In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Nasser bin Nasser, Charles Lister, Marvin G. Weinbaum, and Gerald Feierstein provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including the dismissal of the Jordanian government following protests, the international diplomatic and military positioning in southern Syria, the merger of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, and the first anniversary of the intra-GCC crisis.
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Resilient Jordan now needs to be adaptive
Nasser bin Nasser, MEI Scholar
A series of protests over the past four days against proposed income tax legislation has led to the dismissal of the Jordanian government. Unlike the period of the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood did not show up in full force, nor did they attempt to hijack events as they unfolded. This may be a strategic decision on their part, but it is also a matter of necessity: they correctly recognize that Jordan remains a safe haven compared to other countries in the region where they are no longer welcome. Interestingly, the protests were originally led by the professional associations, including those against which the Brotherhood incurred significant losses in last month’s elections after 26 years of dominance.
The change in government will serve to stabilize the situation in the short term, but the repeal of the proposed legislation in its current form is still a necessity. The government will still have to find alternative ways to generate revenues and cut costs in order to meet the obligations of its IMF program. This will be a challenge given the country’s limited resources and regional instability, but not altogether impossible.
Jordanians of all walks of life also feel abandoned by the country’s traditional allies and increasingly believe the lack of support is a form of pressure on Amman to change its positions on some key regional issues, namely the so-called “deal of the century,” a final Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement.
Jordan has been touted as an example of resilience. It now needs to demonstrate that it can also be adaptive to its new circumstances.
In Syria, Iran is playing the long game
Charles Lister, Senior Fellow
As the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) continues its preparations for an apparently imminent military offensive into southern Syria, international diplomacy has kicked into high gear. Representatives of Russia, Israel, Jordan and the United States have all engaged in high-level negotiations in recent days, with the indirect input of the Assad regime and Iran. As these multilayered talks have continued, Syrian opposition groups have signaled their intent to resist, but their capacity to do so effectively is limited.
For now, both Israel and Jordan appear willing to allow an SAA advance into southern and southwestern Syria, provided Iranian troops or allied militiamen play no role whatsoever. Both countries have also demanded—at minimum—that all Iran-linked forces be withdrawn from specified buffer zones along their respective borders. Russia has suggested it could guarantee such withdrawals, though until now, Russia has not proven itself capable of achieving such Iranian concessions. Local reports have also suggested that in an attempt to mask their presence, some Iran-backed militias may have recently been integrated into SAA units, adopting their uniforms and insignia.
While it is possible that some level of Iranian repositioning away from the outer limits of southern Syria could be achieved, this does not solve broader concerns about Iran’s far more extensive, strategic power in Syria. Both Iran and Israel appear to be playing a “long game” here, but Tehran looks to hold more cards. If the Assad regime can regain the south without Iran’s assistance, that by itself is no loss for Iran’s larger goals. In fact, it may even serve to further entrench Iran in Syria’s core heartlands and to incentivize a pivot toward confronting U.S. and allied forces in the east and northeast. That the fate of the counter-ISIS coalition base in al-Tanf has allegedly been brought up in recent negotiations underlines that there is more at play here than first meets the eye.
FATA merges with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies
After years of unsuccessful attempts, Pakistan has finally passed legislation to merge the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. A creation of British India inherited by Pakistan in 1947, FATA was intended to keep unruly tribes under control and create a buffer with Afghanistan. Spread across seven tribal agencies, FATA has kept its own legal code and was only lightly governed by the federal government. Never fully integrated with the rest of Pakistan, FATA’s residents were denied constitutional rights applicable to other citizens of Pakistan. During decades of war in Afghanistan, FATA served as a refuge for insurgents and endured severe tribal leadership and societal upheavals. Locals also suffered heavy losses from terrorist attacks and counterterrorism operations.
The merging of FATA with KP is not without controversy. Those FATA elements that have enjoyed its large measure of autonomy have long resisted change. Residents will eventually be subject to taxation, possible land acquisitions by the government, and a likely more intrusive army and police presence. A backlash can already be felt from the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a nonviolent group responsible for organizing recent demonstrations across Pakistan on behalf of tribal and ethnic interests. Among the movement’s demands is a decrease in the number of existing army check posts. Concerns also exist of being overwhelmed politically by the far more populous, though also predominately Pashtun KP. The merger may impact the upcoming Jul. 25 parliamentary election that promises to be closely contested nationally.
The Gulf crisis at one year
Gerald Feierstein, Director of Gulf Affairs and Government Relations
One year after a faked Qatar News Agency report of a nonexistent speech by Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani triggered an intra-GCC crisis, there is not yet any sign that the parties are ready to seek a resolution. Instead, both sides are hardening their positions, indicating that they are prepared to perpetuate the dispute. Qatar recently announced a boycott of commercial products from the four “quartet” countries —Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—and announced that it would not be a party to any conflict with Iran. Following earlier threats to build a trench along its border with Qatar that would cut off all of Qatar’s land access, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman wrote to French president Emmanuel Macron in recent days threatening to take military action if Doha proceeds with plans to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system.
The U.S. has maintained a neutral position, urging both sides to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute, apparently surprising the quartet countries that had anticipated stronger backing from Washington. Unhappiness over the U.S. position has likely factored into Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayid’s delay of his anticipated visit to the U.S. Reports that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chastised the Saudis for their rejection of talks drew a swift rebuke from senior Emirati officials who insisted that the crisis could only be resolved within the GCC family. The U.S. has thus far insisted that the crisis has not compromised the U.S. defense posture in the region, but a Qatari refusal to support action against Iran could potentially cripple any U.S. military response if Qatar denies the use of the giant al-Udeid Air Base in contingency planning.