Lowy Institute

The Australian reported on its front page this morning that two Australian citizens were killed in a drone strike in Yemen in November last year. The Australian reports that, according to a 'senior counter-terrorism source', the two men were 'foot soldiers for al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula', known as AQAP, but that they were not the target of the US attack.

This will open a debate in Australia about US policy, a debate that has been going on for quite some time elsewhere. Drone strikes have killed British, German, and other nationals in the past so it's not an entirely new issue for Western countries. 

Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be 'extrajudicial killings' and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war. Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes. These are substantial issues and beyond the scope of this post. 

The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship. In the court of public opinion, however, which is what most politicians are concerned about, most Australians will feel that if you are an Australian citizen and a member of a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation, then you have made a choice that brings with it certain risks. One of those risks is being killed in a drone strike targeting other members of the organisation to which you belong.

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Would the people now condemning the lack of Australian official protest to the Americans be similarly outraged if it transpired that an Australian passport holder who was also a member of Hizbullah had been killed in an Israeli air strike targeting a weapons transhipment from Syria to Lebanon? That person may not have been engaged in direct combat, but he or she was facilitating potential future attacks by a non-state actor against another state.

Australian citizens are being killed in Syria fighting for opposition groups of various hues. An Australian citizen is also a prime suspect in a bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed six people.

The nature of the threat from Islamist terrorism means that foreign nationals will turn up in places they shouldn't, doing things that pose a risk to other people. Citizenship confers certain rights on a person, and imposes responsibilities on a government. It also imposes certain responsibilities on an individual. Regardless of the debate about the legality or policy sense of US drone strikes, if it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of AQAP and were not deliberately targeted, then I don't think either the Australian Government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.  

Photo by Flickr user US Department of Defense.


When I worked as a Defence Attaché in the Gulf, my local military driver was often not who I thought he was. Resplendent in his dishdasha and with excellent Arabic, I was surprised to find out that he was a Pakistani Baluch. When I asked my interlocutors how many Pakistanis there were in Gulf military forces, the stock answer was always that, while this was common in the past, nowadays nearly all personnel were citizens.

Pakistanis have indeed played important roles in Arab states in the past: a former Pakistani president, Zia ul Haq, commanded a Jordanian formation during the fight against Palestinian groups in 1970 that came to be known as Black September; and thousands of Pakistani troops deployed to Saudi Arabia following both the Iranian revolution and the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Far from being a thing of the past, it would appear that Pakistani links to Gulf security forces remain strong. Reports last week indicated that Bahrain employs 10,000 Pakistanis in its security forces, including 20% of its air force. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif denied Pakistan was providing troops, but the article said Pakistan provided security personnel to help quell the 2011 sectarian protests. Not officially, mind you, because they had been recruited through two of Pakistan's military welfare organisations.

Gulf states rely to a large degree on expatriate labour, while poor countries such as Pakistan welcome the remittances that such work provides to the home economy. So on the face of it, the employment of Pakistanis in Arab security forces shouldn't be too much of an issue. The UK still employs several thousand Nepalese Ghurkhas in its army, after all.

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But the situation is more complex in the Middle East and the consequences of employing large numbers of Sunni Pakistanis in Gulf states' security forces, where they may be called upon to quell protests based on sectarian discrimination, are obvious. In the Bahrain case, for example, Bahraini Shi'a complain that, while they are effectively barred from joining their own security forces based on their religion, the government employs Sunnis from countries such as Pakistan to repress them.

Saudi Arabia's attempts to develop even closer military relations with Pakistan also make strategic sense. Given Riyadh's nervousness about Iranian expansionism and Washington's willingness to undertake even a cautious rapprochement with Tehran, locking in a close relationship with a Sunni-majority country on Iran's border may be a wise investment for the future. The current controversy regarding the abduction of five Iranian border guards and their alleged presence in Pakistan shows just how vulnerable Tehran is to nefarious activity on its borders. 

Never willing to miss an opportunity to stick the boot into Pakistan, even the venerable Times of India has bought into the issue of Pakistan's military relations with the Gulf states with its politically incorrect headline 'Sunni days for Saudi's hired gun Pakistan'. 


Syrian Defence Minister General Fahad Jassim al Freij (centre) visits the township of Yabroud, 16 March 2014.

Last week, the Syrian civil war entered its fourth year. Two events highlighted how intractable this conflict has become.

First, the Syrian parliament passed an electoral law setting the stage for (in theory) contested elections in the middle of the year. The law's stipulation that candidates must be born to Syrian parents and to have lived in Syria for ten consecutive years before nominating is a not-so-subtle targeting of the exiled opposition leadership.

UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi believes that if an election were to be run mid-year, another round of Geneva peace talks may not materialise. Should Assad run and claim victory in an election, he would be signaling to the world that any negotiated solution would need to acknowledge his primacy, a move anathema to the opposition and likely to ensure the death of political negotiations. For Damascus, such an election victory would send a clear message that the regime intends to stay. If it achieves incremental military gains, the regime may also encourage local ceasefires which could further fragment an already disunited opposition.

The second event was the Syrian regime's re-taking the town of Yabroud from the rebels, which helps to further strangle a key resupply route of men and materiel from Lebanon into Syria.

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One of the reasons Hizbullah was so active in this battle was that re-taking the town denies the opposition a location from which to deploy car bombs into the Biqa' Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. With the fall of Yabroud imminent, rockets were fired into Shi'a towns in the BIqa'. And as if to prove Hizbullah's point, a suicide car bomb attack was foiled against a target in the Biqa' within hours of Yabroud's recapture. Two Hizbullah members allegedly pursuing the car were killed

It seems many rebel fighters withdrew from the town once its defence became untenable. The main withdrawal route was west, into Lebanon's largely pro-opposition town of Arsal, bringing with it retaliatory fire from Syrian aircraft and Lebanese Army efforts to stop rebels from infiltrating the town.

With the Syrian regime tightening the screws on the Qalamoun area, Lebanon should expect more tension as fighters withdraw via the easiest route. As the war enters its fourth year, Beirut is increasingly feeling the impact of Syria's civil war, whether it be through Hizbullah operating in Syria, or opposition fighters withdrawing to Lebanon or attacking Shi'a targets there.  

Observing the Syrian civil war is like watching a slow-motion car crash: we all know how it turns out but we feel powerless to stop it. The year-long political and military stalemate that tactically favours the regime looks set to continue in year four of the war. Syrian Government forces are likely to press ahead with regaining as much control as they can in Aleppo in advance of the elections so that they can claim a mandate in Syria's main population centres of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, giving themselves and their allies a fig leaf of popular legitimacy. Expect 2014 to be grim.

Image courtesy of Reuters/SANA.


Part 1 here.

Two events last week added to rising temperatures between governments in the Gulf region.

The first was another Gulf Arab diplomatic spat, this time involving Iraqi claims about un-neighbourly interference in its internal security affairs. Prime Minister Maliki took the rather undiplomatic step of accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of waging war on Iraq through their support of terrorist groups in Syria and western Iraq. Riyadh returned serve, placing the fault for Iraq's ongoing security dilemma on Maliki's own exclusionary policies and on his subordination to Iran (or 'regional parties', in polite language).

Claims that Iraq has begun buying weapons from Iran have done little to assuage fears that Maliki is too beholden to Iranian interests. Of course, Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to appoint a resident ambassador to Baghdad or undertake significant financial investments in Iraq gives them little sway in that country and opens the door for its rivals.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Gulf, the single deadliest incident for security forces in Bahrain since the latest round of anti-government protests began in 2011 resulted in the deaths of three police officers in a bomb blast. The attack came after demonstrations arising from the funeral procession for a detainee who had died in hospital. Two more police officers were wounded in a separate incident earlier this week.

Adding to the significance of the deadly blast: one of the dead was a UAE police officer. The UAE and Saudi Arabia sent military and police to Bahrain in 2011, allegedly to help protect public buildings and infrastructure. They were not sent there to take an active part against protests, which raises the question of what the UAE officer was doing at the protest site.

Amid all of this strife and accusations of internal interference, the thousand-pound gorilla is Iran. There is a fear in the Gulf that Iran may inch its way into the international community and dominate its increasingly fractious Gulf neighbours economically, diplomatically and militarily. More on that in the next post.

Photo by REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed.


The first of a two-part post on security concerns among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

Gulf Cooperation Council

Events in the past week in the Persian Gulf have illustrated how national rivalries, internal security concerns and the sectarian question have the potential to cause ruptures in the region’s security architecture. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, citing concern over the latter's supposed interference in their internal affairs.

Australia should pay attention to these issues, if for no other reason than we have tens of thousands of nationals working in the region, a military base in the UAE and military personnel posted to several of the Gulf states, and we have a residual moral obligation given our political and military support to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has exacerbated the current tensions.

Last week's Saudi-Qatari  spat is, on the face of it, not unusual. This excellent backgrounder shows the fractious nature of Qatari relations with its much larger neighbour, even if it predicts a rosy future for Qatar-GCC cooperation out to the 2022 World Cup. Yet this most recent diplomatic imbroglio is potentially more important than those in the past, for two reasons.

Firstly, it wasn't just the Saudis who recalled their ambassador, but UAE and Bahrain too. Egypt followed suit a few days later. This shows the depth of feeling against what is seen as Qatar's ill-considered support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Two other GCC members (Kuwait and Oman) chose to retain their diplomatic representation in Doha. Oman has always had a slightly different view of the GCC to the other members, needing to balance its good relations with Iran with its geographic and ethnic realities. That is part of the reason it has remained aloof from the Saudi plan to make the GCC more of a union. Kuwait has not joined in the diplomatic embargo either, likely realising that someone will have to play the role of GCC mediator. 

Secondly, besides highlighting the internal disagreements within the GCC, the withdrawal touched on an issue that is most centrally important to the Gulf states: internal security.

It is no coincidence that two days after the withdrawal, Saudi Arabia formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. It was also no coincidence that the day prior to the announcement, the UAE sentenced a Qatari doctor to seven years' prison for supporting al Islah, a reformist political group that UAE authorities claim is closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks the overthrow of the regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood has few friends among the leadership in the region, so Qatar’s actions in supporting it in Egypt is somewhat puzzling. This article outlined some of the benefits that such a relationship provided while the Brotherhood held power in Cairo, and was also prescient in suggesting that the outcome of such a policy may lead to a schism in the GCC. The costs of such a policy are not insignificant, but for the time being at least, Doha shows no sign of wavering in its approach.

Having been given such a public dressing down, the negotiations to resolve this issue are likely to be done very privately. 

Image courtesy of Reuters/Faisal al Nasser.


syria lebanon civil war

This weekend's blast at an army checkpoint on the outskirts of Hermel, claimed by Sunni jihadists, is just the latest in a series of vehicle-borne suicide attacks aimed at largely Shi'a areas in Lebanon.

Last month a suicide bomber got through to Hermel and killed four people. And things could have been even worse. Two weeks ago a 100kg car bomb was defused in Beirut and a facilitator for the al Qaida-affiliated Abdullah Azam Brigade was arrested. A few days later a 240kg car bomb was defused in the Bekaa Valley.

Beirut's heavily Shi'a southern suburbs (an area known as the dahiyya) has also come in for regular attention from Sunni jihadists who want to hit Hizbullah and Iranian targets in retaliation for their support of President Assad's regime in Syria.  Last year the Iranian embassy was targeted, killing 22 people, and a few days ago the Iranian cultural centre was the target.

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has been typically combative in response. In a widely circulated speech last week, he vowed to 'stay the course' in Syria, arguing that the fight was part of a broader regional security threat and would have occurred sooner or later. Anecdotal evidence is that the campaign of bombings has hardened the resolve of the Lebanese Shi'a community that the Sunni jihadist threat from Syria is very real, and therefore the need to fight them 'over there' before they come to Lebanon is increasingly apparent. A porous border and weak central government simply adds to Lebanon's problems. 

One of the tragic ironies of the latest Sunni bombing against Lebanese Shi'a targets is that one of the two soldiers killed in the blast was First Lieutenant Elias Khoury from Zahle, his name and town both marking him as Christian.

Photo by Flickr user yeowatzup.


The Vietnamese, in their battles with US forces, used to talk of the need to 'hug the belt', or to engage so closely with US ground forces that the Americans' overwhelmingly superior firepower would be blunted through fear of hitting their own men.

In Syria, the opposition has largely 'hugged the belt' of the civilian population to try to blunt the regime's advantage in firepower and win international sympathy when it doesn't. The regime, though, is not overly concerned with minimising harm to civilians, so the net effect is the death of tens of thousands of non-combatants.

This is one reason why the issue of humanitarian aid to besieged areas can be trickier than it may at first seem. The regime is unlikely to countenance providing succour to its enemies, and the UN and its agencies have no real way of knowing who is a fighter and who isn't.

Humanitarian organisations worry about feeding starving people, treating the sick and injured, and evacuating people who wish to be evacuated. But even acts as seemingly straightforward as allowing humanitarian access (Nick Bryant yesterday covered the UN's struggles in this regard) can, if not handled correctly, be viewed by one side as rewarding the other, as this article about the recent evacuation from Homs shows.

This conundrum is likely to deepen in coming months. As the weather improves and the diplomatic outlook worsens, the need for humanitarian aid will increase owing to even more fighting. The abandonment of the last round of the Geneva II talks before it even started was a good indicator that the regime believes it has the military advantage and doesn't need to talk about a transitional government as a precondition for tackling other issues.

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The obvious riposte by the opposition is to put more military pressure on the regime in order to convince Damascus that it can never generate enough combat power to win decisively. There are signs that the opposition is trying to strengthen its military structure: the leader of the Free Syrian Army, Brigadier Salim Idriss, has been sacked (or 'democratically removed') and replaced by a 'fighting rebel' operating in the south of the country. The new chief of staff is from the north, an effort to present as unified a front as possible. 

The fact that the new commander is operating in the south suggests a return to a Damascus-focused strategy. Earlier plans to defeat the regime were based on increasing the direct military threat to Damascus, considered the regime's vital ground.

This strategy may suit foreign powers hoping to help topple the regime but wary of association with Islamist radicals among the armed opposition. Radical jihadis are fewer on the ground in the south, which theoretically makes control of any weapons handed over to southern forces more secure. Jordan has allegedly been supportive to a degree of US efforts to train 'moderate' forces,  and this WSJ article presages the provision of more advanced weaponry to opposition forces fighting Assad'. 

Yet for all of this restructuring and claims of re-arming, local truces negotiated in areas around Damascus show how the Assad regime continues to pressure the opposition's major weakness: unity and local support. If the government can provide food and basic services without UN intervention after having laid siege to areas for months, then war fatigue among the local population may make it difficult for fighters to move into the area or for local opposition forces to resume fighting. On the other hand, if the fighters see it simply as an operational pause, the regime's strategy will have been for nought.

In Syria nothing, not even humanitarian assistance, is straightforward.

Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.


One of many great scenes from The Life of Brian was the depiction of the schism among anti-Roman groups that resulted in the standoff between the Judean People's Front, the Judean Popular People's Front (splitters!), and the People's Front of Judea (splitters!).

It was a not-so subtle reminder that Middle Eastern resistance movements have a well-deserved reputation for splintering. The Israelis and countless Arab autocrats have relied on the principle of 'divide and conquer', knowing that the dividing part is quite easy. It is also one of the reasons why Hizbullah stands out from the crowd — it has exhibited a degree of internal discipline over an extended period of time rarely if ever seen among such groups.

One of the reasons Bashar al-Assad has been able to survive for so long in Syria is because he and his supporters understand the nature of Arab resistance movements, particularly those of an Islamist bent.

Opposition groups have been divided from the beginning by practical issues such as competition for resources. Islamist groups have the added problem of interpretive disagreements. Who is following the true Islamic path in their resistance? Whose leader exhibits the most piety and bravery in battle? Only God knows the real truth and His will must be followed. Unfortunately God's will is a difficult thing to pin down, so it is little wonder schisms are commonplace among the Islamists.

Recent events have again showed just how difficult it is to know who is together and who is split among the armed Syrian opposition.

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Yesterday's announcement that the hard-core Islamic State of Iraq and the levant (ISIL) has agreed to a truce with another Islamist group, Suqur al-Sham, appeared pretty straightforward on the face of it. But Suqur al-Sham had been (or is?) part of the broader, allegedly 'good' Salafist collective known as the Islamic Front, formed in November last year.  The Front did nothing to endear itself to the West just a month later when it took over warehouses near the Turkish border belonging to the Western-backed (sort of) secular Free Syrian Army. But the Islamic Front has since begun fighting ISIS, which may have endeared it to some in the West.

'Good' is a relative term given that the Front's vision for Syria (inasmuch as it has one) is that of an Islamic state. But to some in the West and in the Gulf states, the Islamic Front's opposition to AQ-affiliated groups sets it apart from both ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the al Qaida branch of the Syrian civil war. JAN has been proscribed by most West countries as a terrorist organisation, a view that the group keeps on reinforcing, particularly now that it has spun off an affiliate, JAN in Lebanon, which has been targeting Shi'a in Lebanon with car and suicide bombers. Of course, JAN had a rival for al Qaida's affections: ISIL was originally al Qaida-approved, but it went off the reservation to such an extent that even Ayman al-Zawahiri had to publicly disown it last week.

Confused? You should be. My problem with the policy of arming the 'good' opposition in the Syrian conflict is the complete inability to know who gets what weapons systems, who they are used against, or where they end up. Who is to say that the donated rocket launcher or M4 rifle wasn't captured by the Syrian government when Ahmed the fighter was killed? Maybe it was handed over to the 'not-so-good' opposition or sold for a tidy profit to some Lebanese arms dealer.

The only way anybody can guarantee the end user of weapons is to own the supply chain, including having oversight of the person who uses it. And nobody in the West is willing to do that.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.


The so-called Geneva II conference ended last Friday.  The key to any negotiation regarding Syria is to aim low and keep one's expectations realistic. It is fair to say that UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's (pictured) aim was simply to get two of the sides in a room.  His claim that he didn't expect to achieve anything substantive at the talks meant that he at least met his own realistic expectations.

I used the term 'two of the sides' as opposed to 'the two sides' advisedly. That is because there were two notable absentees from Geneva. The first was Iran, which was invited by Ban Ki-Moon, who then had to uninvite them, which was embarrassing for the UNSG and accepted suspiciously well by Tehran.

The second key player missing was anyone representing the estimated 26,000 extremist Islamist fighters, or between one-third and one-quarter of fighters opposing the Assad regime. Some argue that various Gulf states effectively filled this role, but other reports claim the opposite. Either way, it is difficult to discern any coherent policy regarding the armed opposition. The political opposition has little if any influence over this group.

So toxic was the atmosphere in Geneva that even the hope of a confidence-building measure such as allowing humanitarian access into the city of Homs proved a bridge too far.  The Syrian government wanted to focus the talks on solving the issue of 'the terrorists' (the name by which it refers to its opponents), while the opposition was just as quick to steer the talks towards the transitional government called for by the original Geneva Communique, an issue the Assad representatives refuse to discuss.

Brahimi's statement at the end of the talks was an excellent example of a professional diplomat's ability to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Having set 10 February as the date for the next round of talks, further attendance by both sides could be seen as a diplomatic victory of sorts, although the initial indications from the parties aren't exactly enthusiastic.  After nearly three years of fighting, however, having groups yell at each other has to be better than shooting. The next step will be to agree to something.

Photo by Flickr user UN Geneva.


While any talks between combatants should be seen as a positive move, the expectation of any substantive outcome at Geneva II is virtually zero.

Under intense pressure from its Western supporters, the rather shambolic Syrian opposition grouping (known currently as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces) was able muster 58 out of 75 voting members to support attendacne at this week's talks. This sounds like a solid enough majority, until you realise that 44 members (largely from the pro-Qatari faction) boycotted the vote in protest at even considering participating in the 'peace conference'. Fifty-eight out of 119 possible voting members sounds entirely less convincing.

The lack of authority that Syria's putative (and out-of-country) alternative political leadership has with the armed opposition is further reason to doubt the ability of this meeting to deliver anything of substance. Nothing about the conflict is simple, but the degree to which external interference has diluted the efforts of the opposition and underpinned the survival of the Assad regime says much about the complexity of the conflict. It is also a dead weight on the ability to achieve an outcome acceptable to the external players, let alone the Syrians themselves.

The sensitivity that surrounds the external players is perhaps best illustrated by the presence of Iran. US Secretary of State John Kerry opposed Iranian participation in Geneva II for a long time, then appeared to relent to allowing Tehran to come as an observer. The UN Secretary-General has now formally invited Iran to attend the talks.

Any Syrian 'solution' will ultimately be determined by actors outside Syria. So what is the point of these talks if the opposition isn't empowered to deliver anything much, and the government appears disinclined to concede anything?

Former British foreign secretary David Milliband has perhaps provided an answer, by highlighting the simple humanitarian reasons why the conference could have purpose. Beyond the great games played by regional powers, and the legitimate Western fears of the country being a training ground for radical Islamists, the situation in Syria is the decade's greatest humanitarian disaster. And if any relief for the embattled Syrian population emerges from the conference, then there will at least have been some purpose to it. 

Image courtesy of Oxfam International.


As Syria stumbles into its third year of conflict, President Assad continues to bank on his belief that the longer he remains in power, the more likely that the opposition will be seen as a combination of Islamists, carpetbaggers, proxies and miscreants, and that the West will somehow reluctantly agree to his remaining in power as an ostracised, but anti-Islamist figure. This remains unlikely, but it is certainly less unlikely than it was a year ago. 

In the lead-up to the Geneva II talks (if they ever occur), Assad has certainly been trying to position himself as the only person who can fix the 'foreign fighter' problem that so concerns the West. Syria has claimed that Western governments have opened talks with him about the Islamist problem, and Assad himself has portrayed Saudi ideology and funding as a global security threat (thereby positioning himself as a bulwark against it).

Assad also knows that Islamist groups' unity is only ephemeral and sooner or later they split as rivalries, agendas and ideological differences come to the surface. This analysis from Europe is a good backgrounder on this particular issue. He also knows that, with his own chemical weapons neutralised, the West is more concerned about the security threat from the Islamist opposition than from any external threat posed by the Syrian regime.

Even supporters of the Islamists (such as Turkey) are feeling the heat from the people they have hitherto supported, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul has signalled his belief that his prime minister's Syria policy, predicated solely on the removal of Assad, has not worked and needs to be changed.  

For all the death and destruction already heaped on Syria as a result of the fighting, 2014 offers little hope that anything will change. Assad and his allies are banking on the fact that the West will see his continuing hold on power as less threatening than the Islamist threat; indeed he is positioning himself as the solution to that threat. While this may be too bitter a pill to swallow for the West, the Assad option is certainly less distasteful than it was this time last year. 

Photo by Flickr user Beshroffline.


I am returning from Lebanon and Bahrain, where I've been speaking to various elements of the Shi'a community in each country.

Lebanon's sectarian problems have always been multi-faceted and are complicated by centuries of foreign interference, making their resolution virtually impossible. In Bahrain they are straightforward, which makes the lack of resolution all the more frustrating. 

A roadblock in a Shi'a area of Bahrain, set up following the demolition of a number of Shi'a mosques which the Government claimed were built without permission (Saturday 30 November; photo by the author)

In a few days, the IISS-run, Bahraini Government-funded, Manama Dialogue will take place in the Bahraini capital. As well as the semi-public conference proceedings, the three-day event offers an opportunity for senior regional and international figures to meet privately and talk about the enormous changes taking place in the region.

But while the world's leaders enjoy the hospitality of the Bahraini royal family, the local political dialogue remains on life support. While this may appear a minor issue given the scale of the region's problems, the inability of the Bahraini Government to reform does not bode well for more complex societies.

Bahrain's divide is a simple sectarian one, and the solution relatively straightforward. But it requires a commitment to reform that hardliners in the ruling Khalifa family seem to lack.

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Bahrain's Shi'a opposition parties are in an invidious position and have developed a stoic approach to reform, largely because they have has no other choice. While the Bahraini Government receives financial support from its Sunni Gulf allies, the Shi'a opposition is nervous about receiving even moral support from Iran or Iraq lest it stand accused of being a stooge for foreign interests. The modest nature of Shi'a religious buildings and institutions I saw is evidence of this.

The other challenge for the Bahraini Shi'a is from within.

In an interconnected world, the media-savvy Bahraini Shi'a youth are not willing to be as stoic as the opposition parties.

While the opposition parties see the ability to maintain public order among the community as a key element of their political strategy, the youth are decentralised but connected. This allows them to coalesce to demonstrate, but not to organise themselves politically. It is a challenge for the Shi'a political opposition to keep them within the fold.

The risk is that the longer national dialogue fails to produce any meaningful reform, the more radicalised the youth are likely to become.There are already Bahraini Sunni youths fighting in Syria in small numbers, and whispers that some Shi'a youth may also be there.

It would be nice to think that as well as attending the Sunday session at the Ritz Carlton on 'Sectarianism in Politics', whatever Australian delegation attends the Manama Dialogue might also take the opportunity to make the short drive to some of the Shi'a suburbs and speak to the opposition, or engage government officials on the lack of reform. Otherwise senior regional and international figures will continue to see sectarianism as an esoteric concept, rather than a lived experience.


As 2013 comes to a close, Saudi Arabia should be concerned that it is increasingly being seen as an observer of events that threaten to re-shape the region in ways that will weaken its standing.

I am currently in Lebanon and the feeling of disappointment with Saudi Arabian leadership of the Arab world is palpable.

President Obama's withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and a desire to limit America's involvement in the Middle East, Washington's preference for diplomacy over military action in Syria and more recently the election of President Rouhani as a relative moderate in Iran have posed challenges for Riyadh to which it has been unable to respond.

Iran is a particularly difficult problem for Riyadh. For all of its flaws, the Iranian electoral process delivered a new administration which has been willing, and more importantly capable, of arriving at an interim nuclear agreement. What's more, the Iranians now have a leadership group which is both loyal to the revolution and has a good understanding of the West. Iran is also a key player in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, countries in which the US has important interests.

The view from Riyadh, by contrast, is one of a region in which it appears to have an increasingly limited degree of influence and is hostage to the efforts of others.

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In Syria, Saudi Arabia has been keen to remove Bashar Assad since the beginning of the conflict; it is also a generous financial donor to the opposition. Yet Assad remains in power and the opposition has never achieved political unity, let alone military effectiveness. Riyadh urged the US to take military action in response to the use of chemical weapons. Instead, it got a Russian-sponsored solution in which Damascus signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and is supporting the UN investigative team.

Riyadh also urged caution about rushing into an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, only to learn that the US had been in secret talks with Tehran for a year. Its reaction to the agreement was both muted and delayed, indicating its frustration with being out-manoeuvred by its Gulf rival yet again. Riyadh's centralised and opaque decision-making processes are often slow, and internal policy contestation is absent.

Riyadh has always been happy with an Iran that sits outside the international community and is contained. The prospect for US-Iranian detente, no matter how limited, is not something Saudi Arabia can easily accept.

Riyadh' s reaction to this turning of the tide has not exactly been a model of diplomatic maturity. Rejecting its seat at the UN Security Council after assiduously lobbying for it and increasing military support to Syrian opposition groups without any policy to address the second-order effects do not indicate well thought-out foreign policy responses.

Although the Obama Administration has been careful to reassure Riyadh that Saudi Arabia remains fundamental to US interests in the region, some US commentators believe the Saudis are simply reaping what they have sown for the past few decades. Unless Saudi Arabia is able to learn from its leaden foreign policy approach to a region in flux, it risks becoming increasingly sidelined or worse still, acting as little more than a regional spoiler.

Photo by Flickr user zbigphotography.


Two events overnight have pitched Iran once again to the forefront of Middle Eastern politics, albeit for completely different reasons.

First was the twin suicide bombing targeting the Iranian embassy in Beirut that killed over 20 people but didn't breach the perimeter. An al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility, but whether they did it or not is secondary to the symbolism of attacking the Iranian state in retaliation for its involvement in the Syrian civil war.

The attack itself will do nothing other than to further steel Iran's motivation to support a pro-Iranian regime in Syria and to emphasise to Lebanese Shi'a that Syria really is a sectarian conflict and that Assad deserves the blood and treasure that Hizbollah continues to expend there. 

Back in Iran however, an even more interesting development occurred.

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Foreign Minister Javad Zarif released a professionally produced (except for the increasingly annoying use of the dual camera angle) YouTube video in perfect English outlining Iran's willingness to move forward on the nuclear issue.

The election of a new government in Iran was cited by Zarif as presenting an opportunity to move forward, and there was much use of 'respect' and 'dignity', two key words that perennially feature in Iranian discourse as a way of emphasising their independence in contrast to their Arab neighbours in the Gulf.

The net effect of these two events has been to once again highlight the increasing centrality of Iran to those issues that are most likely to shape the immediate future of the region; the Syrian civil war and nuclear negotiations.

On the one hand its embassy is attacked by an al Qaeda affiliate, while at the same time its highly educated and urbane Foreign Minister is able to sell his message about nuclear negotiations to the West in their own language using their own social media platforms.

For the Gulf states who are already nervous at the prospect of any form of US detente with Tehran, they will rue events in Beirut both because embassies are considered off-limits in this undeclared battle for regional influence and because of the knowledge that it will harden Iran's resolve in Syria. They will also look enviously at Zarif's video, knowing that it is something they couldn't really pull off themselves.


Although optimism is always in short supply in the Middle East, there appear to be early positive signs emerging from the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The election of President Rouhani has proven to be the circuit-breaker everyone needed after the abrasiveness of the Ahmadinejad administration.

The Washington Post has even been bold (or more likely well-informed) enough to put some flesh on the bones of the proposal, and reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif (pictured with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton) has canceled his trip to Italy have given weight to rumours that there may be movement at the negotiating station. Zarif's latest comments ('It is possible to reach an understanding about an agreement before we close these talks tomorrow evening') reinforce that sense.

There will be some regional states nervous at the prospect of an Iran that is acting responsibly and giving ground on nuclear negotiations. One group that should be worried is the Syrian opposition. Both pre- and post-Shah, Iran has always believed that its size, history and culture demand that it have influence commensurate with the way it sees itself. The ethnic, linguistic and above all religious differences it has with the Arab world have always stymied that aspiration, which is why it likes to exert influence indirectly through its allies and proxies.

The loss of Syria as an ally would have immediate strategic consequences for Tehran, which is why it is not unreasonable to see a scenario in which Tehran demands the continued presence of Assad or a like-minded ruler in Damascus as one of the real prices for substantive cooperation on the nuclear issue.

Tehran certainly needs relief from the crippling sanctions, but it has adapted to them over more than a decade. It will be harder to adapt to the loss of Syria. If the nuclear negotiations continue to look promising then it will be interesting to see the ways in which diplomatic positions on Syria shift in substance, if not in words. The Iranians always drive hard bargains, after all.

Photo by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.