The US role in the Middle East is eroding as Russia gains traction

The US has yet to make a determination if Syria used chemical weapons in its attacks in Idlib province against al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants. It is also unclear from successive statements by the State Department if a red line still exists regarding their use. This puts the Trump Administration squarely in the dilemma faced by the Obama Administration: is there a red line or not and what is the price to pay for a violation of that standard?

Russia and Syria counter that the militants are behind the use of chlorine gas, seeking to divert blame from the Assad regime. Some determination will likely be made this week. Given the announced movement of some 1000 US troops to the region to counter Iranian pressure on US allies, responding forcefully to the use of chemical weapons will be another indicator of greater US involvement in the region, something that the Administration has been vocally avoiding. This is not the only theater in which the US finds itself caught itself in a conundrum.

When the US entered the civil war in Libya against Ghaddafi, American intervention was limited to providing logistics, air support and cover, and limited bombing forays, ostensibly to protect civilians. This was later mirrored by Russia in its initial Syria intervention to support its ally. The big difference, critics note, is that Russia has a plan and the US didn’t and has not, either in Syria or Libya.

This is beginning to pay big dividends in Syria as Russia has already realized many strategic economic and military benefits from its role. When Assad announced preferential status to Russian companies in 2016 in the energy sector, they moved quickly to build gas processing plants and refineries in several locations. We have previously noted the 50-year contract to develop Syria’s phosphate fields and the expansion of the port in Tartus.

Helping cement Russia’s role in global energy markets is its lead in the expansion of Syria’s gas and oil fields in the eastern part of the country and potentially the East Mediterranean basin, where it has key port locations. Taken together with Moscow’s pledge to build up Syria’s nuclear energy capability, Russia’s energy strategy will give it a significant role vis-à-vis other players such as Egypt and Israel and have an impact on gas supplies to the EU.

These economic benefits parallel the military advances that have accrued as Russia tests new weapons and weapons systems in Syria, literally making it a workshop for more than 200 advances in Russian arms capabilities. As noted in a recent article in Fikra Forum, “The entrenched nature of Russian military instillation in Syria emphasizes that even with Assad reclaiming significant territory, the Russian military intends to maintain a significant military presence in the country for the foreseeable future.” This becomes an obvious lever for countries like Iran, Egypt, and Turkey seeking to protect their regimes from US policies that they deem unfriendly and even hostile in the case of Tehran.

Lebanon, like Jordan, has a complicated relationship with both the US and Russia, as they attempt to fashion national strategic defense postures that preserve their territorial independence without being overwhelmed with refugees and border tensions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Lebanon’s continuing border dispute with Israel over their land and sea borders. Now, it seems that the US may play a role in facilitating a resolution of the differing positions.

It was noted this past week that Israel may have agreed to Lebanon’s conditions for a final solution that included a role for the US and the UN, and that both the land and maritime borders will be agreed simultaneously. At question is the governance of around 350 square miles offshore which both countries claim are part of its exclusive economic zone. Whether or not this tentative agreement will stand up to the pressures of the small parcels of land claimed by Lebanon adjacent to the Golan Heights was not discussed in public.

Settling the border is critical for Lebanon, which, according to the Jerusalem Post, “Is grappling with an economic crisis, [and] is hoping to solve the demarcation dispute with Israel in order to accelerate the process to allow for companies to explore for oil and gas in the disputed area.”

No Room for Dissent: Get on Board or Be Pushed out of the Middle East Deal of the Century

I usually don’t write about US-Palestine relations. We are now in the 52nd year after the 1967 Six-Day War, which is the baseline for my consciousness about the issue. I was in college at the time and luckily had a Fulbright professor who had just returned from two years in Israel and decided that it was time I learned something useful about my heritage and the region.

The continued behavior of the Trump Administration towards the Palestinians is driving me crazy. However, you won’t find me sticking up for the Palestinian leadership or their role over time in destabilizing several Arab countries. On the other hand, the pettiness and unremitting disregard for the humanity of the Palestinian people makes me wonder what price Lebanon will pay in the next decade as the White House attempts to impose its will on compliant Arab allies and undermine stability in the region for yet another lifetime.

Let’s begin with the latest news. The US is calling together an economic “workshop” in Bahrain to lay out the economic dimensions of its plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace. It is no coincidence that this statelet was chosen. Beholden to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as the US, it has its own contradictions of identity that make it a pliant candidate for supporting the US lead.

As Bloomberg reports, quoting a White House statement, “The “Peace to Prosperity” event will be held in Manama June 25-26 “to convene government, civil society, and business leaders to share ideas, discuss strategies, and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement.” The plan is supposedly the work of Jared Kushner, whose experience is reflected in his deep lack of appreciation for the dynamics of the region. And there is little hope that he recalls the Builders for Peace initiative launched after the Paris Peace Accords to which Israel assented only to then block any meaningful steps to improve the Palestinian economy.

This time around, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain as well as Egypt, are being counted on by the US to weigh in on the side of economic development despite the costs in dignity and identity for Palestinians hoping for a homeland. How the US can propose economic solutions as it continues to defund support for any efforts to maintain some dignity is an amazing contradiction.

This was brought home in an article in Annahar by our colleague Ziad El Sayegh, who has worked on key issues affecting Syrian refugees in Lebanon and sees the defunding of UNWRA as an opening of the closing of an independent Palestinian homeland. He points to the right wing trope that “Some would say that the forcibly displaced, including Palestinian refugees, are the residents of the countries of refuge and they deserve full integration therein,” a reality the Lebanese confront daily. This concern in Lebanon has led to the policy of disenfranchisement of Palestinians for fear of upsetting its internal political dynamics.

El Sayegh writes that “The Palestinian Refugees cause is political; shifting it to a purely humanitarian crisis jeopardizes it. In fact, UNRWA is important insofar as it has kept a record of the individual and collective identity of this cause. Unavoidably, it has to develop a lobby that supports sustainable instead of temporary patchwork solutions. The Right of Return stands as a cornerstone in these solutions.” In this insistence, he reflects the Lebanese reaction to paying the price for Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians from their homeland.

In addition to dimming prospects for an independent homeland, the US has cut $10 million of foreign aid that was supporting coexistence programs between Israelis and Palestinians; frozen $25 million in funding to Palestinian hospitals in eastern Jerusalem; halted all funding to the United Nations refugee agency that aids Palestinians; and slashed more than $200 million for humanitarian and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Times of Israel.

Likewise, Palestinian leaders are facing additional pressures to conform, the most recent example being the denial of a visa to Hanan Ashrawi, a noted peace activist. She tweeted, “It is official! My US visa application has been rejected. No reason given. Choose any of the following: I’m over 70 & a grandmother; I’ve been an activist for Palestine since the late 1960’s; I’ve always been an ardent supporter of nonviolent resistance.”

The Times of Israel noted that “In February, activist Osama Iliwat was denied entry at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and sent home. In April, Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, was not allowed to board a flight to the United States at the direction of the US government.” He was on his way to attend his daughter’s wedding among other events.

This pettiness drew criticism from US Jews and former diplomats alike. Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former US Foreign Service officer in Jerusalem said, “One [denial] could be just a random happenstance, two could be a coincidence. Three, it’s reasonable to ask whether or not there hasn’t been a de facto shift in US policy that is denying visas to Palestinians to come to the US based on their political views, which would be deeply troubling.”

An Al-Monitor article quoted Aaron Miller, who worked as a peace envoy to the Middle East for both Republican and Democratic administrations, “That he kept hoping there was some technical reason Ashrawi’s visa was denied, because, “I don’t want to accept that this administration has come to a place where its desire to pressure Palestinians has become so intense that it cannot abide any criticism of US and Israeli actions and, in the process, sadly undermines not only any semblance of fairness in American policy but American values.”

Well, writing all of this won’t change minds that are already set but there is still a shred of home that King Salman will prevail over MbS and uphold a collective Arab stance that calls for recognizing legitimate conditions for Palestinian-Israeli peace that does not come at the expense of Lebanon and Jordan, among others.

Russian Strides across the Mediterranean Reflect Diverse Interests

For Putin watchers in the Middle East and the US trying to discern a core strategic thrust to Russian policy in the region, the information overload can be quite challenging. From gas pipelines transiting the former Balkans to signing agreements to build nuclear reactors in Africa, Russia is engaging in multidimensional efforts to both increase its leverage in targeted countries and subsequently decrease the value of close relations with the US.

However, its economic offensive is hampered by a lack of financial resources, which means that using credits to promote arms sales, energy infrastructure projects, and local regime support are draining an economy that can hardly meet its domestic needs. Russia’s economic expansiveness lacks the credibility of the Chinese version, which is better financed, appears less likely to be tied to political conditions, and is connected to a core belt and road initiative that is attractive to its clients.

The integration of political and economic objectives is also hampered by the continuing shift in political fortunes of one-time clients. As a recent blog put it, “…Putin clearly disapproves of the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria under pressure from street protests; similarly, the Russian head of state opposes the ousting of his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, by a military coup.” It goes on to point out that Russia lacks leverage to influence either crisis as well as events in Yemen and Palestine.

While Russia has made some statements about the conflict in Libya, its only interventions of note seem to favor General Haftar and his LNA, either by hosting him or blocking unfriendly resolutions in the UN Security Council. Increasingly pulled into disagreements with Iran, Syria, and Turkey over next steps in the Syrian conflict, Russia is floundering a bit as it has been unable to impose its will on any of the parties, despite continuing high level talks.

In Libya, the LNA and Haftar, as reported in Al Monitor, are regarded by Russia as important to resolving the Libyan crisis. Whatever concerns Moscow has regarding his offensive, they are submerged by the need to keep good relations with President Sisi in Egypt, a strong proponent of Haftar, as well as with those local forces that see Haftar as the key to Libya’s future. As the article observes, “What continues to guide its approach to the general is the fear of losing any relevance in the Libyan context if it [Russia] alienates Hifter (sic)…This is the reason why relatively symbolic diplomatic tricks, such as blocking the UNSC statement condemning Hifter, become an important message to the general. Russia sees no benefit in openly taking sides in Tripoli, but it will be ready to step in diplomatically to not allow the LNA’s defeat because it would ruin the East-West zero-sum confrontation.”

This perception, while opportunistic, carries risks that can upset Russia’s continued expansion of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean where it is confronting another wary and troubling possible partner, Turkey. The most immediate contentions focus on conflict zones in the west and east of the country. Although there seemed to be an agreement between the two to establish a demilitarized zone around Idlib in exchange for Russian influence in defanging the YPG Kurdish militia, Russia expected Turkey to have greater control over attacks by the HTS Islamic militants who were part of al-Qaeda; while Turkey wanted Moscow to push the YPG out of the remaining area in Aleppo province. Neither has happened.

These problems are further exacerbated by the Syrian regime’s opposition to agree on a joint constitutional committee with the opposition that would garner international support for some sort of forward movement by re-legitimizing the Assad regime’s place, albeit temporarily, in negotiations on the country’s future.

While Russia continues to discover how much success is possible in crafting a region-wide strategy, the US tries to maintain some remnants of skin in the game. In the most recent meeting between a senior US official, in this case Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and President Putin, “Pompeo said that he and Putin agreed on ways to move ahead with a long-delayed Syrian-led committee that will rewrite the constitution in hopes of a political end to the conflict.” Pompeo has been critical of Russia’s ambitions in the region and told reporters in advance of the meeting that “It’s not about ‘moving on.’ It’s about trying to find solutions, compromises, places where there are overlapping interests.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Secretary.

Arab Youth Survey 2019 – How Do Lebanon and the Levant Stack Up?

Around this time each year, a major survey measuring attitudes among Arab youth is published. This year, it involved face-to-face interviews with 3,300 young people, ages 18-24, in 15 countries. Conducted in January, the interviews were held in both English and Arabic, with an equal number of men and women. Due to the rigor of the process, the margin of error is ±1.65%, a very strong measure of accuracy.

In Lebanon, 200 young people were interviewed, 60% from Beirut and 20% each from Saida and Tripoli. A novel feature of the survey are commentaries prepared by experts on the region on each section. They lend their analyses to help put each section in context and help frame the interpretations of the data. For example, Dr. Jihad Azour, Director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department and former Finance Minister in Lebanon, provided his expertise in the introduction. He said “The survey shows that young Arabs, rightly, in my view, want capable governments that are accountable, efficient, and provide opportunities for prosperity. A new social contract that sees the state create an environment for youth to thrive and unleashes their ingenuity to drive prosperity for decades to come.”

He points out that making ends meet is the top priority mentioned by respondents, and with 2.8 million young people joining the workforce in the MENA region annually over the next 10 years, “The urgency of this challenge will only grow.” Azour goes on to write that “[Governments] have a vital role to play in building an enabling environment for dynamic private sectors, raising living standards and creating opportunities,” since governments can no longer assume the primary role for job creation. In fact, 96% of businesses in the 15 countries are SMEs, yet they can only access 7% of bank credit, a major impediment to economic growth and diversification.

This calls for “A new social contract between MENA governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency, and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind,” sentiments that echo the findings of last year’s World Bank 2018 study, Expectations and Aspirations: A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa.

What follows is an extraction of the results for the Levant compared to the GCC and North Africa whenever that data was available, and highlights of the responses of young Lebanese, illustrative where they are similar and different from their peers.

1. The Role of Religion

Some 66% of young Arabs say that religion plays too big a role in the region and 79% say the role of religion needs to be reformed. Almost 50% of respondents say that religion is holding back the Arab world, with 61% of the Levant in agreement. Interestingly, 54% think that religion is losing influence in the region.

2. The Role of Government

Overall, 65% think that governments are not doing enough to help young families, which goes up to 83% in the Levant. In terms of the responsibilities of government, 96% (95% in the Levant) noted safety and security, 89% (87% Levant) education, 88% (same in the Levant) healthcare, and 78% (vs. 71%) mentioned jobs. In terms of their concerns, 56% of the young people mentioned the rising cost of living, 45% unemployment, and 35% lack of Arab unity. So the expectations of government support are quite high throughout the region, which reinforces the call for a new social contract that defines responsibilities and roles on both sides.

3. Education

More than three-fourths (78%) of young Arabs are unhappy with the quality of education in their countries, which rises to 84% in the Levant. Overall, 49% in region and 73% in the Levant are satisfied that their educational system prepares them for the job market, which falls to 20% in the GCC. Concerning education in the West, some 53% would prefer to make that their choice, with the Levant coming in at 64% who want to study in the West.

4 Foreign Relations

Some 37% mentioned that Saudi Arabia’s influence was increasing in the region, with the US’ growing role was noted by 48%, following by Turkey (23%), Russia (13%), and Iran (13%). The US is seen by 59% as an enemy of their country, while Russia is now perceived as an ally by 64% of those surveyed. In the Levant, 45% believe that Russia is the stronger ally compared to the US, which came in at 29%. The US did not receive a positive rating of more than 45% (GCC) in any region. In fact, 59% rated US as an enemy compared to 67% for Iran. Russia came in at 64% ally and 36% enemy.

5. Conflicts

A large majority, some 79%, still see Palestine as the most critical conflict in the region, and 59% believe that relations between Sunni and Shia have become worse over the past ten years.

6. Model Nations

For the eighth straight year, the UAE was ranked as the top Arab country (44%) in which they would like to live and the one young people wished their country would emulate (42%). Work opportunities (38%), and safety and security (36%) were the top reasons for choosing the UAE. Canada was chosen by 22% and the US by 21%. In terms of a model, the US and Japan tied at 20%.

7. Drug Use

Sadly, 70% of young people in the Levant said that drugs are easy to obtain, compared to 57% in the rest of the sample. Concurrently, 76% in the Levant said that drug use is on the rise compared to 57% in the other groups. The three top reasons for increased drug use were peer influence (62%), stress (45%), and boredom (43%). Young people mentioned stricter laws (63%), stronger law enforcement (58%), and more education and awareness (54%) as the primary means for reducing drug use.

8. Mental Health

This was another area of divergence between the Levant and the others, as 81% in the Levant said that it was difficult to get mental health services, while this came in at 54% among the GCC and North Africa. The major reasons for mental health issues were lack of national security and safety (28%) and financial issues (23%).

9. E-Commerce

Shopping is alive and well across the regions with a continuing rise in use of credit cards, purchases of consumer items, and familiarity with e-commerce options. However, there is still a great deal of potential for growth as the sector is underdeveloped in terms of sites for e-commerce activity in the region.

10. Media Consumption

Social media was mentioned at the main source of news (80%) with 60% giving it a high trust rating. Some 66% look to TV for news with a 55% trust rating, with 61% turning to online news sources. WhatsApp came in at the top at 89% followed by Facebook at 88% and YouTube at 77%. In the Levant, 37% rated Facebook most important while 24% made WhatsApp their top choice.

The commentaries are quite helpful for tying together the various findings of the study, especially as there are now 11 years of comparative data to analyze. It remains to be seen if the study will encourage Arab governments to reassess priorities and programs to more effectively impact the futures of young people.

Lebanon News: Progress on the Blue Line Demarcation with Israel? Interview with Interior Minister; S

After a push from US Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump’s endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, Lebanon finally seems ready to settle its southern border. The main obstacle among Lebanon’s leaders until now has been the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who has wanted to settle the land and maritime borders simultaneously.

However, in a recent meeting with Major General Stefano del Col, commander of UNIFIL, Berri said “his country was prepared [to] establish a maritime border and special economic zone with Israel as long as it involved the same mechanism used in adopting the so-called Blue Line demarcation under the auspices of the UN,” according to an article in Ynetnews. The thorny issue for Lebanon is control of Shebaa Farms and other parcels in the area, which the country says are part of Lebanon although their status is the subject of conflicting claims.

The dispute is over the so-called Blue Line, drawn between Lebanon and Israel in June 2000 following the withdrawal of Israel’s military from the south of Lebanon. Despite the controversy, UNIFIL has included the area in its scope of operations since its inception.

UNIFIL would like nothing better than to have the border settled formally, although Lebanon and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations. Its hosting of tri-part meetings with military officials from Lebanon and Israel has been very effective in averting “unforeseen consequences” along the border. In fact, a senior Hezbollah official commented that it “is fully committed to working to liberate the Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shuba hills and the village of Ghajar and put them under Lebanese sovereignty.”

What may be motivating Berri is unclear but what is clear is that if Lebanon’s sovereignty over offshore gas and oil reserves is established, South Lebanon in particular would benefit from investments ranging from exploration and production to distribution logistics, bringing badly needed jobs to the area. Later this year, drilling is scheduled to begin, and Lebanon is getting ready to open additional blocks to bidding, both of which would benefit from greater security and stability in the area.

Ynetnews quoted Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general and head of the Middle East Studies Center in Beirut, who told The Media Line that Lebanon had always sought to define its borders with Israel through UN mediation. “It’s not a new position or out of the ordinary,” he said. Having the UN mechanism as the facilitator is a natural extension of UNIFIL’s role.

To date, Israel and Lebanon have reached agreement on almost all of the issues on settling the land border, with Lebanon ceded some high areas to Israel for security purposes and being compensated with tracts of land that protect Lebanese villages. When it comes to the oil and gas potential, both countries have a stake in facilitating a solution sooner rather than later.

Recent expulsions of Syrian refugees from unlicensed camps on public land abutting public water sources is just another sad saga in building a case for repatriation sooner rather than later. According to the Al Jazeera story, Sami Alawieh, director of the Litani River Authority (LRA), said the agency sent in bulldozers to demolish the camp in southern Tyre because refugees there were polluting the already heavily contaminated river. “If the refugees erect tents on our agricultural land and their waste seeps into the ground and the river, then, of course, we need to move them,” Alawieh said.

At least 180 refugees were evicted in February from an informal settlement in the nearby town of Zahrani in a similar fashion, with the LRA claiming the refugees’ tents were on the site of an irrigation project. The LRA has carried out five such operations this year, evicting at least 1,500 Syrians from makeshift camps around Litani. The agency accused refugees of throwing waste into the river or in agricultural lands, blocking irrigation canals.

These evictions are being debated in public with those opposed to the continued presence of the refugees citing this as necessary to protect Lebanon’s environment. On the other hand, others accuse LRA and others of discrimination against the Syrians, creating a hostile environment to encourage them to return to Syria even if conditions are not settled for their security and safety.

HE Raya al Hassan, first female minister of the interior in Lebanon, was recently interviewed by Al Arabia about security issues in Lebanon and the region. Among other topics, she spoke about the important role that the US was playing in Lebanon. “The Americans are one of the most important supporters, especially in the field of training and arming of the internal and general security forces. There are also other donors such as the British and the EU and the French and we are lucky that there is serious work by donors to support the official security forces in Lebanon.”

Regarding the status of the Syrian refugees, she pointed out that she was the deputy head of the Future Movement and “Our position as the Future Movement, I represent a political party as well, is that we want the Syrians to go back home as soon as possible, as long as their return is safe and fast. We do not want to force any Syrian to return without guaranteeing his or her safety.”

She stressed the need to create a new culture within the security services that moves from being perceived as oppressors to protectors. “Absolutely, I mean a cultural change in the gendarmerie, which is how to preserve security within the approach of human rights. The citizens have rights and we must treat them with respect, and tell them that we are protecting you, and we do not want to oppress you. We are working to help you, we want to improve traffic. There are several things that we’re trying to apply through practices that several projects are adopting, in public security or internal security forces, which mostly deals with citizens.”

So what do the Lebanese do while the government debates? Beirut has set a new Guinness World Record for the number of national flags raised in a city for 24 hours. The Beirut Alive Association raised a total of 26,852 Lebanese flags, breaking New York’s Waterloo record of 25,599 flags. This bit of information comes from a Gulf News post, which noted that “The event was organized under the patronage of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, represented by MP Rola Tabsh, at the Nejmeh Square in downtown Beirut…” MP Tabsh pointedly said, “Today they were capable of raising thousands of Lebanese flags to enter the Guinness book. This is a national initiative which reflects Beirut’s role and which implicates no flag other than the Lebanese will be raised in Beirut.”