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

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

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

Article published in Arab News:

Photo credit: RIA Novosti- Sergey Guneev

Воскресенье, 27 Август 2017 18:47

Russia’s new role in the new Middle East

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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

Пятница, 25 Август 2017 17:35

Moscow looking beyond Hifter in Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

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/

 

It was an uprising with all its meaning. This is what happened in the events of the 14th to the 28th of last July, where the "Al-Aqsa Intifada" took place.

All the five features of the first Intifada existed:

First:Participation between all generations and ages, between the sexes, between all classes, social groups, professions and local communities, between Muslims and Christians among our people, between Palestinians of Jerusalem and Palestinians inside the Green Line, between religious and secular. Between the field leadership and the street,

All participated together to protect our national existence, and its meaning embodied in the image and structure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Secondly, and third:National unity, solidarity and cohesion: unite all behind national United  slogans: the slogans of factions were not raised, and the compitition between everyone to provide food and drinks and other needs of the protesters without waiting for any support or funding. Every one was following the decisions of the four Shiekhs, the sound was one and the act was the same.

Fourth, the characteristic of continuity and communication as a reflection of national resilience , self-esteem, and a high sense of dignity, was expressed by the absence of refraction in the face of the repression of the occupation and its daily attacks on the protesters. And what amazed the Israeli police that the number of protesters was increasing day after day despite all the use of the methods of repression and abuse. After each "meal" of oppression , the number of protestors increased. After the next "meal" of oppression, it increased more and more. Perhaps this was the main factor that made the occupation forces retreat in the face of the high psychological resilience  and the unrelenting willingness to give to our people.

Fifthly, the characteristic of the peaceful and non violent  nature of the Intifada, and the measures of the occupation have not changed its course. The preservation of this character has enabled the continued participation of all groups, despite their varying capabilities, and has enabled the world to stand by and support the creative approach adopted by the Intifada participants.

Therefore, we have experienced an Intifada, not measured by the number of days, but measured by its qualities, and what it achieved:

In the context of what has been achieved, many are trying to limit what has been achieved, which is only to prevent the occupation government from imposing electronic gates and surveillance cameras. This flawed view has not been able to take into account the following Palestinian, Arab, Islamic and international results:

Let us start with a Palestinian: a living model has emerged here, and an additional glimmer of examples of what popular resistance can achieve, a model whose lessons and mechanisms will be absorbed and replicated elsewhere. Unfortunately, this model has not yet affected both sides of the divide, leading them to unity.

On the other hand, the Arabs were forced to hold an extraordinary meeting of the ministers of Forwign Affairs on the subject, and Jordan stood on its feet to follow up the event as well as other Arab countries. It is important also to say that those who were thinking of normalizing their relations with Israel would think now and after the Al-Aqsa Intifada a thousand times before they take such steps.

On the popular Arab and Islamic level, we have seen the demonstrations of anger that have taken place in Amman, Istanbul and many other Arab and Islamic capitals and cities.

Europe: At the beginning, European countries called on "the parties to exercise restraint and not to be dragged into violence," according to their statements, but later, as the nature of the matter became a further step to impose full Israeli control of Jerusalem, there was a change in the European position, which called on the preservation of " The Religious and Historical Status of Al-Aqsa Mosque: The Status Quo ".

The problem was in the US position, which completely adopted Netanyahu's speech on the need for electronic doors and cameras to ensure its security, so America chose to work to ensure the security of the occupation, as an alternative to work to end it.

In this context, there is a need to speak with the Americans in order to understand that the Al-Aqsa Intifada must make them think a thousand times before taking the foolish step of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada has achieved all these results. What remains important is the continuation of the popular struggle for the accumulation of other achievements, such as the end of the provocative settlers' incursions into the Aqsa Mosque, the cessation of settlement expansion and others as steps on the way to end the longest settler colonial occupation of the last century.

A meeting on August 7 between King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas established a joint crisis committee to follow up the Israeli violations at Al-Aqsa Mosque and evaluate the past and expected Israeli violations in Jerusalem.

This committee’s significance is to avoid the eruption of a third Palestinian Intifada that would be a result of excessive power by enforced by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

The royal visit to Ramallah was marked as “a sign of rejection of Israeli recent movements because Jordan is the sole custodian of the Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem,” stated King Abdullah.

“If a third intifada is coming, no one this time can stop it and it will spillover, not only affecting Israelis and Palestinians but rather affecting the whole region”, said a senior Jordanian officials who preferred to be anonymous.

The official said that “the Joint Jordanian Palestinian Crisis Committee’s major objective is to monitor any Israeli measures to change the identity of the holy city including installing metal detectors as this would be a pretext to ignite a third upheaval in the west bank that would have its repercussions on other countries in the Middle East”.

Members of the joint committee are security officials from both Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority, the official added.

They will be tasked to follow up on any further violations by the Israelis against Al Aqsa Mosque and to avoid any bids to change the identity of the holy shrines in Jerusalem.

“This committee will be in charge, as its members, are mainly of security and intelligence background, will help coordinate between the three parties in order to avert such violations that would negatively affect the peace agreements with Israel”.

The actions taken by Israel at the holy site in Jerusalem has led to demonstrations in Jordan, which resulted in the killing of two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy in Amman.

The perpetrator was received as a hero by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. His office, furthermore, distributed a video showing him welcoming the guard as a hero and has fueled Jordanian anger.

King Abdullah’s outrage was clear with him castigating Netanyahu, blaming the prime minister for exploiting the incident for “personal political gains”.

King Abdullah further stated that bilateral ties between Amman and Tel Aviv now rely on how Netanyahu would react regarding this issue, given the fact that Israel’s relations with Jordan were further strained with the recent expropriation of Palestinian lands in Jerusalem.

Jordanian officials have warned in meetings with Israelis and Palestinians that any acts that threaten the situation in the holy city would have grave consequences for the region as a whole.

Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs, Mohammad Momani, stated that Israel should reverse any unacceptable measures against Al-Aqsa Mosque and avoid any instigations leading to the deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/08/18/A-joint-Jordanian-Palestinian-crisis-committee-to-avoid-a-third-intifada.html

Photo credit: AFP

Пятница, 18 Август 2017 00:15

Russia re-examines relationship with Iran

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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

Вторник, 15 Август 2017 14:15

De-escalation zones to end the war in Syria

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Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

The future of Syria is now being decided in Amman after the withdrawal of Syrian armed opposition troops from neighborhoods near the Jordanian-Syrian border, leaving the crossing point of Naseeb under the control of the Syria Arab Army (SAA). The fate of Syria, and importantly the future of its president, will heavily influence future developments in the polarized region as Middle Eastern states which are divided over the civil wars in Libya and the Qatar crisis are also opposing stakeholders in the Damascus regime’s fate.

An announcement of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria came on June 30, 2017, paving the way for another ceasefire in northern Homs, forcing the armed opposition to move to Idlib. Due to the benefits for both the government and the opposition from the truce, which has been a relief both parties, the regime, its enemies, along with the Russians and Americans, are also considering expanding the de-escalation zones to include eastern Ghouta (Reef Damascus) and the Southeast area by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders following Daesh’s fall in Deir Ezzor.

The expansion of the de-escalation zone in eastern Ghouta is aimed at avoiding clashes between the SAA, its allies, and the US-supported opposition on the ground in that area. The Russians and Americans also coordinating in the area of Deir Ezzor to prevent the Kurds from retaking the lands after the demise of Daesh because Turkey – a major US ally in the Middle East region – is not willing to see a Kurdish state along its southern border. The SAArecaptured the last major stronghold of Daesh on the way to Deir Ezzor. This is the caliphate’s last important stronghold in the central Syria.

Unlike the Russians, the Americans are not in a rush to end the conflict in Syria and they just seek to avoid any armed conflict near the country’s borders with Jordan and Israel. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syrian opposition, is concerned about the future of Syria and its president. This is clear in the statement issued by Saudi ministry of foreign affairs, which read that Riyadh, still supported an international agreement on the future of Syria and Assad should have no role in any transition to bring the war there to an end. The statement reveals that the position of the kingdom on the Syrian crisis is firm, and it is based on the Geneva 1 Communiqué and on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 which stipulates forming a transitional body that will run the country. Thus, Saudi Arabia does not want Syria to be another Arab country where Iran consolidates its influence.

Thus, the future of Syria right now depends on the de-escalation zones’ efficiency and the seriousness of both international and regional players to stabilize the country which, after seven-and-a-half years of war has seen 400,000 of its citizens killed and 12 million (half of the population) uprooted, resulting in an international refugee crisis that has fueled various levels of instability and exacerbated economic problems throughout scores of Middle Eastern and European countries.

The importance of a lasting ceasefire in Syria will help major powers, the United States and Russia, avoid a complex knot of local and sectarian disputes in Syrian and to avoid spillover of the fighting troops including the armed opposition groups, Daesh, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.Only with such international cooperation between Washington and Moscow can there be any realistic hope for resolving the Syrian civil war.

The two major Amman meetings between the Russians and Americans along with their Jordanian counterparts helped reach the ceasefire agreement in three governorates in southwestern Syria: Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida. More than 2.5 million people are believed to be living in the general area of the four zones which span the southern provinces of Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida

Moreover, the talks between Jordanian officials and Syrian armed opposition in Amman at the end of July paved the way for a ceasefire in East Ghouta and other areas. The meeting of leaders of the Southern Front militias was held with American, Russian and Jordanian experts in the Jordanian capital Amman end of July to discuss a truce in southwestern Syria. Another meeting was held also at the sidelines of the Russian-American meetings between Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh to discuss the next step that lead to a transition government.

The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostility acts in some locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal that was reached late June in Amman and which has become effective in July to establish a de-escalation zone in Eastern Ghouta and southeastern Syria that would help end up the civil war. The new zones cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and the southeastern region of Syria by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, slated to be signed in late August to mid-September, paving the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The “de-escalation” zone created in southwestern Syria and northern Homs will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

At present, Moscow is in direct contact with Americans after some meetings in Switzerland between security and military officials from both countries to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the terms of the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Syria, by the Jordanian borders.

Experts from the United States and Russia are holding consultations on the expansion of the umbrella of de-escalation zones in four regions in Syria. The Russians have already completed negotiations with Jordan on the monitoring of the recently established de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, and on the Amman Declaration which is on its final stages before being announced this month in Astana.For Jordan, such an agreement is important to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis and eradicate terrorism, ensuring border security and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as Syria’s security and stability are of strategic interest for the region.

Article published in International Policy Digest: https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/08/14/de-escalation-zones-end-war-syria/

Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

Пятница, 11 Август 2017 21:22

Prospects for the upcoming Astana talks on Syria

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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

Четверг, 10 Август 2017 01:22

Can Muqtada Al-Sadr defuse tensions between Riyadh and Tehran?

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Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Iraq’s influential Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, paid an unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia on July 28 and 29, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other senior officials. The meeting took place before the crown prince accedes to the throne, in order to draw up the coming relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Sadr’s rare visit raised concerns in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which has refrained from commenting on the trip.

The charismatic cleric has recast himself as the upholder of Iraq’s democratic process and a bulwark against the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias. The visit comes at a time when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are worsening. Would the visit of the Shia cleric, a member of an influential Shia family and son of the prominent Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, help defuse tension between Baghdad and Riyadh?

The timing of the visit is crucial to Iraqi politics. Sadr has returned as a leader in charge of uniting Iraqis under one umbrella, his office said. However, some Iraqi sources believe the visit to Saudi Arabia shows that Sadr has come on the Iraqi political scene to lead, not to linger in his Najaf office to receive followers.

The visit can be perceived as an attempt to consolidate his support and reap the fruits of his involvement in the coming parliamentary elections in April 2018, as Iraq would not have a government without him. Sadr is crucial for many Iraqi leaders as he heads a political bloc with almost 10% of parliamentary seats and has great influence on both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. His persistence to bring about change by bridging gaps between Iraqis is not welcomed by many in government, who are controlled by Iran.

The cleric and his followers are making deals in an attempt to enter positions in Iraq as mediator between Iraqis, Iranians and Saudis. Sadr is now delegated by Saudis to play a role in Iraq to serve Saudi interests and to return Iraq into its Arab fold by playing a role in bridging the differences and gaps between the three countries. That explains why he received $10 million from Saudi Arabia and the promises the kingdom has given him to build up the consulate in Najaf.

The question that arises is the following: Is Riyadh leaning toward Sadr, or is he leaning toward Riyadh at Tehran’s expense?

Sadr’s appearance as a powerful national leader could have some advantages, as seen by Saudi Arabia, because of his newly-minted nationalist stance that has made him a potential bulwark against Iranian influence. This became clear in his April 2017 statement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling on him to step down. Right now there is tension between him and rival Shia factions, especially after his militias clashed with the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, which is concerned with Iran’s influence not only in Iraq but also across the greater Middle East, wanted someone like Sadr to step into the Iraqi field to draw up its relations externally and to organize domestic affairs. This started with the invitation from Prince Mohammad. Saudi Arabia, and mainly its crown prince, views Sadr as a man of the people who is a fervent Iraqi nationalist and federalist, upholding the democratic process by non-violent means. Sadr, who is an advocate of the quota system in parliamentary elections, believes this method can ensure that Iraq’s main ethno-religious constituents — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds — share power.

Some Iranian commentators and political analysts warn that Saudi Arabia is playing games by courting Sadr to influence Iraqi politics — especially after Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Riyadh in June — which could threaten Iranian interests in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis called on the Iraqi prime minister by giving him a chance to either reconsider his policies toward Iran and bear the consequences that Iranian control of Iraq’s politics and its resources would carry, including the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis, or to U-turn toward his Arab brethren in order to proceed with regaining stability in Iraq.

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

Since the Saudis received no positive response from Abadi, they thought of other alternatives, Sadr being one. Some view the cleric’s visit as a concession from the Saudis to Iran, especially as a result of Qatar and the Islamic Republic growing closer at the expense of Riyadh’s influence amid the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rift over Doha.

Sadr is known for shifting alliances in order to remain in a position of power and influence. He proved this in February 2016, when 100,000 of his followers demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad, calling for government reform and for building bridges with Sunni tribes and politicians. He is famous for shifting political positions in the past, including stopping militant activity against the United States, turning against the government in Baghdad and speaking out against Assad.

Among Iraqi politicians, reports circulate that Saudi Arabia is attempting to control Sadr. Some journalists suggest the kingdom will be monitoring what he does after returning to Iraq and what his plans would be in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Some argue that Sadr would serve as a stepping stone for Saudi Arabia into Iraq, where the cleric could help Riyadh put pressure on the Shia-led order in Baghdad to distance Iraq from Iran.

Officials have not, thus far, disclosed details surrounding Sadr’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. However, among those who are close to the cleric, there are suggestions that Sadr may have gone to the kingdom to seek financial help from Riyadh in preparation for Iraq’s elections in 2018.

Another important Shia cleric on whom Saudis pin high hopes is Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was the largest party in the country’s Council of Representatives from 2003 until 2010. He is exiting his bloc to create the National Wisdom Party, an umbrella group of Shia and Sunni political parties — a new political movement in the country. This would be a reason for Sadr to set up his own front, benefiting from his close and strong ties with other Sunni leaders in Iraq and the GCC states.

SERIOUS DIALOGUE

Sadr’s latest visit to Riyadh was the second since 2006, when he met with the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. With Riyadh’s latest invitation, it turned out that Saudi leaders have resorted to dealing with Baghdad in order to either change the political scene in Iraq or to ask Sadr to use his connections and channels of dialogue with Iran to melt the ice between Riyadh and Tehran. Riyadh is seeking to have a stable Saudi Arabia without any external interference from Iran, and it also wants Iraq to be back to its Arab track, away from Iranian influence. Once the seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections are secured by Shia and Sunni moderates or those pro-Saudi Arabia, the war game with Iran will change in favor of Riyadh.

The Saudi government has also extended invitations to other Iraqi Shia leaders, who have not yet made a decision whether or not to visit Riyadh. Iraqi politicians close to these leaders believe that Mohammad bin Salman aims to improve his image among the Shias in the country by inviting the clerics from Iraq to mediate between him and Iran, as Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is known for its dissent against the Saud rulers.

The invitation has come after Sadr’s April statement calling on Iran’s ally, President Assad, to step down to avoid further bloodshed in the Syrian conflict. Sadr has also avoided using any hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Arab states. In May, he urged Tehran and Riyadh to start a “serious dialogue to bridge their difference and gaps for regional stability.” He also called on the two to “care for their peoples — regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity — and engage in serious dialogue with a view to restoring regional peace and security.”

Regardless of the outcome of visit, the most important is that it came at a critical moment and would be an inspiration for further sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq after the defeat of Daesh (Islamic State) in Mosul. Once the war against terrorism is over in Iraq and Syria, it could pave the way for a potential war between sects in Iraq supported by regional powers, as some countries in the Middle East have started to gain power shortly after the demise of Iraq. Once issues of terrorism are resolved, this might mean that the Iraqis could return to wielding control over neighboring countries, politically and militarily. Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Article published in Fair Observer

Photo Credit: thomas koch / Shutterstock.com

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