In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Charles Schmitz, Gonul Tol, Randa Slim, and Charles Lister provide analysis on recent events including the announced cease-fire between the Saudi's and Yemen's Houthis, the consequences of the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey and the P.Y.D's move to declare an autonomous Kurdish zone in northeastern Syria, expectations for Secretary Kerry's visit to Moscow this week to discuss the Syrian conflict, and the impact of the cease-fire on conditions on the ground in Syria.
Hopeful Signs in Yemen?
Charles Schmitz, Scholar
Weeks after scattered rumors of direct contacts between the Houthi and the Saudis, reports have emerged of a cease-fire deal. The agreement has yet to receive official confirmation, but calm was restored in parts of the country over the weekend, while fighting continued in other parts, primarily Taiz.* An informal cease-fire took hold in Saada, the home of the Houthi, prior to Monday’s announcement. A joint military team also began demining operations along the Saudi-Yemeni border and the Saudis sent a large shipment of relief supplies to Saada. This is an abrupt turnaround in what has been a destructive border conflict in the north. Significantly, at the same time relief supplies arrived in Saada, a major Houthi figure in Qom, Iran, released a statement asking the Iranians not to interfere in the current situation in Yemen.
U.N. negotiator Ould Cheikh Ahmed arrived in Sanaa on Saturday after meeting with Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Riyadh and it appears Kuwait may host a new round of talks between the Yemeni parties to the conflict.
These hopeful developments seem to result from a realization that war will only further complicate the Yemeni situation and from hints of a broader shift in relations between the G.C.C. and Iran. The Saudi air campaign for the first time attacked al-Qaeda positions in Mukulla, Lahj, and Aden. The inability of Hadi’s forces to effectively govern any part of the ‘liberated’ south and the slow pace of the war in the north gave greater weight to the danger of al-Qaeda and ISIS to exploit the Yemeni chaos. Hadi’s coalition is rife with internal factures that frequently erupt into open hostilities. This umbrella of forces cannot contain its political unity in friendly territory and would be completely incapable of controlling hostile territory in the north if it were to advance militarily.
In light of a possible settlement in Syria, positive public pronouncements from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the economic burden of the war in Yemen, the Saudis seem to have reached the conclusion that the time has arrived for negotiations. However, it may be a bit late for the king’s men to put humpty together again.
Turkey Terror Attacks Feeds Local Anti-Americanism
Gonul Tol, Director of MEI’s Center for Turkish Studies
The P.Y.D’s move to declare an autonomous Kurdish zone in northeastern Syria has infuriated neighboring Turkey. The P.Y.D. move comes amid increasing terror attacks in Turkey, with the latest suicide bombing, this time perpetrated by ISIS, killing five in Istanbul over the weekend. The upsurge in terror attacks is likely to heighten Turkey’s sensitivity to the developments in neighboring Syria and further feed anti-Americanism.
The ruling A.K.P. has been fueling the public perception that Turkey is increasingly falling victim to regional dynamics of sectarian, religious and ethnic violence in Syria. Except for the liberal circles, there is rarely any mention to the domestic roots of the intensifying fight between the P.K.K. and the state, and the growing ISIS threat. Instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan constantly refers to the external roots of terrorism and foreign forces supporting Turkey’s enemies. The ruling party presents the rise of ISIS as the result of the West’s failure to pursue a more forceful policy against the Assad regime. The A.K.P. also portrays the P.K.K.’s intensifying attacks against Turkey as the result of P.Y.D.-American cooperation. Therefore, an increase in terror attacks on Turkish soil by P.K.K-.linked groups and ISIS is likely to strain Turkey-U.S. relations and strengthen Turkey’s opposition to the P.Y.D. gains in northern Syria.
Kerry’s Moscow Visit Unlikely to Bridge Divide on Syria
Randa Slim, Director of the Track II Dialogues Initiative
While the U.S.-Russian collaboration in Syria is a work-in-progress, no major breakthroughs should be expected from Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow. Both countries endorse political negotiations as the means to reaching a peace agreement in Syria, but they remain divided over major substantive issues about the political process and military operations in Syria. Kerry will use his meeting with President Vladimir Putin to ascertain the drivers of Putin’s decision to drawdown his forces in Syria and its implications for Russia’s Syria policy in the short-to-medium term.
Though they have not failed yet, the Geneva negotiations have yet to make any progress on the substantive issues in the political roadmap outlined by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254. Though the Syrian opposition and their regional backers hailed Putin’s decision to partially withdraw his forces in Syria as a positive development, it is still too early to assess how it will affect the future course of the negotiations.
The Syrian regime’s 10-point position paper at the negotiations stated that the priorities should be on fighting terrorism and preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. Their negotiation strategy has so far been focused on procedural issues as a way to avoid delving into the principal substantive issue of political transition. The opposition team’s position is that the entry point to a final settlement in Syria is a political transition in which Assad cannot play a role. One point on which both regime and opposition agree is rejection of federalism in Syria on the basis that it will lead to Syria’s partition along ethnic and sectarian lines.
This position is not shared by Syrian Kurds who have just announced the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region along Turkey’s southern border. Excluded from the Geneva negotiations, Syrian Kurdish parties are trying to outpace the political negotiations by creating a fait accompli on the ground—a feat they are able to achieve thanks to the military assistance they are receiving from both the United States and Russia.
Syria Cease-fire Challenging Jihadist Groups
Charles Lister, Resident Fellow
The ongoing reduction in hostilities on the ground has transformed broader conflict dynamics across Syria, empowering Syria’s populist protest movement; eroding the success of al-Qaeda’s strategic long game approach; and providing openings for a broader fight against ISIS.
Al-Qaeda has now faced a week of protests against its strong influence in parts of Idlib. Its subjugation of the CIA- and Saudi-backed 13th Division has driven men, women and children repeatedly out onto the streets, to condemn what they now see as an aggressive outsider force unwilling to allow the populist and moderate roots of the revolution to come back to the fore within its key stronghold. These anti-al-Qaeda protests have since spread, finally revealing into the open long-held opposition concerns about al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate that most people have been too afraid to voice until now. This serves as a reminder that the core of Syria’s revolution and opposition movement remains averse to extremism. Moreover, this provides an invaluable opportunity for the so-called Friends of Syria to finally empower genuinely moderate forces to definitely differentiate themselves from actors who, when push comes to shove, do not have the revolution’s best interests in mind. So far, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken a step back from reacting overly aggressively to the protests, but its patience will last only so long. If and when it does choose to do so, it could put down opposition to its influence in Idlib quickly and with little mercy.
ISIS, meanwhile, faces continued challenges to its territorial control in northeastern Syria, but newer ones in the southeast. A U.S. and Saudi-backed anti-ISIS forces known as the New Syrian Army has exerted itself in areas adjacent to the Jordanian border, centered around the strategically valuable al-Tanf border crossing. Now potentially faced by capable and internationally-supported forces in both the south and north, ISIS has intensified raid operations to serve as distractions north of Aleppo, around Shadadi and Deir Ezzor. Most importantly however, it has launched new and powerful advances in southern Syria close to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Under the new leadership of Saudi national Abu Abdullah al-Madani, ISIS proxy force Liwa Shuhada Yarmouk has now established a limited presence in important long opposition-held towns like Jassem, Inkhil, Tasil and Tel Jumaa. These are important developments, with potentially serious consequences. They will also serve to weaken and distract the opposition, providing potential opportunities for pro-regime forces.
*A change was made to the original, pending official confirmation of the cease-fire deal in Yemen.