New Age Islam Edit Bureau
29 November 2017
Syria: Moment Of Truth in Geneva
By Christian Chesnot
The Massacre In Bir Al-Abed Is An Attack On Civilization
By Yossi Mekelberg
Supporting Mohammed Bin Salman Vital For Checking Iran, Fighting Extremism
By Ted Gover
Abadi’s Fate in Six Months
By Adnan Hussein
Why Mohammed Bin Salman Described Khamenei as ‘Hitler of the Middle East’
By Mamdouh Almuhaini
OPEC Deal: One Year Over, Another Left
By Wael Mahdi
Russia Holds the Key Pieces, But Can It Solve Syria’s Jigsaw Puzzle?
By Osama Al Sharif
Harry and Meghan: The British Monarchy’s ‘Obama Moment’
By Robert Lacey
Royal Engagement Brings New Energy To British Monarchy
By Andrew Hammond
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
28 November 2017
Will the new Geneva round of negotiations, under the supervision of the UN, finally help to break the political impasse over the future of Syria? Clearly, the crisis is entering a new phase as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, supported by Russia, continues to gain traction. The West and Gulf countries that supported the opposition have moved on from the idea of wiping out the regime. Everyone is tired of the Syrian crisis that has resulted in nearly 350,000 deaths. Undoubtedly, the time has come to end a dark chapter in Syrian history.
The good news is that the Syrian opposition has finally managed to form a united front to negotiate with Damascus. On account of political immaturity, ego squabbles and foreign interference, anti-Assad groups often shot themselves in the foot.
At this stage, Russia is leading the way towards finding a political solution through serious negotiations between the regime and the opposition. To this end, Moscow needs legitimacy from the international community to bring about the final settlement.
It is a process that is built on three distinct tracks: the inter-Syrian political discussions in Geneva, the military discussions in Astana and finally, future discussions between Syrian religious and ethnic communities that would meet in a ‘national dialogue congress’. The aim is that these three lines of negotiations end up in congruence and reach a solution.
In the first stage at the Geneva deliberations, Russia does not intend to abandon Bashar Al-Assad. Only a few years ago, the prospect that the Syrian president would finish his term in 2021 would have been considered unrealistic and fanciful. Today, it is the most likely outcome. However, all sides are well aware that it is not possible to return to the situation before March 2011.
For the moment, the Syrian opposition is standing firm on its position that Bashar Al-Assad should cede power at the end of the transition period, if not at the very outset. However, there are opportunities to explore in UN Resolution 2254, which calls for the establishment of a "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria. This formula offers a real negotiating framework. It allows the inclusion of opponents in a cabinet with members of the regime. Obviously, the two sides hold fairly divergent positions, if not irreconcilable ones. But this is the case in all conflicts and is typical to every negotiation.
Everything will depend on the external pressure exerted on the protagonists. What is left is to imagine the constitutional architecture of the future of Syria. In this respect, we can trust experts on all sides to propose institutional formulas. Nothing is ideal, as the examples of Lebanon (Taif Accords) or Bosnia and Herzegovina (Dayton Accords) have shown.
End to Over-Centralized Rule in Syria
What is certain is that it is difficult to imagine the continuation of the erstwhile centralized governance of Assad. All sides agree that the territorial unity of the country should be preserved. Lessons from the fiasco of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence vote have also been well understood by the Syrian Kurds. However, the new constitutional system will have to allow a measure of autonomy to Syrian provinces and regions.
Both the opposition and the regime must understand that Kurds can legitimately claim a degree of decentralization in the Syrian state. The regime’s negotiators must understand that being impervious to all opposition demands would be counterproductive and would only prolong the crisis. For its part, the opposition must understand that it is no longer able to dictate its terms. They will have to be realistic.
Syrians have suffered a lot. They aspire to find peace, rebuild their country and to discover a way by which they could live together again. Other people also suffered great tragedies and have risen from the rubble of the war. Why should Syria be an exception?
The Massacre in Bir Al-Abed Is an Attack on Civilization
The horrific images of the massacre at Al-Rawdah mosque in the Sinai town of Bir Al-Abed, of those killed, injured or fleeing in panic for their lives, can only trigger a mixture of extreme anger and deep despondency. How can anyone in the name of religion, even in its most distorted and twisted version, enter a place of worship and kill hundreds of people engaged in praying to their Creator? It is hard to contemplate a more debased ideology, if one can call it such, than one that promotes the indiscriminate slaying of innocent and defenceless human beings whose only “crime” is to harbour different religious beliefs.
However, the response to last week’s cowardly attack that left more than 300 people dead, one third of them children, should be more of steely resolve and determination to confront the perpetrators of this kind of atrocity and those who propagate the ideas that legitimize such savage carnage. Though no organization has taken immediate responsibility for the attack, it has all the hallmarks of the Daesh-affiliated “Wilayat Al-Sinai” (the “Governorate of Sinai“), which is one of the deadliest among those terrorist groups across the Middle East that have pledged allegiance to the group. The targeting of a Sufi mosque — Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that is regarded by some fundamentalist Muslims as heretical — also suggests the involvement of Daesh.
There is a growing fear that the more Daesh is on the run and losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the more it will look to shift its operations to elsewhere in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Many Daesh fighters are trapped between the border of those two countries, leaving them very limited options. They can continue fighting, though with no prospect of recovering or even surviving, or they can lay down their weapons and surrender. The third option, which spells danger to other countries, is that many of these fighters, including foreign ones, might disperse across the region, or return to their countries of origin and regroup in order to prepare further terrorist attacks, including those of the type that we witnessed in Sinai last Friday.
For various reasons, despite more than three years of military operations, the Egyptian security forces haven’t succeeded in quashing the Wilayat Al-Sinai insurgents, who consequently are becoming more audacious in their attacks. The group generally targets Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai, but has also claimed an attack on a tourist site in southern Sinai, as well as deadly attacks on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria that left at least 44 people killed and more than 100 others injured. In 2015, the organization carried out what before Friday’s massacre had been the deadliest terror attack to date when it brought down a Russian airplane, killing the 224 passengers and crew onboard.
What is currently taking place in the Sinai Peninsula is the result of domestic factors as much as international ones. Many of the indigenous people, mainly Bedouins, feel that their land rights have been violated and they have been generally excluded from decision-making roles in administrating the peninsula by the security forces and central government. Consequently, they have resorted to an alternative modus operandi of running a parallel system to the legal one, including in trade and the imposition of law and order. Add to this Sinai’s geographical remoteness from the power center in Cairo, and the result is that this huge and sparsely populated desert has turned into an ideal breeding ground for extremism.
Moreover, developments following the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade not only spread extremism, but also increased the availability of military hardware and ammunition, especially from Libya. In the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, huge stockpiles of weapons became available, and considerable amounts of these ended up in the hands of Islamists in the Sinai. The level of military sophistication involved in the Al-Rawda mosque attack should be a source of worry. It takes planning, organization, training and equipment to execute such an operation carried out by dozens of people. The terrorists’ ability to do so without being detected and with such horrendous consequences requires a rethink not only in Egypt but in all countries that face similar threats.
As to be expected, the international community has been united in condemning the attack: From the Arab League, to governments in the UK, US, France, Russia and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, there has been a universal expression of revulsion at the massacre. But if extremism is to be curtailed, this worldwide denunciation should be translated into a plan of action to support those countries that have to deal with militancy on a daily basis.
Daesh’s dream of establishing their distorted version of a caliphate is fast disappearing behind the trail of destruction that they are leaving. Restricting the probability of repeat attacks such as the ones in Egypt requires an integrated approach, which should include maintaining the momentum of the military coalition that is defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and providing those terrorists who would like to disarm and abandon the organization a route back to their societies and rehabilitation. No less important must be moves to address the root causes that have led to the formation of these radical militant groups in the first place.
It is in this context that the recent call from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Islam to return to its pre-1979 days of “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples,” should be heeded and acted on without delay or hesitation.
The momentous change instituted in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent weeks has surprised and unnerved many.
The measures taken by the 32-year-old Crown Prince are breathtaking in their scale and unprecedented in Saudi Arabia.
Under the auspices of an anti-corruption drive, Mohammed bin Salman has detained a number of Saudi princes, ministers, former ministers, media owners, tycoons, intellectuals and influential clerics while seizing their assets.
These moves are an attempt by Mohammed bin Salman to create a unitary executive that will allow him to take on big ticket items in the foreign policy and domestic realms, many involving important reform.
Common interests oblige Washington to support his efforts of forcing change on the many deep-rooted issues facing the kingdom while also working with him to implement sustainable political reform.
Much to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and the US, Iran is ascendant.
It has successfully kept Bashar al-Asad in power in Syria, enabled Hezbollah’s political dominance in Lebanon, fomented unrest in Bahrain, contributed to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq through Tehran-backed paramilitary groups (who still remain on Iraqi soil) and armed to much effect Shiite Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war.
Beyond this, Iran’s nuclear program remains intact. Mohammed bin Salman is trying to turn this around. He has been tough on Iran, accusing it of trying to dominate the Middle East, while working to build on the bond developed between his father and President Trump in their efforts to restrain Tehran. He has also taken on Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Mohammed bin Salman is spearheading Vision 2030, a plan to modernize the economy that involves research and development spanning biomedical, artificial intelligence, drones and robots as well as the building of a new $500 billion city to support these efforts. The new city will also be a place of entertainment where men and women can mix publicly without the interference of authorities.
These and other initiatives – steering Riyadh away from reliance on fossil fuels; privatizing state-owned companies; allowing women to drive – are part of Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to remake Saudi Arabia’s economy and society.
In his sweep of arrests, some of the most troublesome of clerics were also locked away. This, in addition to his bold October 24 promise to destroy “extremist ideologies” and return Saudi Arabia to “a more moderate Islam.”
Yet, the menace of Iran as well as the prospects for curbing the export of hateful ideology requires the US to support Mohammed bin Salman. All this while working with him to do more toward protecting the political rights of Saudi citizens and advancing the rule of law.
Last week, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office said that he checked an electoral registration office in Baghdad and took his polling card.
The announcement did not only aim to urge people to register and get their polling cards but also indicated that Abadi is determined to hold the upcoming elections scheduled after six months, mid-May of 2018, and run for a second premiership term.
Abadi’s path to a second term is clear and it seems guaranteed. The supporting circumstances to secure this second term were never available to those who preceded him as premiers.
The number of armed forces and security forces is now increasing and their votes, which is known as the “special voting”, will definitely go to the prime minister since the latter is also the general commander of the armed forces.
Abadi’s success at liberating all areas occupied by ISIS made him very popular. This popularity increased – outside the Kurdistan region – amid the crisis with the region regarding the referendum.
Abadi is now seeking to benefit from all this to win a second term and form a cabinet that has a comfortable political base. He frequently said that he looks forward to establish a national coalition that goes beyond sectarianism and nationalism.
The road is actually paved in front of him as in the past three years, many developments broke the political formula, which lasted since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and which is based on political-partisan shares that are disguised under sectarian-nationalist slogans.
The Governance Formula
During the last phase, the governance formula in Baghdad was based on the Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish axis. A coalition between Shiite parties, another between Sunni parties and a third between Kurdish parties was formed.
These coalitions controlled power and money in Baghdad and specified the fate of the entire political process by a consensus and by violating the constitution at several occasions.
There was a fourth parallel coalition that was neither sectarian nor nationalist. It was the National Iraqi Alliance, which was not efficient enough, because others weakened it of course, and it was thus neither part of governance nor part of the opposition.
The sharing system and consensus policy failed miserably in managing Iraq and all the four coalitions acknowledge it. This is in addition to what Iraq’s miserable security, economic and social situation reveals as one third of its area fell under the control of ISIS the war against whom has not fully ended yet. Now after this system of governance reached a dead end, efforts are underway to work in another direction.
Parties no longer make traditional agreements. Shiite parties are no longer united as they divided, like what happened with the State of Law Coalition (Abadi’s and Maliki’s wings) and with the Supreme Council of Iraq whose defecting members formed the National Wisdom Movement. Al-Ahrar bloc (the Sadrist) also completely withdrew from the (Shiite) national coalition.
The same happened with the Kurds as the Gorran Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Movement dissociated themselves from the Kurdish alliance. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which was a major power in the Kurdish coalition, is confronting fragmentation, which began during the era of its founder and late leader Jalal Talabani.
Sunni powers have been the most fragmented ever since ISIS invaded Sunni areas and displaced millions of citizens from their cities that were destroyed during the war, which Iraqi forces fought to liberate them from the terrorist group’s control. Sunnis are extremely angry at their leaders as they think they are interested in securing their influence and are involved in financial and administrative corruption.
The Best Chance
Therefore, this is the best chance to form a coalition that goes beyond sectarianism and nationalism. Abadi in particular has the chance to do as he is the head of the executive authority and his acceptability in and outside Iraq is steadily progressing. The most popular Shiite party, the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, recently voiced its support of him publicly.
According to some information, there is a possibility of agreements being forged with other Shiite powers, Kurdish powers and new Sunni powers which emerged when ISIS occupied Iraqi cities. An agreement of some sort will likely be established with the National Iraqi Alliance led by Ayad Allawi.
These agreement’s requirements are establishing a governance formula (of coalitions) that is different than the formula of solely making decisions. This latter approach was adopted by previous governments and it somehow continued to exist during the current government’s term.
What is certain that Abadi will increase his chances of managing an (national) expanded coalition and win a second term if he implements what he vowed to do in the past weeks: combat administrative and financial corruption and restore the funds which were stolen over the course of 14 years and which are estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. This is very important and addressing this matter is one of the most urgent and popular demands.
However, Abadi faces an obstacle here as most corruption operations were and continue to be managed by leaders of parties that are influential in authority. Most of them are also Islamic. By opening this corruption file, Abadi will be like those who are stepping in a nest of wasps. The same will happen when it comes to discussing the matter of arms outside the context of the state and implementing the law.
The other important point is relations between the federal government and the Kurdistan Region. Iraq’s stability and achieving sustainable development during the phase after ISIS greatly rely on the relation between Baghdad and Erbil. Tensions will weigh heavily on the entire Iraqi situation.
Erbil made mistakes and so did Baghdad. The way Abadi will address this problem will play a role in specifying the nature of the next government and Iraq’s fate for the next four years.
By Mamdouh AlMuhaini
In his interview with the New York Times, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described Iranian guide Ali Khamenei as the new Hitler of the Middle East. This description briefly reflects the Saudi command’s vision of the nature of conflict with Iran and the basic strategy to confront its threats – a strategy that relies on a full confrontation and not containment and concessions.
Hitler’s story with Europe has turned into a lesson in history and politics as it taught us that soft diplomacy is not always the right way to end conflicts, especially with enemies who adopt evil ideology that does not recognize the logic of dialogue and refuse cooperation to achieve an aim, which is completely subjugating others and imposing control.
This is what Hitler almost did as he was about to completely swallow Europe due to the lenient policy of containment. However, historical figures like Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt confronted him as they were brave and wise enough to realize the imminent threat of this Nazi dictator. Thus, they saved Europe from the cultural gap that it was going to fall into.
This is why some historians think Churchill was one of the greatest figures of the past century as he’s given up on the policy of dialogue and containment and decided to confront the Nazi threat despite his country’s weak status at the time.
Churchill was the opposite of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain who made concessions to the German dictator to please his ego and safeguard against his evil designs. Chamberlain’s approach, however, only increased Hitler’s brutality.
Political and Moral Weakness
Chamberlain’s name became a symbol of political and moral weakness while the Munich Agreement, which he signed, became an example of a diplomatic catastrophe. Chamberlain who experienced the tragedies of World War I avoided a world war with Nazi Germany by shamefully submitting to Hitler’s demand to divide Czechoslovakia under the excuse that citizens with German origins were being unjustly treated.
Britain’s prime minister was humiliated twice and he met with Hitler in an attempt to absorb his greed. After signing the ill-fated treaty, he proudly said: “We honorably signed the peace treaty in our era.”
Chamberlain believed Hitler’s promises that the Sudetenland region, which was the most advanced on the financial and industrial levels in Czechoslovakia, will be the last thing he asks for to avoid war and make peace. He signed the agreement after convincing France of it and left Czech to face its fate alone. In a letter to his sister, Chamberlain wrote: “Despite the brutality I saw in his face (Hitler’s) and felt that if this man makes a promise, he keeps it.”
The agreement was called “Munich’s treason” and turned into a nightmare that haunted him till his death. It was a black mark that tarnished his reputation forever. It also became a tough life lesson.
It is interesting that his decision at the time was popular. People and the media viewed him as a hero who prevented a massive war in his country and Europe. Although he responded to their demands, they later criticized him and described him as naïve. After all, a real leader may sometimes act against the popular will, particularly during critical times, and take tough and upsetting decisions.
Churchill later mocked him and wrote: “Poor Neville will come badly out of history. I know because I shall write that history.” It turned out that Hitler manipulated him as his aim of signing the agreement was gain time to prepare his troops as six months later he fully occupied Czechoslovakia and annexed Poland. After that he continued to swallow European countries, one after the other.
The Saudi crown prince recalled an important part of history to put the Iranian threat in its right context. The Iranian regime does not differ from Nazi Germany or any totalitarian regime with expansive ambitions. Containment to it means weakness and gradual surrender and it only increases its greed.
This is what the Obama administration did when it signed the nuclear agreement for the purpose of integrating it with the world order. All the agreement did was worsening its ego and brutality.
The strategy of the “new Hitler” is close to Hitler’s regime. It is based on the policy of divisions inside Arab and Islamic countries by claiming it defends persecuted segments. It then infiltrates the country and extends its influence. We have seen this in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
It also uses propaganda, as per totalitarian regimes’ traditional approach, to spread lies which followers and sympathizers market to depict a semi-democratic image of a regime that calls for peace and rapprochement when in fact it is an invading power that supports terrorist militias and uses fake religious slogans to market itself. It is also a tyrannical regime that relies on an extremist ideology and adopts the doctrine of recruitment and blind obedience.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s description of Khamenei as “the new Hitler” is a reminder to western countries and Arabs of the failed policy of containment as learnt from Chamberlain’s experience, which many seem to have forgotten when it almost changed the face of the world forever.
OPEC Deal: One Year Over, another Left
Today, OPEC ministers and their counterparts outside the group will celebrate a special occasion in Vienna’s historical Palais Niederösterreich: The end of the first year of the production-cuts agreement.
A year ago, OPEC and another 11 producers led by Russia agreed to curtail daily output by 1.8 million barrels until December this year.
They changed their minds in May and decided to extend the agreement until March next year.
Surely, it was an exciting ride for both parties. Due to the cooperation between the 24 producers involved, the market went from turmoil a year ago to a stable and bullish one.
Due to the cuts, the overhang in oil inventories went down from around 340 million barrels early in the year to just 140 million barrels above the five-year average in October.
Demand is also in good shape; the supply-demand balance is fluctuating between deficit and a small surplus; and the outlook for prices next year has never been better since 2014, thanks to the “declaration of cooperation” among OPEC and non-OPEC.
Now as the 24 producers are about to finish their race to rebalance the market, they still have extra miles to run before reaching the finish line of the agreement.
The 24 producers will meet tomorrow, Nov. 30, to agree on a new milestone in their agreement. They will consider extending the current agreement but the duration of that extension is still not determined.
Some sources are suggesting a six month extension to give Russian companies more space to increase their production next year, while others are saying that there will be no surprises and the extension will be for another nine months.
It is truly hard to predict the outcome of the meeting and that applies to everyone from analysts to big banks such as Goldman Sachs who was sure a few weeks ago about the extension for nine months but now seems less so.
Citigroup is still holding the same views and expecting a decision on how long to extend, to be delayed until the first quarter of next year so that producers can have a better understanding of the market.
Regardless of the rhetoric, common wisdom supports both scenarios.
If OPEC and non-OPEC decided to extend for just six months, that might work just fine.
Currently, the overhang in oil inventories in OECD countries is around 140 million barrels — that is assuming OPEC’s calculation is correct.
This means that six more months of cuts are needed before oil stocks will go back to their average of five years, with the assumption that compliance with the cuts is at 100 percent and supply from outside the group and from Libya and Nigeria isn’t growing by a worrying level.
The other scenario, which is the most likely one, is that everyone goes for nine months because Libya and Nigeria might increase their production further and higher oil prices will allow more supply from North American shale oil wells.
Both scenarios will work just fine for OPEC and for non-OPEC (except for Russia) and any extension above three months will also do just fine.
The only challenge for all is how to finish the race.
Some sources are suggesting that OPEC wants producers to raise production gradually toward the end of the agreement and that would be the best case for the exit strategy from the deal.
Russia and some other non-OPEC countries may find this exit strategy a bit strange as they want to have something clear and written.
Having something written is problematic also because OPEC and Russia said before that efforts will continue until the goal of the agreement is met, so without a clear understanding of when the market will rebalance, producers will need to keep their output restraint indefinitely.
In all cases, what OPEC and Russia need to focus on is improving compliance rates over the coming few months, and they need to keep all the options open for cooperation in the future.
No one is able today to predict the situation in the market and some research houses have advised OPEC’s officials in Vienna this week that they might need to consider managing the supply in the market in 2018 and 2019 because non-OPEC supply is expected to keep growing until 2020.
It is unlikely that Russian oil companies would like to extend cuts beyond 2018 as it will take a lot of political efforts to bring them on board next year, let alone in 2019.
The only comforting factor is that in Russia, all companies listen to president Vladimir Putin who has the final say on oil policy.
Next year will also be challenging, as expectations for non-OPEC supply are not yet clear and estimates of many analysts range from 700,000 to close to 2 million barrels a day of oil. So no one knows for sure if 2018 will finally be the year of “market rebalancing” as the UAE energy minister stated or if it will be just another year.
Until now, the market and producers aren’t expecting any cooperation beyond 2018 — but only the next 12 months will tell.
By Osama Al Sharif
The bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are key features of the six-year-old Syrian conflict are finally falling into place. Last week there was an exceptional push toward putting the political process back on track with various interlocutors repositioning themselves in preparation for what looks like a crucial round of talks expected to convene in Geneva.
A three-day meeting by Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh ended in a major breakthrough: An agreement to form a joint delegation, encompassing political and military bodies, which will present a united front in Geneva and possibly later in Sochi. The latter venue will seek to initiate an intra-Syrian dialogue involving the government and the opposition; this was agreed on by the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran who met in the Russian resort on Nov. 25. That summit was reminiscent of the Yalta conference in 1945, when the victorious powers of the day met to decide the fate of a defeated Germany and post-war Europe.
This time, with Daesh on the verge of defeat and the Syrian regime in control of most of the country, the three main players in Syria appeared united in their positions over the future of the country. But just like the eventual outcome of Yalta, it would be foolish to discount the conflicting agendas that these players have, not only in Syria but in the region as a whole. The elephants in the room, which include the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the US military foothold in eastern Syria, the presence of pro-Iranian militias and Syrian Kurdish political ambitions, were generally avoided.
The fact that Russia announced that Assad had met with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, a day before the trilateral summit, was especially important. Not only had Putin declared that the Russian military operation in Syria was coming to an end, but he also told Assad that he should be ready to engage in a meaningful political process, adding that all sides must be prepared to offer compromises.
Adding to the present momentum was the statement made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week in which he praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts in uniting the Syrian opposition. He declared that Moscow and Riyadh had worked toward achieving that goal. The joint delegation will be comprised of the so-called Egypt and Moscow platforms. The latter had maintained that the future and role of President Assad in the proposed transitional phase should not be a deal-breaker. While the newly elected head of the joint negotiating delegation, Nasr Al-Hariri, announced that President Assad should not be part of the transitional ruling authority, he also said that the delegation will head to Geneva to negotiate without prior conditions.
It remains to be seen what will unfold in the coming few days in Geneva. Talks will center on the launch of the political process, the forming of a transitional government and the country’s new constitution. But with Russia insisting on holding the Sochi meeting later this year or earlier next year, there are fears that Moscow may be working to force an alternative to Geneva. It managed to institutionalize the Astana process, which culminated in the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria. Now, according to Lavrov, it wants Syrian interlocutors to agree on elections and a new constitution in Sochi. That may encourage the regime to dismiss Geneva altogether.
President Putin is playing his cards carefully. As the key stakeholder in Syria, he has put himself in the driver’s seat when it comes to preparing the ground for a political settlement. He has built a strategic alliance while keeping other regional capitals, primarily Riyadh, Cairo and Amman, in the loop. And despite tense relations between Moscow and Washington, the Russian president is keen to keep the Trump administration involved in current efforts, as was evident in the joint presidential statement on Syria that was unveiled during a brief meeting in Vietnam earlier this month.
But while there will be three processes, which Moscow says will overlap, involving Geneva, Astana and Sochi, there are no guarantees that a final agreement will materialize any time soon. The fact is that Russia, as a key player, holds the most important pieces in the Syrian jigsaw puzzle. How it will eventually place them rests on its ability to satisfy the minimum needs of most players. That means keeping the Assad regime and the opposition engaged in credible talks while satisfying, along with the US, Ankara’s security concerns over the YPG’s arsenal. It also means that it must tackle Tehran’s ambitions to have long-term military presence in Syria, which is a huge problem for Jordan, Israel and the Gulf states. In addition, it must recruit the support of the United States in order to secure a workable deal.
It’s a tall order even for the crafty Putin, but what could help him is that all the players are suffering from Syria fatigue and want to see an end to what has proved to be a costly and dangerous conflict.
Eighty-one years ago this month, King Edward VIII was preparing to surrender his throne because of his love for Mrs. Wallis Simpson.
“We will not stand for an American divorcee as the wife of our King,” wrote an angry correspondent quoted in one Canadian newspaper. “If the monarchy will not observe tradition, then we had better give it up altogether!”
In November 1936, most of Britain and the empire — and certainly the British government of the time — agreed.
How times have changed! For many years divorced persons were not admitted to the Royal Enclosure at the Ascot race course. Now Britain is actively welcoming an American divorcee, Meghan Markle, into the royal family as the future wife of Prince Harry, currently fifth in line to the throne — with an extra attraction: Ms. Markle is of mixed race.
“I’m half black and half white,” she explained in ELLE Magazine two years ago. “My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American.”
In a world of euphemism and verbal tip-toeing around the truth on racial matters, it would seem that Markle can add forthrightness to her roster of attractions.
“You create the identity you want for yourself,” she wrote of her racial origins, “just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom.”
Royal families are proud of their family trees, and the House of Windsor’s latest recruit feels the same pride in hers, describing in ELLE how her great-great-great grandfather on her mother’s side was one of the American slaves who was freed in 1865. Whoever doubted the ability of the House of Windsor, with its own invented name, to reinvent itself? Megan Markle shows every sign of being caring, hard-working and intelligent — “all useful ingredients,” says one trusted Windsor friend, “for members of our royal family.”
Prince Harry has learned much about his sweetheart, of course, in the same way that we all have — through television. As Rachel Zane, the paralegal assistant and would-be lawyer in the TV series “Suits,” Meghan Markle impressed as an actress, and also as a character determined to make her own way in the world, expecting no favors from the wealth and status of her on-screen father Robert Zane (played by African-American Wendell Pierce).
Grace Kelly, the last actress to marry into high-profile royalty, was light, charming and beautiful, but her “High Society” screen profile was of a mischievous fashion plate. Meghan stands for sterner stuff — can there be such a thing as a self-made princess? The essence of Rachel Zane is her determination to move ahead on her own terms without fear or favor — and Meghan herself has identical ambitions.
She was a philanthropist long before she met Harry, travelling to Rwanda to work on a clean-water project, and is now developing future plans, it is reported, to set up her own foundation helping vulnerable young women around the world.
“I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches,” she told a UN women’s conference in 2015. “I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works.”
She is certainly heading for the right place now — look at the formidable work rate of her future aunt, Princess Anne, not to mention, of course, the unremitting schedule of our 91-year-old Queen.
The infamous treatment handed out to Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend by press and politicians in the 1950s derived from the concept of the whole royal family having to “set a good example.” Well, in contemporary terms, Harry and Meghan are now doing precisely that — with plans for much more. We hear that Meghan will become a partner inside the innovative and adventurous Royal Foundation created by William, Harry and Kate to support and develop creative charities like the Place2Be, with its emphasis on the mental health of the young.
People frequently give credit to Diana, the “People’s Princess,” for the progressive and open instincts of her two enterprising and mold-breaking sons — and so they should. But let us not forget the contribution of their father, Prince Charles, and the hell that he went through to win the right to marry his own divorced partner, as a divorcee himself. Prince Harry and Meghan are now the beneficiaries of that battle.
Most of us may not think of Camilla Parker-Bowles as a “sweetheart” in the same romantic terms as we view the glamorous young Rachel Zane on our television screens. But in legal and dynastic terms, the two women’s situation is exactly parallel. Prince Charles fought for the freedom that his son will now enjoy to publicly acknowledge and marry the woman of his choice — and didn’t we give him a hard time in the process?
This all comes back to us, the general public in Britain and abroad, with all the prejudices and the stereotypes that we impose upon our public figureheads. But history moves on — and sometimes in a positive fashion. Who would have imagined, even in the first decade of the 21st century, that an heir to the throne (Prince William) could “shack up” with his girlfriend Kate for the best part of eight years before making a “decent woman” of her? When his grandmother came to the throne in 1952, that sort of behavior was called “living in sin.”
But his grandmother Elizabeth II — herself a deeply committed Christian, who is said to kneel beside her bedside every night in the style of her own mother — blessed this potentially controversial waiting time. So, all of this goes back to the open-mindedness and the tone set by Her Majesty. We know that Elizabeth II (tutored herself by a constitutional historian) took personal charge of Prince William’s lessons as a future king, inviting him up to Windsor when he was a teenager to study the confidential government papers in her “red boxes” and instructing him in the topmost protocols of the monarchy.
On Monday, we learned how the key event triggering the engagement announcement was the visit that Meghan and Harry paid to the Palace a few weeks back to take tea with the Queen, who conferred her blessing on their match. Was Prince Philip there as well? He was certainly there in spirit, since the free-thinking modernity of our representative monarchy owes much to Philip’s no-nonsense impatience with formality and convention.
So now we can look forward to seeing Meghan with Harry at Sandringham this Christmas, taking her first public steps in her new life as a future princess. The omens seem promising, with the news that she is importing her two beloved rescue dogs, a beagle and a Labrador-shepherd, to Britain. The corgis have taken warmly to Meghan apparently, though they still growl at Harry, and it remains to be seen how they welcome Guy (beagle) and Bogart (Labrador-shepherd).
The Queen has made clear that she very much welcomes the broadening of the monarchy and the royal family that this new recruitment represents — but what about the rest of the country? Will Harry’s marriage to Meghan — the British monarchy’s Obama moment — prove a problem for the more prejudiced amongst the general public?
I trust not, but who knows? The actress has related how her great-great-great grandfather, the last slave on her mother’s side, decided to give himself a new surname following the emancipation of 1865, picking out the word “Wisdom.” Let us hope that Meghan and Harry’s happy news will inspire all of us with a generous measure of that wisdom this Christmas.
Royal Engagement Brings New Energy to British Monarchy
Buckingham Palace announced on Monday the engagement of Prince Harry to US actress Meghan Markle, a union combining UK royalty and US show business. News of the impending marriage, which has set off an international media storm, highlights the continuing global fascination with the British monarchy which has been boosted in recent years by Harry, 33, and his brother Prince William, 35.
More than two decades on from the Royal Family’s high-profile problems in the 1990s, including the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana (Harry’s father and mother respectively), Queen Elizabeth II and her immediate family have now largely recovered from the worst troubles of her reign as the longest serving UK monarch. And it is Harry and William who have helped power the ruling clan’s popularity ratings in recent years.
Aside from the Queen and her husband Prince Philip themselves, a YouGov poll earlier this showed that William is regarded as having made the strongest contribution to the Royal family with 78% approval rating, followed by Harry (73%), and William’s wife Kate (73%). The popularity of Harry, who is fifth in line to the throne, is now likely to be bolstered by his marriage to Markle.
The US actress and humanitarian campaigner is likely to make her mark with much of the UK public, unlike the last US citizen who married a UK royal. The relationship between Wallis Simpson (like Markle, a divorcee) and King Edward VIII ultimately led to the 1936 abdication crisis.
Moreover, given the parallels between Diana and Markle it is possible that she could become very popular, in the UK and internationally, in her own right. Harry said on Monday that his mother and his fiancée “would be as thick as thieves” (indicating they have much in common) and Markle will now give up her career as an actress to focus on royal duties, and wider humanitarian campaigning, in a way that may prove comparable to Diana in the 1980s and 1990s.
The renewed popular appeal of the royals has been buttressed by a modernized monarchy with many of the UK populace believing it has changed for the better. Key recent reforms include ending the rule of male primogeniture on the throne which means girls now born to members of the Royal Family have equal rights with boys in the succession to the throne, and ending the prohibition on Elizabeth’s successors marrying a Catholic. Harry’s engagement to Markle, who attended a Catholic school in California and is of mixed race, is only the latest chapter in this transformation process that brings it into line with that of wider changes in UK society at large.
Correspondingly, polls tend to show that less than a quarter of the UK population want a republic, with many people believing that it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state. This factor may become even more important, in the future, given that the nation appears to potentially becoming increasingly divided on geographic lines, especially given increased pressure for independence in Scotland.
On the face of it, therefore, the monarchy seems in good stead to prosper in the post-Elizabeth II period. The Queen, now at 91 years of age, might choose to abdicate before she dies, and has already stepped back from some duties, including those requiring long-distance flights.
However, unlike Harry and William, their father Charles (the immediate heir to the throne) does not share their popularity. In the YouGov poll earlier this year, Charles and second wife Camilla trailed well behind the Queen, Philip, Harry and William on 36% and 18% popularity respectively.
The poll also found only a third of the UK populace believe Charles “has been beneficial for the Royal family”. This is down by nearly two thirds compared to four years ago, underlining that a rockier road may lie ahead for the monarchy once the Queen dies.
Charles at 69 is already at an age when many people are retired, and is the longest-waiting and oldest heir to the throne in UK history. Indeed, some surveys show that a significant body of the UK public would prefer the monarchy to skip a generation to William upon the Queen’s passing.
Taken overall, Monday’s Royal wedding announcement will boost the popularity of Harry and the wider ruling clan. However, while the monarchy has largely recovered its public standing from the 1990s, significant uncertainties remain about the post-Elizabeth II period, especially given popular sentiment towards Charles, and this means the monarchy could yet face a rockier road ahead once she dies.