Iran remains under intense pressure from the United States, supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration would clearly like to force Iran back into international isolation. Regional powers are also pushing back against what they see as growing Iranian influence among its neighbors. How is Iran negotiating these trends? What countermeasures can it employ?

There is nothing new under the sun here. From the first days of the Islamic Revolution, the country began its adjustment to the difficult conditions of international isolation – something it’s only recently been able to start coming out of. But hardly all countries see Iran as part of an “axis of evil” – the European Union’s stance is different from that of the US and its axis of Middle East allies.

The best Iranian countermeasures to the new US diplomatic and economic offensive are simply to continue to abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif uses the word “restraint” quite often in interviews, and one gets a definite sense that the Iranian establishment is wary of being provoked into rash action.

It’s not even clear to what extent the Trump administration is playing an “Art of the Deal” game with noisy threats to withdraw from the agreement. Trump talked in his campaign a lot about US money wasted on recent wars, the cost of NATO, etc. – the expense of empire. A hot conflict with Iran would not be cheap. Of course, that’s assuming there’s some reasoning behind Trump’s actions…

In any case, as of now Trump has only passed the buck on the JCPOA to congress by requesting them to review the agreement. They may well stick to it – surely there is an awareness in Washington, despite the rhetoric, of the damage a unilateral US withdrawal would inflict on its own reputation and international security. If congress balks, Trump can still say he fought it, but lawmakers wouldn’t go along.

But there are and will continue to be new attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and new provocations. In this kind of game, Iran will continue its displays of “insubordination” to the will of the hegemon while taking care not to go too far.

Of course, if the US continues to use its influence and economic might to block the economic integration promised by the JCPOA – perhaps the deal’s primary incentive from an Iranian perspective – there is a danger that the Iranians will decide it’s not worth it. The tactic of signing an agreement but then stalling its implementation is also not new. It’s worth noting that the Iranian side was complaining about this during Obama’s tenure; it’s not something that cropped up with Trump.

How do you view the continuing hysteria surrounding Iran? Is “hysteria” an overstatement? What can be done to stop the escalation of the Sunni-Shia clashes?

You mean hysteria in the West? I don’t think we are hysterical about Iran here in Russia. I don’t know what can be done about Western hysteria. It’s a very old tradition. Somehow they’ve gone from the “Omar Hayyam Society” in Victorian England to the “Axis of Evil.” Although I think anti-Russian hysteria in some countries may soon outdo anti-Iranian hysteria – that might be a kind of solution to the problem: just replace it with somebody else. 

Perceptions of Iran in many of the Gulf states also seem to verge on paranoia at times. There are historical divisions. Russia has great potential as mediator but much of depends on Russia being seen as objective and not too

What are Iran's national interests internationally? What are its foreign policy goals – both stated and unstated? In other words, where does it want to go? Where does it see itself in the medium term? 

All players in the region (and some outside of it) are striving for influence, and Iran is no exception. But we should not underestimate the degree to which the perception of threat drives Iranian actions. Its goals are to ensure stability on its boarders, to avoid open conflict with the West, at the same time preserving and strengthening its defense capability. The more the perceived danger nearby, the more instability, the more urgent Iran’s need to have a strong influence outside of its borders – in Iraq and Syria, for instance.

But Iran also wants a better dialogue with the West – something that started to happen, but is now uncertain. Iran has become good at maintaining its “resistance economy” – some of my friends in Tehran laughed when I told them several years ago about sanctions imposed on Russia: “Oh, try dealing with it for thirty some years!” they said. But Iran wants and needs to build a better economy, and increasing ties with the West is part of this. Still, the Iranians will be loathe to engage in a dialogue that they feel is one-sided. From their perspective, there have been too many years – decades – of this.

You asked about foreign policy, but many domestic issues are closely connected with foreign policy, so I should talk at least a little about that as well. The economic and social burden of massive numbers of refugees from neighboring failed states – or states forced into failure – is one example that comes to mind. There is also the ethnic policy inside of Iran. Many of the tensions of minority groups in Iran – Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Turkmen and others – depend on the situation with those same groups just across the border in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – all bordering on Iran with ethnic populations spilling into Iran. In recent years, the central government in Tehran has taken steps to improve the living conditions of minorities in the country and to address their complaints, but the success of these measures is also dependent on outside factors.

It is reported that Iran was heavily involved in defusing the recent incident between Arab Iraqis and Kurds around Kirkuk. If you remember, they were on the verge of an armed conflict. Some will say: again Iran is meddling. But how could Iran not be considered a stakeholder? There are seven to eight million Kurds living in Iran.

It would seem that Iran really does view Russia as an ally. The two countries have achieved significant successes in Syria. How permanent is this alliance? How is it backed up by contracts, treaties, etc.?

It’s difficult to imagine Assad and his government still existing without Russia and Iran. Whether or not that is a success depends on your perspective. Preventing a radical Islamic takeover of Syria is certainly a success. Liberating Palmyra is certainly a success – there was no participation in the battle from the Combined Joint Task Force of half a dozen Western countries, unfortunately. From a logistics point of view alone, cooperation in Syria is not simple. There are diplomatic and cultural nuances too: Russian missile launches from Iranian territory raised questions in the Iran Majles (parliament) – the Iranian constitution categorically prohibits foreign military bases on Iranian territory – this is the specter of Iran’s colonialized history, in which Russia – alongside Britain and America – played a not always positive role.

It will take more work to develop a true alliance – and the long, complicated history between Russian and Iran is an important factor. There were multiple wars, the Turkmanchai Treaty of the early nineteenth century, giving much of northern Iran to the Russian Empire. At the moment, the two countries have common interests, not only in Syria, but security issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For a long time now, Russia and Iran have been trying to boost trade, but economic ties are still not anywhere near their potential. Yes, some contracts have been signed, but not nearly as many as have been proposed. There are issues of trust, perhaps, but also pressure from outside.

The fact is that while we may both disagree with much of the United States’ foreign policy, the US holds the keys to the global economy, and access to US markets and financial systems is paramount. And most of the youth of Iran is enchanted with the West and particularly the United States – the pop culture. Although I should say that Russian high culture enjoys an excellent reputation in Iran – the writers, musicians and filmmakers. Iranian culture is also making more and more inroads into Russia. Even in Moscow, we now have an Iranian film festival, there are evenings of Iranian music and poetry. The Iranian Cultural Center here does an excellent job.

It makes little sense to me that we do not have stronger ties, and I hope the future will bring them.

Photo credit: Fotolia / Borna_Mir

Published in Interviews
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:53

The End of ISIS is in Sight. What is Next?

Article by Shehab and Maria al-Makahleh

Given that the last strongholds for ISIS (known as Daesh in the region) in Raqaa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq have fallen, it is likely the group in its current territory-based form will gone by the end of 2017.  Only weeks ago, Daesh was allowed to leave central Syria before the Syrian Army closed the 5-kilometer gap between Al-Raqqa and Homs. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian Air Force, had liberated over 90 percent of the country’s territory. 

Fortunately, there has been a plan for this moment.  The Americans and the Russians—the main power brokers in the conflict– have been in direct talks regarding the future of Syria since 2015; indeed, everything is on the table regarding a transitional phase, the presidency, and even the future governing body. According to leaks and news reports, the two sides have agreed on that the president and transitional governing body shall exercise executive authority on behalf of the people but in line with a constitutional declaration. As for the president, he or she may have one or more vice presidents and delegate some authorities to them. This draft will be proposed during the Geneva Conference at the end of November.

As for the transitional governing body, it reportedly will serve as the supreme authority in the country during the transitional phase. According to drafts we have seen, it is proposed to have 30 members: 10 appointed by the current government, 10 from independent individuals named by the UN Secretary General and 10 by the opposition. The chairman will be elected from among the independent members by simple majority. This representative structure—which includes representatives from Assad’s government—stems from the recent visits to Damascus by officials from the European Union, Russia and the United States.

According to American sources, an important provision of the new constitution would be Presidential term limits. The proposed article states that “The President of the Syrian Republic shall be elected for seven calendar years by Syrian citizens in general after free and integral elections. The president might be re-elected only for one other term.”

The involvement of the Assad government in these deliberations should surprise no one. Former American ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford stressed in a recent article published in Foreign Affairs that “The Syrian civil war has entered a new phase. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has consolidated its grip on the western half of the country, and in the east. By now, hopes of getting rid of Assad or securing a reformed government are far-fetched fantasies, and so support for anti-government factions should be off the table. The Syrian government is determined to take back the entire country and will probably succeed in doing so.”

After Daesh, Syria still matters, and not only because of the scale of the humanitarian crisis there. Major political trends in the Middle East tend to happen because big countries want spheres of influence in geostrategic locations.  Russia has an interest in Syria, for example, as a Middle Eastern forward operating base, for access to warm water ports, and more generally, to check U.S. influence. The U.S. (and its allies) see in Syria a country cleared of Daseh that must now be “held” to prevent the regrowth of the terrorist caliphate, as a bulwark to protect neighboring Israel, and to maintain the free flow of oil.

In other words, the big countries that represent such geostrategic players such as Syria aspire to influence and change the geopolitical situation within her borders to improve their own strategic position and enable them to gain cards in the Middle East region.

But Syria is not merely a proxy battlefield for the big powers. With the end of Daesh in sight, Syria has a chance to reclaim her sacred sovereignty, which as the basis of the international order gives it the ability to control what happens inside its own borders. The upcoming constitutional process is an opportunity to restart and reconnect the Syrian people to its institutions, which should in turn serve them and only them. It should not be lost.

Article published in Foreign Policy Association: https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2017/11/28/end-isis-sight-next/

Published in Tribune

The leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia, the guarantor countries trying to broker peace in Syria, will meet just before the new round of Geneva talks. The timing is significant, as Syria is again boiling over, developments on the outskirts of Damascus are making matters worse and rebel groups are threatening the ceasefires reached in the de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria. 
At the beginning of the month, after Astana talks that were attended for the first time by Saudi representatives, the Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran to meet Iranian and Azerbaijani leaders, with the Syrian issue on the table. The Syrian opposition will meet in Riyadh on Nov. 22 as Saudi Arabia tries to unify them under one umbrella. At the same time, Russia, Iran and Turkey will discuss the peace process, apparently choosing a strategy for different scenarios depending on the success or failure of the Geneva talks, and will discuss the possible outcomes of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference next month organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Some perceive this conference as an attempt to foil the UN Geneva talks, but that is what they once said about Astana — which was, and remains, an instrument for making Geneva more effective. The conference is intended to launch an indispensable reconciliation dialogue to proceed in tandem with political dialogue and the post-war political process.
The meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents on Nov. 22 in Sochi will touch upon the latest developments in Syria and the Middle East. It is particularly important taking into account tensions with the US. Ankara has threatened possible attacks on US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey’s ties with NATO are becoming more hostile than ever. 
Washington is trying to revise the Iran nuclear deal and restore sanctions against Tehran, so Iran is openly inviting Moscow to form a coalition to counter the US. Iran’s activities in the region are anathema to the Gulf states, the US and Israel, while Moscow, Ankara and the Assad regime view its participation as vital.
The summit in Sochi has to be seen in the context of the Dialogue Congress 10 days later; timing that suggests Putin wants to draw united positions from Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani to declare the end of the war in Syria.
The three countries’ coordination on Syria has increased since 2016, although Ankara’s position on the Assad regime differs from Moscow’s. Putin and Erdogan discussed the Syrian crisis in Sochi on Nov. 13, when they announced that relations between them were fully restored. Later, Ankara announced the purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S400 missile defense system.

There is a clear mutual understanding about a political solution in Syria, and on other related issues, but Russia and Turkey appear to prefer to keep the details secret. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that during the talks the parties will discuss the possibility of the expansion of de-escalation zones in Syria, which is indispensable for peace. 

Some years ago, the West and regional allies were insisting that Bashar Assad should go and the political process had to start before Daesh could be destroyed. Now it is clear that any political process goes hand in hand with national reconciliation and the launch of post-war restoration, without necessarily clearing Syria of every terrorist cluster. 
Moscow, which has changed the course of the Syrian conflict since it intervened militarily in September 2015, has given a series of signals that it is continuing to craft a political solution. The agenda of the Sochi Dialogue Conference is the political future of Syria after transformations in which the opposition lost large parts of its control, and Daesh is on the verge of defeat. A Syrian national unity government may be proposed, but the most important topics are the constitutional reforms and parliamentary and presidential elections.
As for the Syrians themselves, they have little hope that the conflict will be settled any time soon. Some fighting groups have transformed into criminal gangs sucking blood and money from the miserable people living in territory they control, and profiting from the continuing war — which explains why they are trying to break the ceasefires. The international community, notably the West, is ignoring many issues, playing with facts to serve their own agendas and hiding behind noble statements. There is pessimism, but also a clear understanding that most of the foreign players are not interested in conflict resolution. Kicking the “annoying players” — Russia, Turkey and Iran — out of Syria would clearly serve their national interests, but not the peace settlement goals. However, there is still hope that the next Geneva talks will be more successful than the previous rounds and give hope for other initiatives to be successful as well. Syria needs peace.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1196166

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/SyrianNationalCoalition / Facebook

Published in Tribune

Article by Shehab Al Makahleh and Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

As it is apparent now that Russia has succeeded to help the Syrian government to regain stability to the war-torn country by various military means and then politically through its capacities so far as successful mediator, Moscow continues to translate the accumulation of military achievements in the Syrian field at the table of political talks and within the circles of the regional and international powers, realising its political and military weight and influence to make the necessary moves at the Syrian level at suitable time to break through the stalemated Syrian political scene at all stages.

However, Moscow has used various tactics to manage the Syrian conflict by forcing political, economic and military pressure on the countries that were deemed architects for the demise of the Syrian government and the division of the country. Thus, Russia used its political manoeuvring to gain momentum and impetus to win in the battle before imposing itself as one of the key players in the Middle East region in spite of all pressure being exercised on Russia since the inception of its military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Moscow cannot ignore demands of its Syrian peace partners: Iran and Turkey who have concerns over the Kurdish participation in the meetings. This is why the Congress of Syrian peoples, or the Congress of national dialogue, which was planned to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on November 18, was postponed to a further notice, as Ankara voiced objection to the invitation of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) to the conference.

The decisions adopted at the seventh round of the Astana talks of the Russian initiative to hold a Syrian national dialogue conference  (Congress of the Peoples of Syria) to be held in Sochi hold the following messages:

First, the increasing role and influence of the Russian Federation in the complicated files within the map of the Middle East through proposals which formed alternatives to American ones which have failed in the region. As an indicative, this applies to the Syrian scene through flexible transition of Russia as a player from a warring party against terrorism to a peace dealer and guarantor. Such a conference is deemed a very important development as conflict in Syria is transitioning from military to political with the forthcoming defeat of Daesh.

Second, the approval of the guarantor states, Iran and Turkey, to adopt the Russian proposal, and the rush of Damascus without hesitation to announce its participation were quite indicative. Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, David Satterfield, have made a stunning move by asking the opposition to participate effectively in all meetings and make crucial decisions to reach political solution. This indicates the approval of the stakeholders and the parties to the Syrian conflict to adopt the Russian vision or perspective - at least - in principle, although some regional powers are still rejecting such initiatives proposed by the Russian side. Though some observers are not upbeat with the conference; others consider it as a bail out from the current situation where there is no win-win in the Syrian conflict especially in some cities including the southern western parts and the northern eastern region.

Third, for the first time, political streams and Syrian social and ethnic components were invited to participate in such a conference which Moscow mobilised for even before announcing holding the gathering in Sochi at least in terms of the momentum of participation, which was shown by the list of invitations of 33 political Syrian components to participate in such an entitlement due to the failure of the international envoy to Syria, Stephan de Mistura, to implement the preamble of Resolution 2254 as a result of the international pressure exerted upon him and which turned him into non-neutral in his mission. Also this is coming from the understanding that none political process is possible without national reconciliation and without regional and international involvement with good intentions. Though this would not lead to instant solution to the current issue, but it would pave the way for future talks about the draft constitution, transition, and the future of presidential elections.

Fourth, the prelude to launching the so-called Sochi conference is an implicit declaration that the war in Syria is almost over. Strategically, Moscow may seek to withdraw the surplus of its forces, which have ended their counterterrorism mission throughout this month. The progress of Syrian army eastward the country and their coordination with the Iraqi army through the Russian Military office in Iraq and in Hmeimim would help strengthen the stand of the Syrian government in the coming dialogues and negotiations.

Fifth, the announcement by head of the Russian delegation to Astana, Alexander Lavrentiev, that the Syrian leadership's approval of constitutional reforms, and the formation of a national government, the achievement of national reconciliation and the battle against terrorism may be the most important headlines on the agenda of the Sochi Conference. Yet, some observers voiced their pessimism of the outcome of such a conference as Russia is considered dishonest broker or mediator.

Sixth, the consensus of the Syrians of various political and ethnic spectrums to modify the name of the conference proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The congress of Peoples of Syria” refers to two parts: The consensus of most Syrians on the unity of their country and fear of division. The other part is the acceptance of the Russian leadership to amend the name of the conference means the fall of anti-Russian propaganda on charges of trust or occupation of Syria.

These meanings and facts, which force themselves strongly on the political scene, face concrete obstacles. The first is the international infuriation expressed by the international envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura by refusing to participate in the regulatory measures, but only "accepting participation as an observer on conditions he presented to the Russian side”. The second barrier is the extent of seriousness of the Turkish guarantor to adjust behaviour and obedience to the Russian will in terms of countering and fighting against terrorism of Al Nusra Front in Idlib and increasing the stabilisation of the de- escalation zones, without vetoing on the participation of any Kurdish party or power in Sochi conference. The third barrier is the acceptance of Riyadh Conference members to participate in the Sochi meetings who will be adhering to the ethics of negotiations in line with the variables on the ground in Syria, which means they have to relinquish some of their demands as new results have become in favour of the Syrian government and its allies.

Lack of clarity of the conflict map in the northeastern region of Syrian geography may constitute a new obstacle if the United States continues to push Syria's Democratic Forces (SDF) towards more recklessness that may impose a de facto direct connection between the Syrian army and its allies with Washington and its alliance. The Kurds irk both Iran and Turkey who are guarantors in Astana talks and it would be a very thorny mission for the Russians to bring them to the table along with Iranians and Turks.

Whether Sochi Conference will be reaching a formula of Syrian national consensus in isolation from external interventions or not, what is certain is that former Kremlin initiatives succeeded in thwarting those of other countries which were held at conferences outside Russian geographical boundaries. Thus, such a conference sounds successful even before officially kick-off, with the number of attendees and the agenda which would lead to a transition government and the announcement of the draft constitution before being announced with amendments in Geneva end of November.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/will-sochi-congress-be-the-way-out-for-the-syrian/

Published in Tribune

The current status of the Middle East is similar to that of the Balkans in the years before the World War I. Are we going to witness a Balkanization of the region — geopolitical fragmentation caused by other countries’ foreign policies? And what are the chances of an Iranian-Arab war or a Shiite-Sunni conflict that could lead to the redrawing of the Middle East map?
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said a ballistic missile fired at Riyadh this month from Houthi militia-held territory in Yemen was supplied by Iran, and described it as “direct military aggression” and an “act of war.” The accusation was repeated by the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in his resignation statement: “Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq. I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” He specifically blamed Iran for interference in the affairs of Lebanon.
Saudi rhetoric aimed at Iran has escalated in the past few weeks, and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir accused Tehran of being behind all evil acts in the region. “The Iranian terror continues to terrorize the innocent, kill children and violate international law, and every day it is clear that the Houthi militias are a terrorist tool to destroy Yemen,” he said. “The Kingdom reserves the right to respond to Iran at the right place and time.” Last week Saudi Arabia called on the UN to take measures against Iran to hold Tehran accountable for its conduct.
Events are moving fast. They could lead to a military confrontation, including the intensification of proxy wars, and a deepening of the Shiite-Sunni divide. The danger persists as long as the two superpowers, Russia and the US, stand on opposing sides of the spectrum on many regional issues, especially Iran. Recent comments from the Oval Office make it clear that the latest events have full US approval and conform with its expectations and policies.
The Iranian ballistic missile program is a key factor in Arab strategies and alliances. Many countries in the Middle East started heading east and west to purchase air defense missiles, such as the Russian S-300 and S-400 and the American Patriot and THAAD systems. Arab countries also started to think of producing their own military equipment by having offset projects with weapons manufacturers in China, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, France, the UK, Germany, Brazil and the former Yugoslavia.
Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the influence of Iran in Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, even more so since Riyadh believes Hezbollah operatives fired the most recent missile launched at the Kingdom from Yemen. “The Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return,”  said the Saudi Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan.

Russia is keeping a close eye on the growing threat of military action against Iran — not a direct conflict, which is unlikely, but an extension of existing proxy wars.

Maria Dubovikova

This war of words may lead to a military clash in the Gulf or in Lebanon, further escalation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where Iran has a strong presence, and further proxy wars, unless the Americans take direct action against Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq. And that would lead to a dramatic escalation of tensions between regional and international powers already competing for influence in the Middle East.
Iran is a direct threat to the stability of the region, and US President Donald Trump has listed it as a major global threat. Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, as well its activities in support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, pose a threat to the interests of the Arab world.
Action may be taken, including the military option, against the Iranian presence in the Levant. Escalation in Lebanon, the worst-case scenario, may result in a military conflict that would explode the region and drastically affect global stability because the players involved are so numerous and the stakes so high.
Nevertheless, the concerned sides understand that direct conflict would be a zero-sum game, and has to be avoided. The way to do so is by conducting proxy wars, but the cost of such wars on global stability and human life would also, inevitably, be too high.
Russia closely follows developments in the region because it has become directly involved. For Moscow, regional processes are critical. Historically, stability in Russia depends a lot on the climate in the region, and the Middle East is again one of its national interests. It has succeeded in building normal ties with all the players in the region, even those that are rivals with one other. Having good ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has been proposing itself as a potential mediator in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, although the offer has not yet been taken up. Russia is worried about the possibility of escalation of already existing proxy wars and the emergence of new ones, especially in Lebanon. 
In commenting on the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has used diplomatic rhetoric, calculating all the possible risks and scenarios. A war in Lebanon would mean a drastic deterioration in regional stability, especially in Syria. The region needs stability, and political and diplomatic solutions for its disputes.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1194021

Photo credit: Mersad

Published in Tribune

It looks like that the international community has taken the final decision to put to an end the seven-year war in Syria with intensive conferences in the pipeline in November and December to reach a political settlement that secure the return of refugees to their homeland. However, both superpowers are right now strategically making counter moves, as Russia regards Iranian troops in Syria supportive and ancillary to the Russian forces and the Syrian army while the US considers Iranian troops, particularly those close to Jordan and Israel an existential threat to both countries.

Upcoming conferences in Astana, Riyadh, Sochi and Geneva prove the two superpowers had agreed on the final formula of the Syrian conflict. Albeit this could not have been achieved without the coordination of Moscow and Washington on the means to end the bloodshed and to silence the cannons, mainly with the Americans confirming that the future of Bashar Al Assad will be discussed after the transition period, while Russians insist on the principle that only Syrians have the right to select their leadership.

The forces involved in the Syrian conflict are now more aware that the war in Syria will be determined by the battle in Southern parts of Syria for its strategic importance today. The talk between Putin and Trump about the political agreement in Syria without prejudice to the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means that there is a complete change in the American and Arab position regarding the terms of the future negotiation between all parties.

The expansion of the “de-escalation zone” in the south of Syria means that there is a tendency to resolve the Syrian crisis for fear of its repercussions on neighbors - Jordan and Israel - who are concerned about the expansion of Iranian forces and its factions along the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

 

Competition and enmity between Russia and the United States still exist in spite of some breakthrough politically in some areas. The United States is opposed to the fundamentalist presence in power, supporting the opposition, trying to impose economic sanctions on the regime, trying to drain the regime and its capabilities in the crisis, as well as isolating and exhausting Russia and seeing the Syrian crisis as a quagmire that will trap Russian forces

Shehab Al Makahleh



Jordan has asked both the United States and Russia to pay more attention to its security concerns. This was raised by King Abdullah II in an interview with the Washington Post in April 2017. He was also the first to warn in 2004 of a Shiite crescent extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria.

Riyadh is hosting a meeting for about 140 members of the Syrian opposition on November 22-24 at a time when the United Nations prepares to convene a new round of Geneva meetings between Syrian opposition and the government on November 28, and Russia announcing the postponement of the Sochi meeting from mid-November to December. All these are indicators that regional and international powers are striving to reach a settlement as the Middle East cannot stand another bloody year due to so many sectarian grudges that would be aggravating regional stability.  

Riyadh meet crucial 

The coming Riyadh meeting is very important as it will help pick about 80 members to represent the Syrian opposition to the coming Geneva meeting or to Sochi. A unified opposition will be stronger and will help better negotiate the future of Syria.

The 8th round of the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva will focus on the next phase of Syria as the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said at the end of October that the “talks had reached a moment of truth”.

Turkey and Russia have agreed to focus on a political solution in Syria underlining the close coordination between the two countries that have played key roles in the Syrian conflict. That was clear in a joint statement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Teyyep Erdogan in Sochi on November 13, 2017. Moreover, the American President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart agreed during the Asia-Pacific Summit in Vietnam that “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria,” calling on all parties to take part in the Geneva process.

It is known that the three countries now are arranging the next scenario for Syria, as they are the three guarantor countries which brokered a ceasefire in Syria.

The recent expansion of the de-escalation zones in Southern Syria by the Jordanian borders aims to pave the way for a political transition and the announcement of a new draft constitution before Jordan and Syria sit to discuss opening the two crossing points: Jaber- Naseeb and Ramtha-Dera’a which have been a lifelinefor both countries.

The Russians started to defend Syria to keep it unified and to keep the Syrian government in full control of the whole territories to avoid any regional spillover.

Competition and enmity between Russia and the United States still exist in spite of some breakthrough politically in some areas. The United States is opposed to the fundamentalist presence in power, supporting the opposition, trying to impose economic sanctions on the regime, trying to drain the regime and its capabilities in the crisis, as well as isolating and exhausting Russia and seeing the Syrian crisis as a quagmire that will trap Russian forces.

Russia has expressed its concern that Assad will become a playing card for Iran, which has become a major knot for the Russians and a card in the conflict in Syria. Moscow has realized that Tehran was sharing Russian interests in the region, which emerged, especially after the Russian call for the integration of Iranian militias into the regular Assad forces. However, Iran also cooperated with Turkey in this context, which contributed to the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement, enhanced by mutual visits and the development of economic relations in the field of gas.

When Turkish Prime Minister said that: “Turkey is Iran;s gateway to Europe, and Tehran is our gateway to Asia, and this guarantees us exceptional possibilities in the field of transport and logistical support,” by then the concerned regional and international powers had to take such statements into consideration that both countries will be joining efforts to have their joint agendas at the expense of other regional countries.

The question that arises is: Are we witnessing a solution for the Syrian conflict by year-end, or will this process last longer? The answer is in the coming three conferences which will be held before the end of the year and only a political solution will be suitable for the coming era.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/11/17/The-Syrian-conflict-between-the-American-anvil-and-the-Russian-hammer.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

Published in Tribune
Friday, 27 October 2017 00:19

Russia's balancing act in North Africa

Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went to North Africa on official visits to Algeria and Morocco — two days in each country. In Algeria, Medvedev was privileged to meet with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, prompting the pan-African weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique to remark acidly that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are still on the waiting list to see Bouteflika.

In Morocco, Medvedev was conferred an honorary doctorate from Mohammed V University. Speaking of prospects for the bilateral relationship between Russia and Morocco, Medvedev quoted the movie "Casablanca," saying, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

He added, “The friendship between Russia and Morocco began long ago, and there is every reason to believe that it will only grow stronger and develop for the benefit of the peoples of both countries."

Should the Medvedev tour be seen as a manifestation of Russia’s new strategy? Its approach until recently barely extended over to the Arab world's “Far West." Is it a symptom of some internal changes within the Russian political apparatus, given that Medvedev has been largely preoccupied with domestic affairs, whereas foreign policy and especially the Middle East were very much in the domain of Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Neither of those scenarios appears to be the case.

Medvedev's visit didn’t come out of the blue. A Russian diplomat with knowledge of the visit's details told Al-Monitor both Algeria and Morocco had been put on the prime minister’s travel schedule at least six months ago, with intense preparations across several ministries ever since.

He has long been engaged in Algeria. In 2001, Russia and Algeria signed an agreement on a strategic partnership. For the next 16 years, economics and — to a larger extent — military-technical cooperation have come to dominate the bilateral agenda. By 2016, the annual trade turnover between the two countries, according to Medvedev, amounted to $4 billion — the lion’s share of which came from Russian weaponry. More than 90% of Algerian arms are exported from Russia. Algeria's annual exports to Russia are limited to several hundred million dollars.

In an interesting diplomatic twist, this trip marked a reunion of sorts between Medvedev and an old confrere. In 2010, when Medvedev was Russia's president, he met with Ahmed Ouyahia, who was in his third term as Algeria's prime minister. Just two months ago, Ouyahia was unexpectedly tapped to return to the position, enabling him to resume working with Medvedev.

Among the dozen documents signed during Medvedev's recent visit, the most notable included those on oil, gas and nuclear power development. Some sources reported the two parties might have discussed Algeria's potential purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, and Su-32 and Su-34 fighter bombers, as well as the potential for Russian companies to manufacture trucks and bulldozers in Algeria.

As is often the case with senior Russian officials’ tours to the region, Medvedev’s trip to Algeria was combined with his visit to Morocco. Not only does the strategy make sense for logistical reasons, it's also designed not to offend either neighbor.

As with Algeria, Medvedev’s economic dealings with Morocco heavily dominated the agenda. Although the Russian-Moroccan trade turnover of $2.5 billion is much lower than that between Russia and Algeria, it has a different structure and is on a constant rise. With Algeria, the prevalent component is military-technical cooperation, but Russia’s trade with Morocco centers on agriculture, with a number of small- and medium-sized businesses being important players, which nurtures deeper bilateral ties. Also, trade relations between Russia and Morocco seem much more balanced than those between Russia and Algeria.

In Morocco, Medvedev signed a dozen accords, mainly in agriculture, but the parties also reportedly reached key agreements for Russia to supply liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Morocco. Last month, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak was also in Morocco, where he said that the construction of an LNG regasification terminal was underway and that the two states discussed gas deliveries by the Russian companies Gazprom and Novatek.

What can be called the “pedantic parallelism” that Moscow pursues in constructing relations with Algeria and Morocco likely indicates Russia’s unwillingness to dive into complex regional games in the Maghreb, and its aspiration to limit, by and large, its relations to an economic agenda.

Another indicator of Russia’s balancing act in the region is Moscow’s neutrality on the Western Sahara issue. Delegations of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front — the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara's movement for independence from Morocco — visit Moscow every spring, hosted by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Federation Council (Russia’s Senate). Russian officials have always been careful not to make any anti-Moroccan statements. Algeria has accommodated Western Sahara refugees in camps for decades.

The “parallelism,” however, should not be misconstrued. Russia is perceived differently in Algeria and Morocco and occupies a different place on each one's list of foreign policy priorities.

For Algeria, Moscow has always been an important partner. From 1954-1962, the Soviet Union actively supported the country’s national liberation movement and the National Liberation Front, a socialist political party. Soviet universities educated future leaders of the Algerian military and a large part of the national intelligentsia. And when the Soviet Union began allowing cybernetics into its own academic curriculum, Algerians were among the first lecturers the Soviet leadership invited.

Today, the Museum of Modern Art of Algiers hosts a collection of both Soviet and Algerian artists who used to live in Russia. The “special relationship” between the two countries survived the downturns of the 1980s — against the backdrop of the crisis of socialism — and the economically rough 1990s. Moreover, the very nature of Algerian statehood makes its leadership refrain from an excessive rapprochement with Europe and keep an emphasis on its independence from its former parent state, France.

It’s a totally different case with Morocco. Its traditional association and cooperation with the EU, as well as the political familiarity between the Moroccan and Saudi monarchies, are all natural constraints to a more intimate alignment with Russia.

This background implies that no matter how skillful Russia is in its parallelism diplomacy, should Moscow have to increase its political involvement in the region it will need to further diversify its contacts with both countries. In Algeria's case, Russia is likely to actively develop humanitarian ties, to boost existing military-political interaction. With Morocco, Russia would have to place more emphasis on promoting economic ties to compensate for the lack of vibrant joint political formats.

That, however, is a matter for the future. So far, Medvedev's visits have demonstrated that Moscow is not forging a new Russian strategy in North Africa, but rather is naturally seeking to capitalize on its success in Syria and position itself as a main security supplier to the region.

Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/10/russia-medvedev-visit-algeria-morocco-diplomacy.html

Photo credit:  Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

Article published in Arab News:

Photo credit: RIA Novosti- Sergey Guneev

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Article by Maria Al Makahleh Dubovikova and Shehab Al-Makahleh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: capitanoseye / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune
Friday, 25 August 2017 17:35

Moscow looking beyond Hifter in Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

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