In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Paul Salem, Gonul Tol, Alex Vatanka, and Jonathan M. Winer provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including Saudi Arabia's diplomatic engagements in the region, Turkey's consideration of military operations in northern Syria, Iranian President Rouhani's centrist cabinet nominations, and Libyan leaders' decision between greater cooperation or renewed confrontation.
Is the Middle East Tilting toward De-Escalation?
Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy Analysis, Research, and Programs
There are signs that a new pattern of pragmatic engagement in Saudi foreign policy might create an opportunity for de-escalation in the region. Riyadh has resumed high level engagement with the Iraqi government and military in Baghdad and hosted Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr for talks with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. Several media outlets reported that Saudi Arabia had also urged the Syrian opposition Higher Negotiation Council to broaden its membership to include the Cairo and Moscow opposition groups that take a more flexible view of Assad’s role in a political transition. The Saudi Crown Prince has also been reported as eager to find a rapid resolution to the ruinous crisis in Yemen.
Each of these crises has its own complex set of domestic and external drivers, but considerable de-escalation could come from an easing of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is not yet clear if President Rouhani would be in a position to forge a more pragmatic line in Iranian policy toward the region, which is largely controlled by the IRGC. Kuwait attempted mediation between Iran and the GCC in January; Tehran and Riyadh agreed in March on cooperation over this year’s upcoming Hajj; and the Iraqi interior minister, Qasim al-Arraji, said this weekend that Saudi Arabia had asked Baghdad to try its hand at mediation between the Kingdom and Iran.
As the war against ISIS enters its final phase, it is important that efforts at engagement and de-escalation be encouraged. Stabilizing Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will depend largely on domestic political negotiations and agreements, but without de-escalation at the regional level those tasks will be infinitely more difficult.
Turkey Weighs Its Options in Northern Syria
Gonul Tol, Director for Turkish Studies
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated over the weekend that new cross-border operations into Syria are in the works. The country is boosting its military presence along the border against perceived threats from Kurdish militants in war-torn Syria. Erdogan said Turkey is determined to launch "new moves" akin to its foray into northern Syria last August.
Reinforcements on the border and Erdogan’s statements, coupled with a flurry of reports in the pro-government media, have led some to believe that an invasion of the Kurdish canton of Afrin by Turkey and its local militia allies is imminent. Over the years Turkey has shelled the Y.P.G., and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups have attacked Y.P.G. targets in northern Syria.
However, a Turkish-backed military operation against Afrin is highly unlikely. It will not only be militarily challenging to capture a majority Kurdish district, but the move will likely be opposed by the United States and Russia. The United States is concerned that this might disrupt the Y.P.G.-led operation to recapture Raqqa. Russia, on the other hand, has worked closely with the Kurds of Afrin and would be unwilling to dump that alliance and allow Turkish influence in northern Syria to expand there.
A limited military operation targeting areas around Afrin is more likely to be tolerated by Russia. Turkish-backed forces might launch an operation against Kurdish controlled Tell Rifaat, which lies 20 miles north of Aleppo, in an effort to isolate Afrin. In return, Turkish-backed groups could provide ground forces to help take Idlib, which has been recently captured by al-Qaeda linked groups, while Russia provides air cover.
Rouhani Disappoints Reformists and Veers Back to the Middle in Iran
Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow
The Iranian parliament is set to review President Hassan Rouhani’s list of cabinet nominees this week. For many reformists in the chamber, it is a bittersweet moment. The majority of the 24 million people who voted for Rouhani's re-election on May 19 are reformists. They had been hoping that the historic mandate would empower the president to forge ahead with more bold policies.
Rouhani, however, is exhibiting no appetite for boldness. Instead, he is moving back toward the middle, apparently believing that change in Iran can only come about by co-opting the supreme leader, not by attempting to force an agenda on him. Rouhani reportedly made sure Khamenei approved all his cabinet nominees before the list was sent to the parliament for confirmation, a step that contravenes the constitution. To much reformist anger, he appointed no prominent reformists, women, or minority Sunnis to his cabinet. Meanwhile, in his inauguration speech on August 5, Rouhani stayed away from any topic that might dismay Khamenei. There was no mention of freeing political prisoners or questioning the powers of the Revolutionary Guards.
Rouhani seems intent on moving back from the reformism that was highlighted during the campaign to the centrism that marked his first term in office. But he’s not alone in this effort. Khamenei’s own recent appointments of centrists suggests a desire to strengthen the nucleus of the regime by keeping both reformists and the far right out of key positions. Such concert should not come as a surprise; neither man is interested in major disruptions within the regime.
Libya Weighing Choices between Rescues and Standoffs
Jonathan M. Winer, MEI Scholar
On August 12, Doctors Without Borders and the German Aid Group Sea Eye, suspended refugee rescue operations after General Khalifa Haftar in the east, and the Libyan Navy in the west, ordered a halt. Libyan authorities charge that rescue efforts are encouraging human smugglers. This week will determine whether contacts involving the Government of National Accord (GNA), Libyan security forces, and foreign actors, including Italy, will lead to a resumption of necessary rescues.
Also on August 12, workers at Sharara, Libya’s largest oil field, suspended 100,000 barrels a day of crude production pending better working conditions, sending tremors through Libya’s tentative oil recovery trajectory. Talks this week will determine whether there is a return to full production or whether workers will shut down the remaining 200,000 barrels a day from Sharara, sending GNA public finances further into their downward spiral.
The fate of stalled national reconciliation talks also hangs in the balance. General Haftar will return this week from meetings in Russia. Will the Russians be able to build on French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative of late July, or will the Libyan factions remain mired in military conflict?
On migrants, oil, and politics, Libya watchers this week will see whether the country’s leaders are putting on their armor for further battle – or their jackets and ties for much-needed compromise.