Shehab Al Makahleh

Shehab Al Makahleh

The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostilities in certain locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal reached late June, that went into effect in July, on establishment of de-escalation zones in Eastern Ghouta and South Eastern Syria aimed to help end up the six-year war in the Arab country.

The new de-escalation deal would cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta and South East regions of Syria by the Jordanian-Iraqi borders is slated for signing by the end of August–mid September 2017, and would pave the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

On August 2, 2017, Syrian government forces and armed opposition leaders have agreed to a ceasefire north of the city of Homs. The de-escalation zone created there will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

Moscow is now in direct contact with the Americans, following series of meetings in Europe between security and military officials from both sides, to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Jordan – the areas which are deemed important by both the Syrian government and the Russians.

Experts from the United States and Russia are holding consultations on the expansion of the umbrella of de-escalation zones in four regions in Syria.  The truce on Homs, Al Waer neighborhood, has been announced August 2, 2017 after intense talks in a European capital between both Russians and Americans while the third truce will be announce later this month after Astana meetings. The expected date of the third truce will be around mid-September and will cover Eastern Ghouta. Syrian armed opposition factions have begun evacuating the last district they control in the city of Homs under a ceasefire deal reached with the government.

The Russians have already completed negotiations with Jordan on the monitoring of the recently established de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, and on the Amman Declaration which is on its final stages before being announced this month in Astana.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented on American President Donald Trump’s statements on the efforts to reach a “second truce” in Syria, saying: “The Russian side is in contact with American partners about setting up de-escalation zones in Syria, and other topics for discussion in the context of Astana peace negotiations on Syria.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jordan’s King Abdullah II late July had a phone conversation which covered many regional issues including the means to address the Jordanian concerns regarding settlement of the Syrian conflict.  Both leaders have discussed the measures taken by Russia so far to monitor the de-escalation zone in Southern Western parts of Syria and the Jordanian role to bring about a cease-fire in the war torn country, especially in the context of the implementation of the memorandum signed by the representatives of Russia, Jordan and the United States on 7 July, 2017 giving due importance to territorial integrity of Syria without calling for a regime change in pursuance with provisions of UN Resolution 2254.

The deal of ceasefire in northern Homs would not have been reached without a major Syrian army ground offensive to the north of the city backed by Russian air strikes.

The two sides of conflict: the Syrian army and the armed opposition have reached a dead-end in their in futile war, and now there is a there is a rising will amongst both sides to calm down the situation,  particularly in places where it is clear that one party has the upper hand over the other. In this context, the Syrian army has the upper hand and the general mood in general is that no one is winning in Syria.

The northern part of Homs is known as “Al Waer” which was a thorny neighborhood for the Syrian government for more than 6 years and it is known as the cradle of the Syrian demonstration against the regime.

However, the warring sides seem to be interpreting other details differently nowadays, especially with the withdrawal of Al Nusra fighters from the borders with Lebanon to Idlib and the withdrawal of Al Waer fighters to Idlib as well, turning Idlib into a center of extremists and armed opposition by the borders of Turkey.

As per the recent agreement on the withdrawal of the armed opposition from Al Waer, this neighborhood will return to state control, cleared of weapons, and fighters who chose to stay will have their legal status settled.

For Jordan, such an agreement is very important to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis and eradicate terrorism, ensuring border security and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as Syria’s security and stability are of strategic interest for the region. However, the new ceasefire in Al Waer is another test and a challenge to Russia and the USA, mulled as a turning point and a precedent that the two countries are seeking to build on to resolve the Syrian conflict.

The Astana meeting between the opposition and the Syrian government was concluded in May 2017 with recommendations to set up four de-escalation zones in Syria to help solved the Syrian conflict.

More than 2.5 million people are believed to be living in the general area of the four zones which span the southern provinces of Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida.

A meeting of leaders of the Southern Front militias was held with American, Russian and Jordanian experts in the Jordanian capital Amman end of July to discuss a truce in southwestern Syria. Another meeting was held also at the sidelines of the Russian-American meetings between Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh to discuss the next step that lead to a transition government.

Iran, Russia and Turkey have agreed to resume the next round of Syrian peace talks in Astana in late August following their decision to continue discussions on creating four de-escalation zones in Syria.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/08/new-important-deal-looming-for-eastern-ghouta-and-south-east-syria-by-jordanian-iraqi-syrian-borders/

 

A meeting on August 7 between King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas established a joint crisis committee to follow up the Israeli violations at Al-Aqsa Mosque and evaluate the past and expected Israeli violations in Jerusalem.

This committee’s significance is to avoid the eruption of a third Palestinian Intifada that would be a result of excessive power by enforced by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

The royal visit to Ramallah was marked as “a sign of rejection of Israeli recent movements because Jordan is the sole custodian of the Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem,” stated King Abdullah.

“If a third intifada is coming, no one this time can stop it and it will spillover, not only affecting Israelis and Palestinians but rather affecting the whole region”, said a senior Jordanian officials who preferred to be anonymous.

The official said that “the Joint Jordanian Palestinian Crisis Committee’s major objective is to monitor any Israeli measures to change the identity of the holy city including installing metal detectors as this would be a pretext to ignite a third upheaval in the west bank that would have its repercussions on other countries in the Middle East”.

Members of the joint committee are security officials from both Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority, the official added.

They will be tasked to follow up on any further violations by the Israelis against Al Aqsa Mosque and to avoid any bids to change the identity of the holy shrines in Jerusalem.

“This committee will be in charge, as its members, are mainly of security and intelligence background, will help coordinate between the three parties in order to avert such violations that would negatively affect the peace agreements with Israel”.

The actions taken by Israel at the holy site in Jerusalem has led to demonstrations in Jordan, which resulted in the killing of two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy in Amman.

The perpetrator was received as a hero by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. His office, furthermore, distributed a video showing him welcoming the guard as a hero and has fueled Jordanian anger.

King Abdullah’s outrage was clear with him castigating Netanyahu, blaming the prime minister for exploiting the incident for “personal political gains”.

King Abdullah further stated that bilateral ties between Amman and Tel Aviv now rely on how Netanyahu would react regarding this issue, given the fact that Israel’s relations with Jordan were further strained with the recent expropriation of Palestinian lands in Jerusalem.

Jordanian officials have warned in meetings with Israelis and Palestinians that any acts that threaten the situation in the holy city would have grave consequences for the region as a whole.

Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs, Mohammad Momani, stated that Israel should reverse any unacceptable measures against Al-Aqsa Mosque and avoid any instigations leading to the deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/08/18/A-joint-Jordanian-Palestinian-crisis-committee-to-avoid-a-third-intifada.html

Photo credit: AFP

Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Iraq’s influential Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, paid an unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia on July 28 and 29, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other senior officials. The meeting took place before the crown prince accedes to the throne, in order to draw up the coming relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Sadr’s rare visit raised concerns in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which has refrained from commenting on the trip.

The charismatic cleric has recast himself as the upholder of Iraq’s democratic process and a bulwark against the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias. The visit comes at a time when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are worsening. Would the visit of the Shia cleric, a member of an influential Shia family and son of the prominent Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, help defuse tension between Baghdad and Riyadh?

The timing of the visit is crucial to Iraqi politics. Sadr has returned as a leader in charge of uniting Iraqis under one umbrella, his office said. However, some Iraqi sources believe the visit to Saudi Arabia shows that Sadr has come on the Iraqi political scene to lead, not to linger in his Najaf office to receive followers.

The visit can be perceived as an attempt to consolidate his support and reap the fruits of his involvement in the coming parliamentary elections in April 2018, as Iraq would not have a government without him. Sadr is crucial for many Iraqi leaders as he heads a political bloc with almost 10% of parliamentary seats and has great influence on both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. His persistence to bring about change by bridging gaps between Iraqis is not welcomed by many in government, who are controlled by Iran.

The cleric and his followers are making deals in an attempt to enter positions in Iraq as mediator between Iraqis, Iranians and Saudis. Sadr is now delegated by Saudis to play a role in Iraq to serve Saudi interests and to return Iraq into its Arab fold by playing a role in bridging the differences and gaps between the three countries. That explains why he received $10 million from Saudi Arabia and the promises the kingdom has given him to build up the consulate in Najaf.

The question that arises is the following: Is Riyadh leaning toward Sadr, or is he leaning toward Riyadh at Tehran’s expense?

Sadr’s appearance as a powerful national leader could have some advantages, as seen by Saudi Arabia, because of his newly-minted nationalist stance that has made him a potential bulwark against Iranian influence. This became clear in his April 2017 statement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling on him to step down. Right now there is tension between him and rival Shia factions, especially after his militias clashed with the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, which is concerned with Iran’s influence not only in Iraq but also across the greater Middle East, wanted someone like Sadr to step into the Iraqi field to draw up its relations externally and to organize domestic affairs. This started with the invitation from Prince Mohammad. Saudi Arabia, and mainly its crown prince, views Sadr as a man of the people who is a fervent Iraqi nationalist and federalist, upholding the democratic process by non-violent means. Sadr, who is an advocate of the quota system in parliamentary elections, believes this method can ensure that Iraq’s main ethno-religious constituents — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds — share power.

Some Iranian commentators and political analysts warn that Saudi Arabia is playing games by courting Sadr to influence Iraqi politics — especially after Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Riyadh in June — which could threaten Iranian interests in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis called on the Iraqi prime minister by giving him a chance to either reconsider his policies toward Iran and bear the consequences that Iranian control of Iraq’s politics and its resources would carry, including the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis, or to U-turn toward his Arab brethren in order to proceed with regaining stability in Iraq.

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

Since the Saudis received no positive response from Abadi, they thought of other alternatives, Sadr being one. Some view the cleric’s visit as a concession from the Saudis to Iran, especially as a result of Qatar and the Islamic Republic growing closer at the expense of Riyadh’s influence amid the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rift over Doha.

Sadr is known for shifting alliances in order to remain in a position of power and influence. He proved this in February 2016, when 100,000 of his followers demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad, calling for government reform and for building bridges with Sunni tribes and politicians. He is famous for shifting political positions in the past, including stopping militant activity against the United States, turning against the government in Baghdad and speaking out against Assad.

Among Iraqi politicians, reports circulate that Saudi Arabia is attempting to control Sadr. Some journalists suggest the kingdom will be monitoring what he does after returning to Iraq and what his plans would be in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Some argue that Sadr would serve as a stepping stone for Saudi Arabia into Iraq, where the cleric could help Riyadh put pressure on the Shia-led order in Baghdad to distance Iraq from Iran.

Officials have not, thus far, disclosed details surrounding Sadr’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. However, among those who are close to the cleric, there are suggestions that Sadr may have gone to the kingdom to seek financial help from Riyadh in preparation for Iraq’s elections in 2018.

Another important Shia cleric on whom Saudis pin high hopes is Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was the largest party in the country’s Council of Representatives from 2003 until 2010. He is exiting his bloc to create the National Wisdom Party, an umbrella group of Shia and Sunni political parties — a new political movement in the country. This would be a reason for Sadr to set up his own front, benefiting from his close and strong ties with other Sunni leaders in Iraq and the GCC states.

SERIOUS DIALOGUE

Sadr’s latest visit to Riyadh was the second since 2006, when he met with the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. With Riyadh’s latest invitation, it turned out that Saudi leaders have resorted to dealing with Baghdad in order to either change the political scene in Iraq or to ask Sadr to use his connections and channels of dialogue with Iran to melt the ice between Riyadh and Tehran. Riyadh is seeking to have a stable Saudi Arabia without any external interference from Iran, and it also wants Iraq to be back to its Arab track, away from Iranian influence. Once the seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections are secured by Shia and Sunni moderates or those pro-Saudi Arabia, the war game with Iran will change in favor of Riyadh.

The Saudi government has also extended invitations to other Iraqi Shia leaders, who have not yet made a decision whether or not to visit Riyadh. Iraqi politicians close to these leaders believe that Mohammad bin Salman aims to improve his image among the Shias in the country by inviting the clerics from Iraq to mediate between him and Iran, as Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is known for its dissent against the Saud rulers.

The invitation has come after Sadr’s April statement calling on Iran’s ally, President Assad, to step down to avoid further bloodshed in the Syrian conflict. Sadr has also avoided using any hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Arab states. In May, he urged Tehran and Riyadh to start a “serious dialogue to bridge their difference and gaps for regional stability.” He also called on the two to “care for their peoples — regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity — and engage in serious dialogue with a view to restoring regional peace and security.”

Regardless of the outcome of visit, the most important is that it came at a critical moment and would be an inspiration for further sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq after the defeat of Daesh (Islamic State) in Mosul. Once the war against terrorism is over in Iraq and Syria, it could pave the way for a potential war between sects in Iraq supported by regional powers, as some countries in the Middle East have started to gain power shortly after the demise of Iraq. Once issues of terrorism are resolved, this might mean that the Iraqis could return to wielding control over neighboring countries, politically and militarily. Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Article published in Fair Observer

Photo Credit: thomas koch / Shutterstock.com

Without a hint that a GCC-Qatar rift tearing apart the fabric of the regional stability and cooperation resolution is anywhere in sight, ill and aged Saudi king Salman via a royal decree, Wednesday morning declares his 31-year-old son, Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) a new crown prince. Naming of the young crown prince along with a number of other young appointees, completes important leadership shift to a new generation in a country with more than half of population under the age of 25, and a desperate need for social, political and economic reform.

In parallel, the former crown prince, 57-year-old King’s nephew, Mohamed bin Nayef was stripped of all official functions, including the interior minister post where he was in charge of the country’s security and the anti-terrorism efforts.

Although the international media has presented the event as breaking news, currently occupying the media space across the globe, informed sources in Washington and Riyadh say the move was expected, adding that more change is on the way at the top of the Saudi government.

Another important event featuring Saudi royals escaped public attention, due to media occupation with the Riyadh Summit outcomes, the ongoing Saudi-led Qatar crisis, and lastly the new crown prince appointment, and the expectations of the economic and political changes his ascent to the first successor to the Saudi throne would bring to the country, region and globally. The missed event is a brief yet hugely significant Saudi future King’s visit to Russia, China, Japan, France, the UK and the US in the past few months meant to initiate a new phase of the soon-to-be Saudi King’s relationships with these countries, all UNSC members, with the exception of Japan.

During Russian visit last month Bin Salman is believed to have sought Russian support after successfully gaining American backing in terms of his economic and political pursuits in the region ― namely the GCC Iranian- Qatari standoff, and the anti-terrorism efforts in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. In Moscow the just appointed Saudi crown prince was expected to cement several significant agreements with the Russian president, but the visit fell short of expectations, followed soon after with the breakout of Qatar crisis.

There are speculations that Saudis asked Russians to cease their support for Iran, and the Syrian government, but Russians did not warm up to the idea, unlike the Americans, so the visit was abruptly cut short.  Such a visit at the beginning of Muslim Holy month of Ramadan last month, on the heels of the Riyadh Summit where Saudis sought to prove to the American president Trump their de facto leadership of the Muslim Sunni world.

As for Mohamed bin Salman, his power and influence both within the Saudi royal family and across the Atlantic has grown significantly in the past few years. As a defense minister, Mohamed bin Salman spearheaded the war on Yemen, and is the chief ideologist of the GCC anti-Qatari campaign.

The young, tremendously ambitious crown prince is also credited with the recent mega-billion arms deal concluded with US president Trump during Riyadh Summit, and the securing of American support for the Sunni collation against Iran.

Bin Salman is also the chief proponent of the ambitious economic reform plan Vision 2030, launched in 2016 with the aim of diversifying and modernizing country’s oil dependent economy.

According to sources close to Israeli military intelligence, the new crown prince has strong links with the Israeli top military, intelligence and political brass and as such plays a key role in US president’s plan for building friendly relations among Arabs and Israel. This link to Israel was made evident through the rekindled crisis with Qatar, when some important figures in the Israeli leadership have joined Saudi condemnation of Qatar and its support for ‘funding and supporting terrorism’ and the Saudi-Israeli common arch-enemy – Iran.

Bin Salman is also known for his mentee relationship with the de facto ruler of the UAE, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed. Both UAE and Saudis seek to curb Iranian and Qatari influence in the region. While the conflict with Iran and Qatar, for most part is presented as the political and ideological in nature ― the two being accused of fomenting and abating extremism and terrorism in the region and beyond ― that storyline is only part of the truth.

It is noteworthy mentioning that Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field and both together and individually represent political and economic rivals to the Saudi regional leadership role. Firstly, Iran is considered key political rival to the Saudi regional dominance, both due to its influence among the region’s Shia Muslims and its growing importance as the energy supplier.

Secondly, Qatar, although insignificant in terms of size of its territory is important as the home to the largest US military base in the region, as well as the key regional and global exporter of the natural gas. Moreover, some of the Qatar’s financial institutions, such as its national bank, are the wealthiest in the region, thus a direct threat to the cash strapped Saudi economy staggering under the weight of protracted low-oil price crisis, augmented by the completely misguided and unwinnable war in Yemen.

Add to the combustible mix a massive amount of money ― which according to some estimates is likely to surpass a trillion dollars ― just poured out of the country’s thinning reserves into the American struggling economy ―  Qatar’s cash reserves seem like a perfect gift to the ‘aggressive and ambitious’ Saudi crown prince.

Quite unexpected, amid the unprecedented diplomatic rift between the two countries, is the congratulatory cable sent by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim to Mohamed Bin Salman upon his high appointment, viewed by some politicians and analysts as an icebreaking attempt to restart soured relations between KSA and Qatar and to open a new page of bilateral relations based on mutual respect rather than on dictatorship of agendas or preset doctrines.

Two big questions now lingering on many analysts’ minds are whether the aging Saudi king will soon step down and hand the mantle to the young son, and whether the son would use the just acquired US weapons and the Sunni support to carry out a blitzkriegon the small, annoying brotherly Arab nation, or choose a path of peace and reconciliation.

In both cases, young crown prince – soon to be king will be facing two grave dangers – both to his own and the country’s future – one internal and the other external.

Will he be able to consolidate the internal power soon enough to ensure his ambitious reform policy is carried out and the country’s economy put back on the path of growth to quell the likely internal dissent?

Will he be able to curb his own inflamed passions and stop short of another disastrous war campaign, this time against a very different enemy, be it either Qatar or Iran?

Photo credit: SPA

Following the Pentagon’s June 14, 2017 statement on a military deal regarding a squadron of 35 F-15 jets delivery to Doha, expectations are ramping up for a cluster of tranquility in the Gulf diplomatic mess which could have paved the way for a military confrontation between four countries against Qatar, as they blame Doha for funding and supporting terrorism in the region.

The total amount of the deal is not just US$ 12 billion – the price of the announced 36 jets, as additional 36 jets are to be agreed upon later on – making the deal worth more than US$24 billion.

Jets manufacturer Boeing in a statement on its website said: “This is a very important deal for preserving the production of this sort of planes and creating 60,000 job opportunities in 42 American states.” This means that the money acquired through the Qatar deal helps Americans proceed with their business as the production of the jets was at risk due to lack of demand.

The American president has fuelled the threats against Doha by his strongly-worded warning, where he accused Qatar of being a “funder of terrorism… at a very high level,” calling on Qatari government to “stop immediately supporting terrorism”.

Shortly after the deal was closed, the President Trump’s tweets of a few days earlier in which he said that “Qatar has a history of backing terrorism at a very high level, and must be punished” as well as other in which he insisted that “the isolation of Qatar is the beginning of the end for terrorism”, the tweets have completely disappeared from his Twitter account. Moreover, they were succeeded by other statements praising Qatar as a strong US ally, while stressing that the warplanes deal represents a big step towards ‘consolidating’ strategic and security cooperation between the two countries.

Earlier, US president Trump has expressed Washington’s support for Bahraini, Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati anti-Qatar coalition. This has been made clear during recent White House press conference when he announced that along with “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people”, he decided [that] “the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding”.

The already complex Gulf crisis was further complicated with the subsequent US fighter jets deal with Qatar and the ensuing joint US-Qatari military exercise that have together sent counter-signals to the four-state alliance, effectively contradicting the US Secretary of State’s conciliatory request delivered in a calming tone to the countries directly involved in the rift.

Though the American Secretary of State is preparing a meeting for the Saudi, Qatari and Emirati officials in Washington, Trump seemed angry with the Qatari officials, mainly the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim, for turning down an invitation to visit the US, under suspicion that the invitation was a trap similar to the one his grandfather fell into, when while on a visit in Egypt and the UAE, his son Hamad carried a coup that dethroned him.

Was then the American Qatari multi-billion jet deal a placebo or a relaxant to the belligerency against Doha from its neighbors?

As the deal is still to be considered by the Americans and their officers since the jets won’t be instantly handed over to Qatar, the deal is said to be absorption of the American anger as the US has about 10,000 troops in Al Udaid base in Doha, which would act as a springboard spearheading any coup schemata.

With the UAE ambassador to Washington statements that there would be no military intervention in Doha, this has double meaning from diplomatic and political viewpoints as history has proved it a long time ago. When diplomats speak about something, the opposite takes place.

It was evident from the outset of this crisis that it would get increasingly serious amidst expectations for further escalation, especially after a number of GCC officials started paying visits to the UK and Russia. The latter being under radar to gauge whether Russia would side with the four-states’ alliance or Doha, due to the huge economic benefits it would gain through yet unannounced agreements with Qatar.

It is speculated that Russia is considering taking control over the world natural gas industry. Once Russia wins over Qatar, as it has already done with Iran, more than 80 per cent of world gas production would be at its disposal. Was this recent rapprochement between Moscow and Doha the real reason for the uproar between Doha and its Arab brethren rather than ‘funding and supporting terrorism’? Will this crisis set the Middle East region partially or wholly ablaze?

The Qataris are now playing politics, as far as the F-15 deal is concerned. The deal has helped the American administration secure an additional US$ 12 billion injection into its military industry. It remains to be seen whether it will help Doha to disentangle itself from the brotherly ambush.

These are all chess pieces moved around adeptly by the superpowers, at the suitable time, especially after the 55 Arab and Islamic states alliance meet up in Riyadh Summit last month. As to who will make the check mate move to end the game is anybody’s guess at this point.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/06/the-future-of-the-gcc-ignited-brouhaha-in-the-region-between-the-us-and-russia/

Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN /Getty Images

Few days ago Russian president Putin stated Russia’s readiness to supply Turkey with advanced S-400 air defense systems. Turkey’s spat with the EU and growing discord with the NATO may be reason behind Turkey’s demand for Russian weapons. For its Arab neighbors the key question is whether this move is aimed against the newly proposed ‘Arab NATO’ or just a Turkish self-defense response following Washington’s arming of Syrian Kurds.

Erdogan may fear meeting the fate of his neighbors in Iraq and Libya, both former US allies, and preparing for the plan B ― turning eastward.

A number of factors, including its growing alliance with Russia and Iran, may have forced Turkey to look to boost its defenses independent from its traditional Western, NATO allies. Diplomatic spat with Germany over refugee deal, strained military relations over Incirlik base, last year’s failed coup, recent American arming of the Syrian Kurds ― all are seen by Turkey as Western moves against its sovereignty. Disliked as he is in the West, with current set of circumstances surrounding his country, Turkish president is wise to strengthen ties with Russia, a country with which the country shares borders and many interests, and most importantly, a reliable ally as witness in Syria and Iran. This is especially important considering that despite Turkey’s being an extremely important Western ally, Erdogan himself is considered a political persona non grata in the US ― the fact that only pushes him further into Russian arms.

While some Arabs may consider the move as targeting the recently announced ‘Arab NATO’, the move actually has different aim. The Arab NATO for now exists only on the paper, and even on the paper not all its signatories are in agreement on all of its stated goals. Moreover, the actual formation timeline is questionable and depends on the pace that Trump administration and Pentagon would take to deliver the weapons they have just sold to the Saudis, and the internal dynamics of the alliance in the making, and its individual members that have widely different military capabilities. As the NATO itself seems to be in disarray, the formation of its Arab equivalent is even more quizzical ― especially as a Trump project.

Erdogan is buying Russian S-400 because he fears that should the war in Syria and Iraq escalate, and the US pushes for the Kurdish state, Turkey itself would be subject to territorial loss. The shifting alliances and abandoning of allies is not a novelty in the American foreign policy, on the contrary ― it is something of a rule rather than the exception, and Erdogan seems to have grasped the possibility of this scenario being replayed with him at the helm of Turkey, and is trying to avoid ill fate of his neighbors.

At this stage Turkish president probably fears the destiny of Iraq’s long time ruler Saddam Hussein whom America first supported against Iran, then labeled dictator and finally deposed in the most gruesome way.

Erdogan has been already widely described in the Western media as a villain and a dictator. There was an attempted military coup last year, which he believes was directed (and likely aided) by the US. From this vantage point, Erdogan is justifiably cautious.

Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Turkey’s Patriotic Party (Vatan), believes that the Erdogan “got caught on the hook” by Washington.

In an interview with Russian Sputnik Turkey, he said “An attempt to divide Syria or Iraq would mean an attempt to divide Turkey. Moreover, this is also an attack aimed to shatter Erdogan’s power. Washington’s tactic is to isolate Erdogan in the international arena”. The only way for Turkey to “avoid a territorial division” is to “develop cooperation with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran,” he believes.

The pressing question then is, if Turkey is seriously reconsidering its alliance with the West and turning towards Russia and Iran led regional block, what is the future of NATO Incirlik base? What role would Turkish base in Qatar play? What with the US base in Qatar, should Qatar too change priorities and form alliances with Russia and Iran?

Amidst a serious and deepening rift between GCC countries and Qatar, Turkey’s key ally in the Gulf, there’s a possibility that the announced purchase of Russian systems might end up in the Gulf peninsula nation should the US decide to move its base, and Turkey decides to fill the void, as it already has a military base in the country.

International isolation and campaign of demonizing both Turkey and Qatar seem to have counter-effects. Instead of pushing them apart this strategy is pushing two once major Western allies firmly and inevitably into the Russian embrace.

Trump’s truly big (arms) deal with the Saudis has so far only managed to divide the Arab Gulf states. The security the deal promised to deliver seems further now than ever. Was it a genuine mistake by the inexperienced Trump administration, lack of strategic forethought or something more sinister, and who are the real villains in the Middle East?

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/06/russia-ready-to-supply-turkey-with-s-400-but-why-does-turkey-need-it/

Photo credit AFP

By Maria Dubovikova and Shehab Al Makahleh

After shuttle visit of some officials from Syria and of Jordan to a number of capitals along with meetings in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Rejeb Erdogan in the aftermath of a tripartite meeting of ministers of defense of Syria, Russia and Iran in Moscow early April, 2017, the prospects to establish safe zones under the supervision of three guarantors of a truce in Syria - Russia, Turkey and Iran are at stake as chances of success are in the offing to cease the 6 year long war in the country, which incurred a death toll of 400,000 and displacement of more than 11 million people.

Some regard that the agreement, signed by the representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the city of Astana which provides for the establishment of areas of "easing the escalation" in Syria in implementation of a plan presented by President Vladimir Putin after a phone call with American President Donald Trump to restore Geneva roadmap to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis, would be fruitful if the concerned parties are committed and if the memorandum is applied literally. This would be successful to uncover those who are against reaching a real and true peace truce in the country which are Daesh and Al Nusra or the so-called Al Sham Liberation Organization (Ahrar Al Sham).

After the approval of the Astana memorandum to set up four 'security areas' or what is geopolitically known as safe and buffer zones - in Syria, the implementation depends on the areas that will be included as per the map which will be announced by June 4.

The memorandum stipulates that there should be four safe zones with check points and points of observations near the borders of low-tension zones or buffer zones which are labelled as ''de-escalation zones''.

Though the opposition members have not approved the document and walked out of the meeting, the three guarantors, mainly Turkey which has very close ties with both Daesh and Nusra fighters will help set up these zones in Syria to pave the way to restore peace and stability before the major air-strikes on Daesh in Eastern parts of Syria and Western parts of Iraq start this summer at a comprehensive level.

The memorandum stipulates that there should be four safe zones with check points and points of observations near the borders of low-tension zones or buffer zones which are labelled as ''de-escalation zones''.

The most important point in this document is the literal text, which stipulates that "the three guarantors of this agreement must assist the Syrian government forces and the armed opposition in organizing and supporting the armed forces and their affiliates, as well as forming a working group within five days to establish the safe areas."This paragraph means that the "moderate" armed factions are to join the Syrian armed forces efforts in combatting and fighting Daesh and Ahrar Al Sham. This is a major political and military makeover in the Syrian crisis, which gives credit to the Syrian regime.

Some Jordanian sources believe that the Astana memorandum provides for a halt to hostilities between the military opposition and Syrian armed forces in these 'safe zones' where ceasefire will be effective as of May 6, 2017. The memorandum is valid for six months, extendable for another six months.
The four 'safe zones' encompass province of Idlib and some parts of Lattakia, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, Reef Damascus or the so-called al Ghuta or Damascus Vicinity, Dera’a and Quneitra by the borders with Jordan. The inclusion of Dera’a and Quneitra was the main one as it is of great concern to both Jordan and Israel due to the intensive presence of terrorist fighters in these two areas along with Hizbollah and Iranian forces.
The signs of the success of this memorandum were uttered by UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura who called the memorandum ''important, promising and positive, a step in the right direction to deescalate the conflict''. The chances of success of the agreement are reasonable because alternative options are disastrous, and the Syrian people are looking forward for a sigh of relief and a breakthrough for their conflict after six years of killing and destruction. However, there are chances to "sabotage" the agreement through a continuum of arming and funding these terrorist groups.

Responding to Trump’s cruise missiles attack on Syrian Shayrat airbase, the tripartite meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria was held today in Moscow. The meeting ended with a resounding ‘no’ to the Washington’s ‘Great Middle East Project’, and with equally resounding confirmation of already established policy of common fight against the plight of terrorism.

A week ago Trump made a sudden change in his proclaimed policy of de-escalation and international cooperation, and during a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase near Homs, aiming to force Iran and Russia to cease supporting Syrian government.

The trilateral meeting of Lavrov, Zarif and Muallem in Moscow today proved Trump, his enemies and his foes wrong about Russian and Iranian responses to the strike. The meeting confirmed that there is no basis for rumors that Russia would abandon either of its two allies in Syria. Moreover, the three parties confirmed that Western media and political establishment are so deeply entangled in their own narratives that they are unable to see the reality.

The reality is that the legitimate Syrian Army under the command of the Syrian government led by its president Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, is winning the war against various militant groups ― most of which are internationally designated terrorist groups. The strike has clearly not accomplished what it was made to look like. It did not stop or deter Russian or Syrian armed forces, but has only strengthened their resolve to obliterate the terrorists.

Moreover, the strike was conducted based on the information about a ‘chemical attack’ that the US military and intelligence, supposedly, have collected from online sources. The key information sources being al-Qaeda linked ‘rebels’, with dubious tweets and other social media posts that have appeared before the strike was reported to have happened―leading many analysts to conclude that the attack was another ‘false flag’ alike the Iraqi war WMD fabrication.

This was reiterated by Russian and Syrian officials, including yesterday’s interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Without verifying the data, without a proper, internationally approved investigation of the alleged attack, and moreover, without a UNSC approval – US once more unilaterally attacked a sovereign country, something that the world has witnessed few times before. Flagrant breach of the international law by the United States went unsanctioned again.

The message sent from the meeting back to the US and its allies is that three parties agree the US strike was "an act of aggression, a flagrant violation of the principles of international law and the UN Charter." The three top diplomats reiterated insistence on “the strict fulfillment by all without exception of those obligations set forth in the UN Security Council resolution, including full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic".

With the airbase strike Trump team hoped to send a warning message to Syrian president and his allies Russia and Iran that the US still plays a role in the Middle East. The tripartite meeting shows that the message has not accomplished the hoped for result in that target audience.

The offensive against terrorist and militant groups has only intensified in Syria, and at this juncture seems unlike to abate. The only thing that could change the balance of power on the ground in Syria would be another surprise from the American side. The rumors have it that tens of thousands of ground troops are being prepared to deploy in Syria. Should that happen things will get extremely messy and spillover effects will be felt in a number of countries in the region, as well as Europe.

However, to show that they mean business, Russians have intensified their diplomatic efforts on other fronts as well. Tomorrow Moscow is hosting another key figure for the resolution of the Syrian crisis, a Qatari foreign minister Mohammed al Thani. Not less important was the BRICS meeting in India’s Visakhapatnam, on April 12 – where special envoys for the Middle East have issued a similar communiqué strongly supporting sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.

Not to forget two other key players in the Syrian game of war – Turkey and Saudi Arabia, there is action on those fronts as well. Today, Russian and Turkish presidents have both called for an objective international investigation into the use of the chemical weapons in Khan Sheihoun in Syria, that served as a pretext for the US cruise missile attack. The unreliable one remains Turkish president who keeps switching sides. Following the alleged attack Turkey ‘confirmed’ the use chemical weapons and after the US strike on Syria offered its military support for further actions against its neighbor.

High level meeting headed by the Chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko in which Russia reportedly counts on Saudi support, will be held in Riyadh from 15 to 17 April, during which the fight against terrorism will be discussed. The meeting follows early April discussions between the Saudi King and the Russian president on the importance of bolstering international joint efforts in the fight against terrorism.

Eager to unlock the door to US-Arab cooperation on tackling regional issues following decades of disappointment with Washington’s lack of understanding of their concerns, three Arab leaders are engaging US President Donald Trump’s new administration over the next month.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met Trump at the White House on April 3; Jordan’s King Abdullah II will be in Washington on April 5; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to follow later this month or in May. In their meetings, these leaders hope to discuss a number of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the civil war in Libya, and the threat posed by global terrorist organizations. 

In their meeting on April 3, Trump and Sisi discussed holding an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in the United States in June and renewing joint military exercises, which former US President Barack Obama halted in response to the Egyptian military government's bloody crackdown on protesters in 2013. The Egyptian leader, a former chief of the armed forces, sought logistical support from the United States for the Egyptian army in its fight against terrorism in the Sinai. Sisi would like Trump to focus more on ending the six-year-old civil war in Egypt's western neighbor—Libya. The two leaders also discussed regional issues, including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. 

Abdullah, who hosted the Arab League Summit in Amman on March 29, is eager to solve a number of regional conflicts. Jordan is an important player in US-led military campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Abdullah will discuss with Trump the position of Arab leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis—at the summit in Amman Arab leaders reiterated their support for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and opposed the construction of more settlements.

Jordan has playedan active role in Arab efforts to end the stalemate in talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The king himself has advocated for Palestinian national aspirations. On his previous visit to Washington in February, Abdullah sought to persuade the new US administration to reverse itsrhetoric about moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to call for a freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank. In his meeting with Trump, Abdullah will likely reiterate Arab support fora two-state solution. Thus, this time, the royal visit aims to make Trump more sympathetic toward the Arab perspective on the Palestinian issue.

On his visit to Washington, Abbas is expected to ask Trump to seriously consider a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and will reiterate the Arab position that a two-state solution is impossible without East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. In his meeting with Trump, Abbas will likely argue that if there is no Palestinian state, no one in the Middle East, including Israelis, will enjoy the benefits of peace. Denying the Palestinians their right to statehood will only lead to a rise in the level of terrorism and extremism.

The Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement that on the sidelines of last month’s Arab League Summit, Abbas, Abdullah, and Sisi coordinated their positions on a number of regional issues and decided what they would discuss when they visit the White House.

These visits to Washington come at time when the greater Middle East is beset by numerous wars and political crises. Restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks based on the Arab Peace Initiative adopted at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002, which calls for “land for peace,” is a high priority for the Egyptian and Jordanian governments, as well as the Palestinian people. 

The Oslo Accords initiated a period of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, delayed permanent status talks on Jerusalem, and paved the way for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Two decades later, however, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and there is still no sovereign and independent Palestinian state. Obama—who believed that a multilateral effort, and not a single power, would be able to help reach a final settlement—was unable to resolve the crisis.

The Arab leaders want international powers to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis because they believe that if a peace agreement is reached it will resonate positively throughout the region and the world.

One positive outcome of the Amman summit was that it put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, overlooked for many years due to other conflicts and threats of extremism in the Middle East, back in the spotlight. In their final statement, Arab League Secretary General Ahmad Aboul Gheit reaffirmed a “commitment to the two-state solution and to the right of the State of Palestine to restore its sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

Will the Trump administration ask Israelis and Palestinians to prepare for talks in the near future? Will Jordan be in charge of liaising between regional actors and the United States in coordination with the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League? Will the forty-fifth US president become more sympathetic to Egypt’s agendas in Libya and in the Sinai? The answers to these questions remain to be seen.

What is known is that Abdullah, Sisi, and Abbas will do their best to convince Trump to begin taking more seriouslytheir ideas to resolve crises that threaten the security of Americans and Arabs alike.

For decades, Arabs have been justifiably disappointed with Washington’s stance on issues in the Middle East. The Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinianleaders are hoping to convince Trump to shift course and take Arab interests and concerns into account more than his predecessor did. If Washington fails to help the Arab world resolve its conflicts, there will be tectonic shifts toward radicalism, endangering governments in the region and opening the gate to even more chaos.

Initially published by Atlantic Council: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/arab-leaders-try-to-get-trump-s-attention 
Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates. IMESClub Member. 

Arab countries led by Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been pushing the Americans and the European Union to prepare for a framework agreement between the Palestine National Authority (PNA) and Israel based on a two-state solution, which ensures a Palestinian state in the areas occupied by Israel in 1967.

Though the laws of gravity are not in favor of Arab countries; yet, the endeavors of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia to solve the Arab Israeli conflict seem a preventive measure to avert any negative and destructive consequences that would arise if the stalemate between Palestinians and Israelis continue further with blurry hazy image.

Following the visits of King Abdullah II of Jordan and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to Washington, Americans have planned to initiate a peace conference between Arab states and Israel to discuss the issue of stalemating talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis which have led to deadlock to their talks.

Arabs believe that a two-state solution is the cornerstone to end the conflict in the Middle East, and that Americans should play a key role to help both the Palestinians and the Israelis reach an agreement that paves the way to establish a Palestinian state in pursuance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Any proposal to create one state where both nations live happily is refused by Arab countries and their leaderships and for sure by Palestinians as this means the Palestinians abroad will not be able to return to their country. This would be another impediment for future cooperation between Israel and Arab countries at trade and economic levels. All Middle Eastern countries are vulnerable to social unrest and extremism if the main reason for the conflict is not addressed and unresolved as further regional hostility to Israel would intensify and lead to a new type of skirmishes with new war players.

The Arab Summit in Jordan will highlight this issue and the committees concerned will be discussing it thoroughly in order to ink an accord between the PNA and Israel on the two-state paradigm with American and Russian direct mediation and honest brokerage. No super power is allowed to distance itself from this mission as the internal situation in Middle Eastern countries is exacerbating due to economic and social pressures which would lead to implosion in a number of states that would destabilize the whole region and lead to eccentric comprehensive war with new fighting techniques leading to street wars that no army would be able to stand.

The meetings of American President Donald Trump with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas aim to probe into means to launch a new pace conference to discuss further details, taking the concerns of both Netanyahu and Abbas into consideration.

However, the nonchalant comments and statements by American officials regarding the one-state or two-state solution complicated matters as both Palestinian and Israeli leaders cannot totally control their people and the situation if it aggravates. The one –state solution is rejected by a majority of Israelis as per a survey conducted in Israeli last February which showed that 55 per cent of Israelis and 44 per cent of Palestinians support the two-state solution for two people. The years of acrimony and hostility between both nations should come to an end and a new age of Arab-Israeli relationship should start as a new dawn has just started with a new American president who seeks to find Arabs and Israelis in one boat against Iran. Trump is currently working along with his administration on establishing a new paradigm for peacemaking, without abrasively encroaching upon Netanyahu’s views towards Arab Israeli conflict. In other words, any solution should be attuned with Israeli right wing opposition principles.

At present, we are at the threshold of either of a two-state solution or radicalism and wild-eyededness. Thus, the two-state paradigm should not be a fairy tale at Trumpland or a dream in the Palestinian Wonderland. Arab leaders are not more than ever aware that any further escalation in the Palestinian lands would lead to a third Intifada or uprising which will spill over oil on fire to turn the region into an erupt volcano as all Middle Eastern states with no exception are on “hot tin roof”.

The Arab Summit should reiterate that there is no solution to the regional conflicts without a Palestinian polity with its people to have the sole right of self-determination. This can be brokered by the two super powers: Russia and the USA. The sooner to resolve the conflict, the better it will be to foil all radical attempts to recruit more jihadis.

In 2002, Arabs offered their Peace Initiative in Beirut Summit based on full Israeli withdrawal to the borderline before 1967 and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Now, at Amman Summit they can recap this initiative with American support to create the proposed affinity of Sunni Arab countries and Israel to counter the increasing Iranian threats to Arab states.  This alliance would also help stand against extremism and terrorist risks.   

As far as the two-state solution might be unseen at least in the near future due to internal troubles in Israel, the PNA and the USA, the status quo will be last until further notice until an honest mediator or broker takes the initiative to end this dispute which lasted for over 69 years. An honest mediator will be in charge of understanding the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of sovereignty and religion including the holy shrines in East Jerusalem. If there is no cooperation from the UN and from other neighboring states, the issue will amalgamate. If the issue of the holy shrines is left unrequited, radicalism and jihadi threats will be in the offing.

 

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