Monday, 01 September 2014 23:04

Interview with Vitaly Naumkin on the current trends of the MidEast

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Interview is available in Russian (click here).

Maria Dubovikova: The first question I would like to ask, following the recent changes on the battlefield of the everlasting conflic – what are the prospects of the Arab-Israeli conflict now? Are there still chances for a peace settlement in the short or maybe mid-term perspective? And why?

Vitaly Naumkin: I think there are no chances for a peace settlement in the short terms. It is a difficult confrontation, which will occasionally inflame and deescalate. Explosions will follow the pauses, and it may last long enough, maybe for several years. I do not see any chances for a resolution even in mid-term perspective. Why? First of all because there is no intention from the Israeli part to stop the occupation. It goes on. And the settlement is impossible without the end of occupation. Some dialog is possible – the parties will be forced to have it. Some experts believe that the reconcilement can be achieved only through an imposed decision. I do not much agree with such scenario. First of all, because there is no accord within the international community, among the global players. Let’s take,the US–Russia relations as an example. Is it possible to speak about agreement if the Americans still impose pressure on all the Middle-Eastern countries to make them stop the cooperation and the development of ties with Russia, trying to talk them into joining the sanction war, that is waged against Russia by the US, EU, and some other countries – Australia, Canada, etc.? Secondly, a decision may be imposed only on the parties, that are dependent much on the external players and obliged to listen to them. And even in such case it is not always possible. Israel has shown that it is not eager to listen even its closest partners, as it is sure that they will not abandon the strategic union with it and will continue to support it. And if Israel is criticized everywhere, even in the US, and this criticism is growing due to the atrocities against civilian population in Gaza, this will not make the US threaten Israel with any sanctions. There is nothing to talk about without sanctions. In this sense Israel is a quite sustainable state.

Thirdly, the positions of the two parties are so irreconcilable, that it is unlikely that something can be imposed on them now. And if we examine the consequences of the events in Gaza from the Arab angle, we will see that HAMAS positions are not undermined, but they have strengthened instead, despite they receive support in the region only from Qatar and Turkey. The sympathies towards HAMAS are very high among the population of the West Bank, which is however controlled by Fatah. Our Palestinian friends give such an assessment. HAMAS believes that it was victorious in this battle. Israel had to agree to cooperate with the coalition government. It is a technical, not a party one but is created on the basis of agreement between HAMAS and Fatah. At the beginning Israel refused to conduct dialogue with HAMAS, but agreed afterwards. Mutual concessions made a fragile ceasefire agreement possible.  

But HAMAS has not managed to make Israel satisfy the demands presented in the beginning of the conflict – to lift the blockade and free Palestinian convicts. Israel, in its turn has suffered an important reputation loss. There was no choice as annihilating more than two thousand people including 400 children and trying to continue to present it as a counterterrorism is impossible. They wave no opportunities to calm the anger of the Palestinians. Some hot-heads in Israel say that they need to reoccupy Gaza, deploy troops there. It is a new occupation and it will lead to the further radicalization. It will cause violence, guerilla and subversive warfare and this will not have an end. There will be no security and that is why Israel has to retreat and free the territories. Israel says it has to provide its own security. Of course it has, but only through a settlement including the interests of all the parties.

Many of the projects of reconciliation proposed today include an idea of demilitarization of Gaza and establishment of Mahmud Abbas’s administration control there. Mahmud Abbas can not follow such decision as the Palestinians are using the concept of common sovereignty over the whole Palestine, which includes the West Bank, Gaza and Eastern Jerusalem – all three inseparable parts of Arab Palestine. Why the Palestinian authorities have to agree to demilitarize one part, not knowing what to do with the others? Demilitarization is only possible for the whole state, which should be created on these three territories according to the resolutions of the Security Council of UN. But Israel refuses to recognize East Jerusalem as a capital of Palestinian state as it considers it as an eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state. The Palestinian leaders also can not agree to demilitarize Gaza as they will be just smashed by their own population. The reputation of Abbas is already shaky and if he makes further unilateral concession, he will be just branded as a traitor and he will have difficult times. Moreover, there is no accord among the Palestinians. However, meanwhile Mahmud Abbas and Khaled Mashal manage to interact productively. It is difficult to say whether this cooperation will be long term or not. All the more so, there are parties of realists and radicals within HAMAS. I have often heard from the Palestinian public figures, that they could agree to the demilitarization in conditions of the international guarantees for the security and deployment of the international forces.

I will repeat, that such state should include all three parts of Arab Palestine – West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. May be, it is possible to fantasize over the granting this city a special status, giving the access to it to the representatives of all the Abrahamic confessions. It is possible to agree on that. There are some other variants of compromise solutions but Palestinians can give up Jerusalem on no conditions, let alone they have support of international community and the international law. And the Arab and the whole Islamic world will not support such “renegade”. This is out of question. A compromise should be found.


M.D.: You have mentioned the US pressure on the Arab countries to make them join sanctions against Russia. And it seems that mostly all their attempts are in vain. Is the Arab world interested in cooperation with Russia? Or the West is still more attractive partner for it?

V.N.: Unfortunately, there is no unity in the Arab world, it is atomized. There are pro-Western elites in the Arab countries, which at best do not care what policy towards Russia will their governments conduct. These elites will act only according to the US and their own interests. There are other elites, which are at least interested in diversification of their states external policy, and Russia is much needed here in all the spheres: political, economic, and military, just as a counterbalance for the Americans. This is the most humble estimation. Analyzing further, we will find some core elements in cooperation with Russia, which cannot be provided by anyone else today. Let’s take for example Egypt. Who can really provide weapons today if these weapons are not supplied by the US? Russia. But in this respect Egypt does not abandon the cooperation with the US and is not going to do so. There are some differences between Cairo and Washington and As-Sisi is willing to develop relations with Moscow. By the way, Egypt always had such tendency to work with both parties, even during the Cold war era, Nasser’s Egypt was considered a “client” of the USSR. President As-Sisi acts very reasonably; it is just common for Egypt. It is a big country with important geopolitical interests, international weight.

Saudi Arabia also tries to act independently. And it is also inclined to develop relations with Russia on many directions. But there are states that are attached to the US and depend in them in their own security. The Western countries limit theirmilitary cooperation and they are unable to quit this orbit. This also concerns some countries that had some contracts with Russia in this sphere and that are interested in development of the cooperation, say, the UAE. They cannot work on this direction without the US approval and they do not need this. Maybe such need will emerge due to the grave deterioration of the situation in the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi directions.

Hardly anyone will dare to predict now how the situation in Iraq and over it will develop. What will be the further actions of ISIS? How will the de-facto third air war, launched by the Americans in the North of Iraq, finish? Will they bring it on the Syrian airspace and what could be the consequences in such case?

Alas, there are more questions than the answers. But these questions will also determine how the Arab countries will cooperate with Russia. No doubt, that nobody, including the US, will be able to isolate Russia in the Middle East.  And even their closest ally – Israel is going to launch a broad cooperation with Russia. This country understands our open, fair and reasonable enough position during the last crisis, when we criticized the actions of Israel in Gaza, but showed the willingness to cooperate with them and highly appreciated the fact, that Israel had not supported the anti-Russian sanctions.

Israel did not take part in the voting on the anti-Russian resolution in the UN General Assembly in March concerning the inclusion on Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia. And Netanyahu does not conceal that during the last crisis he contacted President Putin on the phone several times (Israeli establishment does not like to have secrets) – this does show something.

M.D.: As for ISIS – it’s quiet evident that the crisis is extremely dangerous for the Middle East and for the whole international community as well. How do you think, do the Western powers, the Middle Eastern ones have a chance to stop the spreading of ISIS and to annihilate it? And wil the ongoing American operation on the North of Iraq be effective, or will they finally have to deploy their troops on Iraqi land once again?

V.N.: I would say it is impossible to defeat a movement that has deep mass and religious roots by bombardments. How is it possible to precisely identify the targets and then eliminate exactly those radicals by airstrikes? The Americans do have smart bombs, but they are not so smart to return back if the target is invalid. “It seems, that is not those guys!” That means there will be civilian casualties, as always, which cause a rise of anti-Americanism everywhere. The ISIS member may be untouched, but the one who fights against him may catch a packet and go to long rest. These are unforeseen consequences of airstrikes.

But in the modern warfare the air forces remain the key element in any combat activities. That is why the absence of planes in ISIS is their weak point. It is also important that this theater of operations does not provide much cover. So, generally it is easy to destroy large groups of vehicles and personnel by aviation – there is no cover for them. David Goldman from the “Middle Eastern Forum” even believes that the capabilities of ISIS are “overestimated” and reminds that the insurgents from this organization “operate on the terrain where the aerial reconnaissance may detect any stray cat”. That is why now the ISIS is hunting aircrafts – planes, helicopters, drones, and attempts to capture airfields in Iraq and Syria. They hunt pilots. The absence of aviation is partially compensated by the modern AA systems captured in Syria, if they will not be destroyed by the US air force, mainly by UAVs.

The Iraqi armed forces have not had aviation for long time – the West was afraid to give it to them, thus not numerous flying personnel has lost qualification. The dissolution of all the military units of Saddam Hussein’s state contributed to this issue. It was one of the gravest mistakes made by the US trying to make a new state in Iraq. And now the ex-officers of the old army fight on the ISIS side.

Russia has just recently provided airplanes to Iraq, but the pilots have still to do some training to operate them efficiently. There are countries having powerful air forces among Iraq’s neighbors.  Saudi Arabia has more than 300 F-15, 75 “Typhoons” and more than 80 “Apache” attack helicopters. Jordan is armed with 60 F-16 and 25 “Cobra” attack helicopters. On the one hand if these countries engaged in combat, I am sure, they would demolish this ISIS. And they would not much care about the collateral damage. But on the other hand, such actions could cause hatred not only towards the Americans (who are already hated enough) but also against these regimes, which are already considered pro-Western. Moreover, my colleagues from these countries, including Saudi Arabia, mention that there are great sympathies towards ISIS among the population. And these sympathies are spread not only among the common people, religious activists, social outcasts, but also among the military. That is why in personal discussions they are voicing concerns, that if such war begins, no one knows on which side will fight several dozens of thousands Saudi Arabians, which are supposed to be engaged in combat. And let’s not forget about such crucial mobilization motivators for religious extremism like Israeli occupation, American invasion, unfinished campaign in Afghanistan (and it is unclear what will happen to this country in future), severe civilian war in Syria, which absorbs Jihadists-legionnaires from all over the world to fight the secular regime.

The US examine the possibility to launch strikes on ISIS on the Syrian territory, a part of which is controlled by the extremists, and where they are gaining sufficient military success – regions of Rakka, Deir az-Zora, Aleppo. However Washington rules out any cooperation or coordination of actions with Bashar al-Assad government – a natural ally of those who fight Jihadists from ISIS, connected with Al-Kaeda by a group “an-Nusra” and other groups. If these strikes will hit targets on the Syrian soil without Damask consent, even if these targets are the regions of concentration of the ISIS troops and weaponry, the Syrian government will consider such strikes a violation of its sovereignty. It seems nice, that the ISIS would be bombed out, but who knows what these Americans can do – the highest-ranking officials of the country, including Obama, are repeating “Assad should leave” like a mantra. What if they decide to bomb also (or event instead) the government forces? By the way, I think that Russia will be on Damask side, though we are also very willing to be done with the ISIS.

In Syria there is in fact a confrontation between the government forces and thuggish Jihadists. And where is a moderate, according to the Western classification, opposition? Where is the Syrian Free Army? It is impossible to see it. However, a positive tendency of forming coalition of all those fighting against the ISIS is falling apart. Today, as far as I know, even the Kurdish Working Party and the organizations connected to it, which have not collaborated with Arabs yet, are fighting the ISIS in cooperation with some moderate Islamists. ISIS threatens all neighboring countries – mainly Jordan, which has its own Islamist extremists, Lebanon, which has got a subdivision of ISIS with an unknown before Amir al-Urdunni. The head of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi threatens to reach Kuwait, which he is going to punish for the cooperation with the US.

The situation is extremely dangerous. To sum up, the local regimes should not expect to defeat the ISIS by the US smart bombs and missiles. And nobody wants to fight on the ground – not the Americans, not even these regimes themselves, a part of them even refuses to list ISIS as a terrorist organization. It is better not to risk, who knows, how the situation will turn? Moreover, the defeat of ISIS would cause a reverse reaction as a sympathy and input of forces to cruel Jihadists who speculate in the feelings of Muslims. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army facing severe difficulties does not show its best. And the potential of Kurdish armed units “Peshmerga” was also overestimated. It was on thing to conduct guerilla warfare against Iraqi security forces in their mountains during Saddam Hussein rule. But fighting in open combats with reckless, wildly cruel and heavily armed ISIS fighters – it is absolutely another type of warfare. My Iraqi friends tell me that there are also ISIS allies among the Kurds, however they are not numerous. Kurds are not very religious in general.  And the massacres against non-Muslim minorities on the North of Iraq – Ezids, Shabakh, Christians, were aimed to threaten all the population of the region. The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan – Erbil does not manage to deal with the huge mass of refugees.

I think that Peshmerga, which are still able to make a barrage against the murderers from the ISIS with the coordination with the Iraqi army and the US Air support, will not go further than their territories. They will not go to fight in the South of Iraq.  It is a theater for the Iraqi army and the militia of Shia who live there.  A so-called Golden division of Iraq – an elite unit consisting mainly of Shia, and destined mainly to defend Shia shrines in Kerbel, Nejef and some other places, has a good combat reputation.

Iran has recently declared that it has sent its advisors to Iraqi Kuristan. Prior to that the Iranian advisors were only in the Iraqi army and in the security forces. Will the Americans and their allies cooperate with Iranians? Will the West be able to overcome the anti-Iranian syndrome having the common interests with Iran to oppose the ISIS and al-Qaeda? It seems, that again, there are more questions than answers. But in general the battle will be long and bloody.


M.D.:And the Libyan crisis?

V.N.: Also seriously and for long!


M.D.: With no any chance?

What chances? Libya seems to have few people and much oil – make a deal! It is possible to divide power and resources. Maybe someone in the region will not like it, but I will dare to say: the Arab League should think about creating a peacekeeping force (under the support of the UN) to make Libyans stop the internal conflict, not to allow the creation of an “Islamic state” on its territory, how it happened in Iraq. The countries like Egypt, Algeria, concerned about such threat could have played an extremely important role in realization of a such plan. Let’s recall how the Syrian troops have once entered Lebanon and stopped the civil war there. But the crisis should be settled by the Arabs only and not by a new Western intervention.

Interview is available in Russian:

Read 8326 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 March 2015 14:26
Vitaly Naumkin

Scientific Advisor of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences (since 2009); full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Senior Advisor to Staffan de Mistura; President for the Center for Strategic and Political Studies (since 1991); Editor-in-Chief of Vostok-ORIENS magazine of the Russian Academy of Sciences (since 1998); Member of the Scientific Council under the Security Council of Russia, Member of the Valdai Discussion Club