Middle East Ticker

What’s on Mohammed bin Salman’s Agenda?

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 7:00 AM

U.S. Presses for New Ceasefire in Syria

Syrian regime fighters intensified their bloody assault on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, once again this week. Over the weekend, troops advanced in the area, cutting off the towns of Douma and Harasta and splitting Eastern Ghouta in two. Russian intermediaries met with rebels last week in the besieged area and arranged for the evacuation of some members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), and rebels said Monday that a deal had been reached to allow the phased evacuation of wounded civilians. Doctors Without Borders reports that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the regime offensive since February 18.

Russian authorities announced on Saturday that a new ceasefire would go into effect in Douma, but on Monday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a briefing that as yet no ceasefires have gone into effect and no civilian evacuations had occurred. The United States has prepared a new Security Council resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire; a similar resolution was passed last month but disregarded by the Assad regime. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that if the parties do not abide by the ceasefire, the United States is prepared to back it with force. "It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again,” Haley said, referencing the Trump administration’s airstrike on a regime chemical weapons cache last April.

Farther north, Turkish and Turkish-backed forces advanced deeper into the Kurds’ western canton, arriving at the outskirts of the city of Afrin. Thousands of residents have fled the area, fearing an imminent siege and possible atrocities. Many of the Turkish-backed rebels expressed a desire for revenge against the Kurds for the destruction of Arab towns in Hasakah province in interviews with the Washington Post. Turkey has requested help from the United States, asking that U.S. forces prevent Kurdish forces from traveling to Afrin from territory held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces in eastern Syria. The United States did not respond to that request, but is working on a compromise that would see Kurdish forces withdraw from Manbij, a contested city on the Euphrates River at the western edge of Kurdish territory in eastern Syria. Turkish officials have threatened to extend the Afrin offensive east to Manbij to secure the Syrian-Turkish border.

Mohammed bin Salman’s Grand Tour

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious crown prince, is in London this week, part of a trip to Egypt, Britain, and the United States to shore up relations with partners and seek investments in his overhaul of the Saudi economy. MBS’ social reforms have continued to unfold while he has been on the road: The Justice Ministry has announced new rights for women seeking a divorce in the Kingdom, including default custody of children in uncontested divorces. The country is also continuing to integrate more Western popular culture, and announced this week that it will host WWE Royal Rumble event in April. Despite this recent progress, MBS’ visit to Washington, DC—among other U.S. cities—will stoke several points of tension in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The U.S. Senate is considering a joint resolution challenging U.S. involvement in the Saudi intervention in Yemen, and the Department of Energy is considering controversial measures to loosen standard restrictions on nuclear technology to allow Riyadh to purchase reactors for a civil nuclear energy program.

The resolution in the Senate is unlikely to have much practical effect—as Molly Reynolds and Scott Anderson noted in a recent episode of Brookings’ “5 on 45” podcast, the language of the bill opposes U.S. involvement in “hostilities,” which the Pentagon argues does not describe the logistical support it is providing to the Saudi coalition. It would not end the sale of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia, which have facilitated the conflict; the United States sold more than $650 million in arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year, according to a new report, and over the weekend Britain, where parliamentarians have pursued similar measures, agreed to defense contractor BAE’s sale of 48 Typhoon fighter aircraft. But the legislation reflects a growing frustration with U.S. involvement in the stagnated war, which has been marked by high numbers of civilian casualties and created an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The bipartisan resolution, sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Bernie Sanders, might not end U.S. involvement, but it could be used to name and shame senators who vote against it.

Saudi Arabia’s quest for an array of nuclear energy reactors is also a likely subject of discussion—and controversy. Saudi Arabia is presently shopping plans for the construction of as many as 16 reactors and insisting on a domestic reprocessing capacity—something that U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreements with countries like Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates does not allow because it provides material that could be repurposed for the development of a nuclear weapon. U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently met with Saudi officials in London, and Bloomberg reports that “[t]he U.S. is reluctantly preparing to offer the Saudis a deal that falls short of the gold standard, though officials say it would still be stricter than the terms any other potential builder would impose.” Such an agreement would be a success for Saudi Arabia and the array of lobbyists they’ve hired to push the deal over the finish line, but could still face challenges in Congress, which will have 90 days to evaluate any arrangement. Some members of Congress have expressed concern, as have regional partners. On his recent trip to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. officials that despite warming ties between Israel and the Saudis, he was concerned about the prospect of Saudi Arabia as a threshold nuclear power.

MBS is trying to maintain investors’ interest in Saudi Vision 2030, and his trip will include stops in New York and California, but the plan is continuing to run into challenges. The economic modernization plan was never going to happen smoothly, and some delays have been anticipated. This past week, Saudi officials told diplomats in Britain that the initial public offering of stock in Saudi Aramco, the state oil giant, will likely be pushed back again and now might not occur until 2019. Other errors, though, have been self-inflicted—like the wild purge of the royal family last November, which was billed as a corruption crackdown. Just what happened last year when the Saudi regime arrested more than 100 businessmen and held them at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh until they signed away their assets or were formally charged is still coming to light. A new investigation by the New York Times reports that authorities beat some of those held, and at least one person, a Saudi general and aide to a member of the royal family, was killed while incarcerated; others who were released are not even sure how much of their wealth they ceded to the government. The Saudi government announced on Sunday that it is setting up new offices within the prosecutor general’s staff to oversee new anti-corruption investigations; the plan could bring some transparency and professionalism to future investigations, but foreign business interests are still reportedly rattled by crackdown last year. And MBS’ consolidation of political power continues: Late last month, he fired his joint chiefs of staff, a move that Bruce Riedel writes could presage a renewed offensive in Yemen.