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

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
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

Diplomats from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States have begun a fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana with the Syrian government and representatives of some Syrian opposition groups to help Syria move to the next phase of defusing tension in all area to restore the country’s peace and stability as the country has been locked in a vicious conflict since early 2011

In the middle of continued violence in Syria, the 5th round of the Astana talks is set to convene to further discuss the establishment of the four proposed de-escalation zones in Syria in Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa. This Astana meeting was preceded end of June by meeting by talks in Jordan involving U.S., Russian and Jordanian officials discussing a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria on the border with Jordan.

The July discussions will define the boundaries of the de-escalation zones, implement mechanisms by the three guarantor countries—Russia, Turkey and Iran— and will lead to the establishment of a new Syrian National Reconciliation Committee, that would split the other Syrian opposition groups.

The success of this round of talks depends on whether Russia succeeds this time in committing the parties involved in the Syrian conflict on the ground to the cease-fire as without a sustained cease-fire, no pathway to conflict de-escalation in Syria would be seen in the near future.

Sources to the 5th round suggest that monitoring over de-escalation in Syria be conducted from 2 monitoring centers — Jordanian and Russian-Turkish. In other words, the first will be Jordanian-Russia-US due to the meeting held in June between Jordanian, Russian and American security officials in Northern Jordan. This center will be in charge of the southern de-escalation zone. The second center will be in on the Turkish Syrian borders and it will be Russian-Turkish. These two monitoring centers would exchange information and suggest measures to prevent violations, such as military disengagement and any further military escalation on the borders with Jordan and Turkey to avoid any direct clash or skirmishes between the armies of these three countries which would deteriorate the situation to expand to the Israeli front.

As for the final declaration of the meeting, it will entail the formation of the National Reconciliation Committee of representatives of the Syrian authorities and local respected people, elder statesmen and opposition leaders. The commission would focus on all domestic issues, including security. It is expected that the committee would lead to the division of the Syrian opposition outside Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations secretary-general's special envoy on Syria, who is taking part in the meetings of Astana, keeps calling on all parties to reach ceasefire and this would be a very good chance to bring peace to the war-torn country.

The meetings of Astana have paved the way for further deployment of Russian military to police the borders of de-escalation zones in Syria within two to three weeks after finalizing a deal with Turkey and Iran.
The details of the deal will be agreed upon by the three countries: Russia, Turkey and Iran in spite of some concerns about Iranian role in this process as voiced by the opposition.

In these talks there will be many Syrian opposition representatives

According to Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, there will be nine representatives of Syria's armed opposition at the talks on July 4.

The meeting will be attended by Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hoessein Jaberi Ansari, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, and the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East affairs bureau, Stuart Jones.

The fourth meeting in Astana in May was a breakthrough, as the three ceasefire guarantor states signed a memorandum on the establishment of four de-escalation zones in Syria without demarcation of these zones. Monitoring over the de-escalation zones is now the main topic on the agenda of the fifth meeting in the Kazakh capital.

The Astana meeting sounds to put an end to proxy wars in Syria as external military intervention—including arms and military equipment, training, air strikes, and even troops threaten to lengthen the conflict.

The Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Kurdish armed groups that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the People's Protection Unit (YPG), are fighting Daesh and Al Qaeda fighters to control more territory in Syria. The Astana meeting would help define the lines that each of the fighting parties would reach in this conflict before a final political settlement is set inspire of Russian and Iranian support to the Syrian government. The main objective of such conferences including Astana and Geneva are to reach ceasefire and then to avoid any direct confrontation between neighboring countries armies on one hand and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.

The ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful radical elements and extremists to increase their influence and pose hiking threats to countries neighboring Syria: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Israel.

The first round of Astana talks were held on January 23-24, 2017 brokered by Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Russia and Iran, which support Bashar al Assad.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, more than 400,000 have been killed and more than 11 million displaced and fled the country to Jordan and Lebanon as well as Turkey seeking shelter.

Photo credit: AFP

Published in Tribune

The next round of Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, scheduled for July 10, will coincide with a fresh round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. These diplomatic efforts come as the situation on the ground is becoming more tense, with Russia and the US close to direct confrontation in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Turkey hope that a deal signed on May 4 to set up four safe zones in Syria will lead to a comprehensive cease-fire. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has proposed three issues to be discussed in parallel: Constitutional amendments, general and presidential elections, and the type of government. Yet none of the parties concerned are interested in the proposal, and they are continuing military action to gain the upper hand in any future talks.

At the end of April, Russia, Turkey and Iran established a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the proposed safe zones. As Daesh and Al-Qaeda lose territory in Syria, the government is gaining more, changing the political and military balance on the ground.

Decisive moments in Middle East history lie in the hands of three major powers: The US and its bloc, Russia and its bloc, and Turkey, which has strategic plans in Syria. With speedy efforts to liberate Mosul from Daesh, the main momentum will be in the belt extending from the Jordanian-Syrian-Iraqi borders in the southeast to Raqqa governorate, Daesh’s stronghold.

As the race to take over this area heats up, the outcome will determine the future of any independent Kurdish state there. The recent withdrawal of German forces from southeast Turkey to Jordan indicates that the Western alliance is trying to empty the region to make way for an independent Kurdish state. Ankara is striving to abort this project.

The deployment of Turkish special forces near the border with Syria a few days ago indicates that Ankara has a spat with the West over this region and its future. Meanwhile, Tehran’s recent mid-range missile strike against Daesh sites in Syria is a message that it will not allow any Kurdish state that encompasses part of Iran and thus endangers its national security.

So both Tehran and Ankara have a common enemy in the Kurds, and they will do their utmost to deprive them of an independent state between Iraq and Syria along Turkey’s borders. Meanwhile, the upcoming Astana meeting will discuss the four zones that will be free of armed conflict. This will pave the way for a settlement of the Syrian conflict, which has so far killed 400,000 people and displaced more than half the population.

The major difference between American and Russian efforts against terrorist groups is that Washington does not want to relinquish liberated areas to Damascus. Russia and the US are intensifying their competition in Syria despite their coordination over airspace to avoid clashes or accidents. Russia issued a warning after the recent US downing of a Syrian jet, calling it an aggression and a violation of the deal between Moscow and Washington.

Any development in southern Syria will be monitored by Israel, which will not allow terrorist groups near its border to be replaced by Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters, as evidenced by its recent attacks against Syrian government forces near the Golan Heights. Military achievements will determine the composition of a future Syrian government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1121631

Photo credit: Reuters/ Yazan Homsy

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN /Getty Images

Published in Tribune

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: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/06/us-russia-syria-peace-deal-bosnia-safe-zones-iraq-turkey.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

Published in Tribune

Trump's overseas visit, the first since he has become the 46th US President, is not typical as it started with Saudi Arabia, the first leg of his external tour which takes him also to Israel and with the Vatican as his final destination, defying traditional first state visits that are usually paid to Washington’s old allies. That is one of the reasons why the world is following the visit with a pity dose of skepticism, while the Middle East region is boiling with happiness.

This time the tour is not only a purely geopolitical matter. It is predetermined by a complex pack of geopolitical, political, business reasons and personal beliefs. The Middle East is at the center of the major global turbulences. The Middle East is the cradle of the world’s religions and of civilization. The Middle Eastern countries are important partners in terms of investment and trade, as they have high financial capabilities for investments and trade development while undergoing intensive full scale development in many sectors. With this tour, based on visiting three centers of three main world’s religions, Trump somehow gives a message of coexistence, and of building bridges between the religions and of reconciliation. 

The Riyadh Summit has become the starting point not only of his tour, but is deemed a new face-off of regional and world order. The summits may enter the modern history as a cornerstone of the new unprecedented tomorrow. 

They were not only about fighting terrorism and extremism, that are fundamental threats for the whole mankind, but about forming new alliances, closing the rows of the Muslim world under the powerful shield of the US. It is about formation of a new system of cooperation and breaking off with the heritage of Obama, considered weak-willed. However, the speech in Riyadh delivered by Trump at some extent reminds of Obama’s one, delivered in 2009 in Cairo University, during his first few months as president, entitled “The New Beginning,” which addressed Muslims from a Muslim capital. That time the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has stated that the choice of Egypt was predetermined by the consideration, that “it is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab World.” Trump has targeted in his speech not only the Arab World, but the whole Muslim community, except Iran, from heartland of Islam. 

The Muslim world is at the same time both the source of terrorism and extremism and its main victim. And Trump’s decision to make the first foreign visit not to the old allies, but to Riyadh can be explained also by the fact that old allies are incapable to lead the fight against the main threat to the world and to eradicate terrorism and radical Islam. Unfortunately, old Europe is incapable to take actions, be effective in crisis management, while plunging in everlasting disputes, vain rhetoric, loud declarations with fatal absence of real action. Old allies are incapable to make “America great again.” To become great, America needs to lead those who really hold the keys to the resolution of the main tragedies and problems of humanity. Trump gambled on the Middle East. The only powers that can save the whole international community are the Muslim ones. Absolute responsibility of leadership lays on the shoulders of the Kingdom as it is a custody of two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, for the sake of the religion and believers, of humanity and peace.

The meetings were not only about fighting terrorism and extremism, that are fundamental threats for the whole mankind, but about forming new alliances, closing the rows of the Muslim world under the powerful shield of the US.

Russia is left outboard of the historical alliance and initiative, while suffering from and fighting the terrorism and religious extremism on a daily basis, being targeted by terrorists and having regions majorly populated by the Muslim community. But even if the gates of the alliance and cooperation launched in Riyadh are left open for the “friendly” states, Russia, one of the few allies of Iran, will hardly be welcome on board. 

Friendly to Iran, Obama is replaced by hating the Persian State Trump. Trump unites the countries against Iran, which he has pointed as a main trouble maker of the region. Taking a unique flight from Riyadh to Israel, he will make an effort to bring to an end the Arab-Israeli conflict that splits the region and breeds strife, damaging global stability. Most likely he will fail to become the peacemaker we all aspire for, but anyway the effort is worth to be made. With this historical first ever flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, he is trying to bring Israel to the congregation of the regional states as an equal partner. From the view of the current US administration this can be explained by the fact that Israel and the Arab States are facing the same enemy – Iran. The formation of a structure resembling Middle Eastern branch of NATO has already sparked criticism in the US. Trump’s opponents who consider the perspective of the US to support one side in a sectarian conflict threatening to the national interests. The visit in general was covered most critically by the US media, to the contrary to Arab ones, which praised the historical visit in the most flattering and complimentary evaluations and appraisals. 

The Arab World feeling weak in face of the new threats, suffering from the oil price cut that is posing a heavy burden on the national state economies which were not accustomed to austerity measures, feels in dire need of the US shield and of the strong and determined president in the White House. Trump has already demonstrated his might with airstrikes in Syria last March that have much pleased the regional powers. The Arab world pins high hope on Donald Trump; however, the presence of the US in the region has never brought anything but wars, instability and destruction. But the hope for the better dies the last. But this time it has all chances to perish completely. Donald Trump, with whom the Arab world is so happy, despite his uncomplimentary remarks about the regional powers he had been making before running for president of the US and his presidential campaign, forgotten and forgiven by extraordinary Arabic magnanimity, makes his countrymen very dissatisfied. And the things are developed in such a way so far that Trump has all chances even not to remain in office even by the end of this year. If the things follow such a scenario that is predicted by most renowned analysts’ that would mean the return into power of the Democrats and return of Obama-like agenda back on track with a much more friendlier approach to Iran, and far less friendly one to the GCC and mainly Saudi Arabia. In such circumstances, somehow rephrasing Trumps words from his speech delivered during Riyadh Summit, the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children. It is a choice America cannot make for Middle Eastern states. And instead of waiting for anyone to protect them and solve their problems, it is the most appropriate time to unite their forces themselves, to trespass contradictions, to diversify global ties, to fight terrorism and radicalization themselves, to take the lead in building their own future. The upcoming 22 years will be the hardest for the region. And how the regional powers will survive the turbulence depends exclusively on their own potentials rather than relying on others.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1103896

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: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/04/us-russia-staking-out-territorial-clout-syria.html

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
Page 5 of 6