MS Risk Blog

What are the implications of the fragile ceasefire in Yemen?

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Despite the largely successful December peace talks, the relationship between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels has remained delicate. Since the original discussions, the warring parties have been engaging in both physical and verbal combat, frequently breaking the ceasefire and vehemently accusing each other of violations and lies. In its taxing umpire role, the United Nations (UN) has been working hard to mediate and facilitate communications between parties, but behind doors are most likely wringing their hands at the breakdown of promises. There may be a ceasefire, but it is tenuous, feels half-hearted and is precariously held together by the UN.

January saw violent attacks and extensive damage to humanitarian supplies. On 25 January, the UN announced that two silos at the Red Sea Mills grain facility had been damaged by a fire caused by mortar shelling. The facility contains critical food supplies for almost 4 million people. Just one day later, eight civilians were killed and 30 wounded in the shelling of a displacement camp. Although UN Envoy Martin Griffiths has been keeping upbeat over the duration of the month, he stated on 31 January that he was “deeply concerned about recent hostilities” in the region. With the breakdown of the earlier prisoner exchange talk in Amman, the drone attack on a Yemeni government base and the bullets striking a vehicle carrying Patrick Cammaert earlier in the month, the ceasefire has been severely tested.

So far, February has been more positive in that hostile interactions have mainly been limited to verbal clashes. At the beginning of the month, representatives from both parties met on a ship in the Red Sea in an UN-orchestrated attempt to execute a troop withdrawal from Hodeidah port. The withdrawal was meant to have been completed by 7 January; however, the Saudi-backed government and Houthis have remained in steadfast disagreement over the control of the city and ports. Later, another round of peace talks took place in Amman. The parties made an attempt to finalise the prisoner exchange deal. However, they failed to reach an agreement, with both sides accusing each other of lying. The Houthis stated that the talks could drag on for months if the Saudi-backed government denied the existence of thousands of Houthi fighters in captivity, accusing the opposition side of supplying a list containing fake and duplicate names. According to The National, the talks finished without a final agreement on how to redeploy rival forces as part of the ceasefire agreement. In spite of this, the warring parties later agreed to exchange the bodies of killed fighters, making an “important progress in moving the release process forward,” according to a UN Committee tasked with overseeing the swap.

The frail ceasefire has inevitably garnered significant media attention. The focus on the ongoing violence in Yemen has led to public outcry, placing intense pressure on countries who engage in arms dealings with Saudi Arabia. On 13 February, US lawmakers voted to end US support for the conflict. The US House of Representatives approved a resolution which would force the Trump Administration to withdraw US troops from involvement in the region. The White House has previously threatened to veto the motion, stating that the resolution was inappropriate. It argued the measure would harm relationships with Saudi Arabia and hinder the American ability to combat violent extremism. The recent news has marginally increased the possibility of the US halting arms’ sales to the Saudi Kingdom. Nevertheless, this appears unlikely judging by Trump’s previous unwillingness to criticise Saudi Arabia and his friendly relationship with Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Further critique has been directed at the Prince due to the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which Trump has refused to condemn or reprimand in any manner. Trump could have used the global criticism of the Prince as a tool for ending the war in Yemen by piling pressure on Saudi Arabia, but the US President has been more interested in maintaining America’s weapon sales to the region.

The fragile ceasefire undoubtedly increases the likelihood of full-blown fighting firing up again. This would in turn lead to a worsening humanitarian crisis through civilians in Houthi-run areas being attacked by Saudi-coalition airstrikes, the blocking of food and aid by Houthis through major ports and the loss of critical infrastructure, leading to health conditions which would be compounded further by the lack of medical care in the region. On 14 February, the UN warned that approximately 24 million people are in need of assistance and protection in Yemen. This figure accounts for 80% of the country’s population. The UN released the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview Report for Yemen, which reveals that 14.3 million people are classified as being in acute need, with approximately 3.2 million requiring treatment for acute malnutrition. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the “severity of needs is deepening,” with the number of people in desperate need at 27% higher than last year. The UN’s top relief coordinator Mark Lowcock said unless government and rebel forces manage to hold a ceasefire, a fifth of the UN’s food reserves in Yemen could rot. This would subsequently endanger the lives of millions of civilians. In the last month, many media sites have increasingly reported on the recent swine flu outbreak in the region. The lack of medicine and medical equipment has meant that the disease has been difficult to contain. It is clear that the continual violence has had a long-term effect on the region and will continue to do so many years later, with the fragile ceasefire further confirming the constant instability of the region.

The delicate ceasefire also raises questions over the motives of the warring parties. The conflict would arguably help further Iran’s agenda for power, who are widely thought to fund the Houthi-rebels. The Islamic region has been hit hard by US sanctions which came into full force last year and has been struggling to re-assert its dominance in the Middle East as a result. Marwan Kabalan, the Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, has questioned whether Iran really wants a final settlement to be reached. The region hopes to keep Saudi-Arabia occupied in Yemen, so they do not have the resources to undertake activities against Tehran on other fronts in the Middle East. Additionally, Iran could be hoping to use the Yemen conflict as a bargaining chip in a deal to lift the US sanctions and recover the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This could be a feasible possibility this year if the ceasefire between the warring parties completely disintegrates and the UN is forced to make a decision and divert a further humanitarian disaster. Given the desire of a number of European countries to safeguard the 2015 Nuclear deal and the real possibility of the complete fragmentation of the ceasefire and the likely humanitarian catastrophe that will follow, Iran could potentially find itself in a strong position to free itself of the US sanctions.

If the warring parties permanently fail to stick to their ceasefire agreement, it is uncertain what the UN will do. Given the strong desire of Western governments and humanitarian agencies to avoid furthering the crisis, this ongoing situation could continue for years. The question is whether the UN has the capacity to stick to this, particularly in light of new emerging potential humanitarian crises in the Middle East. For example, Syria is gradually becoming more unstable with the recent seizure of more than a dozen towns and villages in northern Syria. The advance by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, of the Levant Liberation Committee, was detrimental to the September ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey that deflected a government offensive in Idlib province. Russia and Turkey have since agreed to take decisive measures in the region, and it is reported that aid agencies have begun withdrawing from Idlib. Aid agencies have previously warned that a significant assault on Idlib could cause one of the worst humanitarian crises in Syria’s war.

It is difficult to say what the Yemen conflict will resemble at the end of this year. However, it is clear that the fragile ceasefire does not bode well. Along with the apparent unwillingness of the warring parties and the aggravated humanitarian crisis, it looks like troubling times are ahead for Yemen.

The Londonderry Bombing

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On Saturday 19 January 2019, a bomb exploded in a car in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, after police were given a 10-minute warning to evacuate the area.  At 7.23pm, the vehicle with the bomb inside had been left outside the courthouse on Bishop Street, and three minutes later, a warning was called into the Samaritans in the West Midlands that was passed onto the West Midlands police who notified the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The bomb, which went off at 8.09pm, was described as a “crude device”, and the PSNI said the attack outside the courthouse was “unbelievably reckless”. Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said, “Clearly, it was a very significant attempt to kill people here in this community.” However, the bomb was detonated just after the area was cleared, so there were no injuries or casualties. The police have since released CCTV footage of the bomb explosion.

The PSNI have released a statement that the bomb attack may have been carried out by the New IRA, a dissident republican group. The New IRA was formed in 2012 to unify under one leadership a number of dissident republican organisations. The group believed to be the largest dissident republican organisation and thought to be responsible for a number of attacks post-2012, including the murders of prison officers David Black and Adrian Ismay. ACC Hamilton said, “The new IRA, like most dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland, are small, largely unrepresentative and determined to drive people back to somewhere they do not want to be.” However, ACC Hamilton added that the device “has not been as effective as they would have wanted for it to be”. PSNI Supt Gordon McCalmont told BBC Radio that the police were trying to get the city back to normal and show the attack had “little or no long-term impact”.

On Sunday evening, the PSNI arrested two men, aged 34 and 42 in the city, and two men in their 20s earlier in that day. On Monday, a 50-year-old man was arrested and remains in police custody. The previous four men have been subsequently released. Three further security alerts in Londonderry were triggered when two vehicles were hijacked by masked men and a delivery van was abandoned. Police said residents have been allowed to return to their homes following the alerts, which were confirmed as hoaxes. An alert in north Belfast on Monday night was also confirmed as a hoax. Police said that while the alerts were hoaxes “we cannot underestimate the impact these incidents have had on our community”. PSNI Supt Gordon McCalmont remarked that “The occupants of the hijacked vehicles did not believe when they set out for work this morning that they would be threatened by masked men”. Supt McCalmont said that “These groupings obviously want us to respond. We will be very balanced. This threat has always been in this city”, adding that “My sense is that this is not because of Brexit.”  Previously, in 2015, there had been a spate of bomb attacks in Londonderry that were blamed on dissident republican groups.

In a speech in the House of Commons on Monday, the Prime Minister Theresa May said, “This house stands together with the people of Northern Ireland in ensuring that we never go back to the violence and terror of the past.” However, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said Saturday’s attack was an attempt to drag Northern Ireland back into violence and conflict. Although, since 2017, there remains a political vacuum in Northern Ireland due to the row between Sinn Féin and the DUP that collapsed the executive power-sharing in Stormont. Brexit and the Irish border issue have added fuel to the fire that could destabilise the fragile political stability and peace established by the Good Friday Agreement.

The Sahiwal Incident: Extrajudicial Killings in Pakistan

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On 19 January 2019 Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) carried out an operation on a highway near Sahiwal in which a white car believed to be carrying Islamic State members was stopped. The following police operation or “encounter” resulted in the death of a couple, their teenage daughter and the driver. The victims were identified as grocery store owner Mohammad Khalil, his wife Nabila, their 13-year-old daughter Areeba and their friend, Zeeshan Javed. Their son Umair Khalil sustained bullet wounds while his sister Muniba’s hand was injured due to broken glass of car while Hadiba, their daughter, remained unhurt.

According to CTD’s statement the officers signalled the white Suzuki Alto car and a motorcycle to stop, but they did not pull over and instead opened fire at them. The CTD officers retaliated and four people were killed by the “firing of their own accomplices” in the ensuing firefight. However, later it turned out that except for Zeeshan, all other occupants of the car were members of an innocent family.

The incident triggered a nationwide scandal and the government felt obliged to come clean on this case. So a joint investigation team was formed to probe into the incident, which soon confirmed that the family had indeed been innocent and that CTD officials had been responsible for their killing. As a result, the government in Punjab removed some top CTD officials and suspended others, while announcing to charge five CTD officials with acts of terrorism and murder.

Although it was clear from the start that it had been a botched anti-terrorist operation and the CTD officials were squarely blamed for it, evidence suggests that the story behind the incident is much more complex than what has been told so far.

The killing of four innocent people in a “police encounter” has once again drawn attention towards the menace of extrajudicial killings in Pakistan. Police forces in South Asian nations are notorious for their high-handedness, torture in custody and killings in fake encounters. Unfortunately, the Police Order of 1861 still remains enforced in Pakistan as only some cosmetic changes have been introduced over the last few years. As a result, common people are still afraid of police instead of feeling protected and safe whenever they see them anywhere close to them.

The “War Against Terrorism” has even made things worse as it has provided another excuse for the police to stage extrajudicial killings with further impunity. In this particular case, officials of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed that those killed in the shooting had been terrorists belonging to ISIS or Daesh.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “an encounter killing occurs when the police justify the killing of a criminal suspect either as an act of self-defence or as a means of preventing suspects from fleeing arrest or escaping from custody … many are faked outright, and are not merely the use of excessive force but an extrajudicial execution.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also claimed that 2,108 men and seven women were killed in police encounters across Pakistan during 2015. 696 suspects were killed in Karachi alone. Punjab was even worse where 1,191 men and 3 women were killed.

For Pakistani police, extrajudicial killing is an easy and quick way of bringing criminals to justice because they believe that otherwise they will get away and hardly get punished in the courts due to loop-holes in the judicial system. As a consequence, anyone can be branded an alleged terrorist or a facilitator offering a reason to be killed in a police encounter.

Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales and his fight against CICIG

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After having been a supporter of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales has during 2017 and 2018 gradually turned against them, with the conflict escalating drastically during December and January 2019. When CICIG, an UN-mandated group tasked with investigating illegal influence and corruption in the country, started investigations on President Morales in January 2017, his former support of the group turned sour. With the escalation of attacks on CICIG by President Morales, he is not only upsetting the domestic population, but also the international community. President Morales is now likely facing a lose-lose situation, where he either submits himself to the CICIG’s investigation and risk impeachment and trial, or keeps his bid to terminate CICIG, likely to lead to nationwide, violent protests and condemnations from the international community. Escalations in protests could lead to an uptick in Guatemalan migrants heading towards Mexico and the US. And if Morales successfully removes CICIG, the level of corruption in Guatemala is likely to increase.

CICIG’s official mission is to investigate criminal efforts to infiltrate the government and undermine the democratic rule in Guatemala. Previously, the justice system in Guatemala was weak, and corruption was extremely deeply rooted. An Amnesty International report from 2002 called the climate a “corporate mafia state”. CICIG was requested by the Guatemalan government to help with the problem. They started their work in 2007 and has since then been responsible for cases against more than 680 people. In November 2018, they claimed to have won 310 convictions and taken down 60 criminal networks. Even though CICIG has got a long list of enemies, it is backed by both the international community and domestic public opinion. This backing is likely the reason why the group has been able to survive and succeed for so long.

The question of CICIG’s continued existence has largely developed into a legal battle on an institutional level. On paper, it is quite easy to get rid of CICIG, as their mandate to operate has got to be renewed every two years. If it is not, the commission has to be disbanded. In August 2018, Jimmy Morales announced that the mandate would not be renewed, and the commission was to be dissolved by September 2019. At the beginning of January 2019, Morales escalated the bid, giving the investigators in the commission 24 hours to leave the country. A battle between governmental institutions ignited after the announcement as the expulsion was blocked by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. The Guatemalan Congress, mostly consisting of Morales-loyalists, subsequently tried to impeach several judges in the Constitutional Court. They claimed that the judges had overstepped their authority by ruling in foreign affairs issues. It is likely that Morales’ decision to terminate CICIG was based on the fact that they started investigations into Morales and his party at the beginning of 2017, which was a real threat to the president. The extent of CICIG’s powers was demonstrated when they targeted Morales’ predecessor Otto Perez Molina, who was forced to step down and stand trial after CICIG’s investigation revealed evidence of corruption. He was subsequently jailed and is still awaiting trial.

Morales’ bid against CICIG could lead to an uptick in migrants heading towards the US. His actions have sparked nationwide protests, as thousands have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the President. These protests risk escalation and could lead to a more severe situation in Guatemala if Morales does not back down. The issue does, therefore, not stop with Guatemala. Guatemalans are one of the most prevalent migrant group making its way to the US, and if Morales’ bid leads to a security crisis in Guatemala, it is highly likely to bolster the number of people fleeing the country. Further, if CICIG is successfully removed, the judicial apparatus in Guatemala is weakened, likely leading to higher levels of corruption. This will also, besides the obvious domestic issues, probably lead to a higher number of migrants fleeing Guatemala, in the mid-term.

CICIG has, because of its success, been akin to a role model for neighbouring countries who are also fighting widespread corruption. In 2016, Honduras launched MACCIH (Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras), as inspired by CICIG. El Salvador has also initiated an UN-backed anti-corruption programme, albeit with fewer powers than CICIG. What is happening with CICIG and Morales has revealed a glaring weakness in the resilience of the programme and can be used as a lesson for similar future endeavours. However, it can also set a precedent of Presidents shutting down inconvenient investigations. How the international community, and indeed the domestic public, responds might decide what we learn from this.

The downfall of democracy in Nicaragua during the protests in 2018, and the protesting resulting in the fall of Guatemala’s ex-President Otto Perez Molina, can help guide us through possible outcomes of Morales’ battle with CICIG and the protests that have ensued. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega announced social security reforms that sparked a massive upheaval in April 2018. Despite Ortega’s cancellation of the reform five days later, the opposition had grown too strong, and calls for Ortega’s resignation had begun. Protests intensified, but Ortega’s government stood firm. Since July 2018, crackdowns on the protesters increased. Protesting was declared illegal in September, several media offices were raided and human rights organisations in the country got their licences revoked in December 2018. Nicaragua has, due to the protests and Ortega’s responses, seen a breakdown in democracy and is now facing severe international sanctions and increased violence and turmoil. In Guatemala, with the protests against former President Otto Perez Molina in 2015, protests, although being massive, did not turn into a severe nationwide crisis. Molina, even though he at first refused to resign, let the judicial apparatus do its thing. He eventually resigned after a warrant was issued against him. In the light of these cases, the current situation in Guatemala can take several turns. If Morales’ doubles down and keeps pushing for the termination of CICIG, he risks extended, violent domestic turmoil. However, if he stops his bid against CICIG, and let CICIG do its work, he might face trial but save the country from extended protests.

How the situation plays out will have consequences not only in Guatemala, but internationally as well. Besides severe domestic consequences, If Jimmy Morales does not back down, there is likely to be a hike in migration, mainly towards Mexico and the US. However, CICIG serves as a kind of example of corruption commissions in Latin America, and despite the horrific costs the present situation might lead to, there will be lessons to learn. How Morales’ acts in this lose-lose situation is likely to determine the state of security and corruption in Guatemala in both the short-term and the long-term.

What will 2019 look like for Iran?

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2018 has generally been troubling for Iran. The implementation of US sanctions, with the toughest ones targeting Iran’s financial and oil sectors in November, have resulted in the Islamic Republic facing economic difficulties and general poverty spread across the population. Inevitably, tensions have mounted between Iran and the US, played out through these restrictions and fighting in Syria and Yemen. Iran has publicly criticised the US decision to enforce sanctions, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urging Muslims across the world to unite against America. However, news of the US withdrawal from Syria is arguably music to Iran’s ears and could give them the upper hand which they have been waiting for. Additionally, the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has meant that Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince have been the subject of worldwide scrutiny, with the incident highlighting the conflict in Yemen and leading to a number of countries discontinuing arms deals with the Saudi Kingdom. Having its rival undercut in light of the death of Khashoggi, along with the promise of new relations between regions and looming potential advantages, means Iran is likely to raise its global status this year.

The US withdrawal of troops will have significant repercussions for Middle Eastern countries and could result in power play tactics between rival regions. On 19 December, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would be pulling troops from Syria. The unanticipated news has been met with a mixed reception of scepticism and praise, with some critics arguing the Islamic Republic will reap the benefits of the US withdrawal by way of the region increasing its influence across Syria and lessening the discomfort of the US sanctions by accessing the oil-rich region. According to Lina Khatib, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, removing American troops could raise the chances of Iran profiting from oil fields in the northeast. The US troops are currently stationed in areas which are rich in oil and near the border with Iraq. The presence of troops blocks Iran’s access to these fields and their freedom of movement into Iraq. If Iran were to gain access to oil, the US sanctions may be undermined to an extent, cutting the leash that Iran is currently on and putting the region in an undoubtedly influential position and free to further fund terrorist groups through the supply of weapons and funding without any resulting consequences from America. David M. Halbfinger of The New York Times writes that the American presence in Syria was exasperating for the Islamic Republic, as it hindered Iranian-backed militias from entering into the war-torn country from Iraq. The Iraqi border would be permeable if US troops were to pull out, allowing Tehran to easily move weapons and fighters between the countries. This could include supplying the Iranian-funded terrorist organisation Hezbollah with missiles which could be used to further exert their influence in Lebanon. Khatib agrees that withdrawing troops will “grant a lifeline to ISIS, threaten Israel and empower Iran.” Furthermore, it will “undermine Trump’s own promises and goals, boosting Iran’s fortunes instead.”

Iran and US relations are abysmal which only look set to continue, particularly in light of the sanctions. Eight countries have been given temporary waivers including China, India, Japan and South Korea. Iran have urged the UN to support them in light of these sanctions and take an official stance against the US. Many EU countries appear to be in support of Iran, with the EU promising to launch a special purpose vehicle. This would allow EU countries to circumvent the sanctions so they can continue trade with Iran. However, there is no sign of the materialisation of this special purpose vehicle. Iran has expressed its frustration with the EU’s pace in establishing this, but it is likely that it will be materialising this year as the EU has stated that it is keen to keep the 2015 nuclear deal as a matter of respecting international agreements and regional security. It is uncertain if the US sanctions will be tightening. The US has said however that it will not be issuing anymore waivers which indicates they are looking to turn up the heat on the region. Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran said earlier this month that the US will grant no more waivers in light of the US need to deny the regime revenues. He said: “Eighty percent of Iran’s revenues come from oil exports and this is (the) number one state sponsor of terrorism…we want to deny this regime the money it needs.” The waivers given to these eight countries are only temporary however and will be expiring in May. It is uncertain whether or not Trump will renew them. If he does not and Iranian oil revenue is drastically reduced as a result, Iran could act out in retaliation. Marwan Kabalan, the Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, writes that Iran could act on its recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, which could hinder other Gulf states from accessing the oil market. Therefore, the foreseeable possibility of an escalation between Iran and the US is real.

However, Iran may have a bargaining chip or two hidden up its sleeves. On 9 January 2019, Iran confirmed that it has detained US navy veteran Michael R White at a prison in the region. The circumstances of White’s detention remain uncertain. The Associated Press in Tehran consider the possibility that the Islamic Republic could be using this arrest as a leverage in negotiations between itself and the US, given its history of detaining westerners and dual nationals to give them clout. Iran is already under fire for the high-profile detention case of Nazanin Zagheri-Ratcliffe, who was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2016 for allegations of spying. Additionally, the conflict in Yemen could help further Iran’s agenda for power. Although the December peace talks between the Iranian-backed Houthis and Saudi-led coalition were largely successful, Hodeidah has been subject to an extremely fragile truce between the warring parties. The last few weeks have already seen violations, including an incident where bullets struck a vehicle carrying Patrick Cammaert, who is overseeing the truce in Hodeidah. The incident highlighted the hostile and volatile environment in Yemen, which Iran is most likely hoping will continue. Marwan Kabalan suggests that it is not in Iran’s interests to help reach a final settlement in Yemen between warring parties. The region hopes to keep Saudi-Arabia occupied in Yemen so they do not have the resources to undertake activities against Tehran on other fronts in the Middle East. Additionally, and arguably somewhat ambitiously, Iran may be hoping to use the Yemen conflict as a bargaining chip in a multi-complex deal to lift the US sanctions and recover the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Iran enjoyed under the Obama administration. This could be a feasible possibility this year if the ceasefire between the warring parties completely disintegrates and the UN is forced to make a decision and divert a further humanitarian disaster. The UN is already struggling to keep the peace agreement together, so a lapse of ceasefire looks likely. Given the desire of a number of European countries to safeguard the 2015 Nuclear deal and the real possibility of the complete fragmentation of the ceasefire and the likely humanitarian catastrophe that will follow, Iran could potentially find itself in a strong position to free itself of the US sanctions.

It is likely that Iran will build a closer diplomatic relationship with both Turkey and Iraq. It is probable that Turkey feels side-lined due to the US withdrawal in Syria, along with the sting that came with the US threats not to attack the Syrian Kurds. Despite the scrambled attempt of US officials to smooth things over, we have witnessed the relationship between Turkey and the US grow frosty. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has remarked that the US will struggle in its withdrawal from the war-torn region, particularly in separating from the Kurdish fighters it allied with to fight ISIS. He stated: “It is hard to break up with a terrorist organisation after being involved with it at this level.”The comments came a day after a reportedly tense visit between US National Security Adviser John Bolton and officials in Turkey. John Bolton has stated the US will not withdraw troops from northern Syria until it receives guarantees from the Turkish government that the Syrian Kurdish forces will not be attacked. The remarks have angered Turkey, with President Erdogan accusing Bolton of making a “serious mistake.” Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has also warned that Turkey will launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces if the US delays the withdrawal of troops from Syria. In an inflammatory tweet on 13 January, Trump threatened to “devastate” Turkey economically if it attacked Kurdish forces in Syria, stating that a 20-mile “safe zone” should be established. Erdogan has approved the formation of this zone, after a phone call with Trump in an attempt to clear the air after the US threats. The Kurds have rejected the US proposal on the grounds that it infringes on the sovereignty of Syria. Nevertheless, however many phone calls the leaders make to one other, tensions will likely still remain and it is possible the disagreements could push Turkey closer towards Iran. The two countries have already been interacting positively since Erdogan came to power in 2002 as the leader of the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist political party. In mid-December, Iran and Turkey vowed to work closer together on Syria. Hassan Rouhani and Turkish counterpart Erdogan held a joint press conference after meeting each other in Ankara. Rouhani stated Iran, Turkey and Russia will continue with the Astana negotiations on Syria’s future. Erdogan agreed that Turkey is “deepening [its] cooperation with Iran,” emphasising that the country does not endorse the US sanctions on Iran. A close relationship between the two states would be a snub to the US and beneficial to Iran’s status in the Middle East.

Iran has made clear its eagerness to form a closer alliance to Iraq. On 16 January, Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif remarked that Iran wants to rebuild Iraq in the wake of the fight against ISIS. Stating that Iranian firms should have a key role in rebuilding Iraq, he argued that the US did not defeat ISIS, but rather it was the Hashed Al Shaabi. Hashed partnered with Iraqi forces in 2014 to fight ISIS in Iraq, whilst receiving military and political support from Tehran. Zarif has said that whilst Iraq looks to rebuild, Iranian firms should be favoured because of the support his country provides and the higher “costs” of working with European or American companies. Last week, Tehran and Baghdad discussed the expansion of their ties in light of the recent US sanctions. On 10 January, the Iranian Minister of Petroleum and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi met to discuss ways to boost cooperation between the country. The meeting took place a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq, in a somewhat fruitless attempt to persuade Baghdad to restrict its ties with Tehran and steer the region towards western influences as the US begins withdrawing troops from Syria. The meeting allegedly confirmed the “deep relations between the two countries, the two neighbouring peoples and the importance of strengthening them in areas that serve the interests of the two peoples, foremost of which is cooperation in the fields of oil and gas.” The Iraqi prime minister has previously announced that Iraq “will not be part of the [US] sanctions regime, as it will not be part of aggression against any country.” A strong Iran-Iraq allegiance could possibly lead to Iran exerting influence over the Iraqi government and would be counter to previous US efforts.

The weakening of Saudi Arabia may continue into 2019. The Saudi regime has been the focus of criticism, driven by Western media and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  The fact that Saudi Arabia has been diplomatically weakened and undermined over the death of Khashoggi has been fortunate for Iran, mainly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia is their main rival when competing for power and influence in the Middle East. Recently, the media have given special attention to women’s rights activists in the Saudi kingdom, with the region coming under reproach due to allegations of the mistreatment and imprisonment of these activists. Earlier this month, Mike Pompeo discussed the issue of jailed women’s rights activists with the Saudi Prince. The recent case of Saudi woman Rahaf al-Qunun who made international headlines after barricading herself in a hotel room in Thailand to avoid extradition back to Saudi Arabia, has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian rules and the lack of rights bestowed to women and girls. The critical focus on the Arab region is beneficial for Iran as Saudi Arabia diplomatically weakened means that Iran has a stronger footing in the Middle East and is in a more flexible position to exert its power.

Despite an economically difficult year, Iran could potentially strengthen its global status in 2019. Through bolstering relations with Turkey and Iraq, accessing Syria, overcoming the US sanctions and bargaining and undermining, Iran could get its economy back on track, expand its influence and wield its dominance across the globe. In particular, the withdrawal of troops in Syria presents an opportunity for the Islamic State to boost its authority and amp up animosities with the US.