King Salman's visit to Russia, his first, is a significant and historic event. After the Soviet Union became one of the world’s first powers to recognize Saudi Arabia in 1926, bilateral relations saw both ups and long periods of alienation during the Cold War and from 2011 to 2015.
The first step toward rapprochement was made in September 2003 during the visit of then-Crown Prince Abdullah to Moscow. It was marked by the signing of a number of bilateral agreements. One of the most important was on cooperation in the oil and gas sector. It brought two big Russian companies, Lukoil and Stroytransgaz, to the Saudi market.
Despite all the difficulties of entering a new market, both companies achieved success. Lukoil discovered gas-condensate deposits, and Stroytransgaz completed construction of the Shaybah-Abqaiq oil pipeline, receiving the highest appraisal from its client Saudi Aramco.
The positive development of bilateral relations that followed was halted by the conflict in Syria in 2011, in which our countries took opposing positions. But the arrival to power of King Salman in January 2015, and the meeting of his son Mohammed bin Salman with President Vladimir Putin in May that year, ended the four-year period of no relations.
The achieved deals were perceived as the Kingdom’s positive response to numerous Russian calls to develop economic and investment cooperation despite foreign policy disagreements. During the same meeting in 2015, Putin sent an invitation to King Salman, which he accepted.
But after this visit the dates were shifted several times, probably due to lack of trust and the absence of a favorable environment due to the conflict in Syria. Apparently, there were expectations that one of the parties would make concessions to receive material gains. Nevertheless, thanks to the political will of Putin and King Salman, efforts to find mutual understanding on political and economic issues did not stop.
What made the current visit possible? In the same way as in 2003, the rapprochement is determined by the need to cooperate in the oil sector, on which both countries still greatly depend. Having suffered serious losses during the period of low crude oil prices on the international market, Russia and Saudi Arabia understood that the best way to compete is to cooperate.
After overcoming their differences, both sides reached an agreement on cooperation in 2016 to stabilize the oil market and establish so-called “fair” oil prices that are acceptable to both producers and consumers.
Market stability and acceptable prices are vital to overcoming the economic challenges that the two countries face. Russia has to withstand Western sanctions, while the Kingdom chose the path of reforms to get rid of dependence on oil and to diversify its economy. The strategy of economic, social and cultural transformation is declared in Vision 2030.
Mutual understanding enabled constructive dialogue between the heads of energy institutions, Alexander Novak and Khalid Al-Falikh, who agreed to do “everything possible” to stabilize oil prices. Common ground was also reached by heads of oil giants: Igor Sechin from Rosneft and Amin Naser from Saudi Aramco.

The meeting between King Salman and President Vladimir Putin is destined to provide a new impetus to a multidimensional development of bilateral relations, in the interests of the people of both countries and Middle East stability.

As a result, they managed to reach an unprecedented agreement on cooperation in the markets of Asian counties such as India, Indonesia and others. Experts claim that Russian companies may be invited to realize mega-projects in Saudi Arabia, and that Saudi Aramco may take part in Arctic projects in Russia.
But oil and gas is not the only domain of bilateral cooperation. Vision 2030 creates prospects for foreign companies, and both countries believe that nuclear energy, where Russia is the world’s leader, can become the largest field of cooperation.
Another hi-tech domain is space exploration. Here, the parties can develop an existing partnership, as Russian rockets have already launched several satellites constructed in Saudi Arabia.
Military production offers great prospects in the hi-tech sphere as well. Russia is widely recognized as a producer of the most modern military equipment, and the Kingdom — the world’s biggest weapons importer — has decided to create its own arms production industry with the participation of foreign companies. On Thursday,  Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to buy S-400 air defense systems  and receive “cutting edge technologies” from Russia.
Unlimited opportunities for cooperation can be found in Russian agriculture, mining and processing of minerals — domains that are in line with Vision 2030, and where Russia has vast experience. Wood processing, car and furniture production, civilian infrastructure, medicine, drinking water supplies and many other spheres have potential for cooperation.
Both countries’ institutions and private companies should determine the main directions for cooperation that are starting to open up thanks to Vision 2030, and formalize these directions in a separate document.
It appears that the most important political factor behind King Salman’s visit to Moscow is the interest in a strategic partnership to stabilize the Middle East and Syria in particular, as both Moscow and Riyadh wish to preserve the country’s sovereignty and territorial unity.
The convergence of the Russian and Saudi positions — not only on Syria, but also on Iraq, Yemen and Libya — was recently confirmed by the foreign ministers of both countries. According to UN statistics, Moscow and Riyadh hold similar positions on 90 percent of issues.
Russia’s decisive contribution to the fight against Daesh has perceptibly changed Moscow’s standing in the region, including in Saudi Arabia. Rapprochement with Moscow strengthens the Kingdom’s regional positions, and opens new opportunities of cooperation in order to re-establish stability in the Middle East.
Partnership with Riyadh, Russia’s military might and its good relations with most of the region’s countries can together lead to positive processes. The high-level meeting in Moscow is destined to provide a new impetus to a multidimensional development of bilateral relations, in the interests of the people of both countries, as well as regional and global stability.

Article published in Arab News:

Photo credit: RIA Novosti- Sergey Guneev

Published in Tribune

Article by Maria Al Makahleh Dubovikova and Shehab Al-Makahleh

Russia is finding it difficult to gain a foothold in the Middle East.

At a time when tensions between Moscow and Washington are on the rise, Russia is determined to have a greater say in global affairs, particularly in the tumultuous Middle East. At present, Russia considers itself as a major serious, honest and active player in the region and blames the United States for the chaos unfolding in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to recreate the former Soviet Union in a new form on the world stage, particularly in the Middle East due to its proximity to Russia.

On the other hand, Washington is committed to Gulf states’ security as well as Israel’s stability and full protection from any aggression. Yet Russia has strong relationships with Middle Eastern and North African states that could function as a springboard for future influence. Indeed, Russia has become a magnet for Middle Eastern leaders who seek a new balance of power, as illustrated by the Jordanian and Saudi monarchs’ planned visits to Moscow in October.

The start of Russian intervention in the region dates back to the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with whom Moscow had historically enjoyed warm ties and mutual cooperation. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime happened as a result of non-involvement as Russia refrained from voting against the 2011 United Nations Security Council resolution against Gaddafi. This had been a wake-up call for Russia, driving it to re-engage in the region and to take a stronger stance on Syria.

Today, Russia bets on the end of the Syrian conflict before the year’s end. The Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) that was established by the US and its allies to monitor and train armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the Tribes Army, has finally been shut down. With the return of the Syrian Army to the south of the country, near the crossing point with Jordan, there are mounting signs that the conflict is drawing to a close, especially given that America is no longer backing the opposition, which now finds itself in disarray.

As a result, Moscow is driven to focus more on Libya, where it plans to build a strong presence and establish a base from which to control North Africa. To emphasize Tripoli’s renewed importance, Moscow is giving due concern to the country and its affairs. Indeed, on August 13, the Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow. Because Russia supports both Haftar and the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who along with his government is recognized by the UN, the visit to Moscow appears aimed to broker a peace agreement to end the conflict in Libya, which has become a source of high risk to many countries in North Africa and Southern Europe.

This is the second time Russia received the two Libyan leaders in Moscow in 2017. Such meetings serve as a backdrop for Putin, who seeks to exert more pressure on the West to get more concessions regarding Ukraine and Syria.

Though Moscow wants to establish stable ties with many countries in the Middle East, it is difficult for Russia to find a strong foothold in the region, especially compared to that enjoyed by the US. This is because other players are trying to distract Russia by involving it in conflicts near its borders such as in Georgia and Ukraine. However, the Russian government has been planning, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, to build a presence in the Middle East at the expense of the Americans, the British and the French, benefitting from its impressive arms sales to the region in recent years.

Russia is not only affecting politics in Syria, Iraq and North Africa, but also those in the Arabian Peninsula, such as the crisis between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council members and the war in Yemen. Moscow tries to balance its policy toward Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain with non-interference. On the other hand, Moscow considers Tehran as a key player in the region and a main pillar of its stability. Russians view Iran as being influential in the Gulf, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Thus, this qualifies Russia to play the role of a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran to solve their regional dispute. In 2015, a meeting was held for Arab leaders in Morocco that set the stage for the UAE to align with Moscow, while Saudi Arabia would align with Washington.

In sum, Moscow has started to change the anti-Russian sentiment in the Middle East through its political, economic and media influence by partnerships, economic assistance, military assistance and strategic cooperation. Russia learned from previous lessons in Yemen, Iraq, Algeria and Afghanistan that, in order to be effective, it needs to be symbolically present without being extensively involved in these Middle Eastern affairs, as long as there are representatives or proxies that can help achieve the objectives with fewer harmful repercussions for Moscow.

Article published in Fair Observer: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/russia-role-middle-east-politics-syria-yemen-gulf-latest-news-16531/

Photo Credit: capitanoseye / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune
Friday, 25 August 2017 17:35

Moscow looking beyond Hifter in Libya

The mid-August visit to Moscow by Gen. Khalifa Hifter of the Libyan National Army (LNA) did not stir a lot of interest. It appeared to be just one among numerous visits by international guests to the Russian capital. Several articles on Russian policy in Libya and even a Kommersant interview with Lev Dengov, head of Russia’s Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement and a man who seldom talks to journalists, failed to break through the overall monotony and routine. Arguably the most significant event of the visit was that Hifter was met at the airport by Libya’s ambassador to Russia. Hifter, based in Tobruk, is vying for control of the country against the Tripoli-based so-called unity government, or Government of National Accord (GNA), which the ambassador represents. The standard diplomatic routine of Hifter’s visit has clouded the major question about the aim of his visit earlier this month.

The general said he had traveled to Moscow to focus on lifting the UN-backed international arms embargo, to establish ties and to promote military cooperation. This explanation, albeit interesting, does not appear to be plausible. Moscow has already voiced its view on these issues, and repeatedly affirmed its commitment to international obligations, and is therefore unlikely to change its position. Speaking off the record and on the condition of anonymity, some sources close to senior officials in Hifter’s LNA have said the purpose of the visit was to inform Moscow about matters addressed at the Paris peace talks in July.

Mohamed B. Almontaser, a London-based Libyan political analyst, thinks Hifter’s visit will undermine the peace process. “Hifter feels emboldened by the new wave of high-level contacts with Paris and Moscow, and he will certainly use that to further his sole ambition,” Almontaser said, referring to Hifter's desire to become Libya's version of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “His remarks after both meetings seem to indicate his disagreement with and dislike for [Libyan Prime Minister] Fayez al-Sarraj and his categorical refusal to work under a civilian political leadership,” Almontaser told Al-Monitor.

Almontaser’s sympathies lie with the Tripoli government, but still, his reasoning makes sense, as the Moscow trip allows Hifter to score political points back home. Hifter's attempts to strengthen his position by parading Moscow's support — though such backing has not always been apparent — have been central to the military commander's strategy in the international arena.

In turn, Moscow had its own reasons for inviting the strongman for a visit. The Kremlin is looking to pave a way toward building a solid foundation for further interactions with French President Emmanuel Macron's administration. As Moscow sees things, Macron’s pro-active stance in the Middle East along with his common sense and clear-headedness, which distinguish him from his predecessor, Francois Hollande, suggest a brighter outlook for future relations.

Meanwhile, the Libyan peace process is apparently deadlocked. If this were not the case, Tripoli and Tobruk would have jointly appealed for lifting the arms embargo. Instead, the parties directly or indirectly accuse each other of torpedoing the peace process.

Hifter told France 24, “Sarraj is a good man,” but added, “He cannot implement what he agreed to.” In eastern Libya, which Hifter controls, people often describe Sarraj as a weak politician. They cite his failure to eject the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda from the areas his government controls.

There is, of course, an opposing view. As Almontaser notes, “There are many obstacles to the peace process and even to a dialogue at the moment. The eastern bloc in [the legislature] was and still is strongly opposed to the [Libyan] Political Agreement,” the pact signed in 2015 that created the unity government.

Thus, supporters of one party, are in essence criticizing the other's leader as weak and unable to consolidate power. Even Tripoli’s supporters, however, acknowledge that Libya’s western regions still pose a deadly threat to the peace process.

Almontaser said, “There are also a number of militias in the west of the country — who are afraid of losing their influence and of becoming targeted by the law for their crimes — who are taking a tough stance against any process or reconciliation that does not include them.” As it turns out, far more players would rather see the peace process derailed than move forward.

Another part of this picture that must be considered is the Misrata militias. Despite their absence at the peace talks in Abu Dhabi in May and Paris, the militias remain of crucial significance in the Libyan military and political arenas. Sarraj’s proponents have consented to a key role for the militias in any inter-Libyan dialogue, but Hifter does not welcome it.

The militias’ ties to Moscow are of particular interest, along with the positive assessment Dengov gave them in his Kommersant interview. A lot is riding on how Moscow approaches the militias, according to LNA-allied sources who spoke with Al-Monitor off the record.

An LNA-allied source told Al-Monitor, “Iit depends on who makes contact with Misrata from Moscow. If it’s the Foreign Ministry, it is normal, as [the ministry] usually stands in the middle and opens links with everyone. If it’s the Defense Ministry, or military agencies, it will be not accepted on LNA's side, and it will cause a huge problem. The Misrata forces have recently paid a visit to Qatar to announce their decision to amass their own army. Moreover, they have refused to make an apology to eastern Libya. This is aggravating the situation on the ground.”

Moscow seems cut out for the task of bringing about a rapprochement between Hifter and the Misrata militias. Its diplomatic role in sponsoring an inter-Libyan dialogue could emerge as an indispensable factor for success. Russia could also assist in accomplishing another mission.

Though the scenario seems inconceivable in Libya’s current poorly institutionalized and extremely pluralistic political system, Hifter may well be pursuing presidential ambitions, or at least some people from his inner circle think so.

It is questionable whether Tripoli, the Misrata militias and some of the other players would accept him as head of state. It is not just about the blood already shed, but also about anti-Islamism, which has become the ideological cornerstone of Hifter’s army and scares many (basically moderate) politicians from regions in western Libya.

Meanwhile, the negotiating process could allow the military commander to evolve into a political leader, if he’s able to present a more-or-less clear political platform. It could actually provide the basis for a dialogue with other stakeholders.

Considering all this, it appears Moscow’s support could positively contribute to the Libyan political process.

Article published in Al-Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-moscow-strategy-libya-hifter-national-army-policy.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Published in Tribune

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/

 

Published in Tribune
Friday, 18 August 2017 00:15

Russia re-examines relationship with Iran

As the Islamic State (IS) has been in steady retreat, Iran and Russia are facing real difficulties sustaining their partnership. Each took advantage of the fight against IS to further its military campaign in Syria.

 
Both sides avoid discussing their differences, keeping their critics from making the most of the situation, but both fail to completely conceal the friction. In 2016, Moscow and Tehran jointly shielded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime from the opposition and sought to preserve the remaining state institutions. In an attempt to freeze the six-year-long civil war, Russia is currently opting for agreements beyond the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan — that is, behind Iran’s back. Examples include the de-escalation zone in southwest Syria that Russia negotiated with the United States in Amman, Jordan, as well as de-escalation zones in eastern Ghouta and northern Homs, both of which were negotiated in Cairo.

In July, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg to establish a cease-fire in southwestern Syria, in the Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda provinces, which virtually annulled the terms established at Astana of creating a southern de-escalation zone. The latter included Suwayda rather than Daraa and Quneitra. According to some sources, the US-Russia deal demands that pro-Iranian forces pull back at least 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Israeli-Jordanian border, with Russia’s military police deployed on the ground. In the region, Moscow seeks to garner the support of the local population, even seeking to form loyal militias.

The separate agreement signed in Cairo between Russia and Islamist opposition faction Jaish al-Islam made it possible for Russian troops to run checkpoints in eastern Ghouta — an interesting development given that Turkey had officially stated in June that Russia and Iran would deploy forces to the Damascus area to monitor the cease-fire. It is hard to discern whether Russia has unilaterally revised the scenario developed by the Moscow, Tehran and Ankara working groups. However, a revision is definitely implied by Russia’s efforts to gain control of the situation in the Damascus region, where Assad’s forces and Iran-backed militias have tried different strategies to recapture opposition-held territories.

To be clear, conceptually, the zones were negotiated in Astana with Russia, Iran and Turkey as the main mediators. However, subsequent talks about the zones’ details have often altered or annulled those agreements.

Such steps raise Tehran’s fears that informal negotiating platforms are gradually replacing the Astana process. Therefore, Syria and Iran have been trying to reset at the very least the Cairo agreement inked beyond the Astana format. For instance, the Syrian Arab Army's elite 42nd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division has been deployed to the Jobar region, which Russia had included in the de-escalation zone. Moreover, both Damascus and Tehran are compelling Faylaq al-Rahman to leave the area along with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Presumably, Syria and Iran aim to exclude Faylaq al-Rahman’s several thousand militiamen from the above-mentioned deal, likening them to al-Qaeda-affiliated HTS extremists and undermining the opposition’s military capabilities in eastern Ghouta.

Since the start of the political and diplomatic conflict over Syria’s future, the Russian-Iranian partnership has been deteriorating into a rivalry, with Tehran impeding the creation of conditions for conflict resolution. At the same time, Moscow’s strategy directly depends on the permanent presence of numerous pro-Iranian forces controlling different parts of the front line.

Since Russia launched military operations in Syria in 2015, marking its “comeback” in the Middle East, Moscow has regarded Iran as a reliable partner. However, the Russian leadership, whether deliberately or not, has found counterbalances to distance itself from Shiite-led Iran. An Israeli-Russian accord allowing the Israeli air force considerable latitude in targeting Hezbollah in Syria emerged as the first counterbalance, which undoubtedly raised Tehran’s ire. The second counterbalance was probably Moscow's attempt to cultivate relations with the Gulf’s Arab monarchies through a set of stick-and-carrot policies as it sought to take advantage of the indecisiveness of the administration of former US President Barack Obama, especially during the lame-duck period. The third counterbalance emerged when Trump made his way to the White House and declared his willingness to restrain Iran and his commitment to backing the allied Sunni monarchies.

Hence, Russia should preserve and maintain communication channels with the United States on Syria. Unlike the earlier period, when the interaction aimed to ensure Russian troops' security, today’s task is to constrain Damascus’ and Tehran’s desire for reprisals and find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Russia has taken several steps toward decreasing Iran’s influence: deploying military police in eastern Aleppo, establishing the de-escalation zone, and supplying weapons and equipment to prop up forces and increase the effectiveness of the 5th Assault Corps under Russian Lt. Gen. Sergey Sevryukov.

A Russian military intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that since eastern Aleppo was recaptured by Assad's troops, Russia and Iran have been fiercely vying for regional dominance.

“Prior to the military operation, Moscow tried to establish relations with local elders through the mediation of Russian officers, natives of the North Caucasus region. But the ties were later severed, and as a result, Russian bombs rained down on eastern Aleppo. Then these contacts had to be re-established. At present, the work that Russian officers from the North Caucasus have done in east Aleppo has been considered fruitful, as it allows at least limiting Iranian regional influence.”

Since eastern Aleppo was seized, Russia has definitely increased its sway over the region. Russia turned the tide of war and helped the regime survive. However, over the war years, Tehran has gained momentum and built up a multi-layer presence in Syria that includes local Shiite militants.

These groups include Syrian units, offshoots of the Lebanese National Ideological Resistance in Syria and Syrian Islamic Resistance groups (sometimes called Iraqi Hezbollah), the units of the Local Defense Forces in Aleppo and the National Defense Forces, comprising Alawites, Sunnis and other Syrians backed by Iranian military advisers and partially or fully funded by Iran. New Iranian cultural centers and Shiite propaganda among the locals are Tehran’s soft-power instruments. This strategy heightens ethnic and sectarian tensions in the region, which helps spread IS and HTS propaganda.

The rise of HTS in rebel-controlled Idlib province and the use of delaying tactics in the negotiations play into the hands of Damascus and Tehran, which need a protracted military campaign to regain losses. They blame opposition groups for their ostensible loyalty to al-Qaeda. The Syrian government’s offensive to retake Idlib is a negative scenario for Russia and Turkey. Rebel forces will apparently rally to fight the common enemy. New coalitions will emerge among the moderate and radical opposition. Ultimately, the process will strengthen al-Qaeda's position in Syria and trigger a new humanitarian and refugee crisis. Obviously, under such circumstances, the advancing troops will also suffer heavy casualties. That's why Damascus and Iran will try to drag Russia into this new round of war.

Should the situation escalate, the Kremlin would tolerate the deployment of Turkish troops.

If the United States is genuinely intent on destroying the Iranian corridor — a piece of land carved through Syria that ultimately links Tehran through Iraq with the Mediterranean coast — Moscow and Washington will probably have something to talk about, albeit unofficially.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-relationship-iran-syria-military-situation-moscow.html

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 15 August 2017 14:15

De-escalation zones to end the war in Syria

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

The future of Syria is now being decided in Amman after the withdrawal of Syrian armed opposition troops from neighborhoods near the Jordanian-Syrian border, leaving the crossing point of Naseeb under the control of the Syria Arab Army (SAA). The fate of Syria, and importantly the future of its president, will heavily influence future developments in the polarized region as Middle Eastern states which are divided over the civil wars in Libya and the Qatar crisis are also opposing stakeholders in the Damascus regime’s fate.

An announcement of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria came on June 30, 2017, paving the way for another ceasefire in northern Homs, forcing the armed opposition to move to Idlib. Due to the benefits for both the government and the opposition from the truce, which has been a relief both parties, the regime, its enemies, along with the Russians and Americans, are also considering expanding the de-escalation zones to include eastern Ghouta (Reef Damascus) and the Southeast area by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders following Daesh’s fall in Deir Ezzor.

The expansion of the de-escalation zone in eastern Ghouta is aimed at avoiding clashes between the SAA, its allies, and the US-supported opposition on the ground in that area. The Russians and Americans also coordinating in the area of Deir Ezzor to prevent the Kurds from retaking the lands after the demise of Daesh because Turkey – a major US ally in the Middle East region – is not willing to see a Kurdish state along its southern border. The SAArecaptured the last major stronghold of Daesh on the way to Deir Ezzor. This is the caliphate’s last important stronghold in the central Syria.

Unlike the Russians, the Americans are not in a rush to end the conflict in Syria and they just seek to avoid any armed conflict near the country’s borders with Jordan and Israel. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syrian opposition, is concerned about the future of Syria and its president. This is clear in the statement issued by Saudi ministry of foreign affairs, which read that Riyadh, still supported an international agreement on the future of Syria and Assad should have no role in any transition to bring the war there to an end. The statement reveals that the position of the kingdom on the Syrian crisis is firm, and it is based on the Geneva 1 Communiqué and on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 which stipulates forming a transitional body that will run the country. Thus, Saudi Arabia does not want Syria to be another Arab country where Iran consolidates its influence.

Thus, the future of Syria right now depends on the de-escalation zones’ efficiency and the seriousness of both international and regional players to stabilize the country which, after seven-and-a-half years of war has seen 400,000 of its citizens killed and 12 million (half of the population) uprooted, resulting in an international refugee crisis that has fueled various levels of instability and exacerbated economic problems throughout scores of Middle Eastern and European countries.

The importance of a lasting ceasefire in Syria will help major powers, the United States and Russia, avoid a complex knot of local and sectarian disputes in Syrian and to avoid spillover of the fighting troops including the armed opposition groups, Daesh, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.Only with such international cooperation between Washington and Moscow can there be any realistic hope for resolving the Syrian civil war.

The two major Amman meetings between the Russians and Americans along with their Jordanian counterparts helped reach the ceasefire agreement in three governorates in southwestern Syria: Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida. 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 Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida

Moreover, the talks between Jordanian officials and Syrian armed opposition in Amman at the end of July paved the way for a ceasefire in East Ghouta and other areas. The 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.

The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostility acts in some locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal that was reached late June in Amman and which has become effective in July to establish a de-escalation zone in Eastern Ghouta and southeastern Syria that would help end up the civil war. The new zones cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and the southeastern region of Syria by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, slated to be signed in late August to mid-September, paving the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The “de-escalation” zone created in southwestern Syria and northern Homs will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

At present, Moscow is in direct contact with Americans after some meetings in Switzerland between security and military officials from both countries to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the terms of the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Syria, by the Jordanian borders.

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 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.For Jordan, such an agreement is 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.

Article published in International Policy Digest: https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/08/14/de-escalation-zones-end-war-syria/

Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

Published in Tribune
Friday, 28 July 2017 20:50

Syrian Conflict Moves Closer an End

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

Quiet meetings in Amman between the Syrian opposition and other parties are a step forward.

The Syrian conflict is moving closer to its end. Despite global expectations, the key settlement process is occurring on the ground and in closed talks, not in front of the media and, therefore, not manipulated by geopolitical players and games in Astana or Geneva. Such formats on the ground and in talks beyond closed doors prove to be more successful and fruitful than all the pomp covered by the media, which just recycles the message of “no outcome.” But through minor steps the greatest goals are achieved.

One of such talks was held recently in Jordan for three days between representatives of Syrian armed forces and officials from Jordan, the United States and Russia. The meetings discussed the logistics of the de-escalation zones in southwestern parts of Syria, and they demanded that Al Nusra fighters pull out from this area. This move would give the Syrian army and its allies, as well as Jordan and its allies, the impetus to control the eight-kilometer “pinnacle” that has been a thorny issue for the Syrian, Israeli and Jordanian armies.

The talks included 58 representatives of the Syrian rebel alliance, including the Free Syrian Army, who label themselves the “Southern Front.” The meeting also discussed moving some of these forces to Al Shaddadi Military Camp near Deir al-Zour in order to liberate it from the Islamic State (Daesh).

After the meeting with the Syrian opposition, Jordan has started to change its tone toward Syria and its regime. This fact can be inferred from the recent statements of Jordanian officials, stressing the kingdom’s great interest in southwestern Syria. Official statements on-record and off-record about the security and stability of this part of Syria show that the region is of strategic interest for Jordan and the whole Middle East — an implicit signal that there is no rejection of the current government or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A ceasefire control mechanism brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan in southwestern Syria is nearly ready, as Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said following the Amman meeting on behalf of the Syrian opposition.

The Jordanians know very well that such phrases are aimed at approaching the nearest possible distance from the logic of the Syrian regime, which today prides itself with so many victories on the ground — recapturing many strategic locations that are deemed major victories, especially the “dubious melting away” of Daesh and the suspicious absence of other Islamic factions such as Al Nusra, which are supported by regional powers. The recent breakdown of many factions has led the Syrian armed forces to gain the momentum and to spread its troops into many parts of Syria, with the aim of liberating the whole country before the end of the year.

Assad has refused to demarcate the southern border by delineating an area of eight kilometers in southern Syria that would secure Jordan and Israel as well near the Nasseeb border crossing point. In other words, the Syrian president rejected the opening of the crossing point that would serve both Jordan and Syria. However, with Eid Al Adha approaching, the opening of the border indicates a gateway for cooperation, according to sources close to the president.

RUSSIA, TURKEY AND ISRAEL

More importantly, Jordan is investing its relatively “sophisticated communications” with Russia. In a closed-door meeting at the royal palace a few days ago, discussion about President Vladimir Putin described the Russian leader as a “trusted friend” and a “credible man.” Until now, Jordan has tried to reopen the Nasseeb crossing point, but President Assad has been “dodging” the issue for the past few months. With the agreement, Russia provided an opening for the Syrian leader to voice willingness to reopen the crossing point under certain security arrangements that will guarantee the eight kilometers. The whole area that will be the demilitarized zone in southern Jordan will include a 30-kilometer-wide strip in Syria running parallel to the Jordanian border.

Simultaneously, the Jordanian government held talks to reopen the Turaibeel crossing point between Jordan and Iraq. Turaibeel was closed after Daesh emerged in the eastern region of Iraq but now it is open, according to Jordanian officials. This fact is confirmed by Iraqi sources who said there are joint security and military operations nearby the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Private meetings helped to set the stage for the Turaibeel reopening where cooperation is essential. The Jordanian official spokesperson confirmed the talks publicly a few days ago with regard to the reopening of the Turaibeel crossing point.

Jordan is also focusing on Turkey’s recent public position that a “terrorist group” should not be allowed to have a base in northern Syria, as this factor would threaten other safe or de-escalation zones in the country. The Jordanians now strongly believe that Amman has great interest in Syrian unity, and they pin high hopes on the tripartite deal with the Americans and Russians for a “long-term ceasefire” in southern Syria.

The tripartite deal has neutralized Israel as this agreement serves Israeli security as well; yet Israel is pushed away from the Syrian battleground and any Israeli intervention in Syria remains a constant possibility. However, there are multiple hidden indicators that determine the mechanism of monitoring the ceasefire, which will be announced in its final stages very soon as the Syrian predicament is reaching its finale.

Amman is struggling behind the scenes to put in place a mechanism that would be mandatory for all parties concerned to adhere to for a Syrian truce. The Americans believe the truce will eventually lead to the formation of a “Daraa region” within a Syrian federal system that will determine matters in the future Syria. The so-called long truce is called “a wide, low-tension zone” by the Russians.

At present, the Syrian government sounds very “cooperative” and in line with Russian demands. Recent battlefield successes mean the Syrians are keen not to waste the army’s efforts, and they want to strongly invest manpower into rebuilding Syria and to avoid military attrition in southern regions of the country, instead focusing on a magnet for Daesh: Deir al-Zour.

Overall, Jordan seeks to stabilize Syria now and supports the de-escalation zones scenario not only in order for the region to prepare for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, but also to ensure Jordan’s share and role in any future regional and international arrangement in Syria’s south.

Jordanians believe they have the “winning card” as the closest and most connected to the bloc of Daraa tribes and to Druze tribes in Jabal Al Arab of northern Jordan. While it is possible to discern “differences” that must be monitored between all parties in any private and quiet arrangements in southern Syria, Jordan’s focus on a “ceasefire monitoring mechanism” is a realpolitik solution to secure the best possible military — and then political — truce by the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Article published in Fair Observer: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/syria-bashar-al-assad-jordan-russia-iraq-middle-east-news-01214/

Photo Credit: OBJM / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune

The main result of the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7 July 2017 was a ceasefire agreement for a de-escalation zone in the governorates of Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda in southwest Syria and on setting up a ceasefire monitoring center in Amman.

The United State's involvement in the multilateral Syrian settlement format marks an important new milestone in this process. American, Jordanian and, unofficially, Israeli participation in the settlement process allows for inclusion in the negotiations of the American-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in As-Suweyda and the Syrian Desert, as well as pro-Jordanian factions on the Southern Front, which refused to send their delegations to the fifth round of the Astana process. This achievement could potentially help preserve Syria's territorial integrity and include in the peace process all Syrian forces that are inclined to engage with other states diplomatically, and the territories they control, without any exceptions.

It should be noted that reports about a certain planned de-escalation zone with US participation in the south of Syria surfaced long before the meeting between the Russian and American presidents. For example, on 6 June 2017, commenting on the airstrike on a convoy of Syrian government forces travelling towards the Al Tanf border crossing, the Pentagon noted that the pro-government forces had entered a “coordinated de-escalation zone”. Simultaneously, reports started coming in (at that time still without official confirmation) about Russian-US consultations in Amman on one or several de-escalation zones. At the same time, experts began questioning the compatibility of the possible agreement for southern Syria with the memorandum passed in Astana in May. Even after the official rollout of the zone on the sidelines of the G20 summit and after the ceasefire came into effect on 9 July, these questions have not yet been fully answered.

Scenario one

The United State's involvement in the multilateral Syrian settlement format marks an important new milestone in this process.

The United States and Russia expand the southern de-escalation zone originally agreed upon in Astana to cover the As-Suwayda Governorate and also, unofficially, the opposition enclave in Eastern Qalamoun and territories in the Syrian Desert, including those around the population centre of Al-Tanf, which accommodates detachments of the local Sunni tribes from Revolution Commando, supported by American, British, Norwegian and Jordanian special operations forces. At the same time, Washington and Amman will not be promoted to full members of the Astana format and guarantor countries. Iran and Turkey, for their part, will retain their status as guarantor countries in this southern zone, in accordance with the Astana agreements.

The newly included territories are not mentioned in the Astana memorandum on de-escalation zones but let us not forget that reports from those areas have repeatedly caused public repercussions in the past. To begin with, the United States decided against raising the level of confrontation in the east by attacking the pro-government forces that, instead of advancing in the direction of the pro-US units, formally announced their intention to fight against the Islamic State (while, on the other hand, creating a “Shiite corridor” into Iraq). Also, in parallel with these incidents, unofficial talks in Amman continued. Furthermore, it appears that the parties were interested in what such an agreement has to offer.

Scenario two

The United States and Russia officially expanded the southern de-escalation zone identified in Astana by involving external players that are instumental in Syria's southern regions, namely Jordan and, informally, Israel. If were to happen, then Washington and possibly Amman would effectively become full participants in the Astana talks. Such a development could be regarded as an undoubted success of both Russian and American diplomacy: Moscow made Washington shoulder the responsibility for the actions of the Syrian opposition, while Washington, for its part, forced Moscow to influence Damascus and Iran, which is an extremely difficult task. The Russian media prefer not to mention it, but it is in the best interests of the Al-Assad government and the Iranians, whose clout in Syria depends directly on survival of the current Syrian regime, to discredit the entire opposition without exception.

Scenario three

What the United States and Russia did was “reset” the format of the southern de-escalation zone as defined in Astana. In particular, this is the scenario at which Associated Press sources hinted when saying that the current agreement between the United States and Russia has nothing to do with the Astana memorandum.

It is possible that, following the creation of the southern de-escalation zones and the security zone, with the USA among the guarantor nations, creation of similar de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria will be discussed or is, indeed, already being discussed.

Since February 2017, pro-government forces have been conducting active operations in the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra not just against Tahrir al Sham, but also against the aforementioned Southern Front coalition of FSA groups, which enjoys the support of Jordan's Military Operations Center. Following the inclusion of these governorates in the de-escalation zones identified by the Astana memorandum, there was no cessation of hostilities as there were in other regions incorporated into the ceasefire agreement. In other words, there has been no actual de-escalation in those provinces, so the format of a “zone” including them has been declared untenable. This third scenario appears to be the most probable. It also opens up additional opportunities for replicating such zones in other Syrian regions. It is possible that, following the creation of the southern de-escalation zones and the security zone (the latter implies a certain buffer separating the opposition from the pro-government forces), with the USA among the guarantor nations, creation of similar de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria will be discussed or is, indeed, already being discussed. This possibility has been voiced by certain US experts.

Tehran is concerned about the Amman consultations, fearing that the Jordanian negotiating format should gradually begin to replace the Astana process.

As mentioned above, it would be logical to set up such zones in the north/northeast of Syria, on the territories controlled by the SDF. Long-term US military presence has already been secured in those parts in the form of a network of US military bases. In addition, despite the fierce resistance on the part of the Islamic State, the fate of that movement's informal capital city Raqqa is all but sealed.

Therefore, the talk concerns the need for proactive measures aimed at configuring security zones in the northeast of Syria, with delimitation boundaries drawn beforehand for the Al-Assad and SDF forces advancing on the Islamic State from opposite directions. This would help avoid incidents and armed clashes. The Ankara factor is also important here: Turkey's position is understood to be aimed exclusively against any legalization of the SDF alliance, which Ankara perceives as a cover for the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

Iran's position

The greatest problems with implementing any scenarios involving the United States in the Syrian settlement could come – indeed, have apparently long been coming – from Iran, and from the part of the Syrian leadership in Damascus which relies on that country.

Tehran is known to have stated in the past that it opposes both the United States’ participation in the Astana talksand an American presence in any of the de-escalation zones. Washington's current stance with regard to Tehran similarly rules out any interaction with Iran and its allies (for the exception of Iraq) in regards to the Syrian settlement. This makes a situation when representatives of the two countries would sit down at the negotiation table as equal partners virtually impossible. During the first round of the Astana talks, while giving an overall positive appraisal of the format, the American Department of State expressed its bewilderment at Iran's participation.

According to some reports, the United States and Jordan insist on all pro-Iranian Shiite forces being pulled out from those regions in southern Syria, which are planned to become part of the de-escalation zone. Israel supports this position: Tel Aviv has repeatedly delivered strikes in the past on Shiite forces supporting Al-Assad in southern Syria. Sources point out that Tehran is concerned about the Amman consultations, fearing that the Jordanian negotiating format should gradually begin to replace the Astana process. Iran appears to be particularly worried that the current list of guarantor countries in the Syrian settlement process could begin to change over time, with Tehran being driven out of the country. On the other hand, since the beginning of Syrian warfare Tehran has set up multi-layered presence in the country: it relies not only on the numerous Shiite multinational communities and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specialists, but also on the local National Defense Forces and the unofficial units of the Syrian Hezbollah chapter.

Russia could be accused of aiming all its reconciliation initiatives as a smokescreen in support of the revanchist sentiments harbored by Iran and by the “party of war” in Damascus.

Tehran, therefore, is apparently demonstrating its unwillingness to recognize any agreements regarding Syria to be concluded without its participation. Washington and the Gulf countries had anticipated such behaviour from Iran and the groups it controls. For Moscow, this development is fraught with complications. Russia could be accused of aiming all its reconciliation initiatives as a smokescreen in support of the revanchist sentiments harbored by Iran and by the “party of war” in Damascus. The implications of such an accusation cannot be ignored.

Despite the fact that the agreement between the United States and Russia officially came into being on 9 July, there is so far no clarity as to what it actually entails. There remain questions as to how the ceasefire in the south of Syria will be monitored, what the parties' positions are on Iran's involvement, and how the fight on the radicals will be carried out in a way that would not affect the “healthy” part of the opposition. Hypothetically, under a sustained ceasefire the opposition itself would be prepared to fight terrorist units. The main thing is for all the parties to strive for a sustained ceasefire regime and for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. For as long as such uncertainties exist, the ceasefire will continue to be violated.

Article by Anton Mardasov and Kirill Semenov

Article published in RIAC: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-southern-deal-between-moscow-and-washington-a-duel-of-diplomacies/

Photo credit: picture alliance

Published in Tribune

The Kremlin is seeking to flesh out the idea of creating four de-escalation ("safe") zones in western war-torn Syria while trying to help President Bashar al-Assad regain control of lost territories in the east. When it comes to the west, Moscow is talking about the de facto end of the civil war and aims to covertly weaken the Syrian opposition. As for eastern Syria, Russia is trying hard, though discreetly, to distance itself from the US-Iranian confrontation and preserve communication channels with Washington. It is also advocating decreasing the influence of both the United States and Kurds and urging pro-Kremlin oligarchs to help fix the economy.

Russia's policy in Syria seems successful, and that appearance is meant to impress the Russian population ahead of the 2018 presidential election. In reality, however, Moscow is confronted with a range of problems as it proceeds with its purely tactical plans. Syrian government troops continue fighting in Daraa province, and the Southern Front — the rebel alliance that until recently had hardly opposed the regime — boycotted the fifth round of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, which resumed July 4.

Some Russian analysts, referencing their sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, argue that Russian military and political leaders are well aware that Iran and Assad intend to prevent the UN's peace plan from succeeding. (The UN Security Council unanimously adopted the plan, Resolution 2254, in late 2015.) The analysts worry that Tehran and Damascus might try to convince Moscow to not cooperate as well.

Russia openly stands by its allies. For instance, to justify the Syrian government’s blocking of Tabqa, Moscow went so far as to accuse the United States and the Kurds allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of colluding with the Islamic State (IS). Moreover, Russia has warned that it will target US planes flying west of the Euphrates — though US aircraft hardly ever operate there anyway.

One of the weakest points of Russia’s de-escalation zone plan is the problem of how to fight radical forces if Assad would have to launch an offensive through territory controlled by moderate opposition, given that Assad and moderates have signed a truce. The exacerbation of relations between the Kurds and Assad’s forces will give Turkey more leeway regarding Idlib, positioned deep in enclaves controlled by the radical opposition alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Yet such exacerbation would discourage new players from engaging in the peace settlement, which the Kremlin would have welcomed.

Turkey is dissatisfied with the outcome of Operation Euphrates Shield. Ankara was only able to secure an area of 2,015 square kilometers (778 square miles) in northern Aleppo — half the planned area of 5,000 square kilometers (1,931 square miles). The operation also failed to dissuade the new US administration from relying on the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) during the storming of Raqqa. During the Astana talks, Ankara insisted on extending the northern de-escalation zone not only to Idlib province, but also to the adjacent, opposition-held territories in Latakia, Aleppo and Hama. Turkey sees these territories as areas of its potential influence, given that local populations and moderate militant groups there are cooperating with the Turks.

A source close to Russian intelligence services told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Moscow has considered two options for Idlib. The first was to back the advancement of pro-Assad forces, which would inevitably trigger escalation, drag Russia further into the Syrian conflict, and affect its foreign policy, economy and internal security. The second option implies close cooperation with Turkey. Ankara is reluctant to welcome new Syrian refugees to its territory, still, it is ready to send its special forces to support the "moderate" rebel groups against HTS in exchange for concessions related to Syrian Kurds.

In Syria's east, the race to maximize territorial gains creates favorable conditions between Damascus and Ankara. Both have difficult relations with the Kurds and could find common ground by cooperating against them.

After the US downing of the Su-22 that allegedly attacked the SDF, the al-Muatasim Brigade — a faction of the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army, — withdrew from talks with the SDF about al-Muatasim taking over control of 11 villages from the Kurds. Moreover, Assad's troops closed off the Aleppo-Afrin road, while Turkey started redeploying its troops and equipment south and west of Azaz for an offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Tell Rifaat and Afrin.

A source in the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed for Al-Monitor that Moscow and Ankara have coordinated a joint offensive designed to allow Turkey to achieve two goals: weaken the US-supported, Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Kurdistan PKK; and gain a sufficient foothold for further peacekeeping activities against HTS, which isn't a party to the truce.

“The preliminary agreement implies that a small group of Russian military advisers will stay in Afrin to act as an intermediary between the Kurds and Assad. In its turn, Turkey will gain control of the sites it deems vital,” the source said.

However, it was uncertain whether the agreement addressed 41 PYD/PKK facilities in northern Aleppo province and provided for a corridor from Azaz to Idlib. A corridor would link Turkey's zone of influence north of Aleppo with opposition enclaves in Idlib, which could weaken the Kurds and make them more cooperative with Russia and Assad.

"Moscow is keen to secure Kurdish loyalty to Damascus, and in a way would want to punish Kurds for prioritizing relations with the US over dealings with Syrian and Russian military. But it equally opposes fighting across the entire Afrin canton," the source added.

Ankara is aiming to control only the eastern and southern parts of Afrin canton, to link Idlib with the area recovered during Operation Euphrates Shield. However, the Kurds say Turkey wants to control all of the Afrin canton. If they halt the offensive on the IS stronghold of Raqqa to shift troops to Afrin, that action "could bring about heavy civilian casualties and trigger a tough US response,” the source said.

In theory, Turkish troops can't join the operation against the HTS if they are deployed in the safety zone in Idlib. If they were stretched thin trying to do both, the troops would be easy prey for radical groups. Al-Monitor sources in Turkey close to military officials say Ankara is considering establishing several military facilities in Idlib. Turkey would be backed by the opposition troops that previously engaged in Operation Euphrates Shield.

A joint Turkish-Russian military group reportedly has deployed to Sheikh Barakat Mountain on the border of Idlib province. Turkish troops may access Idlib from two areas — either from the border village of Atma to the town of Darat Izza and Sheikh Barakat Mountain west of Aleppo, or through Salqin and Harem. Moscow has no choice but to rely on Turkey in terms of separating opposition groups, which may presuppose the military crackdown on notorious jihadists, as well as lure some non-al-Qaeda groups to join Ahrar al-Sham. Such attempts have been made already, and as the pressure over the HTS continues, some of its fighters may want to join other “moderate” groups.

However, such complicated scenarios — currently, diverse HTS units control about 80 out of 156 local councils in Idlib — with an ill-conceived cease-fire mechanism undermine Moscow’s peacekeeping efforts to involve its closest allies from among post-Soviet states: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

On June 22, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of Russia's State Duma Defense Committee, said proposals were being worked out for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Russia’s allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to join the military campaign in Syria. The next day, authorities of both states denied reports about the negotiations. A similar proposal was made to Armenia, whose security forces have long conducted undercover operations in Syria to protect Armenian ethnic enclaves. The Armenian forces accumulated considerable experience in peacekeeping in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Lebanon. “Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion took part in minesweeping in Iraq. Even though Astana has used a multifaceted approach and spared no effort to be perceived as a reliable mediator, it can be forced to deploy a small military contingent. Kyrgyzstan can be compelled to follow suit, as Russia has recently written off [Kyrgystan's] new debts,” an official from the Russian military-industrial complex told Al-Monitor.

In sum, it’s possible that if there's a flare-up between the Kurds and Damascus, Turkey may make the most of the situation and take its own actions, reneging on its agreements with Moscow. In turn, Russia may convince CSTO allies of the need to send troops to Syria — even though it won’t be easy.

That said, however, Russia’s position on the Kurds isn’t linear. Moscow doesn’t strictly oppose a Turkish operation as Turkey's way to make the Kurds pay for their dealings with Washington. Yet the presence of Russian forces in Afrin is still supposed to be a formal demonstration of defending the Kurds, even though the Russian forces won’t hamper Turkey’s offensive. However, there’s a serious risk that outside interference into Idlib will create new alliances in the opposition, not their separation into “moderate” and “radical” factions.

Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/07/russia-behavior-syria-turkey-idlib-military-base.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Published in Tribune
Monday, 10 July 2017 03:29

G20 comes with a breakthrough on Syria

G20 Summit was much awaited globally, and mostly not because of its format and discussions, but because of the top level bilateral meetings regularly held on its sidelines. The most intriguing talks were the first meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that lasted over two hours, giving impression that the two leaders enjoy company of each other. However, agreements or significant declarations were not expected, while some breakthrough has been achieved. And the achievement doesn’t concern Russia-US bilateral ties, that remain at their low, but Syria issue, as countries seem to have finally found the common ground on the Syria matter.

Both the US and Russian leaders claim the political victory after brokering a ceasefire in Syria for the first time since the breakout of the Syrian conflict. The unprecedented deal was not expected even by those who were optimistic regarding finding a solution to the Syrian conflict.

US President Donald Trump and his counterpart Vladimir Putin have agreed to a ceasefire in Southwest Syria starting from midday of Sunday, July 9, 2017, a day that follows their meeting at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.

A statement by Russian ministry of foreign affairs reveals that talks were held in Jordan one month ago, in June, aimed to reach the deal on the “de-escalation region” in southern Syria.

A memorandum of understanding to establish a de-escalation zone in the regions of Dara’a, Quneitra and Suweida was agreed upon Saturday July 8, 2017 between Russian, American and Jordanian military and security experts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who confirmed the news said that the deal will be effective as of midday Damascus time on July 9 which stipulates that a ceasefire will be in effect.

The deal provides that Russian troops will be deployed near the Jordanian-Syrian borders to replace the Iranian forces as Jordan has conservation regarding any militias or sectarian forces near its borders. This deployment is in interest of all the players, as it minimizes the dubious and undesirable Iranian presence in strategically important areas in Syria that threatens the Syrian conflict settlement and deteriorates regional stability and climate.

The Hamburg face-to-face meeting between both leaders allowed to discuss in details the agreement which also includes areas that have seen recent clashes between Syrian army forces on one hand and Israeli and rebel fighters in the Golan Heights on the other.

After Hamburg, what is Syria about? Is Washington still focusing on overthrowing the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad? Why did Putin stress that the shift in the American stand would help reach a final deal and settlement to the Syrian conflict peacefully? The answers would come simply from the trips made by some Jordanian officials to Moscow and Washington in addition to Syrian-Jordanian meetings at high security levels in the past few months which helped to culminate the deal, crowned by inking the agreement in Amman to help regain peace to the war-torn Syria.

Regardless of the Astana talks and the outcome of the negotiations between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, the aspirations of the Syrians would come true if this deal gets into effect with sincerity from all concerned parties whether regional or international as any spillover of the Syrian crisis would this time be a deluge, affecting the whole Middle East, igniting further sectarian wars that would spread like fire in the bush.

This year Russia has been involved in talks with Turkey and Iran over the creating of 4 de-escalation zones in Syria to be policed by two surveillance centers: one in Jordan and the other in Turkey.

Though the monitoring process will be conducted mainly by Russian military police in coordination with Jordanian and American officers, the situation on the ground will be decided by the deployment of heavy artillery and troops. This justifies why the Syrian army and its allies started an expansive and comprehensive military campaign to regain many strategic positions before ceasefire gets into effect.

The tripartite agreement was also in line of contact agreed upon between the Syrian government forces and associated troops on one side and rebels on the other hand. The three signatory countries voiced their commitment to working on a political solution" based on UN-backed talks in Geneva and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Jordan seemed the focal point nowadays to the US administration and the Russian policy makers as the understanding was designed to reduce violence in an area of Syria near Jordan’s border, which is critical to Jordan’s security and Israeli stability. Jordanian King Abdullah II is a frequent guest both in Washington and Moscow these days, negotiating many regional issues with the two superpowers.

A warm welcome and support came directly from the UN on the reached promising agreement between the US and Russia, saying it would enable upcoming peace talks.

Much work lies ahead to ensure that constructive talks would yield to the positive results aspired to perform a sustainable ceasefire over the long term.

In order to avoid any whiplash, Russia, the USA and Jordan, should establish a more comprehensive plan to better control the de-escalation to proceed ahead with the three other de-escalation zones. This will help to avoid any consequential issues in the relationship between the three nations through direct and candid address of their concerns.

The meeting between Putin and Trump has set up a robust and comprehensive framework for future cooperation on Syria and for solving other Middle Eastern issues. Yet, this cannot be achieved without regional cooperation and coordination from the parties concerned, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular, as the peace process majorly depends not only on the situation on the ground, but on what is going on at the negotiating table and on the presence of the consent between the negotiating sides. At least on the possibility of its achievement, that mostly depends not only on the will of the sides, but also on the influence projected on them by their regional supporters.

Photo credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

Published in Tribune
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