Sunday, 03 December 2017 17:30

China’s new role in Syria

What is China’s incentive for a greater involvement in Syria? The new Chinese involvement in Syria would lead to a further competition between the Washington and Beijing. China will deploy troops in Syria as Beijing is very concerned about the amounting number of militants of Chinese-origin (the Turkmenistan’s or the so-called Uighur) that have joined Daesh in both Syria and Iraq though China does not interfere in any country unless it has economic benefits. The Chinese Ministry of Defence is considering to send two units known as the "Tigers of Siberia" and the "Night Tigers" from the Special Operations Forces to fight terrorist factions in Eastern Ghouta (Suburbs of Damascus) as some of these fighters hold the Chinese nationality and they would pose a high risk on China once they return. Chinese Special Forces will soon head to Syria to participate in countering terrorism of the “Islamic East Turkestan Movement” from Xinjiang in the Damascus countryside.

An estimated 5,000 Chinese militants are fighting alongside various insurgency groups in Syria. China's involvement in military operations against Daesh is due to Chinese  own interests in Syria economically and politically as well in spite of the country’s doctrine of defense sufficiency not to intervene in other’s affairs. Their role in Syria has many facets including sending Special Forces to act against those Chinese Muslims who fight in Syria and because Beijing is afraid of these fighters to get back to China with their extremist, terrorist and Jihadist ideology. Moreover, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syrian infrastructure.

China does not want Syria to become a haven or a hub for Uighurs to launch terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and interests overseas. Driven by the August 30, 2017 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Krgyzstan, which was planned by “Islamic East Turkestan Movement” in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, was an justification for the Chinese to be in Syria as the movement’s acts will not stop at this point but would rather be aggravating due to the end of the Syrian conflict. For some analysts, the involvement of the Chinese and the Russians in Syria is Similar to that of the intervention of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001 to deny al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against any US targets.

Though the Chinese statistics show that there are 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from China fighting among Daesh and other terrorist groups in Syria, the Chinese army has taken this decision quite late which reflects that the main objective for getting involved in the military acts against extremists and terrorists in Syria is economic.

China which seeks to obtain economic benefit from the Syrian crisis has received earlier a number of the Syrian government representatives who asked for further Chinese economic support for Syria which resulted in the announcement of more than US$6 billion in direct investments.

After the demise of Daesh in Syria, Beijing will be investing in Syria heavily to take over oil and other resources. However, politically, China will endeavour to coordinate actions with all parties concerned in the Syrian issue including Russia and the USA.

Last week, there were Chinese-Syrian talks in Damascus where Al-Assad's advisor Buthaina Sha'aban on November 23 held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on countering terrorists from the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" in Eastern Ghouta region after being spotted in the countryside of Damascus.

Since the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" group has committed more than 200 terrorist acts in China in the last few year, China is looking for finishing them off in Syria before they get back to China where they would act against the government in a bid to stir revolution that may endanger China’s economic development and progress.

China is reliant on on Central Asia and Mideast energy sources, and volatility in these countries; thus any control by Salafist regimes affiliated to Uighur intimidates China’s power supply and the so-called “Eurasian One Belt One Road”(  (OBOR)  project which connects more than 60 countries with the Chinese Xinjiang functioning as bridgehead China’s trade strategy.

Xinjiang, which is located in Northwest of China, is restless and susceptible to violence and anarchy. The Chinese government, blames disorder on radicalism and violent separatist movements, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement where more than 10,000 armed Chinese police marched through Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, last February in a show of force.

Sources are quite sure that Chinese military advisors are already in Syria, paving the way for the troops to act as combat drones have been shipped from China to Syria’s Humaimeem Airbase in Lattakia, North West of Syria, to be used to counter-terror capabilities. The Chinese will send more troops if the Americans send other military forces to Syria; in other words, China’s involvement hinges on American conduct because China will not allow the US to corner the arm of Beijing by harboring Chinese terrorists for future acts against Chinese interests in Syria, or elsewhere. The coming few weeks will witness many meetings between Chinese and American military and security officials due to the involvement of the Chinese forces in Syria. Though the Chinese involvement is to safeguard their power energy to ensure their trade superiority worldwide, the Americans would not allow the Chinese to win in the Syrian conflict against the Chinese fighters for future considerations because China has become a global actor in various fields including trade and military, depending on energy from the Middle East region. Once China is in Syria, this means it will have more active role in the Mideast and in Central Eurasia, affecting American strategic interests.

 

Shortened version is published by Arab News

Published in Tribune

yrian government representatives arrived in Geneva on Nov. 29 — a day late — for the latest round of negotiations aimed at resolving the country’s civil war. The meeting began Nov. 28, but representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delayed their arrival reportedly until they were assured there would be no discussion of removing Assad from power.

The rebels, however, still insist any settlement must include Assad’s departure.

There are many, many cooks in the kitchen trying to serve up their own resolution to the nearly seven-year war. The United Nations is sponsoring the talks in Geneva — this is the eighth round — but related meetings have taken place in other locations.

Moscow is participating in the negotiations and has shifted its focus from military activities to finding and implementing a political resolution to the conflict. Russia hosted a trilateral summit last week in Sochi in an effort to calm Turkey and Iran after the United States and Russia agreed earlier in November that there is no military solution in Syria. Russia’s summit also allowed for a meeting of minds ahead of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that Russia plans in Sochi. The congress is tentatively scheduled to be held sometime between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, during the break between the first and second stages of the Geneva talks.

Also last week, Saudi Arabia hosted a preparatory three-day meeting of opposition parties in its capital. Moscow praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unite the opposition for the Geneva talks and to help draft a new Syrian Constitution. Moscow sent Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia's special envoy to Syria, to the meeting.

During those talks, the various opposition groups chose Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, to lead them in negotiations. He had filled the same role at previous talks in Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan.

The 36 opposition representatives at Geneva include eight from the Syrian National Coalition, five from the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, eight independent delegates, four each from the Cairo- and Moscow-based platforms, and seven from military factions. 

The armed opposition delegates will represent Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Yarmouk, several Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and the Free Tribes’ Army, a confederation of tribal militias trained by Jordan.

Hariri took over the High Negotiations Committee from Riyad Hijab. Before Hijab resigned Nov. 20, he made it clear that under his leadership, the High Negotiations Committee had been pressured into making concessions that favored Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hailed Hijab’s resignation as “the retreat of radically minded opposition figures from playing the main role.” However, Hariri reaffirmed his stance that a transitional governing body should be established without Assad. Hijab also said Russia’s proposal to host the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi will not contribute to the political process, as talks on Syria should be organized under UN auspices 

At first glance, one might expect the many separate summits and meetings to force Assad and the opposition to bring the armed conflict to an end. Arab and other countries have extended their seemingly warm welcome to Russia’s efforts — if the attempts are really aimed at reforming the system and preparing the ground for Syrian fair elections in the future.

However, the “if” matters most. Russia’s military intervention in the war in 2015 tipped the scales in favor of Assad’s regime, and Russia has strongly backed Assad's remaining in power. For these reasons, opposition representatives have said the upcoming Sochi congress amounts to “the regime negotiating with the regime.”

Also, many opposition representatives object to the inclusion in their ranks of what they call “puppet opposition” groups that are considered quite loyal to the regime and Syrian intelligence. Syria faced demonstrations against the groups’ participation in negotiations, as they have nothing to do with the Syrian revolution. 

Nevertheless, the representatives were included in the “unified” delegation in Geneva, even though decision-making on behalf of the opposition requires an approval from 75% of the delegates. Some representatives of the opposition believe the “puppet” groups will help the regime block any proposals it doesn’t like.

The Syrian regime has wielded considerable negotiating power at the Geneva talks as, on the one hand, it enjoys the support of Iran and Russia and, on the other hand, Syrian forces mounted successful military operations in eastern Syria. The regime quite clearly is ready to enter into a dialogue with the opposition and even take it back into the country — but only if the opposition agrees to abide by any conditions imposed by the authorities.

Regardless of all the divisions and disagreements, the pro-government coalition remains relatively united both militarily and politically. The forces that oppose the regime, on the contrary, are still splintered. Moscow is well-aware that despite large-scale international support, the opposition is being pulled in different directions by its various allies. Russia has been ruling the roost as the country that managed to uphold and protect Syrian state institutions and impose its rules of the game in the absence of Washington's clear agenda in Syria, the Saudi-Qatari crisis and internal problems in the Gulf region in general.

Russia is approaching a Syrian settlement with a “healthy skepticism,” which, by the way, appeals to the masses. Most Russians are quick to equate any FSA group with the Islamic State and continue to believe in the legitimacy of the ruling regime. The prove-that-they-are-not-terrorists stance toward the armed rebels allowed Moscow to carry out strikes against moderate opposition groups, only to recognize them as such during the talks. That was followed by the emphasis on Moscow's ability to seek and accept a compromise and hold a dialogue with all the parties to the conflict, regardless of the voting outcome. Moscow, thus, stressed its readiness to recognize any politician the Syrian people will vote for, be it Assad or his opponents.

I would like to be in the wrong here, but the current momentum has Assad as the sole victor in the civil war, while ostensibly factoring in the opposition's sentiments. But his Nov. 20 visit to Sochi shows there is no equal, full-fledged rival to the authorities among the opposition forces. In this sense, holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress — even though it allows Kurdish participation — implies granting equal voting rights to the puppet opposition.

Moscow’s stance is also apparent if we consider its attitude toward the de-escalation zones. Russian diplomats recognize the legitimacy of local councils as civil administrations of the opposition-controlled territories, and military negotiators are ready to work with them on the ground. However, the punishment mechanism for violations has remained unilateral. Essentially, the opposition, as a defeated party, is granted some concessions in the form of the de-escalation zones to avoid further operations and prevent new bloodshed. At the same time, the de-escalation zones are largely meant to gently and gradually reintegrate the opposition and bring it under the control of the regime. Perhaps this accounts for Moscow’s statements that, to date, governmental forces control more than 98% of the territory, including the de-escalation zones and the areas run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/syria-opposition-meeting-geneva-assad-russia.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Martial Trezzini

Published in Tribune
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
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:48

Daesh defeated, but what comes next?

After the demise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the question on everyone’s mind is: What comes afterward?
History has proved that defeating the symbols of terrorism has little impact on the phenomenon of terrorism itself, or its ideology — the international community, after all, heralded the defeat of terrorism after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
What happened in Syria and Iraq should be a wake-up call for everyone. The answer to the terrorist threat must be global. Battling against the influence of extremists is part of the nightmare that Muslim populations — tormented by anguish and uncertainty — are suffering daily, with many killings everywhere. The war on terrorism will not end with the defeat of terrorist factions; the many-headed hydra of terrorism will breed more of them from those who are marginalized in their communities, those who are unemployed, and those who have their own, more personal, reasons for becoming terrorists.
Daesh is on the brink of collapse on all military fronts; its cells are likely to continue with bombings and assassinations, but the terror group is no longer able to occupy land or open new fronts.
But after all the blood, displacement and destruction in Syria and Iraq, how will things look on various levels when Daesh is finished?
Perhaps all the bloodshed can lead to a serious reasoned response.
Since the 1960s, decision-makers have not placed terrorism at the top of their priority list. There are various reasons for this: Arms sales are one of them. Terrorism is not perpetrated only by those who have their hands stained with blood. Terrorism starts with dialogue and discourse, notions and concepts; then it expands into a sense of hatred, rejection and exclusion of others before turning into murder. The more extremist the education is, the more bloodshed humanity will witness.
The world must eradicate the circumstances that gave rise to the incubation of extremist ideologies and must neutralize the role of deviant clerics. The role of fighters may end when the fighting does, but the role of artists, intellectuals, the media and civil society can formulate new concepts and breathe life into them without directly interfering with social customs and traditions.

Many of its fighters have fled to many different countries, carrying with them Daesh’s ideology, and waiting for the chance to try again.

Maria Dubovikova

For example, many of the countries most-ravaged by terrorism lack any theatrical movement — the kind of thing that can, through satire and comedy, mix education with entertainment.
These countries should also initiate employment programs and plans to rescue the poorest families from their tragic realities. And perhaps the most important step that must be taken by these countries is to create new education programs for children based on a new vision. They also need to provide young people with sports and social clubs, instead of relying solely on mosques as a gathering place for youth. Of course, mosques and religion can play an important role in the transmission of morals and ideals, but those who would use religion to disseminate hatred and sectarianism must no longer be allowed to do so. Indeed, sectarianism should be officially criminalized through the UN.
One of the major obstacles to defeating terrorism is the rehabilitation of those who have been radicalized. Once they are trapped in the web of terrorism and extremism, it can be very hard for them to extricate themselves from it. A road map must be prepared to accommodate them and lead them back to normality.
Daesh has come to an end as a state; its dreams of a caliphate destroyed. But many of its fighters have fled to many different countries, carrying with them Daesh’s ideology, and waiting for the chance to try again.
After all that Daesh and other terrorist groups have done, and after all the condemnation of their bloody actions, can we now hope that terrorism will not return with other groups under other names? Or is that something we can no longer aspire to?

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1200191/columns

Photo credit: AFP

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

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

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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

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The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostilities in certain locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal reached late June, that went into effect in July, on establishment of de-escalation zones in Eastern Ghouta and South Eastern Syria aimed to help end up the six-year war in the Arab country.

The new de-escalation deal would cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta and South East regions of Syria by the Jordanian-Iraqi borders is slated for signing by the end of August–mid September 2017, and would pave the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

On August 2, 2017, Syrian government forces and armed opposition leaders have agreed to a ceasefire north of the city of Homs. The de-escalation zone created there will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

Moscow is now in direct contact with the Americans, following series of meetings in Europe between security and military officials from both sides, to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Jordan – the areas which are deemed important by both the Syrian government and the Russians.

Experts from the United States and Russia are holding consultations on the expansion of the umbrella of de-escalation zones in four regions in Syria.  The truce on Homs, Al Waer neighborhood, has been announced August 2, 2017 after intense talks in a European capital between both Russians and Americans while the third truce will be announce later this month after Astana meetings. The expected date of the third truce will be around mid-September and will cover Eastern Ghouta. Syrian armed opposition factions have begun evacuating the last district they control in the city of Homs under a ceasefire deal reached with the government.

The Russians have already completed negotiations with Jordan on the monitoring of the recently established de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, and on the Amman Declaration which is on its final stages before being announced this month in Astana.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented on American President Donald Trump’s statements on the efforts to reach a “second truce” in Syria, saying: “The Russian side is in contact with American partners about setting up de-escalation zones in Syria, and other topics for discussion in the context of Astana peace negotiations on Syria.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jordan’s King Abdullah II late July had a phone conversation which covered many regional issues including the means to address the Jordanian concerns regarding settlement of the Syrian conflict.  Both leaders have discussed the measures taken by Russia so far to monitor the de-escalation zone in Southern Western parts of Syria and the Jordanian role to bring about a cease-fire in the war torn country, especially in the context of the implementation of the memorandum signed by the representatives of Russia, Jordan and the United States on 7 July, 2017 giving due importance to territorial integrity of Syria without calling for a regime change in pursuance with provisions of UN Resolution 2254.

The deal of ceasefire in northern Homs would not have been reached without a major Syrian army ground offensive to the north of the city backed by Russian air strikes.

The two sides of conflict: the Syrian army and the armed opposition have reached a dead-end in their in futile war, and now there is a there is a rising will amongst both sides to calm down the situation,  particularly in places where it is clear that one party has the upper hand over the other. In this context, the Syrian army has the upper hand and the general mood in general is that no one is winning in Syria.

The northern part of Homs is known as “Al Waer” which was a thorny neighborhood for the Syrian government for more than 6 years and it is known as the cradle of the Syrian demonstration against the regime.

However, the warring sides seem to be interpreting other details differently nowadays, especially with the withdrawal of Al Nusra fighters from the borders with Lebanon to Idlib and the withdrawal of Al Waer fighters to Idlib as well, turning Idlib into a center of extremists and armed opposition by the borders of Turkey.

As per the recent agreement on the withdrawal of the armed opposition from Al Waer, this neighborhood will return to state control, cleared of weapons, and fighters who chose to stay will have their legal status settled.

For Jordan, such an agreement is very important to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis and eradicate terrorism, ensuring border security and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as Syria’s security and stability are of strategic interest for the region. However, the new ceasefire in Al Waer is another test and a challenge to Russia and the USA, mulled as a turning point and a precedent that the two countries are seeking to build on to resolve the Syrian conflict.

The Astana meeting between the opposition and the Syrian government was concluded in May 2017 with recommendations to set up four de-escalation zones in Syria to help solved the Syrian conflict.

More than 2.5 million people are believed to be living in the general area of the four zones which span the southern provinces of Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida.

A meeting of leaders of the Southern Front militias was held with American, Russian and Jordanian experts in the Jordanian capital Amman end of July to discuss a truce in southwestern Syria. Another meeting was held also at the sidelines of the Russian-American meetings between Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh to discuss the next step that lead to a transition government.

Iran, Russia and Turkey have agreed to resume the next round of Syrian peace talks in Astana in late August following their decision to continue discussions on creating four de-escalation zones in Syria.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/08/new-important-deal-looming-for-eastern-ghouta-and-south-east-syria-by-jordanian-iraqi-syrian-borders/

 

Published in Tribune
Friday, 18 August 2017 00:15

Russia re-examines relationship with Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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