Jihadist legacy still shapes Ahrar al-Sham

Hassan Hassan writes: Over the past five years in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as an important political and religious experiment. As one of the most powerful groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has struggled to reconcile the legacy of many of its founders as jihadi veterans with the need for an acceptable political discourse in the war-ravaged country. As the group engages cautiously in the political process for a transition, it is also important to understand whether it has really broken away from Salafi-jihadism.

The ideology of the group is further muddled by the fact that it works closely with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though Ahrar al-Sham participates in political conferences and pacts that appear to deviate from the canons of jihadist organizations. After the death of its top leaders in an explosion that took place during a high-level meeting in September 2014, Ahrar al-Sham has also sought to present itself to the outside world as a moderate group and an indispensable fighting force on the ground.

Countries involved in the conflict in Syria are split about the organization. Some, primarily Russia and Iran, are pushing for its designation as a terrorist organization. Others, such as Qatar and Turkey, tried to present the organization as a moderate group and include it in the international funding scheme for nationalist rebel forces. The latter effort entailed the involvement of sponsors and clerics close to the group to steer it in that direction, combined with a public relations offensive to present the group as such.

But is Ahrar al-Sham merely a conservative Syrian faction immersed in an armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or is it still a bastion of Salafi-jihadism, the movement to which its top echelon once subscribed? Ali al-Omar, the group’s deputy leader, answered some of these questions during an hour-long talk he gave on Friday, “The Place of Ahrar al-Sham Among Islamist Currents.” [Continue reading…]

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Gulf states guarding their interests in Saudi-Iran rift

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The New York Times reports: For all the diplomatic dominoes that have fallen across the Middle East in recent days, with ambassadors from different countries flying home as a result of the explosive rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the map of allegiances has not significantly altered.

Certainly, several countries offered muscular shows of solidarity to Saudi Arabia after an Iranian mob attacked its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, prompting a crisis that has put the United States in a bind and has threatened to set back the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in Syria.

By Tuesday, Kuwait had recalled its ambassador to Iran, the United Arab Emirates had downgraded its diplomatic relationship, and Bahrain and Sudan had joined Saudi Arabia in severing its relationship with Tehran entirely.

Yet many other Sunni Muslim countries signaled that they intended to take a more measured approach to the argument — sympathizing with Saudi Arabia, a rich and powerful ally, but also determined to avoid getting sucked into a harmful conflict with Iran, a country governed by Shiite clerics, with potentially grave costs.

“The smaller Gulf states are worried they will get caught in the middle,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It worries them greatly that things could go badly.”

Some countries, like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, are already battling their own domestic insurgencies. Others are keen to guard their strategic interests or to keep the door open to trade with Iran while there is a prospect of American sanctions being lifted.

Qatar, which shares with Iran access to the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, has yet to declare its hand. Oman has also been quiet, sticking to its longstanding position of neutrality on Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Turkey, where senior officials have warned about the impact of the crisis on a “powder keg” region, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered his country’s services to help resolve the conflict peacefully. [Continue reading…]

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Qatari royals rush to Switzerland in nine planes after emir breaks leg

AFP reports: Unidentified individuals travelling in as many as nine planes belonging to Qatar’s royal family made an emergency trip to Switzerland over the weekend for medical reasons, according to a Swiss official.

A spokesman for Switzerland’s federal office of civil aviation confirmed local media reports that multiple aircraft made unscheduled landings at the Zurich-Kloten airport overnight from 25 to 26 December and that the planes were part of the Qatari royal fleet.

He gave no details as to who was on board or who any of the potential patients may have been.

“The emergency landing clearance was given by the Swiss air force,” he told AFP, explaining that the civil aviation office was closed during the hours in question.

Qatari authorities later said that the country’s former ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had been flown to Switzerland over the weekend for surgery after breaking a leg. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey will set up a military base in Qatar to face ‘common enemies’

Reuters reports: Turkey will establish a military base in Qatar as part of a defence agreement aimed at helping them confront “common enemies,” Turkey’s ambassador to Qatar said on Wednesday.

Establishment of the base, part of an agreement signed in 2014 and ratified by Turkey’s parliament in June, intensifies the partnership with Qatar at a time of rising instability and a perceived waning of U.S. interest in the region.

The two countries, both economic heavyweights, have provided support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, backed rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and raised the alarm about creeping Iranian influence in the region. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led air war on ISIS in Syria has little allied support

The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.

The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.

Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]

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Extreme heatwaves could push Gulf climate beyond human endurance, study shows

The Guardian reports: The Gulf in the Middle East, the heartland of the global oil industry, will suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked, according to a new scientific study.

The extreme heatwaves will affect Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and coastal cities in Iran as well as posing a deadly threat to millions of Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, when the religious festival falls in the summer. The study shows the extreme heatwaves, more intense than anything ever experienced on Earth, would kick in after 2070 and that the hottest days of today would by then be a near-daily occurrence.

“Our results expose a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant [carbon cuts], is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future,” said Prof Jeremy Pal and Prof Elfatih Eltahir, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing in the journal Nature Climate Change.

They said the future climate for many locations in the Gulf would be like today’s extreme climate in the desert of Northern Afar, on the African side of the Red Sea, where there are no permanent human settlements at all. But the research also showed that cutting greenhouse gas emissions now could avoid this fate. [Continue reading…]

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Following Russia’s intervention in Syria, will Saudi Arabia supply rebels with the kinds of weapons they’ve long been denied?

The Guardian reports: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already embroiled in an expensive and bloody war in Yemen that may limit both their military and financial resources. They have also so far deferred to western bans on transferring hi-tech weapons – including missiles that could take down aircraft – over fears that they might change hands in the chaos of the war and be used against their makers.

“The uncertain question today is the degree of power combined with efficiency that regional powers will be willing to bring to the table,” said [Julien] Barnes-Dacey [senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations]. “Do the Saudis now try to take matters decisively into their hands, including by providing rebels with sophisticated weaponry long denied them?

“The new [Saudi] king [Salman] has shown a willingness to be much more assertive and take measures into the kingdom’s own hands. If the Saudis see the situation slipping out of their hands, and there is a real sense that the Iranians are consolidating their position in Syria, you could see much stronger response.”

That is unlikely to go as far as troops on the ground, however, and not only because so many assets are already tied up in Yemen.

“A Saudi military role would be too much of an escalation,” said analyst Hassan Hassan, author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. “It’s seen as far from Syria, not seen as a direct security threat. With Yemen, people have accepted [Saudi] hegemony for years, unlike Syria, where Iran is seen as dominant.

“The best way to respond to the Russian intervention is to engage the rebels more and step up support so they can face down the escalation and create a balance on the ground,” he said. “The Russians will [then] realise there are limits to what they can achieve in Syria, and modify their approach.” But the wider regional struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran makes it almost impossible for Riyadh to walk away, whatever the cost. [Continue reading…]

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Why are the Gulf states so reluctant to take in refugees?

By Rana Jawad, University of Bath

Europe’s reaction to the refugee crisis has hardly been a calm and considered one; with fences erected and border controls reinstated, the continent’s governments are struggling to agree on a response.

But at least Europe’s governments are acting. In the Middle East, things are rather different. In particular, the Arab Gulf States are catching serious flack for their response to the crisis – or rather, their failure to respond.

One big question is reverberating in the minds of the general public, expert observers and policy-makers; why have the Gulf states, who are among the richest countries in the world, not taken in any Syrian refugees? There’s no need to rewrite the commentary that’s already out there: many articles have provided useful statistics and background information on the international conventions and treaties the Persian Gulf countries are signed up to, and their failure to honour them.

What all this misses, though, is the general lack of social justice and a social welfare ethos in the Persian Gulf and Middle East in general. This is a complex story about the mindset of a region in disunity and disarray.

[Read more…]

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Saudi-led offensive in Yemen faces dangerous new phase

Iona Craig writes: When young garage mechanic Aidaroos Saleh heard the familiar ping of his smartphone, he could never have imagined the journey on which the incoming message would take him. In a matter of weeks, Saleh, 22, went from fixing cars in his adopted country of Saudi Arabia to the battle front of his southern Yemen homeland.

The message was an official communication, a call to arms for Yemenis in Saudi Arabia to join a fighting force that would “defend Aden” — the southern Yemeni city that descended into civil war in mid-March. Four months after he responded to the message in April, the young fighter sat cradling an AK-47 assault rifle between his knees in the scorching heat of Aden.

“They promised us salaries and medical care abroad if we got injured in Yemen,” he said, wearing glasses, sandals and a mawaz, which is like a sarong. He and his cohort received neither.

Those who joined up were sent to the Saudi border town of Sharurah — in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert — where they should have received military training to prepare them for deployment in Aden.

This desert camp of some 6,000 Yemeni volunteers was the origin of the kingdom’s Operation Golden Arrow, a ground offensive launched in Yemen in July that now looks set to move in on the capital, Sanaa. This latest phase of operations in Yemen follows consecutive aerial campaigns carried out since March as part of the Saudi-led coalition of nations bid to restore Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi after he fled to Riyadh earlier this year.

But in order to bring Hadi back, the coalition has first set itself the task of removing the Houthis and military units loyal to his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seized control of the capital almost a year ago. [Continue reading…]

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Qatar deploys 1,000 ground troops to fight in Yemen

Al Jazeera reports: Around 1,000 soldiers from Qatar’s Armed Forces have been deployed to Yemen, as part of the Arab coalition’s fight against Houthi rebels, Al Jazeera has learned.

An Al Jazeera journalist, reporting from the Saudi-Yemen border, said the troops were backed by more than 200 armoured vehicles and 30 Apache combat helicopters.

The troops are now reportedly heading to Yemen’s Maareb province, to join the Saudi-led coalition already fighting in the area.

Al Jazeera has also learned that more Qatari forces are expected, with the aim of securing the Jawf governorate. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees

Ishaan Tharoor writes: To varying degrees, elements within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Kuwait have invested in the Syrian conflict, playing a conspicuous role in funding and arming a constellation of rebel and Islamist factions fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

None of these countries are signatories of the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines what a refugee is and lays out their rights, as well as the obligations of states to safeguard them. For a Syrian to enter these countries, they would have to apply for a visa, which, in the current circumstances, is rarely granted. According to the BBC, the only Arab countries where a Syrian can travel without a visa are Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen — hardly choice or practical destinations.

Like European countries, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors also have fears over new arrivals taking jobs from citizens, and may also invoke concerns about security and terrorism. But the current gulf aid outlay for Syrian refugees, which amounts to collective donations under $1 billion (the United States has given four times that sum), seems short — and is made all the more galling when you consider the vast sums Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. poured into this year’s war effort in Yemen, an intervention some consider a strategic blunder.

As Bobby Ghosh, managing editor of the news site Quartz, points out, the gulf states in theory have a far greater ability to deal with large numbers of arrivals than Syria’s more immediate and poorer neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan:

The region has the capacity to quickly build housing for the refugees. The giant construction companies that have built the gleaming towers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh should be contracted to create shelters for the influx. Saudi Arabia has plenty of expertise at managing large numbers of arrivals: It receives an annual surge of millions of Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. There’s no reason all this knowhow can’t be put to humanitarian use.

No reason other than either indifference or a total lack of political will. [Continue reading…]

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Hamas caught between Tehran and Riyadh

Ali Hashem writes: A senior Hamas official who spoke to Al-Monitor in Beirut on condition of anonymity said, “We’ve never taken sides, but we have our say on what’s happening. Iran is a friend. It was once a very close friend, and we don’t forget that. But today there are efforts to normalize ties once again. This is facing some hurdles from both sides.”

The official, who visits Iran often, told Al-Monitor, “There were plans for Khaled Meshaal to visit Tehran, [but] on several occasions the visits were canceled because of the uncertainty on our side that it would go as planned.”

Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, is concerned he won’t be allowed to meet the supreme leader of Iran, Al-Monitor learned, as a trip to Tehran would be useless without a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. [Continue reading…]

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To U.S. allies, Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria becomes the lesser evil

The Wall Street Journal reports: In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?

This is increasingly the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials. In a war now in its fifth year, in which 230,000 people have been killed and another 7.6 million uprooted, few good options remain for how to tackle the crisis.

The three main forces left on the ground today are the Assad regime, Islamic State and an Islamist rebel alliance in which the Nusra Front — an al Qaeda affiliate designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the United Nations — plays a major role.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue. [Continue reading…]

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