Quite a bit of media attention was focused on the BRICS conference in Dublin, including the two-day 24th Arab League Summit held in Doha last week. What came as a surprise was the presence of Gen. Kiyani in the Middle East, holding a meeting with John Kerry in Jordan. While his visit to Saudi Arabia was cited as private, that to Jordan was an official one.
Most of the reporting on Gen. Kayani’s meeting with Kerry indicated that discussion was mostly related to the issues of Afghan reconciliation. However, these reports missed the other angle. The Middle East is passing through a peculiar state of affairs, especially related to the situation in Syria and the chances of its spill over. In this context, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are especially worried about the implication of this.
The Middle East Dynamics
While King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia could not attend the Arab League meeting due to health reasons, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz amply conveyed his security fears over the Syrian quagmire. According to news reports, differences have also emerged between Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the future dispensation of Syria. The kingdom has accused the Qataris of attempting to position Muslim Brotherhood and AQ linked groups to the fore. The Saudis are also concerned about Doha’s closeness to not only Turkey and Iran, but also its attempts to increase influence in Gaza.
The apology rendered by Israel to Turkey during President Obama’s trip to the Middle East appeared to have created a sense of urgency and angst among the Gulf States that was visible during the Arab League conference. In the aftermath of Israeli apology, a competition of sorts is emerging between the Gulf heavyweights and Turkey, on the influence each is likely to play in shaping the future of not only Palestine and Syrian situation but also the entire region. These tensions are apparently causing both Doha and Riyadh to undo each other in Syria and possibly in Afghanistan as well.
President Karzai was in Doha over the weekend to jumpstart the political talks with the Taliban. The spokesperson for the Afghan foreign ministry, Jana Mosazai commented last week, “President Karzai will discuss the peace process and the opening of a [Taliban] office for the purposes of conducting negotiations with Afghanistan.”
As it relates to events in Syria, recent reports in the Arab media had indicated the kingdom was allowing unwanted elements to participate in the Syrian jihad, traveling through Turkey. However, the spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry, Major General Mansour Turki clarified that anyone with such intentions will now be investigated according to Saudi laws and will be prohibited from doing so. The potential risks these militants would pose upon their return from Syria are perhaps too great to ignore. The lessons of Afghan jihad are still playing out and the war on terror is far from over. Nonetheless, reports have shown that the Saudi government is now supplying heavy weapons to the Syrian opposition forces.
On the other hand, Iran and Russians are also speeding up their weapons supply to Syria and US has moved into high gear preventing Iranian flights from flying over Iraq. In this regards, secretary of state John Kerry has obtained Iraq’s acquiescence to check Iranian planes bound for Syria for arms. Moreover, according to comments by the State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, US is considering a no-fly zone in Syria.
Implications for the Peripheral States
Gen. Kayani’s visit to Jordan came about in the midst of these events. He reportedly arrived there on Sunday, March 24th and had a meeting with John Kerry on the same day. Surprisingly, concluding his trip to the Middle East, President Obama had left Jordan only a day earlier, on Saturday, March 23rd. Jordan, on the one hand, has a budding Arab Spring to worry about, and on the other, the extremists are equally looking inauspicious.
According to Israeli media, the strategic zone between Jordan, Israel, and Syria that is located east of Golan, was recently taken over by the Susanna Brigade of the Syrian Al-Qaeda-linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra. There have been widespread reports about the presence of US Special Forces in Jordan, conducting cross training and joint maneuvers to monitor the Syrian chemical and biological weapon sites. In these circumstances, it is hard to imagine that the talks between US, Jordanians and Gen. Kiyani were all about the Afghan reconciliation.
Pakistan has long standing military relations with both Saudi Arabia and Jordan. One of the scenarios PoliTact has been exploring for a while involves looking at Pakistan’s response if and when the Saudi monarchs are threatened directly. Despite Pakistan’s traditionally close ties with the Saudis, surprisingly, the nation is also furthering its economic and trade ties with Iran quite rapidly. This has been a cause of dismay for Arabs and the US that fear growing Iranian influence. Managing this quandary has become one of Pakistan’s key foreign policy challenges, with direct bearing on the Afghan political settlement.
The trajectory of events conveys that at some point the dynamics of Afghan conflict will intersect with the situation in the Middle East, and will subsequently be superseded by it. The continued delay in the Afghan reconciliation process and worsening situation of Middle East reflects that this eventuality is arriving rather quickly. Obviously, another tangent of this scenario is a Pakistan-India relation.
What happens to the Afghan conflict when it is superseded in priority by other events in the Middle East and perhaps the Pacific? While writing previously on the subject, PoliTact hypothesized that trouble in the core Muslim regions will reverse the present direction of the dynamics. If chaos in Syria does spill over, the core Muslim countries will end up seeking help from the Muslim nations of the peripheries. This will especially be the case if NATO fails to protect its long-time allies, Gulf monarchs for example, in the region. Even if NATO provides limited assistance, the role of Pakistan, Iran and Turkey will emerge as pivotal.