Maria Dubovikova

Maria Dubovikova

Maria Dubovikova is IMESClub President.

The agenda for the next round of Syria talks in the Kazakh capital Astana was determined in an Aug. 7 meeting in Tehran of the three guarantor countries — Turkey, Iran and Russia — amid expectations that the Astana conference will be held in the last week of August. What is expected from this meeting between the Syrian government and opposition representatives?
The answers lie in the two de-escalation zones that have been effective so far. The first was announced in early July in the southwest, covering Daraa, Suwaida and Qunaitra. The second was announced on Aug. 2, covering northern Homs, including Al-Waer neighborhood. The expectation is that there will be a push for de-escalation zones in other parts of Syria.
Negotiators will also discuss a proposal shared by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. It contains the “four baskets” of transitional governance, a constitutional process, elections and counterterrorism. The conference will discuss which topic to handle first; the Syrian government insists on counterterrorism.
The outcome will have a long-term impact on regional stability, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees. The meeting could help stop the spill-over from Syria into these countries, provided that Russia and the US continue to cooperate to expand de-escalation zones. The Astana meeting will also call on all countries not to interfere in Syrian internal affairs and focus on how to rebuild the country.

Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Despite the failure of previous Geneva talks to stop fighting in various parts of Syria, the government and opposition have agreed 15 evacuation deals that have allowed opposition fighters to safely leave besieged cities and towns for Idlib.
A cease-fire in three southwestern governorates was announced on July 10 shortly after long meetings between Russians and Americans in Jordan, which helped bridge the gap between them. Under the deal, Russian officers are monitoring the cease-fire.
To many analysts, things are moving faster than expected in Syria due to coordination between both superpowers, and a belief among the government and opposition that there has been more than enough fighting. Both parties acknowledge that now is the time to stop the war and open a new page for all Syrians to rebuild their country.
Some opposition leaders have started echoing the government in saying a solution cannot be imposed on Syrians by other countries, particularly since the US said it will no longer push for Bashar Assad to be removed from power. Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1142776/columns

Photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Monday, 10 July 2017 03:29

G20 comes with a breakthrough on Syria

G20 Summit was much awaited globally, and mostly not because of its format and discussions, but because of the top level bilateral meetings regularly held on its sidelines. The most intriguing talks were the first meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that lasted over two hours, giving impression that the two leaders enjoy company of each other. However, agreements or significant declarations were not expected, while some breakthrough has been achieved. And the achievement doesn’t concern Russia-US bilateral ties, that remain at their low, but Syria issue, as countries seem to have finally found the common ground on the Syria matter.

Both the US and Russian leaders claim the political victory after brokering a ceasefire in Syria for the first time since the breakout of the Syrian conflict. The unprecedented deal was not expected even by those who were optimistic regarding finding a solution to the Syrian conflict.

US President Donald Trump and his counterpart Vladimir Putin have agreed to a ceasefire in Southwest Syria starting from midday of Sunday, July 9, 2017, a day that follows their meeting at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.

A statement by Russian ministry of foreign affairs reveals that talks were held in Jordan one month ago, in June, aimed to reach the deal on the “de-escalation region” in southern Syria.

A memorandum of understanding to establish a de-escalation zone in the regions of Dara’a, Quneitra and Suweida was agreed upon Saturday July 8, 2017 between Russian, American and Jordanian military and security experts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who confirmed the news said that the deal will be effective as of midday Damascus time on July 9 which stipulates that a ceasefire will be in effect.

The deal provides that Russian troops will be deployed near the Jordanian-Syrian borders to replace the Iranian forces as Jordan has conservation regarding any militias or sectarian forces near its borders. This deployment is in interest of all the players, as it minimizes the dubious and undesirable Iranian presence in strategically important areas in Syria that threatens the Syrian conflict settlement and deteriorates regional stability and climate.

The Hamburg face-to-face meeting between both leaders allowed to discuss in details the agreement which also includes areas that have seen recent clashes between Syrian army forces on one hand and Israeli and rebel fighters in the Golan Heights on the other.

After Hamburg, what is Syria about? Is Washington still focusing on overthrowing the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad? Why did Putin stress that the shift in the American stand would help reach a final deal and settlement to the Syrian conflict peacefully? The answers would come simply from the trips made by some Jordanian officials to Moscow and Washington in addition to Syrian-Jordanian meetings at high security levels in the past few months which helped to culminate the deal, crowned by inking the agreement in Amman to help regain peace to the war-torn Syria.

Regardless of the Astana talks and the outcome of the negotiations between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, the aspirations of the Syrians would come true if this deal gets into effect with sincerity from all concerned parties whether regional or international as any spillover of the Syrian crisis would this time be a deluge, affecting the whole Middle East, igniting further sectarian wars that would spread like fire in the bush.

This year Russia has been involved in talks with Turkey and Iran over the creating of 4 de-escalation zones in Syria to be policed by two surveillance centers: one in Jordan and the other in Turkey.

Though the monitoring process will be conducted mainly by Russian military police in coordination with Jordanian and American officers, the situation on the ground will be decided by the deployment of heavy artillery and troops. This justifies why the Syrian army and its allies started an expansive and comprehensive military campaign to regain many strategic positions before ceasefire gets into effect.

The tripartite agreement was also in line of contact agreed upon between the Syrian government forces and associated troops on one side and rebels on the other hand. The three signatory countries voiced their commitment to working on a political solution" based on UN-backed talks in Geneva and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Jordan seemed the focal point nowadays to the US administration and the Russian policy makers as the understanding was designed to reduce violence in an area of Syria near Jordan’s border, which is critical to Jordan’s security and Israeli stability. Jordanian King Abdullah II is a frequent guest both in Washington and Moscow these days, negotiating many regional issues with the two superpowers.

A warm welcome and support came directly from the UN on the reached promising agreement between the US and Russia, saying it would enable upcoming peace talks.

Much work lies ahead to ensure that constructive talks would yield to the positive results aspired to perform a sustainable ceasefire over the long term.

In order to avoid any whiplash, Russia, the USA and Jordan, should establish a more comprehensive plan to better control the de-escalation to proceed ahead with the three other de-escalation zones. This will help to avoid any consequential issues in the relationship between the three nations through direct and candid address of their concerns.

The meeting between Putin and Trump has set up a robust and comprehensive framework for future cooperation on Syria and for solving other Middle Eastern issues. Yet, this cannot be achieved without regional cooperation and coordination from the parties concerned, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular, as the peace process majorly depends not only on the situation on the ground, but on what is going on at the negotiating table and on the presence of the consent between the negotiating sides. At least on the possibility of its achievement, that mostly depends not only on the will of the sides, but also on the influence projected on them by their regional supporters.

Photo credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In these talks there will be many Syrian opposition representatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: AFP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Reuters/ Yazan Homsy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 April 2017 02:46

On Tillerson's visit to Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 31 March 2017 01:13

The war on terror needs new strategies

A close friend of mine lives and works in London. Her message to me on the day of the terrorist act near Westminster was: “I’m afraid to leave the office. Everybody is alarmed.

Terrifying. It’s London’s turn now.” The terrorists are moving the frontlines, step by step, closer to the homes of those who fight them, yet these countries still insist that evil will end with the fall of Raqqa. They are wrong.

The international community has been treating the symptoms of this deadly disease, not the disease itself. As a result, terrorism has mutated. Radicalism is common to all religions, but Islam’s image has been damaged the most by it. The core of Islamic radicalism is more political than religious, and initially grew due to dramatic regional turbulence, caused particularly by Western interventions without a proper understanding of the Middle East.

This created an environment conducive to the spread of dangerous ideas, turning religion into an instrument of manipulation. Muslims became pawns in a dangerous game, a brainwashed army without the capacity to think. The same is happening in Western societies due to the implementation of multiculturalism without proper integration policies.

Immigrants had to lose their old identity but did not get a new one. The same is happening with their children but on a new level. Cognitive dissonance and a feeling of injustice felt by the children of less fortunate immigrants can easily radicalize them. Thus Islam is proposed as an instrument of self-identification that can help them find their place.

Radical preachers and recruiters of terrorists, Daesh in particular, take advantage of this discontent in their propaganda and indoctrination. In particular, they hammer home the fact that Western countries have ruined the countries of immigrants, who are then humiliated and discriminated against by infidels when they have to move to the West. From the viewpoint of the target audience, that is exactly how it looks in many cases.

The new face of terrorism is far more dangerous than before, and can hardly be tracked by security services. It comprises lone wolves with minimal equipment, and small groups of mostly home-grown terrorists operating in European cities. It is time the West recognize this, tackle it properly, and come up with better policies for immigrant integration.

Despite Daesh taking responsibility for the attack in London, security services failed to find ties between the attacker and any terrorist organization. Daesh as a fading structure is using terrorist acts inspired, not directed, by it as a PR tool. The cheap attempt by some media to indirectly blame Saudi Arabia by saying the suspect visited the Kingdom at least twice is clumsy, because every Muslim wishes to visit Makkah at least once in their life.

So far, the international community has failed to formulate an appropriate strategy to counter extremist ideology. Separate local initiatives are woefully lacking, while the ideology of radical Islam is spreading, taking advantage of new technologies. Via social media, recruiters and propagandists come in direct contact with youths and brainwash them.

At the same time, moderate Muslims appear utterly incapable of playing a constructive role in preventing the spread of extremist ideology and the disfiguring of Islam’s image. They appear totally detached from the youth, unable to find common ground with them, and unable to use modern technologies as effectively as radicals.

Traditional security measures cannot guarantee much under the current circumstances without a full-scale strategy to counter the spread of extremism at all levels. It is high time the international community admit the mistakes made. Nothing ends in Raqqa. The longer the international community tries to make the war on terror a PR stunt, the more unavoidable radicalism and terrorism will become.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1076236/opinion

Sunday, 26 March 2017 00:55

The complications in Yemen

The Yemeni conflict is frequently called a forgotten war, because in terms of media coverage it is always overshadowed by Syria and Iraq. But its tragedy is no less serious, and has no justification; this is the only simple thing about the conflict. Politically and historically it is a complete mess, more so than the public imagines.
 
The roots of the bloodshed go deep; we must take this into account when analyzing the situation. The current crisis started not in 2014 but in June 2004, and its direct roots are in the 1962 revolution in North Yemen that ended more than 1,000 years of Zaidi rule.
 
In 2004, the conflict flared when dissident Zaidi cleric Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi launched an uprising against the Yemeni government, following an attempt by the authorities to arrest him. The government accused the Zaidis and other Islamist groups of trying to overthrow it and the republican system. Iran was accused of managing and fueling the uprising with financial support.
 
The rebels said they were defending themselves, and accused the government of committing an act of aggression. The conflict has since killed thousands of people and caused severe economic losses for the country.
 
In 2011, the Houthis tried to ride the wave of the 2011 revolution, expressing their full support for democracy. They overthrew the local government in Saada and established their own rule, independent from Sanaa. Following the revolution, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after 33 years as president, and was succeeded by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
 
Yemenis had many reasons to be discontent with the government, including enormous corruption, high levels of unemployment, economic decline and the absence of prospects for youths. These formed the core of the uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring. A change of leader could hardly bring significant change to the country; it needed in-depth reforms and a full restructuring of the governmental system.
 
Since 2011, Ansar Allah, the official name of the Houthi movement, had been sustainably undermining the authorities in Sanaa. It overthrew them in January 2015 after months of clashes and protests, again seizing on popular grievances such as the rising price of oil to gain support from ordinary Yemenis. Pro-Saleh forces joined Ansar Allah, even though the Houthis supported the 2011 revolution against him.
  
Hadi was forced to leave Sanaa, and the Houthis seized key provinces, though they have been expelled from southern Yemen due to Operation Decisive Storm. The campaign is carried out by a broad international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by many major global and regional players, including the US. It is accompanied by Operation Restoring Hope, whose aim is to reach a political solution, but so far without concrete results.
 
Seven million people are on the brink of starvation due to the conflict. The health care system has collapsed. The conflict is worsening and becoming sectarian. The Houthis can no longer deny receiving backing from Iran, which they have been trying to conceal since 2004.
 
It is difficult to deliver humanitarian aid, especially in areas under Houthi control, not only due to airstrikes, but because of Houthi denial of access to aid convoys, and provocations by local community leaders. A Russian humanitarian convoy recently faced such a provocation while distributing aid in the Darawan camp for internally displaced Yemenis, forcing it to stop its work. Such cases are common and lead to the continuation of people’s suffering.
 
Attempts at constructive dialogue have failed as the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces have violated agreements and cease-fires. But a cease-fire is urgently needed, at least to allow humanitarian convoys to reach those in need, and at best to launch a political process and implement a UN roadmap.
 
The insurgents are becoming global troublemakers, recently planting underwater mines in Bab Al-Mandab, thus threatening the security of navigation in one of the most important waterways.
 
The situation is aggravated by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Yemen is bombed not only by coalition forces but also by the US, which has been striking terrorist positions in Yemen since the mid-2000s, inflicting civilian casualties. Coalition airstrikes are undoubtedly causing severe civilian losses, as in any similar situation.
 
Peace must prevail soon, not in the name of politics but for civilians. The coalition and its international supporters, as well as the legitimate President Hadi and forces loyal to him, are eager to work on a political solution and an inclusive government. But the international community does not have sufficient influence over the Houthis, whose actions belie the innocent image they are trying to portray. They are first to be blamed for civilian suffering.
 
Their slogan “death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam” hardly correlates with the image of an oppressed people fighting for democracy and equal rights. The slogan is reminiscent of something heard all too often in Iran.
 
Continuing violence and sectarianism are creating regional instability and a breeding ground for extremist groups and terrorism. A roadmap to settle the conflict exists. The hardest question remains how to make all sides speak with each other. They have to demonstrate a high level of responsibility for the fate of their own compatriots, who have become hostages, and put aside politics to work on building a common fate.
 
The work of government institutes that are trying to function despite the conflict shows the high potential of Yemenis to overcome the crisis. The international community should take an active part in the peace process.
 
Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1073521/opinion

Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East in recent decades was based on a harmonious approach that helped maintain good ties with all the players in the region without getting involved in political and sectarian wrangles.Russia’s involvement in Syria made this balance very difficult to maintain, since the Syrian conflict showed the sectarian and geopolitical fault lines of the regional powers.A main reason for the skewed balance now is Iran’s interference in Iraq and its multidimensional support for the Damascus regime, also given through groupings such as Hezbollah or other Shiite militias originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Iranian involvement becomes more alarming as the conflict progresses. Tehran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq is clearly not limited to the “noble” causes of fighting terrorists, helping Syrian minorities or supporting and defending the “democratically elected president” against “terrorists.”Iran has always had far-reaching plans, primarily to counter major Sunni countries in the Gulf, chiefly Saudi Arabia, and change the regional balance of power.Iran is also pursuing its goal of exporting the revolution, which means, according to Hamid Reza Moghaddam Far, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deputy commander of cultural affairs, “not sending advocates and preachers to other countries, but rather exporting the ideology.”This dubious export will go well beyond the Mediterranean.This ideology is brought in Iraq and Syria by gangs like Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, a Shiite militia fighting in Syria on the side of Assad regime.According to Tasnim News Agency, this division will stay involved in Syria for as long as Islam, read, in this case, Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, does not know borders; it “will always stand by Khomeini’s divine goals.”Iran is using Shiite Muslims as an instrument in its dirty game of expanding its influence and destabilizing Sunni neighbors.Saudi Arabia and its regional allies do not have any illusions about the troubles the Iranian expansion will bring them.Thus, by tragic coincidence, Syria has become a battlefield of rising sectarian regional tensions.The attempts to ease this sectarian conflict and careful messages of peace and detente coming from the western side of the Gulf are unheard, muffled by a roar of accusations coming from the Gulf’s eastern side.

It is not that Russia cannot cope with having Iran as a rival, particularly taking into account the latter’s difficulties on the global stage. By aligning with Tehran, Moscow seems to be on the wrong side of history.

Maria Dubovikova

Despite declarations of a balanced policy that keeps it friendly with everyone and does not allow it to build alliances, Russia is actually failing to maintain this policy in Syria, even despite its will, because it is being squeezed between the players there. The success of the Astana talks and the relative success of the new Geneva round only strengthened the Iranian position, especially after Iran was recently recognized as a guarantor of the cease-fire in Syria, leaving out GCC countries. True, the GCC countries were invited to take part in talks, but Saudi Arabia cannot accept the role of spectator and the other GCC countries will not get involved without this key Gulf power. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has been urging all foreign players in Syria to not turn the Syrian sides into pawns of their own game. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington signals the re-emergence of Saudi-US partnership. Moreover, it seems that in Syria, the two major players will try to overplay the until now successful trio. But is this a reasonable step? Due to certain circumstances, Russia appears to be on the same side with Iran in the Syrian game, even though it tries to stay relatively “impartial.” There is significant cooperation between Russia and Iran in many areas, boosted after Russia’s spat with Europe. Then, after all, Iran is a neighbor. It is also a dangerous rival and an absolutely unreliable friend. And between the two, Russia is choosing “an unreliable friend.” Yet it is not that Russia could not cope with having Iran as a rival, particularly taking into account the latter’s difficulties on the global stage.

Russia seems to be on the wrong side of history in this case, but it has few choices under the current shaky circumstances. The success of Astana and Geneva talks is greatly dependent on the relative friendship between Moscow and Tehran. And for Russia, it is a matter of honor to have the Syrian conflict solved through a political process. What should be clearly understood about the Russia-Iran cooperation is that there is no illusions about Iran in Moscow. Iran wishes to cooperate with the West more than with anybody else. Cooperation with Russia is not based on common values and long-term interests. There is a full pack of difficult to resolve issues between them. Iran poses an imminent threat to Russia’s interests. In Iran, there is a high level of discontent with Russia, especially its policy in Syria (that seems insufficient in Tehran’s eyes) and in all its policy toward Iran (which seems to Tehran not friendly enough: The nuclear plant is not build as fast as it was promised, the delivery of the notorious S-300s had been postponed for a long time, etc.) Currently, Russia’s answer to the question asked by Saudi Arabia — “Are you with us or with Iran?” — seems to be “with Iran.”

And expecting such an answer, the GCC is reinforcing the US presence and alliance in the region to counter Iran’s and its allies’ imminent threat. For Russia, as always, cooperation with Iran does not exclude an in-depth partnership with GCC, but Russia is interested in cooperating with the Gulf. With some GCC countries, like Qatar and Bahrain, relations are progressing well, while with other, they seem stuck or hostile, adding to the climate of mistrust. Russia is clearly making a grave mistake by getting bogged down deep in the sectarian mess and losing its impartial status, but it can hardly avoid it. But certain countries are making an even bigger mistake by expecting to overplay the existing trio, as deepening the geopolitical misunderstanding over Syria will plunge the region in an endless mess that costs dearly the civil population and the global stability. A great role Saudi Arabia could play, as a leading and powerful GCC state, would be to not urge the US to oppose the Russia-Turkey tandem, with an adjunct Iran, but to make Russia, Turkey and the US work together on resolving serious issues in Syria and Iraq, as well as to fight terrorism and minimize Iranian influence and role by actively taking part in all activities itself. That would be a worthy gambit, hardly expected, but benefiting the whole world.

 

Prominent experts and high-level officials from Russia and all around the world have been trying to find the answer to the question: “The Middle East: When will tomorrow come?”

Russia’s annual Valdai Discussion Club — a prominent, marathon-like two-day dialogue on the Middle East — has just finished. The meeting, held in Moscow, united top officials and experts from Russia and all over the world, with vivid discussions on the burning issues involving the Middle East. 

The Valdai format has once again proved to be an open platform for the free sharing of ideas, views and concerns. And what is more important is that it has proved that Iranians and Saudis, Palestinians and Israelis, and Turks and Kurds can be present in one hall, despite different religious beliefs, political views and affiliations. It shows they are able to talk, listen to each other, speak, peacefully argue, find common ground — and even joke and laugh. 

The key topics on the table were Syria and Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran and its place in regional affairs, and separately the issue of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation. They are the key issues that are forming the general regional environment and which have a serious impact on the global agenda and stability. 

All these topics were approached from both regional and global perspectives, thus involving global players from the US, Russia, EU and even India and China.

The dialogue revealed several major characteristics of the current historical momentum.

First of all, we are living in a critical moment in history, with the emergence of a new world, the true nature of which is still not clear. Russia’s role in regional affairs is evolving, and is being re-evaluated with more constructive analysis, understanding and sane criticism, instead of a reaction of panic and fear.

Raghida Dergham — the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute, columnist and New York bureau chief at Al-Hayat, and whose columns appear in Arab News — talked about the importance of Russia-US cooperation for the region. She also raised Iran’s role and ambitions in the region, notably in Syria.

Under the pressure of severe challenges the region is facing, there are signs of an attempt to put aside existing differences and make steps toward cooperation, facing up to the threats, and building the future the region hopes for.

At least that is what was clearly heard in the speeches of Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian foreign minister, and Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, founder and president of the Emirates Policy Center. 

Fahmy has assumed that the majority of the regional challenges cannot be faced without the participation of the global players. But he cautioned that this participation and assistance should be constructive, not deepening the schisms with geopolitical games.

A reconciliation in a region facing major threats could be led by Egypt, traditionally taking the cornerstone role of stabilizing player, despite the severe internal crisis it is still going though following the shock of two revolutions in three years.

This call for regional reconciliation and cooperation is coming primarily from societies that are tired of confrontation and conflict. 

Even the guests from Iran pointed out that there is a strong growing middle class in Iran, which is looking forward to modernization and a reconsideration of the policies toward the region and global players. Thus Iranian speakers gave hope for a change of Iranian policies in the foreseeable future. People are looking for peace, not for confrontation.

The last panel in the conference was entitled “The Future of the Middle East: In search of a common dream.” Politically the dreams of the governments are dividing, not uniting the sides. And from this perspective future prospects are quite gloomy, as long as the aspiration for dominance and power that prevails in politics continues, leading to more wars and confrontation. The dream of one government often eliminates the dream of another.

John Bell, director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Program at the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid, said we appear to be in a situation where there are a lot of dreams, but an absence of positive reality; some governments are manipulating Middle Eastern societies. But these same societies, political manipulation aside, are united by the same dreams of peace and prosperity.

This brings a crucial need for the emergence of civil societies that are able to form and determine the policies of governments. And the key to this lies in education, including training to resist propaganda and manipulation and teach critical thinking.

Thus, it is only through the perspective of such societies that the Middle East has a chance to pursue the common dream of peace. Governments stay and governments go. It is time to build bridges between the people.

Article published in Arab News

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1061826

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