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Vague US initiatives

There has been an increasing disconnect between US initiatives in the Middle East and the wishes of the Arab states

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 29 Sep 2016
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Views: 1764

The gap has been growing between the US and the Arab countries over how to handle the crises in the Arab region, whether in Syria, Libya or Yemen.

With regard to Syria, the US has not involved the Arabs in the details of the US-Russian agreement on a truce in the country, as if the question were restricted to those two parties alone. In Yemen, two wars are proceeding simultaneously – the Arab Coalition’s war against the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the US’s ongoing war against Al-Qaeda – and it appears that there is no coordination or linkage between the two.

In Libya, the US, together with some European governments, has been putting pressure on Khalifa Haftar's control of the petroleum crescent in the east of the country. There has been no co-ordination with Arab parties, particularly Egypt in this case as it is the most immediately affected by the situation in Libya.

The gap between the US and the Arab countries is likely only to increase as the current administration in Washington draws to its end.

In Jeddah late last month there was a Saudi-US summit at the foreign minister level between Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir and US secretary of state John Kerry. The main topic on the agenda was Yemen, and it was clear that Riyadh and Washington did not see eye-to-eye on a roadmap for resolving the Yemeni crisis.

The US insisted on approaching the conflict as though it were a dispute between two parties of equal status, whereas Riyadh sees it as a conflict between a legitimate government led by Yemeni president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and an insurgent group of the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

There have been many criticisms levelled by the US administration against the way the Saudis have been managing the Yemeni question. Shortly before the Kerry-Jubeir summit, it was announced that Washington had reduced its military advisors to the Saudi-led coalition from 45 to only five.

Fewer than five US service personnel are now assigned full-time to the Joint Combined Planning Cell (JCPC) established last year to coordinate US support including air-to-air refuelling of Coalition jets and limited intelligence-sharing, Ian McConnaughey, a US Navy spokesman in Bahrain, said in a statement.

Chris Sherwood, a Pentagon spokesman, stressed that “the shift does not diminish the US commitment to supporting Saudi-led military operations. The JCPC forward team that was in Saudi Arabia is now in Bahrain,” he said, adding that US aerial tankers were continuing to refuel Saudi aircraft.

One source close to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh told the Weekly from Sanaa that the US had had communications with Saleh’s delegation to the Kuwait talks on the future of the country.

He said that the US had sent over one of its deputy secretaries of state with instructions to try to alter the course of the negotiations to conform with the plan that Kerry had submitted to Riyadh. The source noted that no progress had been made in this regard, due to the differences between Riyadh and Washington over the details of the plan and also because the other parties had not been presented with a written draft.

On the war against Al-Qaeda, Yemeni forces loyal to the Hadi government have fought several battles against Al-Qaeda forces in the province of Abyan. As Yemeni prime minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr told the Weekly in an interview a month ago, “Yemen is fighting a war on two fronts. But the US believes that the main war is against Al-Qaeda, while it sees the other battles between the legitimate government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance as a local dispute.”

In Syria, the situation is not much different. The details were never clear regarding the US-Russian agreement on the tactical truce in Syria that failed to hold. It was said that the agreement would serve as a new avenue that would support the course of a settlement. However, the Arab and regional parties concerned said they had never seen the details of the project until it was leaked following its collapse in the aftermath of the attack against a UN humanitarian aid convoy in Syria last week.

Bassam al-Malak, a member of the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, told Al-Ahram Weekly  that “a statement circulated following the Russian-US agreement to the effect that Russia had informed the Syrian regime of its substance but that the US had not notified its allies.”

“I imagine that there are two components: one military and security, which was the subject of controversy in the US itself, and the other political. The French foreign minister was not given the details [of the agreement] even though Paris asked Washington for them,” he said.

Al-Malak said that through such colleagues as Riad Hijab and Asaad al-Zoghbi “we contacted Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir to ask him about the contents of the agreement. He responded by saying that he had not seen it and knew nothing of its contents.”

“We then called for a session of the UN Security Council in order to strengthen the agreement and of course to see it. However, the session was cancelled a quarter of an hour before it was scheduled to take place. We were not informed why, but gathered from leaks, the veracity of which we have been unable to confirm, that there were issues related to the Palestinians of the diaspora and other issues related to Hamas and Hezbollah in the agreement.”

“We learned that the agreement was discussed in all its aspects and that in the end all that remained was for Kerry to have an office in Russia and coordinate with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. We thus learned nothing of substance,” al-Malak said.

The focus now is turning to the next occupant of the White House. According to experts, the present period in the life of the current administration does not count for much, though some think certain other factors also need to be taken into account.

Washington has its sights set on the battle for Mosul in Iraq, and there are also other issues on the American agenda. But there are other experts who say that Iraq no longer enters into US equations with regard to its relations with the Arab world and that it is now subject to coordination with other parties, most notably Iran.

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.

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