Al-Assi accused the Israeli army of using “excessive and unjustified force” against Palestinian citizens, and of shooting to kill.

He told Arab News that the Israeli army’s policy of killing, wounding and arresting Palestinian citizens was the main contributor to the “industry of terrorism,” and influenced young people to seek revenge for the deaths and assaults.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that the armed forces of the Israeli occupation would continue their “terrorism” unless the international community stopped displaying double standards over international law.

“As long as they can act with impunity, the crime continues in the absence of punishment. Children, women and the elderly are victims of the terror of the occupation in every city, village and camp,” the prime minister said.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Sawafta’s killing was “part of a series of daily crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian citizens,” and said the army was acting on instructions from Israeli politicians.


US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

Updated 19 August 2022

US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

  • Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel
  • The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group

WASHINGTON: Washington said Thursday it was “concerned” by the Israeli government’s forced closure of several Palestinian NGOs operating in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli military announced earlier in the day that it had conducted overnight raids of seven organizations in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters are located.
Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel for their alleged links to the leftist militant group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), though Israeli officials have not publicly shared any evidence of the links.
The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group.
“We are concerned about the Israeli security forces’ closure of the six offices of the Palestinian NGOs in and around Ramallah today,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price at a press briefing.
“We have not changed our position or approach to these organizations,” said Price, though he noted that Washington does not fund any of them.
“We have seen nothing in recent months to change (our position)” he added.
US officials have reached out to their Israeli counterparts “at the senior level” to obtain additional information, which Israel has promised to provide, according to Price.
The seventh organization raided by Israel on Thursday, the Union of Health Work Committees, was banned by Israel from working in the West Bank in 2020.


Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

Updated 19 August 2022

Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

  • A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday

JERUSALEM: Israel said Friday it plans to grant more work permits to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza, reviving a pledge made ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden but later scrapped.
A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday, the military said in a statement.
“The decision will take effect ... on condition that the security situation remains quiet in the area,” said COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories.
The move to boost to 15,500 the total number of work permits was initially announced on July 12, on the eve of Biden’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But it was scrapped four days later, in the wake of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory strikes by Israeli warplanes.
The work permits provide vital income to some of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, who have been living under a strict blockade imposed by Israel since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in 2007.
Friday’s announcement follows three days of fighting this month between Islamic Jihad militants and Israel.
At least 49 Gazans were killed and hundreds wounded, according to figures from the enclave’s health ministry.
The plan to issue additional permits follows a decision by Hamas largely to stay out of the recent fighting.


Market blast in north Syria kills 19 people, wounds dozens

Updated 20 August 2022

Market blast in north Syria kills 19 people, wounds dozens

  • Assad regime shelling hits busy market in rebel-held Aleppo town, says monitor
  • The attack on the town of Al-Bab came days after a Turkish airstrike killed at least 11 Syrian troops and US-backed Kurdish fighters

JEDDAH: At least 19 civilians were killed in northern Syria on Friday in an upsurge in violence along the border with Turkey.

Artillery fire by Assad regime forces hit a busy market in the border town of Al-Bab, which is under the authority of Turkish-controlled Syrian fighters, killing 15 people.

In the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria, four children were killed and 11 were injured in a Turkish strike on a rehabilitation centre for girls near the city of Hasakeh.

The new bloodshed comes against a backdrop of increased tensions pitting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the regime against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor in Britain that has a network of sources in Syria, said the shelling that hit Al-Bab originated from Assad regime positions. A spokesman for the SDF denied any involvement.

The strike ripped through the market area and witnesses described a jumble of body parts, strewn vegetables and mangled handcarts.

BACKGROUND

The new bloodshed comes against a backdrop of increased tensions pitting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the regime against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies.

Violence between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds escalated this week with a deadly Turkish strike killing 17 regime and Kurdish fighters in retaliation for Kurdish fire inside Turkey.

Ankara considers the main Kurdish component of the SDF — allied with the US against Daesh militants —to be a terrorist organisation with links to the outlawed PKK.

The warring factions in Syria's 11-year conflict have carved up the north into a patchwork of zones of control. Al-Bab is within the areas of Aleppo province held by Turkish-backed rebels. Other parts are held by Assad regime troops backed by Russia.

The SDF, spearheaded by Kurdish groups who have opened a dialogue with the regime in Damascus, also control parts of the north and northeast.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened a new military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria, but has failed to obtain a green light from allies Iran and Russia.

Erdogan insisted on Friday that Turkey did not intend to seize any Syrian territory despite stepping up its attacks against Kurdish forces.

“We do not have eyes on the territory of Syria because the people of Syria are our brothers,” Erdogan said. “The regime must be aware of this.”

But he also hinted that Turkey may be open to a reproachment with Assad after fiercely opposing his regime.“There should be no resentment in politics,” he said.


Deadly wildfires contained in Algeria after homes, livelihoods lost

Updated 19 August 2022

Deadly wildfires contained in Algeria after homes, livelihoods lost

  • Justice Ministry launches inquiry after interior minister suggests some of this year’s blazes were started deliberately

ALGIERS: Wildfires which killed at least 38 people across northern Algeria have been contained, firefighters said Friday, as volunteers mobilized to help those who lost homes and livelihoods in the tragedy.

“All of the fires have been completely brought under control,” said fire brigade Col. Farouk Achour, of the civil defense department.
Fierce fires have become an annual fixture in Algeria’s parched forests where climate change exacerbates a long-running drought.
Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have devastated hundreds of hectares.

BACKGROUND

Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Algeria, which has more than four million hectares of forest.

In the badly hit region of El Tarf, farmers examined the charred remains of their animals killed when flames swept through the area.
The fire “didn’t spare anything,” said one farmer, Hamdi Gemidi, 40, who walked in rubber sandals on the ash-covered earth where the carcasses of what appeared to be sheep lay.

An elderly Algerian woman reacts inside the ruins of her home. (AFP)

“This is our livelihood ... We have nowhere to go and nothing to make a living from.”
Ghazala, 81, said she had been rescued along with a few animals after flames came dangerously close to her house.
“I don’t know where to go now. Should I stay in the fields, forests or mountains?” she asked, on the verge of tears.
“I really don’t know where I should go.”
The Justice Ministry launched an inquiry after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of this year’s blazes were started deliberately, and authorities on Thursday announced four arrests of suspected arsonists.
But officials have also been accused of a lack of preparation, with few firefighting aircraft available despite record casualties in last year’s blazes and a cash windfall from gas exports with global energy prices soaring.
Authorities said they deployed more than 1,700 firefighters over Wednesday and Thursday.
The dead included more than 10 children and a similar number of firefighters, according to multiple sources including local journalists and the fire service.
Most were in the El Tarf region near Algeria’s eastern border with Tunisia, an area which was sweltering earlier this week in 48 degree Celsius heat.
Algerians both at home and in the diaspora have mobilized to collect clothing, medicines and food to help those affected.
Late on Thursday, dozens of trucks carrying humanitarian aid from various cities arrived in El Tarf, regional authorities said.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also offered support to Algerians “hard-hit by the terrible fires.”
Writing on Twitter, he said: “The EU stands by your side in these difficult times.”
Twelve people burned to death in their bus as they tried to escape when fire ripped through an animal park, a witness who asked not to be named said.
When “nobody came to help us, neither the fire service nor anyone else,” park staff assisted families with young children to escape as flames encroached on the area, Takeddine, a worker at the park, said.
Fires last year killed at least 90 people and seared 100,000 hectares of forest and farmland in the country’s north.
Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Algeria, which has more than 4 million hectares of forest.
Algeria had agreed to buy seven firefighting aircraft from Spanish firm Plysa, but canceled the contract following a diplomatic row over the Western Sahara in late June, according to specialist website Mena Defense.
Spain, too, has this year battled hundreds of wildfires following punishing heat waves and long dry spells.
On Thursday, Algeria’s Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane defended the government’s response.
He said his country had ordered four new firefighting aircraft but they would not be available until December.
The prime minister added that strong winds had exacerbated the fires and authorities deployed “all their means” to extinguish them.

 

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