An end to the holy oil war?

By Claude Salhani |

The ‘holy oil war’ may be coming to an end. Don’t bother looking for this as it’s a term I made up to refer to the political clash between the oil and gas producing countries of the Gulf brought about by divergent views regarding just how politicized and extremist Islam should be.

Gulf Cooperation Council members – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman had accused the other member- Qatar of supporting the fanatical so-called Islamic State, an organization deemed by everyone else to be a terrorist group.

Relations between Qatar and the rest of the GCC faltered and sourced and the rest of the GCC pulled out their ambassadors from Doha last March.

But now in an unexpected move Sunday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to return their ambassadors to Qatar, signaling an end to an eight-month rift over Doha’s support for Islamist groups, according to a statement released by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Could this be the first step in defeating the Islamic State?

If all sides respect the agreement this could well put to rest the “holy oil war” that has been going on behind the scenes between the oil-rich countries in the Gulf. It could repair the rift between Qatar and their neighbors who have opposed them on political and religious grounds. When Qatar was not buying up the latest European soccer team, or a Swiss bank, it was meddling in the affairs of other Arab states.

The news came after an emergency meeting held in the Saudi capital Riyadh to discuss the dispute that erupted following Qatar’s support of Islamist groups seen as supporting or engaging in terrorist activity.

Qatar’s foreign policy has been viewed as meddlesome – interfering in the religious and political affairs of other countries, pitting the other rich Gulf states to rally their resources, including their oil and gas generated richness to combat the rising threat of extremist Islamists.

In an unprecedented move, the three Gulf countries withdrew their ambassadors from fellow GCC member Qatar in March, accusing it of undermining their domestic security through its support of the Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The GCC statement said that Sunday’s meeting had reached what it described as an understanding meant to turn over a new leaf in relations between the six members of the Gulf organization, which also includes Kuwait and Oman.

“Based on that, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the kingdom of Bahrain decided to return their ambassadors to the state of Qatar,” the statement said.

This marks an important step in the region’s fight against the so-called Islamic State, which is perceived as a real threat by the other GCC countries. This agreement also marks an important political victory for Saudi Arabian influence in the region.

Qatar, much like fellow GCC countries Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used their oil and gas revenues to influence events in other Middle Eastern countries by supporting one or more sides in thee many conflicts that are currently unfolding in the region.

Indeed Qatar has been active in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Qatar is often seen as somewhat of a maverick and an enigma in the region. It is one of the smallest of Arab states, but has one of the largest egos in the region and beyond.

With a population of only about 500,000 people (and 1.5 million expatriate workers) it tried to drive policy in several countries in the region. It supports (or at least did so until Sunday night) the radical Islamists, yet has sort of diplomatic relations with Israel. It provided funds to the IS, yet continues to host the largest US military base in the Gulf region.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have both listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and look upon political Islam as a challenge to their own systems of dynastic rule.

Qatar is seen to have been supportive of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the UAE, and more recently in Libya. Doha has allowed several Muslim Brotherhood members to set up residence in Qatar, including the highly controversial preacher, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, to whom they have granted citizenship.

It was Qatar that established the most controversial of television channels –al-Jazeera – whom many Arab countries accuse of being far too supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many analysts say that the three al-Jazeera journalists who are currently detained in Egypt are being held as political hostages in a move made by Egypt to get back at Qatar.

Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates also see the Doha-based Al Jazeera news channel as being a Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece — Qatar denies these accusations, saying it hosts all political and religious tendencies.

Reuters reports that diplomats in Doha said that Qatar promised the UAE that the Brotherhood would not be allowed to operate from the country. There was no immediate confirmation of this.

You can follow Claude on Twitter @claudesalhani

 

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The Caucus Soldier’s Group takes shape in Syria

By Claude Salhani |

An Islamist group claiming it intends to fight for an Islamic state in the Caucasus has just surfaced in the Syrian port city of Latakia, according to a report from the respected and informative SyriaComent.com.

The group calling itself The Caucus Soldier’s Group, (Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz,) confirmed their existence in an interview to Aymen Jawad Al-Tamimi, who wrote up a report for SyriaComment.com, which included an interview with the group’s media representative.

Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, confirmed in an interview, that it is affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, which also counts Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar of the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition as among its affiliates.

The Caucasus Emirate is considered a terrorist organization and has links with al-Qaida, though reports from the North Caucasus say that the Caucasus Emirate has run out of people with a large number of its followers having migrated to Syria and Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State.

In their Facebook page Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz claims to be a Caucasus mujahid group aiming to gather the Caucasians in the totality under the banner of jihad against the enemies of Islam in the totality.”

The group is reported to operate out of Latakia. Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz officially claims to have no problems with other jihadi groups.

The group’s media representative speaking to the author of this report stated that the group is unaffiliated with other Islamist groups in Syria or the region.

Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz claims to operate independently and not to be part of Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din.

Ahmet Yarlykapov, a senior scientist of the RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology reports that Dagestani authorities, where the Caucasus Emirates is based, has sent people to persuade the jihadis who went south to Syria and Iraq to stay there.

“It is indeed a very promising method of work, because the return of these people is the biggest threat for Russia,” says Yarlykapov. “Islamic State has gained no mass support among the population in the North Caucasus, “ he ads.

The Russian expert adds: “Look at the fate of the Caucasus Emirate that has degraded to the level of a terrorist network. They have never even controlled a territory. In other words, the ideas are absolutely unpopular in the North Caucasus. But the threat of terrorist acts is the main threat we can expect from people returning from Islamic State.”

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You can follow Claude on Twitter @claudesalhani

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Gulf States Unstable Despite Resource Wealth

by Claude Salhani |

Sectarian and ethnic tension, religious violence, and terrorism threats appear to be rising trends in the Gulf region according to a new study on the state of security in the Gulf by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The 200-plus page report released last week was prepared by veteran analyst Anthony H. Cordesman from CSIS, a highly respected Washington, DC, think tank.

The report notes the alarming rise of politicized Islam in the Arab world. Even in Saudi Arabia, the so-called Islamic State has found many followers in spite of the fact that the self-proclaimed caliphate does not recognize Saudi Arabia.

Also highlighted in the report is a profound consolidation of governmental power with little to no participation by the ordinary citizen.

The report allows one to measure the great paradox that is the modern Arab world, with excessive and often times ostentatious wealth on the one hand, and almost medieval situations, where women are openly sold as slaves in the marketplace and public executions are common, on the other.

Indeed, even if the lifestyles are rather extreme in some instances, what would be considered extremely unusual in the West can be the norm in the Arab world. The common denominator here seems to be abundant oil and gas in these countries, the sale of which allows the realization of sometimes outlandish projects.

These projects can range from the construction of five star hotels, world-class shopping malls with indoor ski slopes and some of the world’s tallest buildings, to large-scale arms trading and the financing of the Islamic State.

The report examines each of the Gulf Cooperation Countries as well as Yemen (and a few others that have an impact on the region, such as Iran and Egypt, and rates them on a number of criteria that include:

1. Voice and Accountability: the extent to which a country’s citizens are able to participate in selecting their government as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association and a free media.

2. Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism: the likelihood that the government will be destabilized by unconstitutional or violent means, including terrorism.

3. Government Effectiveness: the quality of public services, the capacity of the civil service and its independence from political pressures; and the quality of policy formulation.

4. Regulatory Quality: the ability of the government to provide sound policies and regulations that enable and promote private sector development.

5. Rule of Law: …(T)he rules of society, including the quality of contract enforcement and property rights, the police, and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence.

6. Control of Corruption: the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as “capture” of the state by elites and private interests.

Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates rate low in transparency and are declining in voice and accountability. Kuwait receives a “poor” mark, Oman and Qatar rate “very low,” while Saudi Arabia rates “extremely low,” with no levels of transparency and no positive trends in sight.

Iraq and Yemen come in so low in the ratings that they are considered failed states.

In terms of governance Bahrain faces “serious problems,” Kuwait gets “good to moderate” marks in governance but scores low on corruption.

Bahrain faces serious demographic pressures increased by reliance on foreign laborers.

Oman faces growing problems with political stability and violence that the government is trying to downplay and conceal.

The only positive ray of hope in this otherwise somber and dark outlay of problems holding back the development of the region comes from the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, despite low levels of transparency in government, and no accountability, the World Bank still places the UAE as probably the only Arab country without a rising trend towards violence.

The bottom line is that, in spite of the mega-billions the gulf countries are raking in, the image of the Arab world remains marred by extreme violence and conflicts.

you can follow Claude on Twitter @claudesalhani

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US aims to pressure Russia could trigger major conflict

The price of oil surprisingly went down last week from a high of about $120 per barrel to a low of about $80. It was delightful news for consumers who felt the difference instantly at the pump.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries from their headquarters in Vienna announced the cut last week – a significant saving of $40 per barrel.
Thank you, OPEC. However, the question begs to be asked: why would the oil producers who have over the years raised the price of oil at just about every opportunity they got suddenly felt the urge to reduce the price?

According to Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of oil and gas in the Middle East and a key OPEC member, the revision of the price of oil downwards was done in order to adjust the markets. Hmmm, have they indeed?

Perhaps a better explanation can be found in analyzing who stands to gain the most and who loses the most from such fluctuation in the price of oil.

A quick analysis reveals that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, all countries with solid economies, would not be affected by the sudden shift downwards.

The same cannot be said for three gas and oil producers, who are cash-strapped and will be further hurt by falling prices. Indeed, the countries likely to suffer the most due to lower prices of oil are Russia, Iran and the so-called Islamic State.
Coincidentally, these countries are also currently engaged in highly controversial conflicts with the United States and the West.

Russia is involved in Ukraine’s civil war, supporting the separatists, a highly criticized move condemned by the United States and its Western allies. The allies are studying how best to impose sanctions on Russia and to hit it where it hurts the most – its economy.

Iran is already suffering from sanctions imposed by the West for its pursuit of a nuclear program. Many countries remain skeptical over Iran’s claim that it will not use nuclear technology for military purposes.

The Islamic Republic is involved in the civil war in Syria, supporting President Bashar Assad, whom the US and its allies want to see vacate the Syrian presidency. Iran also funds and supports the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah that is backing Assad.
The other entity that will be hurt by falling oil prices is the so-called Islamic State, who controls some of the oil wells in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State was under-selling the established markets by accepting payment of $18 per barrel.

While Russia, Iran and the Islamic State are cash-strapped, their involvement in current conflicts further drains their economies.

Historically, it is worth recalling that near the end of the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were at each other’s jugular, the US pushed for lower oil prices to apply further pressure on the Soviets. What followed was the beginning of the end of communism and the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

What is happening today is a repetition of what happened the last time around, the former Cold War warriors fought it out. The danger in pushing Russia too tightly into a corner is that like a cornered bear, it will retreat until it realizes that it can no longer retreat and the it pounces.

The Obama administration should bear this in mind and avoid pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin into a corner lest he pounces. The results of such action would be disastrous for all.

Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency, in Azerbaijan. You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani

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Commentary: From Normandy to freedom fries

This article was first published by UPI on June 4, 2004

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By Claude Salhani |

WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) — This Sunday will mark the 60th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the code name given to the Allied invasion of France’s Norman beaches, and of Europe. It was the largest invasion in the history of mankind and marked the turning point of World War II.

Operation Overlord was a monumental military undertaking that committed unprecedented resources to establish a beachhead in France from which the Allies could rid Europe of the diseases of Nazism and fascism that had claimed millions of lives. But this historic endeavor also established another beachhead in Europe, one that cemented democracy in Europe.

That day — June 6, 1944 — is remembered as D-Day.

The designation “D” in D-Day does not really mean anything special. For all the significance it carries, the memories it holds, the emotions it stirs and the history it conjures, it simply stands for “day.” Its meaning is no greater the “H” in H-Hour.

Yet D-Day stands for a great deal more.

D-Day stands for Democracy, something that Europe would have never enjoyed, as it does now, were it not for the success of the invasion. It stands for Dedication — for the sacrifices of the tens of thousands of young men — Americans, British, Canadians, Poles, Czechs and yes, French, too, who gave their lives on this cold, gray, morning of June 6, 1944, on the sand and rocky beaches of Normandy.

Many of them, still in their teens, died not knowing the gentle towns and picturesque villages that lay ahead, impatiently awaiting their liberation from five years of brutal German occupation. Thousands fell before reaching the sand dunes, amid landmines, tank traps and machinegun nests, part of the Atlantic Wall — the formidable German fortifications erected by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — that cut them down.

Many fell in the towns and villages with unpronounceable names for many of the U.S. and British troops that waded ashore under heavy German gunfire. Names such as Arromanches, Avranches, Bayeux, Caen, Cherbourg, Ouisterham, Ste.-Mere-Eglise and Vierville-sur-Mer and Colleville. The latter being where the remains of 9,387 American servicemen killed on D-Day rest under rows of neat white crosses or Stars of David, amid the serene surroundings of closely manicured lawns and an impressive vista of the very beaches they died assaulting.

To the invading Allied forces these beaches were simply known as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juneau and Sword.

Indeed, 60 years later, these thousands of dead are not forgotten. And it’s not purely on D-Day anniversaries that we remember them. Although we only pay them tribute once a year, those of us blessed enough to live in a democracy remember them every day of our lives. Every time we cast a ballot, or exercise our right to freedom of speech, or assembly, or religion, we remember these valiant warriors. America has not forgotten them. And neither has France forgotten them, or Belgium, or for that matter any freedom loving Germans, Italians and Russians. Countries of the “old Europe” and those of the “new Europe,” all remember the World War II heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice for Democracy.

And Democracy means speaking one’s mind and it means not always agreeing with one’s friends and allies. Democracy means not necessarily have to be “with you,” but that it does not automatically make me be “against you.” It means having the option to choose. It also means disagreeing but remaining friends.

Democracy means cooperating with allies in Afghanistan and the Balkans, as French and German troops are doing, working alongside U.S. forces, or in Haiti as French and Americans soldiers are currently keeping the peace. It also means being able to disagree on other major policy issues, such as Iraq, all while remaining allies.

Democracy does not mean pouring champagne down the gutters (that is simply a waste of good wine), nor is it renaming French fries, freedom fries. Such acts are belittling the freedom the young men — Americans, British, Canadians and yes, Frenchmen, too — who fought on the D-Day beaches for our freedom. Freedom we still enjoy today.

This D-Day, President George W. Bush will participate alongside France’s President Jacques Chirac, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, as well as Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at the anniversary ceremonies in Normandy. The representatives of former (and present) allies standing side-by-side leaders of countries that were once enemies. That is what Democracy is all about. It is about moving forward.

Bush will be greeted with protests as he arrives in Rome, Paris and the Norman coast this weekend to partake in the D-Day anniversary ceremonies. Those protesting his visit are not necessarily anti-American. They are people exercising their Democratic right to voice a difference of opinion.

This is maybe best explained by an incident that occurred in my daughter’s drama class when the war on Iraq began last year. Some boys in her class wanted to put up a skit in which Chirac would be assassinated because “he hates Americans,” as the boys explained it, oversimplifying a complicated political situation.

Isabelle, then only 12, yet always ready to exercise her right to free speech interrupted the proceedings telling the boys they were grossly misinformed. “The French,” she said, “do not hate us. They simply disagree with the president’s policy on Iraq.”

Let’s remember that Democracy means being able to disagree from time to time and not waste any more good champagne.

Happy D-Day.

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Islamic State Looks To Mediterranean To Continue Oil Operations

By Claude Salhani |

There is serious concern that the battle for control of Syria by the group calling itself the Islamic State may soon shift from the mountainous region where the fight for the border town of Kobani continues, as fresh troops from Iraqi Kurdistan known as Peshmergas, arrived via Turkey to assist their fellow Kurds in what is turning out to be one of the most vital battles of this war.

The battle of Kobani, while still unresolved, has nevertheless had a desired effect of sorts: to keep units of the IS tied down in a battle of attrition. Which is perhaps why the group, who thus far have been tactically mobile on the battlefield, may decide to go for the next step: control of an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.

Access to the sea is absolutely crucial to the group’s survival as an oil and gas producing state. The terrorist group would need to have control of a port from where they could deliver oil and natural gas to tankers and then on to international markets.

Troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad are expecting the worst, believing that such an attack is imminent and Syrian special forces have deployed across a pinnacle of hills just northeast of Latakia, the country’s principal port. The front line near Latakia is already considered one of Syria’s most dangerous frontlines.

In recent weeks there have been repeated missile attacks from Islamist forces around Latakia. Access to, and control of the port is of primary importance for two reasons: First, it would grant the Islamic State its greatest territorial victory to date. From a public relations perspective this would prove to potential recruits and financial supporters of theIS who remain hesitant to get off the fence that the group has the strategic wherewithal to continue operations for some time to come.

Second, the loss of Latakia for the Assad regime could be a death blow to the president and forces loyal to him given that the Latakia region is the home of the president and that tens of thousands of Syrians from all over the country have flocked there when their homes turned into frontlines. Forcing Assad out of power in itself is not a negative outcome, however, having the IS win such a prize would be disastrous for the region and beyond.

Additionally, an assault on the Latakia region would be catastrophic on the humanitarian level, as it would send a tsunami of refugees scurrying for a new safe haven. With a secure access to the sea, the Islamic State would find itself in an even stronger financial position.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that IS represents a real and present danger to the security of civilization: both Eastern and Western civilization.  Dialogue is next to impossible with an organization capable of such cruelty and barbarous savagery. They have enslaved women and girls taken from villages and towns they have conquered, selling them for $10 in the town marketplace.

While every civilized society tries to protect and safeguard their children, the IS, in yet another video, shows young boys receiving military training on how to carry out urban warfare.

Several years ago while being interviewed on a Washington, DC news radio station I was asked by the news anchor if I thought there would one day be peace in the Middle East and what would it take to reach that point, and that I had 30 seconds for my answer before he had to take a commercial break.

I replied that yes, I did think there would be peace in the Middle East but only when the antagonists develop greater love for their children than hate for their enemies.

With that in mind, it would appear that peace in the Middle East is still a long way off. As it currently stands there is far too much hatred among the current antagonists to contemplate any serious peace efforts.

You can follow Claude on Twitter@Claudesalhani

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The Syrian dilemma: who’s fighting whom and why?

By Claude Salhani -

Reports emanating from the front lines in the ever-expanding Syrian civil war are as confusing as ever. Who should we believe and whom should we doubt? Nearly four years into the war and still no end in sight, rather, the conflict is turning deadlier and more complex as supposed allies are aiding the friend’s foes and fighting their friend’s friends.

In short, there are no simple answers and the deeper we dig the more convoluted the situation appears.

Are we to believe the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 people, for the destruction of a multitude of Syrian cities and for turning more than two million of his fellow citizens into refugees? Are we to believe a regime that has used terror and torture against its own citizens? Are we to believe a regime that uses rape as a tool to intimidate its citizens?

Or should instead we place more trust in that not so merry group of land pirates and associated psychopaths that have taken over swaths of territories in Syria and neighboring Iraq and who do not hesitate to behead or crucify anyone they may disagree with.

Are the United States, the European Union and NATO more credible amid reports that weapons went to both the parties the US is actively fighting and to those it is allied with? The war in Syria has been raging for almost four years and the Obama administration still didn’t have a coherent policy on how to deal with the situation until a few weeks ago?

Or should be believe Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries who are on the one hand supporting the Islamic State, giving them weapons and money and on the other hand, sending their war planes to help fight them?

Or perhaps we should believe Turkey, who Islamist president has been accused by fellow Turks and foreign diplomats of not so discreetly aiding the IS by allowing arms, munitions and recruits to openly transit through Turkey on their way to the battlefront.

Why are the lines so blurred? Politics are often confusing but here we have Levantine politics superimposed on Middle East policymaking with a twist of US and European meddling.

Indeed, what makes it complex is the fact that in this conflict there are so many sides with so many different faction and alliances that crisscross the alliance grid multiple times.

Take Turkey’s role in this conflict, for example: Turkey is a US ally, a member of NATO and presumably pro-West. Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused of leaning in favor of the IS, a sworn enemy of the US.

The way Turkey sees this is simple: Turkey wants to see Assad deposed, so does the IS. Turkey is wary of the Kurds, and the IS is fighting them. So, why not let IS do all the dirty work, policies can always be reversed.

However, the complication arises when Turkey’s allies in the West become irritated by Ankara’s antics.

There are more crossed lines as Turkey in an effort to have better relations with Iran, in what Ankara calls a policy of zero problems with neighbors, has shared sensitive intelligence with Iran. Make that US intelligence. Problem: Iran supports Bashar Assad. Confusing? You bet and we are only skimming the top layer.

Claude Salhani is a senior editor with Trend Agency and a specialist on Middle East and terrorism affairs. You can follow Claude on Twitter @claudesalhani.

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