As Russia and the United States are holding back-channel talks over de-escalation zones in southern Syria, there’s a larger question of whether the two countries might broker an ultimate peace deal for the Syrian civil war. 

Officially, Moscow is relying on the de-escalation zones to be in effect for an indefinite term and considers them instrumental to settling the conflict. However, agreements on the “soft decentralization” of Syria reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, tend to prompt questions rather than give answers. 

It’s not clear yet how those violating the cease-fire will be punished or who will become the peacekeepers in these so-called security zones. Not many in the opposition even understand the term “de-escalation zone,” which does not exclude military operations. Moreover, according to Al-Monitor sources in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the militants fear that the agreement will play into the hands of the regime, which aims to divide and “domesticate” the opposition, according to the FSA sources. Toward that end, the opposition fears it is to be sent to fight the radical Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS).

The cease-fire agreement is likely to be violated. Nevertheless, if Moscow is set on keeping it, the prospect of a political settlement will become much more realistic, especially after IS is cleared out of eastern Syria. Still, the cease-fire is just one step on the long road toward ending the civil war and isn’t considered a breakthrough. 

It’s obvious that, despite its seeming adherence to United Nations Resolution 2254, the Syrian regime and Iranians will hamper any significant reforms that could reduce their influence. Here, Moscow will have to solve a very complicated problem: how to make its allies compromise without giving up on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — at least not right away. In view of the Russian presidential elections scheduled for March, even the Russian public would perceive Assad’s ouster as a Kremlin failure.

However, as they say, where there is a will, there is a way. There’s a view among those Russian experts who take an unbiased look at the Syrian situation — unlike those who indulge in propaganda — that the most feasible settlement scenario is something along the lines of the famous Dayton Agreement for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995). Above all it would allow Syria to preserve its army and integrate the government and the opposition military formations into new armed forces. Numerous discussions with the Syrian opposition in Moscow prove that, in essence, their suggestions concerning the settlement boil down to the Bosnian model.

The Dayton Agreement provided for two administrative units: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska). The separation boundaries did not correspond to the front line as of the moment of cease-fire. Despite criticism that it would weaken the central power, the Dayton Agreement proved key to settling the conflict: The sides committed themselves to ensuring security in their territories and preserving the civil law-enforcement bodies, and pledged to send all foreigners, including advisers and volunteers, out of the country.

In Bosnia, military formations were integrated in two stages: first Muslims and Croats created joint military forces, and only then were they joined by Serbs. Eventually, by 2006, three armies had merged into one with three infantry brigades at its core and every brigade had a Muslim, Croatian and Serb battalion.

As for a Syrian version of the Dayton Agreement, which would integrate military formations into one army not exceeding 150,000 troops, the integration should be implemented in several stages. For instance, first, groups of militants and opposition would unite into corps to consolidate the maximum of armed people, then these corps are to be reduced to the necessary numbers. The redundant fighters could be transferred to civilian positions to help restore the destroyed infrastructure. It seems expedient that one corps be created at the Turkish buffer zone. The Bosnian plan of building the national army could be used to integrate the Southern Front rebel alliance and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, which includes the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG), thus contributing to ethnic and confessional diversity rather than sectarian division.

However, right after the cease-fire it would also be reasonable to create a special military council of 20 to 30 people. Under international supervision, it could become a platform for talks and negotiations between the commanders of the regime and their counterparts from the opposition.

This military council could also contribute to political reform, as it could be used as both a watchdog authority and “bench strength” for the key defense and law-enforcement positions. For example, the post of the defense minister could go to the regime candidate, while the chief of general staff could become someone from the opposition. That would balance the situation. The question about the nature of the reform — should it be military or political — is to be discussed by thinkers, but there are at least two arguments in favor of the first priority being a military council. 

First, in today's Syria, security is a critical issue. It is complicated by confrontation with the radicals’ troops, which will likely try to wreck the agreement by any means. It is also compounded by the necessity of ensuring the security of the population in the opposition-controlled territories relying on local councils. 

Second, the agendas for the Astana and Geneva meetings prove that it will take years to agree on political platforms, while the issues of cease-fire, amnesty and forming delegations can be dealt with today.

Integrating the regime and opposition armed forces will only be viable after a series of political reforms. This two-year process must be put in sync with forming the transitional government. Otherwise, we may see another case of the Tajikistan scenario of 1997, when President Emomali Rahmon kept the office while the army and the opposition failed to unite.

Another problem to be discussed is how to integrate the US-supported Kurdish YPG groups, which demonstrate a strong separatist sentiment and are not to be easily disarmed in the presence of the American contingent in Syrian Kurdistan. One could regard the formation of another corps, which should by all means include various formations of the SDF, where at least 23,000 are Arabs. The Arab participation should be real and not for show, and the YPG and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) symbols should be abandoned. 

Therefore, Moscow believes that after the liberation of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor from IS, Americans are unlikely to give up on their presence in northern Syria. However, Moscow can benefit from the US presence if the formation of the united military forces is supervised by the four countries: Russia (Syria's west), Turkey (the northwest), the United States (the northeast) and Jordan (the south). Largely, these steps would reduce Iran’s influence, which cannot be allowed on the Syrian-Iraqi border, where IS is most likely to return.

It’s not news that in Syria, trust is in short supply. Who can guarantee that the militants will not go on the offensive? Who can guarantee the opposition won’t end up in prison as soon as they disarm? The credibility issues are connected with the pressure on Damascus, and in the Astana format, Russia may show readiness to make compromises. However, there is a big question of how to pull Assad outside the settlement framework. The Kremlin has not yet found the answer, or maybe it has not been looking hard enough.

Article published in Al Monitor:

Photo credit: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

Published in Tribune
Friday, 02 June 2017 16:56

Jordan Not to Send Any Troops to Syria

Jordan’s official stance regarding Syrian conflict supports peaceful resolution, yet reports have appeared in the media claiming that the kingdom is readying for a ground invasion of Syria. As “Eager Lion” military exercises in Jordan this year coincided with the intensified anti-terrorist fighting along Jordan-Syrian border, the media speculated about the US, British and Jordanian joint plan to send ground troops across the Syrian border. The news triggered brief war of words between Syria and Jordan, while Jordanian officials reiterated that no Jordan’s troops will be sent to Syria. 

Late in April during a meeting with Jordanian journalists King Abdullah II reiterated his country’s commitment to the peaceful solution of the Syrian conflict, adding that Jordan will keep its military in combat readiness in order to prevent any conflict spillover across the border onto its territory.

The King then stated that, “We will not allow the developments in Syria to pose threats to Jordan. We are continuing with our policy of deep defence without the need to have the Jordanian army involved inside the Syrian territories.”

The King’s aforementioned statement, along with other Jordanian official statements, clearly demonstrates that the news about Jordanian troops in Syria can be labeled ‘fake news’, the kind the media has been awash with since Trump’s election.

What could then be behind these and similar allegations and fake news reports about the Syrian war situation and peace negotiation attempts, and why should they appear now?

A look back at recent developments in the diplomatic circles, including the US and its Arab allies, where Jordan plays prominent role as a peace broker, including Syrian and the Palestinian-Israeli files, there are evidently elements both in the US political establishment and elsewhere that prefer the continuation of conflict to peace.

For example, during the last round of Syrian peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan a tripartite agreement on establishment of ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria was signed, with Russia, Iran and Turkey as guarantors. While the US administration welcomed the ‘safe zones’, the anti-Trump establishment attacked it and liberal media continued with familiar tune that America ‘should do more’, calling for military involvement in both Syria and Iraq.

Shortly after the safe zones agreement was reached, president Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. Right after the meeting the uncorroborated reports appeared in the leading US media that the US president has shared sensitive intel with the Russians, allegedly endangering an ally’s spy embedded within the ISIS/Daesh ranks.

Israeli media claimed the intel sharing put the life of its agent in jeopardy, while some Arab media disputed it saying the ally in question was Jordan. Israel complained that the intel sharing was undermining its efforts to establish an historic alliance with some Gulf Arab states.

The key issue regarding the intel sharing claim is the timing of the news release and its effects on the efforts of the US president to resolve the problems inherited from previous administrations while establishing credibility in the eyes of the electorate.

Since inauguration Trump and his close associates have been targeted by the US mainstream media on diverse accounts, including his campaign promise to collaborate with all countries, including Russia. The Trump Russian connection saga culminated in ‘Russia hacking the elections’ claims, and the subsequent dismissals and resignations of number of Trump’s key allies.

Until today the war within the US establishment against Trump has not ceased, in fact, it seems to have intensified. Following the establishment of the Syrian de-escalation zones spearheaded by Russia, and Trump’s meeting with two Russian diplomats, the US president’s antagonists had to turn up the heat. So, it is likely that the whole story regarding intel sharing is in most part fabrication aimed to undermine Trump as president, as well as derail his efforts to find the solution for the Palestinian – Israeli issue where both Jordan and Israel are important actors.

Jordan has played a prominent role in promoting two-state solution for Palestine issue, and in anti-terrorism efforts in Syria and Iraq, hence those who oppose either may seek to undermine Jordan’s reputation as a reliable partner of both Russia and the US. Such unsubstantiated media claims have only one purpose – spoiling relationships.

In a similar vein, claims of Jordan’s troops intervening in Syrian south seek to undermine the efforts the kingdom has made in preserving its own security amidst mayhem on its doorstep, while building cooperation with both the US and Russia – two major international actors in the region.

Various Jordanian officials, including Jordan’s King, consider Russian role in Syria crucial in diminishing terrorist activities in the country. Jordan and Russia face similar situation in Syria, regarding terrorism, as the kingdom does. Around the same number of Russian citizens have joined terrorist ranks in Syria, as have Jordanian, so Jordan understands Russia’s vital need to prevent these fighters from returning home, carrying out terrorist acts and indoctrinating others on Russian territory. Latest statement of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is a proof of this, as he stated that Russia will destroy ISIS/Daesh terrorists in every part of Syria.

As for Russia so for Jordan – geography is destiny. Jordan’s central location in the Middle East determines its foreign policy orientation. Situated in the heart of the Middle East the Kingdom is deemed an oasis of peace and stability in the region fraught with peril and an important partner by both Russia and the West. As its future hinges on the regional security and stability relationships with all countries, especially those with high stakes in the Middle East are paramount. Riddled with the problem of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees Jordan seeks to balance its foreign relations in line with its national security interests.

The security of the Syrian southern border is of great concern to Jordan, and the quickest possible reestablishment of law and order, and cessation of hostilities in Syria are very much in Jordan’s interest. As the global powers have stepped up anti-terrorist efforts, including Russia and the US-NATO and its Arab allies, Syrian Army will succeed in reestablishing control over the country. Government retake of territorial control and elimination of terrorist pockets would enable the refugees to return to their homes, and most importantly, relieve the economic and security burden the refugee issue has placed on Jordan.

Whether we like or dislike Assad, he is a legitimate president of the Syrian Arab Republic, according to the international law. Every country in the world has political opposition, and whether it has a say in a particular country’s governance is an internal issue of each country.

The world has witnessed the outcomes of Iraqi, and Libyan regime change interventions. Egypt had also ousted its long-term president Mubarak during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ only to elect an even worse one, who within a year managed to bring country’s economy and security to the brink of collapse, and had to be removed by a military coup.

International relations studies recognize that every country’s road to democracy takes a different trajectory, and the majority of political experts today admit that Syrian conflict was not entirely of internal making. As for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, it is certainly not its job to decide the ruler of Syria. This is the matter that Syrian people have to decide on through a political process embedded within the country’s constitution and the norms of the international law. No country, including Jordan, would like outsiders to dictate its system of governance, and the same goes for Syria. Moreover, Jordan sees no threat from the current government of Syria, and has no intention of sending its troops to fight on its territory as doing so would represent the breach of its neighbors sovereignty and territorial integrity – which Jordan respects and will continue to respect.

Shehab Al Makahleh is a co-founder of Geostrategic Media, author, security and policy analyst

Published in Tribune

In recent months, the area of the so-called Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi triangle has seen fighting, negotiations, armistice, the breakup of old coalitions and the propping up of new ones. Over the past few weeks, the Russian media have given this area much attention, mainly due to repeated statements by Syrian authorities that an invasion of the southern regions of Syria in Daraa province is being prepared from Jordanian territory as part of a US-devised plan and that Damascus will regard this as an act of aggression.

In Russia, some hard-line observers have been interpreting this development primarily through the lens of seeing Western conspiracies and the need for a more robust support of President Bashar al-Assad. One trigger was the seventh annual Eager Lion military exercises, which took place May 7-18 in Jordan with the support of the US Army and involved 20 countries. A second trigger was a Lebanese newspaper report about the scale of a future “occupation” under which the “aggressors” would allegedly move to the Syrian city of al-Bukamal (near Qaim, Iraq) as well as occupy Daraa and Quneitra to include them in the Jordanian zone of influence and, if lucky, Suwayda, with Druze enclaves. The scale of this alleged occupation plan would exceed that of the Turkey-led Operation Euphrates Shield. Amman eventually denied the rumors of any invasion; some in Moscow even interpreted this as a sign of “Jordanian firmness” in the face of American pressure.]

Damascus' statements seem to have a strong propaganda element. Syria's overall purpose seems to be to neutralize opposition successes in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Qalamoun and to launch an offensive in the west in Deir ez-Zor (on the Euphrates between al-Bukamal and Raqqa) using army forces, the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Shiite militia to split the rebels in both eastern Qalamoun and around the Jordanian border. The regime hopes to advance to al-Tanf area, where US-allied forces have been training Syrian militias. Al-Tanf is on the Iraqi border, not far from Jordan. 

The fact is that for all intents and purposes, an invasion of the British, Americans and Jordanians into Syria (both to the north and to the south) took place a long time ago. At al-Tanf, coalition instructors and units of the special operations forces are acting together with the opposition and formed a buffer zone about 10-15 kilometers (6-9 miles) deep into Syrian territory, near the border with Jordan where American and British special forces are operating. In the summer of 2016, US helicopters even carried out landing tactical assault in the area of al-Bukamal in the rear of the IS militants, but the operation ended unsuccessfully. Reports on why this happened are contradictory. However, it appears that Islamists using a system of tunnels on the Syrian-Iraqi border struck at the rear of the New Syrian Army (NSA), while allied fighters from the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, as well as local tribes, did not support the “liberators” — US-supported groups. All this led to the disbanding of the NSA; its remnants then entered the alliance called Revolution Commando, composed of the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya and the so-called free clans army operating in the Syrian desert under the leadership of Mohannad Ahmed al-Tallaa.

Al-Bukamal is an important border gateway city, and controlling it is a goal for both the United States and groups such as Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya. The US interest is to first take control of al-Bukamal and establish a military facility there for future border control — an idea long discussed by some American experts. The prime driver for Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya is the desire to win back home territories, since several hundred fighters in this faction are coming from Deir ez-Zor. They receive a monthly payment of $150 for fighting IS from the center from the so-called Military Operations Command in Jordan.

From a military perspective, it is not clear why the United States and allied forces would want to seize the entire “southern triangle” along with the Druze enclaves; this would include actions from the Southern Front, which operates in Daraa and Suwayda and is not part of Revolution Commando.

Nevertheless, there is a confrontation between Revolution Commando and regime forces. In response to the airstrikes, Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya shelled the positions of pro-government forces using artillery. On May 10, Jordanians shot down Syrian drones. On May 13, a mobile Soviet-era manufactured Strela-10 SAM was seen in the ranks of the Syrian grouping — this anti-aircraft missile system apparently is to serve as a psychological deterrent and as something to have just in case. Tallaa said the positions of pro-government forces and the opposition in al-Tanfa area are 43 miles apart. “We saw their flags, and if they attack us, we will answer,” the commander of the opposition coalition said. 

Thus, Damascus used the idea of the invasion of the forces of the Western coalition in Jordan and presented drone-taken pictures in which regime armored vehicles were shown 43 miles from the Syrian border in a move separating the opposition in eastern Qalamoun and al-Tanf region and advancing toward Deir ez-Zor along the Damascus-Baghdad highway. Pro-government media promote this action by saying that the Syrians need to develop trade relations with Iraq. However, it is difficult to imagine that any trade relations are possible in the medium term when IS militants constantly organize attacks all over Iraq, including Anbar province, on the other side of the border from al-Tanf. There also is a rebel grouping in al-Tanf area that operates in conjunction with the US and British special forces, as well as the large, 75,000-strong al-Rukban refugee camp in northeastern Jordan near the borders with Iraq and Syria. In addition, an airfield may be operational soon in the Jordanian province of Mafraq, near the Syrian border, apparently for the operation of American or Jordanian helicopters that would support opposition activities in Deir ez-Zor province.

It is clear that Syrian forces are unlikely to give away control over such a critical neighborhood at the junction of Jordan and Iraq. Yet advancing toward al-Bukamal with a stretched-out group of forces that can easily be attacked by either opposition rebels or IS fighters makes it very difficult.

Pro-government formations will likely try to unite with those in Palmyra, and, accordingly, conduct operations against the opposition in eastern Qalamoun. While this would violate the truce, the regime forces will have an excuse, since this opposition enclave was not technically included from the very beginning in the “security zones” of the memorandum signed in Astana, Kazakhstan. In this case, Damascus and Iran could once again resort to calling the insurgents “al-Qaeda-associated terrorists.” At the same time, creating a “Shiite corridor” from Syria to Iraq might not only derail US-Russia talks but also trigger a counter-response from the Gulf states. None of this is a step toward a political settlement. 


Initially published on Al Monitor:

Published in Tribune

Fighting terrorism by the military means has always required a surgical precision and in-depth understanding of people and forces that take part in a local conflict. A well-known French expert on Islamic studies Gilles Kepel in 2000s explained a model of counter-terrorist activity that can still be applied for modern conflicts. According to this model if a responsive strike against Islamists is carried out without decent planning and leads to the casualties among the civil population, the civilians will start to sympathize terrorists, creating an impasse for conflict resolution.

Let’s imagine that the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor are freed from the Islamic State. It does not matter who will free them - Syrian Democratic Forces alliance with direct US military support or pro-government forces operating together with the SDF to claim some territories in these provinces. We may also omit the topics, which may fuel the conflict and contribute to ISIS revival: partition of the territories, ethnic and confessional misbalance and the timeframe for political settlement in Syria. It is just important that the East of the country is free from ISIS thanks to the joint effort that somehow resembles a broad international coalition, which Kremlin has long been pleading to create.

So, it may seem that the mission is accomplished – Russia and US have achieved their goals and can go on arguing which one of them has defeated ISIS. But will it mean that the terrorism has been obliterated? In order to answer this question some other issues should be cleared out…

Inconvenient questions

The military intervention in Syria has predictably divided Russian public into three main camps: those who are firmly in favor or against the participation of the country in the conflict and those who have a shifting position. The last group is mainly represented by the middle-class.

The partisans of the operation are sure that Russia has a long-term strategy in the Middle East, knows how to get out from the Syrian impasse and they approve of Kremlin’s decision to wage war against all the militants in Syria that is required “for us and for the whole world”. They discard any criticism towards Assad regime as “the Western conspiracy” and believe that Russia may risk being attacked on the rear by the remaining “other terrorists” if it engages ISIS in the East. They do not acknowledge that these “other terrorists” may be an opposition to the regime and consist of Syrians.

The opinions of the critics of the pro-government media are portrayed as cries of madmen, who are condemning unreasonably high military spending and losses, participation of Wagner Group, imperial ambitions and interests not only in Syria, but also in Egypt and Libya.

Ordinary Russian citizens who are fed by the media which blames everything on US and Gulf countries, speak about “fighting terrorism early on”, “ruining the plans of the damned West” and about the resolution to support the strategic allies – Damascus and Teheran. Although sometimes Afghanistan is recalled, Russians always comfort themselves by saying that it is a completely different case – the scale of involvement was different and the losses were significantly higher.

It is not worth an effort to participate in this argument. As always the truth is somewhere in between. But the qualified experts prefer not to risk their career and begin their publications or speeches on Syria by mentioning “the machinations of the West” and the terrorist nature of the entire Syrian opposition to please the ruling regime.

For instance, analysts in Russia should avoid the following topics:

  • Why Russia launched its operation in the end of 2015 when the Syrian army was loosing and decided to side first with Shabiha and then with Iranian Shia International, letting them into the country?
  • Whether the late intervention of Russia into the Syrian crisis is directly related to the Ukrainian crisis and to the willingness to impose a “dialogue on an equal footing” on the West?
  • Whether Kremlin projects its perception of Russian opposition on the Syrian one and whether the list of the moderate groups is related to the forthcoming presidential elections in Russia?
  • Why did Assad regime fuel Jihadi ideas among Sunnis during the Iraqi war and send “green buses” with militants from Aleppo and Damascus provinces to Iraq through border town of Al-Bukamal?
  • Why did Assad regime free the most extremist imprisoned Islamists at the beginning of peaceful demonstrations?

If these issues are considered, Russia will have to admit that at first Damascus supported Islamists and suppressed healthy opposition, ignored Russia’s requests for extradition of extremists who fled to Syria after the war in the North Caucasus, and then took part in islamization of protest movements. For Russia it is better not to comment on the cooperation of Russia with Free Syrian Army in 2015 and on the bombardments of Liwa al-Haqq in Raqqa and Jabhat al-Nusra - in Deir ez-Zore, while these groups were not actually present in these cities.

So, it is very inconvenient to comment on these issues and it is in fact useless – any honest answers will be silenced by the wave of criticism. It is trendy to fight terrorism now. Thus, many Russian experts and media wrote about the “fall of ISIS in Aleppo” in the end of 2016 without even suspecting that the first ones to engage ISIS in Syria were the FSA units in Aleppo but not the Kurds in Kobani.

Syrian counter terrorism

From the very beginning of the military operation Moscow in fact refused to acknowledge the civil character of the war in Syria, depicting the conflict only as a struggle of Damascus against terrorists. Unfortunately, this idea became hardwired in Russian expert community and represents one of the gravest mistakes in the fight against terrorism made by Russia. The truce achieved in December despite the regime’s attempts to suppress the enclaves of opposition is surely the correct way to counter terrorism. However, even in the event of successful negotiations in Astana and the armistice preservation, there is still a risk that these measures will not be sufficient to resolve the real causes of the conflict.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that Syria and Iraq resemble communicating vessels (the so-called Wilayat al-Furat). And not only on the ground, but also underground: the Syrian-Iraqi border is crossed by the system of tunnels that was upgraded during Saddam Hussein rule. It is a perfect hiding place and R&R base for ISIS militants in case they lose Mosul and Raqqa.

Causes of “disease”

Despite the accusations of the US for ruining the balance in the region by launching the invasion in Iraq in 2003 that eventually led to the creation of ISIS and Sunni resistance, Syria is also partially responsible as it was a hiding place for many leaders of the would-be monster. Syria was a favorable country for the growth of then “Islamic State of Iraq” not only because of its refugee camps for the Iraqis but for the following reasons:

  • Extremely violent means of protest repressions during the first eight months of the Syrian uprising;
  • Ideological vacuum: a large share of Syrian Sunni were politically passive and lacked religious education;
  • Confessional nature of the war waged by the Alawite Assad’s regime and his elites against the Sunni population, which became a gift for Al-Qaeda and later for al-Nusra, ISIS and other groups.

Instead of concentrating its efforts against Al-Qaeda and ISIS from the very beginning, Damascus focused on eliminating ideologically moderate armed groups thus augmenting the opportunities for extremist organizations. The strengthening of Shia groups just upgraded the scale of war.

The fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS

The leadership of Al-Qaeda set a course to infiltrate Syrian revolutionary movement back in 2012 and used ideological pressure on poor Sunni population to achieve this goal. Generally speaking, Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Syria was not limited to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. For instance, the exit of Jund al-Aqsa (then Sarayat al-Quds) in 2013 from al-Nusra when the latter confronted ISIS on the North of Syria, was conceived to assure the influx of foreign Mujahedeen to Idlib and Hama. In this sense, the religious rhetoric of Ahram al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam largely prevented Syrians from joining international al-Nusra and Islamic state. Nevertheless, in the context of struggle with the regime in the West al-Nusra gained a reputation of the main military movement participating in the large-scale opposition operations. The rebranding of al-Nusra into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its divorce with Al-Qaeda was supposed to dissolve it among other fractions and make it an exclusively local movement. This new image was presented mainly for the Syrians themselves.

Unfortunately, Russian airstrikes, which continued the strategy of Damascus and Teheran, led not to the dispersion of the opposition but to consolidation of radical and moderate movements and to enforcement of al-Nusra by more than 3-4 thousands new Syrian recruits. So, the situation is aggravated by the fact that al-Nusra became a movement with a Syrian majority.

It seems that the IS will retain its capacity of the international terrorist organization, even in the event of the defeat in Syria and Iraq. Firstly, due to the spread in more than 20 countries they will still be able to maintain the brand of a “state”. And the independence of the branches of the parent company makes the situation more difficult. Secondly, the experience of the survival of Al-Qaeda after the defeat in Afghanistan tells that a relatively small area is needed to lead terrorist operations form "safe haven".

But the experience of Iraq shows that even a few dozen experienced jihadists are able to revive an old structure. In these conditions, reactionary methods should be replaced by a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Published in Tribune

Saudi Arabia is ready for US President Donald Trump’s visit amidst mounting concerns about his temperament towards Arab and Sunni Muslim strategies to combat terrorism.

On his first overseas trip, Trump will seize this visit to cement ties with Arabs and Sunni Muslims in a bid to shove aside Iran, a rival for Sunni Muslims as he claimed on many occasions.

With Saudi preparations to dazzle the American president for his visit to Riyadh, where King Salman, his Crown Prince  and Minister of Interior Mohammad bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammad bin Salman try hard to prove to Trump that Saudi Arabia is the center of influence in the region as there will be a meeting on the tripartite summits for the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism which groups officials and officers from the concerned Muslim and Arab states along with the Americans.

The importance of the visit stems from the accompanying delegation which includes amongst others the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, at a time many Saudi analysts believe that “Trump will not come to Riyadh because he loves us. The Gulf and Muslim leaders will not come to Riyadh because they love him. The common interests of these international leaders are what bring them together in Riyadh including issues ranging from terrorism to rekindling U.S. ties post-Obama.”

The other topics on his agenda are Iran and Syria as Riyadh has hailed Trump's rigid rhetoric on Iran regarding the nuclear deal. Other analysts from Saudi believe that such a visit would restore what Obama ruined during his tenure, describing Trump’s electoral campaign slogans against Muslims as mere propaganda.

The summit between Trump and Saudi royals will helps Saudis build on the visit to display that Saudi Arabia is an earnest honest reliable and credible partner in the war on terror and is sincere to fight radicalism.

With all eyes on the American president’s visit, the most of the regional moves currently being made by the US in the Middle East region which include the Eager Lion military exercises in Jordan aim to declare war on terrorism and those who support them, entailing drying up terrorists’ financial resources and criminalizing radical factions.

This summit comes after a closed door meeting in Washington DC early May between some Arab countries and the Americans regarding the coming scenario in the region starting from the Arab-Muslim-American Summit in Riyadh and the military drills in Jordan which would be a sign for Iran on the eve of its presidential elections.

The summit would result in imposing financial sanctions on the some Iranian figures, supporters and sympathizers around the world. Amongst the moves will be further measures to monitor money transfers to create difficulties for it Iranian leadership in financing its political and military structures in Syria and Iraq.

The Summit in Riyadh will also close the curtain on the war on Al-Nusra Front and Daesh in line with Astana agreement which delegated this mission to liquidate these factions to the moderate Syrian opposition factions backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Regarding Daesh, the terrorist faction has lost Mosul strategic locations and the war on Raqqa to liberate it from this terrorism group will start soon shortly after mid-Ramadan through the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The war will start once there is adequate number of American tanks and armored vehicles. That explains why the Americans approved the decision to arm the Kurds with heavy artillery.

Once terrorist in Syria and Iraq are destroyed, there will be no reason for any Iranian presence in both countries, thus, a new economic war will start on Iran accordingly if it refuses to withdraw from both countries.

This is also on the agenda of the summit between Arabs and Trump. Will this lead to a future war in the region?

What American analysts are gleeful about is that the visit aims to send powerful messages from the new president to Sunni countries that after 8 years of strained ties under former president Barack Obama, a new page has been opened with an announcement of setting up an Arab NATO led by the US and funded by the countries of the region.  

Published in Tribune

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.

Published in Tribune

On April 22, the Russian Federation Council — the upper chamber of the Russian parliament — stated that Moscow could supply Damascus with air defense systems “on a priority basis.” However, no specifics were provided. A day before the statement was issued, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad noted that Syria and Russia were holding talks on new arms deliveries, including air defense systems.

As early as April 7 (shortly after the US airstrike on Syria’s Shayrat air base in retaliation for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people), Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told the media that Russia would soon help strengthen Syria’s defense systems to shield the infrastructure. 

If approached critically, the statements can be taken with a grain of salt. Bolstering Syria’s air defense doesn’t benefit Russia. Rather, Russia should use the threat of US airstrikes to pressure Damascus and Tehran to work toward a political solution and should also take advantage of Syria’s dispersed aircraft to control the Syrian air force. At the same time, Russia's military and pundits refuse to recognize that Tehran, by becoming involved in the battles for Wadi Barada and East Ghouta, derailed the struggling negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, under the far-fetched pretext that it was fighting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in places where the group doesn’t even operate or has very few soldiers. That action provoked moderate opposition groups to join jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, so that Syria's pro-government forces would release their grip on opposition enclaves outside Damascus.

However, it is hard to say what lessons the Kremlin has drawn from the results of Tehran’s actions. In a bid to impose "equal-footing dialogue" on Washington, Moscow has repeatedly changed its stance on Syria regarding both Russia’s military presence and the Syrian opposition. In October, Russian journalists reported on a possible dispatch to Syria of a Pantsir-S1, a short-range air-defense system designed to protect strategic military and civil targets. Under the pretext of the potential for American strikes, Moscow may expand its previously "behind-the-scenes" steps to strengthen the military infrastructure.

Any information about additional troops or the military’s use of Syria’s infrastructure is labeled media hype. Russian and American commanders prefer not to disclose details about their “boots on the ground,” and they deny any rumors or reports. In 2015, in his comments on the deployment of a Russian task force at Shayrat, Konashenkov emphasized "the absence of any operational need to establish additional military bases in Syria, whatever ‘couch strategists’ predicted.” Yet satellite imagery has repeatedly confirmed Russia is using Shayrat as a stage airfield.

Russia’s military presence in Syria goes beyond Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval base. Despite the international media’s and experts’ current keen interest in Khmeimim air base at Latakia, the country’s deployment of Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles there remains uncorroborated. However, there have been sightings of Iskander transporter erector launcher vehicles.

While some Russian experts are quick to highlight the sub-strategic and deterrent role of the missiles, especially given Turkey’s unpredictability, others are disposed to link the Iskander with a new modified combat support vehicle known by the Russian acronym MOBD. Although July 2016 commercial photos of the air base revealed two Iskander-M launch and transport vehicles at the site, the evidence is inexplicably overlooked.

Moreover, Russia’s activity at the Kuweires air base in Aleppo, recaptured by Syria's army in November 2015 and fully reopened in March 2017, stays under the radar. In early January 2016, rumors about increased Russian military presence at the airport and deployment of air defense forces started to circulate. Those reports were substantiated in July 2016. When comparing satellite pictures of different years, analysts saw both the prepared ground for installing S-200 launchers and their deployment in the northwestern part of the airport.

Russian specialists undoubtedly had rendered assistance, since the sophisticated systems were deployed in Homs and south of Damascus decades ago, back in Soviet times. Moreover, they cannot be redeployed elsewhere, given their concrete bases and the length of some cables, exceeding a kilometer. The Pantsir-S1 air defense systems were also detected at the site. However, it still remains a mystery whether MiG-31 supersonic interceptor aircraft, able to fire long-range missiles, were deployed at the Kuweires base to patrol the area. An Al-Monitor source indicated that photos of the fighters were actually taken at the Kuweires base rather than at Khmeimim, and their redeployment was needed to improve the Russian air defense system.

The presence of Russian artillery units, special operations forces, military police and fighters from the private Wagner military group in other provinces does not imply that they are constantly based in an area. Russian military experts engage in combat for tactical purposes, and in most cases they train recruits and retrain the soldiers of the fifth corps of the Syrian army. They also deliver humanitarian aid and negotiate with the opposition. Al-Monitor has been informed that since the conflict between the pro-government Syrian forces and the Kurds erupted in August 2016, the Russian military has been acting as peacekeepers. Since then, Moscow has maintained a reconnaissance mission in Qamishli.

The Russian Aerospace Defense Forces and their effectiveness are extensively covered in the media, but helicopter activity at Kuweires, Shayrat and Tiyas air bases remains obscure. The tasks carried out by helicopter units include protection of the Khmeimim military base and support of Russian troops and Syrian pro-government forces as they combat Islamic State (IS) militants.

To complete the operation to retake the IS stronghold of Raqqa, the United States is building up its military presence and developing new airfields in Syria. It remains to be seen how many airfields will be built and how long they will remain, but the view in Russia is that after the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor are liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, the United States will be reluctant to abandon its military infrastructure in Syrian Kurdistan. In fact, that infrastructure would enable Americans to remain in the heart of the region and to annoy Erdogan by responding symmetrically to his threats of restricting US use of Incirlik Air Base.

Formally, the US military states that it uses the facilities in northern Syria only to deliver and handle the cargo dispatched to its anti-IS allies. However, at least two tactical missiles are known to have been launched against IS units with the high mobility artillery rocket system deployed in Kobani. The United States has two facilities in this area. One is on the territory of the former Lafarge plant, where AH-64 Apache, Black Hawk and CH-47 helicopters have been detected, and a new one with a landing strip is being constructed about 20 miles south of Kobani. Apart from Manbij, where US military forces halted the advance of the pro-Turkish Free Syrian Army in late February, Americans and their NATO allies use Ayn Issa facilities to train SDF fighters, as well as the Abu Hajar airport in the Rmelan area. US engineers are rebuilding the Taqba air base freed from IS in late March, transforming it into the Qayyarah-2, a logistics center similar to the Qayyarah base in Iraq.

Although the external players, in particular the United States and Russia, officially deny Syria is being divided into de facto zones of influence, the separate use of the military facilities testifies to the opposite. However, if the parties manage to channel the conflict onto a political track, Russian and US troops may act as guarantors of the Syrian-style Dayton Agreement.

Article published in Al Monitor:

Published in Tribune

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.

Published in Tribune
Saturday, 15 April 2017 02:46

On Tillerson's visit to Moscow

Rex Tillerson arrived to Moscow on Tuesday, having paralysed the traffic in Russia's capital, as police was blocking the roads to make a free way for his cortege, making blocked in traffic Muscovites send millions of curses in his address. The paralysis on the roads caused by Tillerson is very similar to the paralysis that has recently occurred in bilateral ties between the two powers, following the chemical attack in Idlib province reportedly committed by the loyal to Bashar al-Assad forces and then the strike of the SAA air base in Homs by the US «Tomahawk» missiles. The bilateral ties have reached the very low since the collapse of the Soviet Union and were about to pierce the bottom. The global uproar was at such extent that clash between the West and Moscow over Syria seemed inevitable. Russia has withdrawn from the the US-Russia air safety memorandum in SAR airspace and made it clear that in case of any further aggression threatening its safety will respond correspondingly to the challenge. Before the visit Rex Tillerson has sent Russia a kind of verbal ultimatum-like message to chose the side: with Iran and Assad or with the US. He was expected to bring to Moscow this ultimatums and tough rhetoric. But apparently he has lost them on his way to Moscow. The talks were finally constructive.

The global attention was engrossed to the visit of Tillerson. The allies were impressed by strong démarche of Trump all had been waiting from him, as it has put to an end the US Obama’s doctrine of relative non-involvement. So they expected that Rex Tillerson, will talk tough with Russia’s officials and make them sense how far the US can go and that it is in Russia’s interests to abandon the policy that brings it «to the wrong side of history». The «tomahawks» gave Tillerson a very strong position for talks. However, Russia has appeared to be not frightened, or at least demotivated, but concentrated and preparing for the tougher times and deeper confrontation, though keeping the doors for talks open. And the Secretary of State entered exactly those doors.

Tillerson held two much awaited meetings: with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and with President Vladimir Putin, meeting with whom was under the question mark until the last moment. The bilan is not so negative as it was expected to be. However, negative moments can hardly be overcome in the nearest foreseeable future.

Ukrainian issues apparently will not be resolved for a long time, until the US change position, so sanctions and damaged relations are likely to remain. In case of Ukraine only issue of Luhansk and Donbass may be settled in the framework of Minsk agreements. But Crimea, return of which to Ukraine was added by Trump's administration as an obligatory condition for ties normalisation, will literally never be returned to Ukraine, both because of historical justice and choice of the Crimean people, who have been struggling for independence from Ukraine since the very collapse of the Soviet Union. The history never lies.

Tillerson and Putin have failed to find the common ground in evaluations of the deadly chemical attack in Idlib province,situation in Syria in general and Russia's support of Assad. Support, which Russia continually rejects, explaining its role in Syria exclusively as of backing of the SAA forces in their fight with terrorists.

Russia keeps on demanding the investigation of the chemical attack while for the US and its allies it is an absolutely clear affair. Russia has once again blocked resolution in the UN Security Council that condemns regime of Assad for committing the atroce attack, calling for independent investigation. Previously Vladimir Putin has declared that Russia cannot take measures against regime of Bashar al-Assad until there are results of independent international investigations proving the guilt of the regime. Russia disapproves of the US strike on Syria, considering it a dangerous move to further destabilisation of the region and the world.

Tillerson's acknowledgement of the fact that the trust between the two countries is on  low level and that "the world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationships" is a promising sign, giving more or less positive perspective for the ties normalisation, or at least stabilisation. Another promising thing for the world's stability, is establishment of a bilateral working group, that is to "examine" the so-called "irritants" in relations between Moscow and Washington. Moreover, Russia is ready to come back to the bilateral air safety memorandum in Syria, thus somehow the sides have retreated  to the point before the "tomahawks" attack.

Russia and the US apparently have  very similar interests in many areas of the global agenda, as fight on terrorism, however in case of some of them they have totally different approaches to how to achieve the desired result. Even in case of Syria, both sides are eager to put an end to the brutal conflict, to see united and stable Syria, but they see the conflict settlement in different ways, if not to say opposite ones. Assad's family reign coming to an end is a clear fact for the US side and its allies, while Russia's side sees other scenarios. And to respond to Tillerson's appeal to sever ties with Assad and to work with the United States on different initiatives in the Middle East in a positive way, would mean for Russia a grave failure, geopolitical defeat of its six years conflict involvement and its policy. Russians either win or die but never give up – another important trait of Russian mentality coming from the depths of history. However Mr. Tillerson does not like historical excursus, though in case of Russia it is very useful to look deep into history books. Even being exposed by regime of Assad for many times during the six years of the bloody years, Russia will continue its general line, taken from the very beginning, as it is a matter of honor. Russia is sure that overthrow of Assad would bring to far more bloody and dangerous turbulences than his temporary remaining into power. And on this issue Washington and Moscow would hardly find a common ground unless the Syrians finally agree upon the launch of political transition and take the fate of their own country in their own hands.

Trump apparently was happy with the way how the visit of the US Secretary of State has passed. After having brusquely changed his views upon NATO to diametrically opposite ones, he claimed during his press-conference with Stoltenberg that "it would be a fantastic thing" if the US, Nato and Russia got along better. However at the same time he assumed that "it may be just the opposite".

So it is white, but can be black – it seems that it is characteristic feature of the current administration which have no clear understanding of not only what is exactly going on, but even lack understanding of what it actually wants. There is no strategy, and tactics is predetermined by momentary gusts, influenced by whoever. And it has such a scale, that the allies camp should be grateful for the US strike of Syria to a mother of three, Ivanka Trump, who was shocked by the photos of dead children.

In such circumstances it is practically impossible to predict how situation will develop both on bilateral and international tracks, as long as administration is absolutely unpredictable itself. Thus Russia following the Secretary of State visit will host trilateral meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs of Iran, Syria and of its own, apparently forging their alliance stronger. Nothing makes Russia more stubborn and firm on its positions than abruptness of the US administration.

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 30 March 2017 10:47

The Lesson

“Half claim the vocation of a leader, a quarter believe they are prophets, and at least ten percent take themselves for gods,” former Syrian President Shukri Al Qawatli, speaking about the Syrian people in 1958.

I have lived or worked in the Middle East and the Arab world most of my life. In one way or another, I experienced a half century of its culture and politics. I have seen its spikes, its highs and lows, its impetuous sixties led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dreams, its more practical if turbulent eras through the 80s and 90s, and then, the death of the Arabs in the first decade of the 21st century, when they were surpassed by the resourceful Turks, the wily Iranians and the ever-inventive Israelis.

I also shared with the Arabs the excitement and the hope of the Arab revolutions of 2011. These seemed to herald a new time, a new Arab, less ideological and defeatist. Somehow, the events even seemed to represent a global leap: politics at its best in the sense of being truly a reflection of the people’s needs. Some of the early events even hinted at a shift towards new kinds of democracy and citizens’ engagement. But, the descent since has been clear and certain. Chaos, fragmentation and disorder are the rule of the day. No one knows what is up or down, left or right, or, most importantly, how to take a country forward.

The region now is the example to all of what not to become, a lesson of human madness and foibles that must be avoided. Reeling in the past, fossilised in ideology and dogma, sustaining the unsustainable (such as the necessity to have many children), the Middle East seems to be its own worst enemy. Above all, the region is soaked in high emotions and distrust rather than a sober and moderate attitude required to address serious, even possibly mortal, resource challenges amidst severe global competition.

It is correct that Egypt is not Sweden nor Iraq - Canada, and that the cultures differ. But, demographic and resource problems, as well as social alienation across the world, are human, not Arab problems. Trying to solve them by an obsessive attachment to cultural identity is madness if it blinds you to the needs of reality – and survival.

The Middle East is exactly what the rest of the world should not be: egoistical, dreamy, distrustful, excessively attached to the past and to identity. It is “I” before anyone, however, that “I” is defined (self, family, tribe, party, religion, or nation), and dreams and excitement before reality, i.e. the triumph of illusion while the body and mind fall apart. One look at Cairo from any height will paint that picture of the body sinking, dust filled air, garbage covered rooftops, a human hive of survival with little consideration for the quality of that life. It’s a credit to Egyptians that they do so well under such conditions, their social culture remains full of humour and generosity, but for how long?

There is no doubt that there are many young Arabs who do not share these unsavoury qualities of the region. Somehow due to virtual or real-life exposure to new knowledge and other cultures, and despite poor educational systems, they have become free of the traditional dead-ends to some degree. However, these youth do not run the region, they do not have the experience to, and will not have this chance for at least a couple of decades, during which time holy havoc may be wreaked through political mismanagement, and the in-fighting between all and all. The Lebanese civil war serves as a good example to the Arabs today, every group fought every other over 15 years and achieved no result at the end of the day. It’s a lesson not likely to be learned but repeated, as we now see in Syria.

There are many that blame conspiracies for the Arab failure. In their neat world of good guys bad guys, the people of the region are once again the victims of the conspiracies of the rich and powerful, i.e. NATO, Israel and the USA. This can mean that the “evil three” is behind Al Qaeda or, the opposite, Assad. During one day recently in the region, one person told me that the Americans are behind the Islamists in Syria, and by another highly educated individual, that they are conspiring to keep the Syrian regime in place. It does not matter, whether the USA intervenes or not, it is at fault. The key point is that it certainly cannot be the fault of the locals; the devil lies elsewhere. Ironically, these Arab views mirror the simplicities of Bush’s Axis of Evil, but no one sees the parallels. The truth of international politics is much more mundane than conspiracies. It is a mixture of blindness and guesswork among leaders that most people outside the system cannot (or will not) fathom. The truth is that the systems and the bases for effective diplomacy, i.e. one that consistently produces results, don’t exist today, and if that in itself is a conspiracy then the conspirators are as much victims as anyone else – for they know not what they do.

The truth is also that the failure in the region is not just an Arab failure. Israel is guilty of a profound self-centeredness in almost all its policies since its inception. The whole program has been about its survival, neighbours don’t exist or don’t belong. No matter whether this is the result of trauma and terror – no one is bound to horror forever – the bottom line is a profoundly destructive policy. It is not possible to build a constructive path out of a starting point that implies deep within it that one group is simply superior in needs and destiny to others.

The Turks and Iranians are not much better. Implicit in their attitudes towards the region is imperial over-reach, each is deeply involved in a trance about an imperial past that must somehow take root in today’s realities. The Ottoman and Persian empires, however, are not destined to show their might again, for the conditions are not those of the 4th century B.C. or the 15th A.D., even if Iran and Turkey may well have a proper and constructive place in today’s world as economic and cultural powers.

The region was not always like this. It was once the font of brilliance and enlightenment so captivating that it infected Europe with its knowledge. The seed of understanding went from the Toledo school of translators, the many interactions of the Crusades with the East, and even from the Islamicized Normans of Sicily up to Florence and the European city-states. From there it developed into the flowering of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the basis of much of the cultural and scientific gains we have today. If we reach back further, the region was also home to ‘Um El Dunya’, Ancient Egypt, truly the Mother of the World (and civilizations), as well as the daring of the original monotheism of the Levant, from the Jewish prophets to Akhenaton, and the creativity and craft of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites, their alphabet and navigational skills the equivalent of our information technology today. Even before that, the Middle East was the source of the most advanced leaps of human development from the cultivation of wheat to the magical draw of Gobekli Tepe, a temple site that may have been one of the most civilising events of history. We would not be who we all are without the Middle East, there is no doubt of that.

However, the world, maybe the universe itself, may be marked, by ascent and descent, and so it is with civilisations. Once the height of human potential, the region is now in full and profound descent, reaching lows as quickly as it can – and with determination. It is true that nothing can continue to rise forever and that decline is inevitable, but there is always the possibility of new adaptation, or of stoically waiting during difficult periods. The rush to insist on reliving the past, of reasserting old identities and rituals over and over again, is however, an action in one direction: sure and fast descent, because it belies the nature of today’s reality. There are many people in the Middle East who would rather die and destroy than give up or change their habits, identities and dreams.

It is here that the region offers a crucial lesson to us all. These are difficult times across the world. We have made a world of our own creation that is not sustainable, and continue to look within its limited logic for answers, looping further into consumerism and techno-distraction, worsening our condition in the downward spiral. We eat too many fish, pollute too much air, and want too many goods, while distrusting those from other tribes around us. Meanwhile, we expect solutions by staring into a screen, a state that only creates a deadened trance or a froth of excitement. Others look to international meetings for answers, but these are processes enveloped in processes, very distant from producing results. This is hardly the ground for real and concrete solutions to our problems. Our challenges are many and, sadly, one of the first steps we may have to do is look at the Middle East, and know what road not to follow. Even long-suffering Africa may be rising in new, wondrous and unexpected ways into wealth and riches while the Middle East spirals into an inchoate psychosis of identities.

It may well be a strange wonder that there are places in this world that serve as a dramatic reminder for the rest of us of what not to do, in a sense so humanity can save itself. Unbeknownst and unconscious of its role, the Middle East may be like a sacrificial lamb so other regions have a hope of successfully diminishing their appetites or seeing more broadly into a common humanity. The lesson is there: self-obsession, whether of the individual or the group, and an insistence on a life of illusions will breed little but war, shortage and suffering. We must absorb this reality by looking clearly how the Middle East mismanages, and avoid that fate.

Indeed, if that lesson is to be learned, then it may be worthwhile to be clearer regarding the problem. From this very region, in Sufi lore, there is the idea of the Commanding Self, the ‘Nafs el Ammara’, that is equivalent to the modern idea of the ego but, clearer in definition: it is that part of us that is crucial to survival, a life force we share with a hamster, but that also ‘commands’ the rest of the mind to sometimes follow its self-centered and potentially selfish ways. It does so through the mortal twins of positive and negative expectation, of pleasure and pain, hope and fear, the tools of basic survival. It can either perform its limited if necessary function, or infiltrate and even take over our minds like a clever parasite.

Over a lifetime of practice, it can lead to endless greed and desire and the desperate anxieties and dissatisfactions that come with those tendencies. It can even take over our dream centres and, in a dark weave, ensure that we only imagine a massive illusion that, it assures, is ‘for our survival’. It also demands stasis in the tentacled house of selfishness it has built, and it does so by speaking in profoundly commanding ways of what to do and not. In other words, the Commanding Self can twist its basic purpose, as a force of life, and use our complex mind for its ends. The result? A self-affirming loop of endless appetite and anxiety. This is a kind of mental greed that is as devastating as the material greed plaguing so much of the planet. It is this state that is behind much of the region’s errors and falsehoods, an explanation of why its problems are cultural and psychological rather than material.

The Middle East is shot through with the vigorous and muscular arms of the Commanding Self. The devil lies there, not elsewhere. From the megalomaniacal speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, to the mother using emotional blackmail to keep her children near her, from Ghaddafi’s African manias to the exaggerated pride of the Arab male, the Commanding Self shows its might. It also translates into daily dishonesty and distrust. Meetings are held, agreement come to, but afterwards, each participant feels the right to ignore any consensus: the right to an absolute veto because “I” am the most important. This pattern causes everyone to take advantage before being taken advantage of, and the fangs of the Commanding Self become finely honed indeed.

At a fundamental level, this is a world of ‘either or’, with me or against me, the greys disappear and the unit trumps the whole. Stimulation and emotion must be immediate. Authority – the Commanding Self – is cherished and sought after and duplicated at all levels. The untamed pride and self-importance prohibit the validity of others, and the new. From parent to child, from the mosque to television, the habit of grasping and emotional turmoil and tyranny of authority, of the ‘command’, is passed on in the broken culture of the region. A consequent lack of creativity, and individual and group self-obsessions, come to define the culture.

There is no doubt that every region in the world shares some of these qualities, but, as media headlines and the chaos on the ground show, the Middle East is ahead of the game. As stated above, it is far from only the Arabs, Israel’s attitude towards its neighbours is also a testament to the power of this part of our psyche. Distrusting of all, dismissive of the needs of Palestinians, and fearful of eternal oppression, the Israelis have fed into the grand pipeline of darkness in the region, feeding it and growing in it: survival at all costs, including life itself.

This way can be given up. Humanity has much more to consider for itself than the Commanding Self. Our imagination, creativity, reason, empathy and many other qualities working in a balanced way, along with a Commanding Self that serves greater interests, can lead to wonders and solutions that are barely a twinkle in any one’s eye now. With the proper level of self-awareness, practise, and learning; above all by deciding to wake up to what is really going around us, we can become fuller human beings. It is when people in the region realize that they are just parts of a whole and not in some way entitled to privilege, including that of the victim, that the healing will begin. Such a sensitive, positive and active humility cannot harmonize with terms like Party of God or Chosen People, the superiority of one faith over another, or of frozen rituals from the past as ways of managing societies today. It is the opposite: our spirits and minds liberated from their regular chains and worn patterns and translated into action that are the road to our answers.

Enchained by the past, the Middle East refuses – so far – to reach these new paths. Yet it is also, ironically, the great lesson from the Middle East that it can be done. Many great people from there have shown the way, from Rumi to Mohammad, from Isaiah to unrecognised men and women of wisdom, to simply those who demonstrate daily their generosity or the courage to change convention. From its past, we can seek out some of the lessons of positive change and human possibility. For now, we must see the region soberly as a lesson of the dangers and disaster of descent. Maybe one day again, it too will join in the chorus of ascent that we are all designed to pursue.


John Bell is Director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid and also Director of The Conciliators Guild, an initiative aimed at redefining our politics by addressing key aspects of human nature. IMESClub member.
Initially published by The Strix : 

Published in Tribune
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