Friday, 18 August 2017 00:15

Russia re-examines relationship with Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune

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

Published in Tribune

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

Published in Tribune

Responding to Trump’s cruise missiles attack on Syrian Shayrat airbase, the tripartite meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria was held today in Moscow. The meeting ended with a resounding ‘no’ to the Washington’s ‘Great Middle East Project’, and with equally resounding confirmation of already established policy of common fight against the plight of terrorism.

A week ago Trump made a sudden change in his proclaimed policy of de-escalation and international cooperation, and during a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase near Homs, aiming to force Iran and Russia to cease supporting Syrian government.

The trilateral meeting of Lavrov, Zarif and Muallem in Moscow today proved Trump, his enemies and his foes wrong about Russian and Iranian responses to the strike. The meeting confirmed that there is no basis for rumors that Russia would abandon either of its two allies in Syria. Moreover, the three parties confirmed that Western media and political establishment are so deeply entangled in their own narratives that they are unable to see the reality.

The reality is that the legitimate Syrian Army under the command of the Syrian government led by its president Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, is winning the war against various militant groups ― most of which are internationally designated terrorist groups. The strike has clearly not accomplished what it was made to look like. It did not stop or deter Russian or Syrian armed forces, but has only strengthened their resolve to obliterate the terrorists.

Moreover, the strike was conducted based on the information about a ‘chemical attack’ that the US military and intelligence, supposedly, have collected from online sources. The key information sources being al-Qaeda linked ‘rebels’, with dubious tweets and other social media posts that have appeared before the strike was reported to have happened―leading many analysts to conclude that the attack was another ‘false flag’ alike the Iraqi war WMD fabrication.

This was reiterated by Russian and Syrian officials, including yesterday’s interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Without verifying the data, without a proper, internationally approved investigation of the alleged attack, and moreover, without a UNSC approval – US once more unilaterally attacked a sovereign country, something that the world has witnessed few times before. Flagrant breach of the international law by the United States went unsanctioned again.

The message sent from the meeting back to the US and its allies is that three parties agree the US strike was "an act of aggression, a flagrant violation of the principles of international law and the UN Charter." The three top diplomats reiterated insistence on “the strict fulfillment by all without exception of those obligations set forth in the UN Security Council resolution, including full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic".

With the airbase strike Trump team hoped to send a warning message to Syrian president and his allies Russia and Iran that the US still plays a role in the Middle East. The tripartite meeting shows that the message has not accomplished the hoped for result in that target audience.

The offensive against terrorist and militant groups has only intensified in Syria, and at this juncture seems unlike to abate. The only thing that could change the balance of power on the ground in Syria would be another surprise from the American side. The rumors have it that tens of thousands of ground troops are being prepared to deploy in Syria. Should that happen things will get extremely messy and spillover effects will be felt in a number of countries in the region, as well as Europe.

However, to show that they mean business, Russians have intensified their diplomatic efforts on other fronts as well. Tomorrow Moscow is hosting another key figure for the resolution of the Syrian crisis, a Qatari foreign minister Mohammed al Thani. Not less important was the BRICS meeting in India’s Visakhapatnam, on April 12 – where special envoys for the Middle East have issued a similar communiqué strongly supporting sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.

Not to forget two other key players in the Syrian game of war – Turkey and Saudi Arabia, there is action on those fronts as well. Today, Russian and Turkish presidents have both called for an objective international investigation into the use of the chemical weapons in Khan Sheihoun in Syria, that served as a pretext for the US cruise missile attack. The unreliable one remains Turkish president who keeps switching sides. Following the alleged attack Turkey ‘confirmed’ the use chemical weapons and after the US strike on Syria offered its military support for further actions against its neighbor.

High level meeting headed by the Chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko in which Russia reportedly counts on Saudi support, will be held in Riyadh from 15 to 17 April, during which the fight against terrorism will be discussed. The meeting follows early April discussions between the Saudi King and the Russian president on the importance of bolstering international joint efforts in the fight against terrorism.

Published in Tribune

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.

 

Published in Tribune

After the visit of Russia’s Minister of Energy to Tehran, Iran promised to freeze its oil production at 3.8 million barrels per day if OPEC prolongs its oil cuts agreement at the group’s meeting in April. An expert says that Iran does not have enough money to increase oil production, and is trying to get political dividends out of the freeze.

Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zangeneh said on Mar. 14 that his country was ready to freeze oil production at 3.8 million barrels per day in case OPEC countries agree to extend the agreement to cut oil production. The next OPEC meeting is expected to take place in April in Doha.

The announcement from Zanganeh came when Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Novak was in Tehran. A day earlier, on Mar. 13, he met Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi in Moscow to discuss Russia-Iran economic cooperation. The two co-chaired the meeting of the Iran-Russia Joint Economic Committee.

OPEC oil freeze

“Iran has reached its maximum potential for oil production,” Chatham House Associate Nikolay Kozhanov told RBTH. He added that Tehran would not be able to increase production without a significant amount of investment.

The investments are needed not only to increase, production, but even to maintain the current level, as “Iran’s oil industry is not in the best shape,” Kozhanov says.

Iran’s willingness for a freeze means that Tehran is trying to get political dividends from the situation, the expert adds.

Kozhanov does not see Russia having a major influence in Iran’s decision-making process when it comes to production. He believes that Russia can play the role of a messenger transmitting messages from other Middle Eastern countries to Iran.

Oil-for-goods

One of the issues Novak raised in Tehran was the signing of a new agreement based on the ‘oil-for-goods’ deal of 2014.

According to the 2014 memorandum, Russia was supposed to exchange goods and investments for 100,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day, but this was not implemented.

“The situation has drastically changed since the removal of sanctions, and Iran is a player in the market now,” Novak said. “Nevertheless, the memorandum concerning the  ‘oil-for-goods’ deal, which runs for 5 years, remains in force.

The total volume of goods that Russia can deliver to Iran is estimated at $45 billion annually, Sputnik cited Russian Trade representative in Iran Andrei Lugansky as saying.

A new agreement is being discussed and may be signed in March. The deal that was signed in 2014 did not work for a number of reasons, Kozhanov told RBTH.

According to him, the 2014 deal, first of all, was a non-binding memorandum “born as a result of anti-Iranian sanctions” and it “was not well elaborated”.

“Iran then had limited opportunities to sell oil abroad, and an attempt to establish this trade of oil through Russia was one of the driving motives.”

Now the "Iranian companies are already involved in the trade of oil,” Kozhanov adds. He says there is now “more interest in the arrangement from the Russian side.”

Article from RBTH by  Aizhan Kazak: http://rbth.com/business/2017/03/15/iran-funds-oil-production-720238

Published in Tribune

Russia's relationship with the Gulf countries is complex, and it responds to internal political transformations on both sides of the relationship, as well as to external developments in world politics.

Despite differences over Syria and the Iranian nuclear deal, contemporary GCC-Russian relations are arguably at an apex, both in terms of shared interests and mutual understanding. Russia believes that the GCC has becom=e a real power center, exerting influence within and beyond the Middle East.

Historical Relations

GCC-Russian relations predate the inception of the Gulf bloc. The USSR was one of the first states to recognize, and establish diplomatic relations with, the Saudi Kingdom in 1932. The Soviets viewed the momentum towards integration on the Arabian Peninsula positively, especially against the backdrop of the West’s colonial policies, which were characterized by dividing and plundering the Arab states. Saudi Arabia appreciates that in those difficult initial years, Moscow provided Riyadh with critical oil products, bizarre as such an import may sound today.

Thereafter, internal issues within the USSR led to a recall of the Russian Ambassador, freezing bilateral relations for a protracted period. During the Cold War, looking through a bipolar lens, the USSR viewed the Gulf states as US satellites, in contrast to the Arab countries that had so called socialist leanings.

Russian-Saudi relations remained complicated during the 1980s due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim country. In the 1990s, mutual diplomatic representation was re-established, but was overshadowed by a pro-Muslim stance by Saudi Arabia on Chechnya and Kosovar independence, and a Russian position that emphasized territorial integrity and external non-interference. At the same time, Russia’s decision to adopt a pro-Western foreign policy meant that GCC relations were subsumed within a broader engagement of the West that emphasized Middle Eastern security.

In the early 2000s, Russia began to reformulate its relationship with its Arab partners, including the GCC states, with an emphasis on pragmatic policies, such as encouraging political dialogue and building economic ties. At the same time, the GCC states were developing and systematizing their own internal strategic priorities. Five rounds of talks between the GCC and Russian foreign ministers were held, covering topics such as international terrorism, political solutions to the crises in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and Russia’s ties to Iran, in light of the GCC states’ designation of Iran as the main regional threat, especially following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In addition to its military might, the GCC states expressed concern toward Iran’s ability to influence their Shiite communities.

The Arab Spring and Beyond

The Arab Spring has rendered drafting a Gulf security apparatus a much more complex issue, as previously key players, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, have been impaired by internal strife, sometimes between groups close to Saudi Arabia or Iran. Turkey’s growing domestic and external problems have taken the lustre away from its model of Islamic democracy.

Compared to the more substantial reforms enacted by Jordan and Morocco, Saudi Arabia underwent gradual economic and political reforms, as it tried to balance the threats posed by terrorism and by Iran, which is considered in the Gulf as a hegemonic state, (though most Western and Russian experts regard Saudi perceptions about the threat posed by Iran to be exaggerated).

Certainly, Iran gained significant influence in Iraq after the US invasion, while it maintains close ties to the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Together with the increased activity of Shia opposition in Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen (the latter of which have a debatable relationship with Iran), these developments across the Arabian Peninsula have caused Saudi Arabia to adopt a new, comprehensive strategy as a countermeasure, accelerated by changes at the top of the Saudi power structure.

Saudi-US relations have also changed notably. Riyadh has come to view the US as sometimes being an unreliable ally, as reflected in its failure to back Hosni Mubarak, and as appearing duplicitous, via its flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its support for policies that have empowered Iran at Saudi Arabia’s expense, such as the US’ stance regarding Syria, and its spearheading the Iranian nuclear deal.

Diminishing confidence in the US’ willingness to be the regional security guarantor has caused the GCC states to reach out to Russia, both as a diversification strategy, and with the hope that Russia might play a moderating role with respect to Iran. This fitted in well with Russia’s efforts to develop ties with all Arab states from the early 2000s, in the pursuit of its political and economic interests.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has been a controversial issue. US and GCC opponents of the plan believe that it is unlikely to check Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and that it is likely to embolden Iran regionally, as it frees up funds for pro-Iranian regional militia activities, possibly even igniting a nuclear arms race.

Its supporters argue that Iranian moderates will be strengthened within the Iranian power structure, especially the elements that favor more responsible regional policies, pushing Iran into a more constructive relationship with the GCC states. Many JCOPA proponents also believe that the US remains as committed as ever to the security of the GCC states.

GCC-Russian relations have maintained their positive trajectory and pragmatic nature in spite of the JCPOA, setting aside the disagreements over Syria. The region’s complexities have thus far prevented any major breakthroughs, the economic cooperation has continued to develop, as well as an understanding that the two sides’ shared interests exceed the areas of disagreement, and that sustained dialogue is the best way of addressing differences of opinion. Both the GCC and Russia regard regional security, the Middle East peace process, the promotion of a dialogue among civilizations, and the fights against terrorism, piracy, and the drug trade as areas where they have shared visions on effective policies.

Among the six GCC members, a notable, multi-faceted relationship has developed between Russia and Bahrain, covering politics, economics, science, culture, and other spheres. It represents the fruits of four visits by HM King Hamad to President Putin.

A major theme of Russia’s engagement with the Arab world has been international cooperation against ISIL and other Islamist terrorist organizations which pursue political agendas. The complexity of counterterrorism has predictably generated some misunderstandings regarding Russia’s regional strategy, especially in the eyes of various GCC stakeholders.

In particular, there is a perception that Russia prioritizes its relationship with Iran over any relationship with the GCC states. During a recent GCC-Russia dialogue in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed these concerns by explaining that a country’s right to expand its regional influence has to be exercised in accordance with international law, in good faith, and without interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Russia has also sought to counter rhetoric that enflames intra-Islamic sectarian tensions, calling for unity among Muslims.

Admittedly, due to its relative geographic proximity to Russia, Iran is a natural partner for Russia on a variety of issues, including trade, energy, and security, and is keen for it to enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political alliance comprising non-Western states, which was founded by China and Russia. Accordingly, expecting Russia to dispense with Iran in favor of a stronger relationship with the GCC is unrealistic and illogical.

Yet by the same token, Iran and Russia disagree on various foreign policy issues, such as Russia’s insistence that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, or the long-term vision for the future of Syria, where Russia favors it as a territorially integrated multi-ethnic, multi-confessional civil state that has good relations with Russia, neither of which is essentially dependent upon the retention of either Assad personally, or of the Alawite ruling minority. In the case of Yemen, Russia’s stance has been neutrality, compared to Iran’s unequivocal support for Ali Abdulla Salih and the Houthis. Moreover, due to Russia’s security cooperation with Israel, it views Iran’s reliance upon Hezbollah with suspicion. Many Iranian politicians also oppose the formation of an alliance with Russia, favoring no more than continued partnership [1].

Conclusion

Synthesizing the above, it is critical to emphasize that Russia does not support the policy of regional hegemony in world affairs and particularly in the Gulf region. Given these considerations, it is not realistic to confront Russia with an «either-or choice»: either Iran or the GCC. And though Russia and Iran have many common interests and their cooperation looks promising, their relationship is not without challenges. Moscow's and Tehran's foreign policy objectives coincide in some areas, but diverge in others, depending on the concrete circumstances. Russia recognizes Iran as a major player in the Middle East, yet like the Arab states does not want Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. And the Iranian regime understands perfectly well that Russia cannot build relations with Iran to the detriment of the GCC states' security.

While both Moscow and Tehran seek to prevent the victory of Islamist extremists, their long-term goals and visions for a post-Assad Syria differ substantially. Russia values its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the GCC greatly, but it has found advancing these ties challenging in light of the importance that it places on its relationship with its southern neighbor, Iran. As regional conflict has reached unacceptably high levels, Russia has been alarmed by Riyadh’s decision to contain Iran by force.

In an effort to break the cycle of violence, Russia is promoting a new regional security order. The Arab states agree in principle, but they are presently refusing to integrate Iran until Tehran starts to pursue a policy of good-neighbourliness and non-interference. However, the initiative’s viability depends upon Iran’s involvement, and so Russian efforts have now focused on encouraging a GCC-Iran dialogue.

The GCC states should also appreciate the evolving nature of Russian-US relations, and the dynamic nature of regional alliances. Today, the US' allies in the region are not necessarily Russia's enemies, in the same way that Moscow's friends are not necessarily Washington's foes. All their disagreements about Syria notwithstanding, a further escalation in the Gulf – a region of utmost importance for the world economy and global financial systems – is not in the interest of either power. In the search for what would be a historical reconciliation in the Gulf, the common terrorist threat posed by ISIL and Al Qaeda could be a critical uniting factor between all parties. GCC and Iran both have ambitious plans for economic development, and the best way to realize those plans will be to contribute to forging a favorable external environment.

 

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 00:00

Can Iran change? We hope it will!

Our region is rife with turmoil. We have a crisis in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, Libya. We have an Iran that is rampant in its support of terrorism and interference in the affairs of other countries. We face terrorism, we face piracy, we face challenges of economic development and job creation. We face challenges in terms of reforming our economies and bringing the standard of living of our people to a higher level. We have the challenge of trying to bring peace between Israelis and Arabs.

I am an optimist, because if your job is to solve problems, you cannot be a pessimist. We have to do everything we can in order to deal with the challenges that we face. I believe that 2017 will be a year in which a number of the challenges will be resolved. I believe the crisis in Yemen will be brought to an end and the attempt to overthrow the legitimate government will have failed. We can then work on putting Yemen on the path of economic development and reconstruction. I believe progress can be made in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If there is a will to do so, we know what a settlement looks like. We just need the political will to do so. And my country stands ready with other Arab countries to work to see how we can promote that.

I believe that a political settlement in Syria is also possible.

One of the biggest factors that will help to resolve many of these challenges is the new American administration. Yes, I am very optimistic about the Trump administration. I know there are a lot of concerns or questions in Europe about the new administration, but I like to remind my European friends that when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, there was a lot of concern in Europe. People thought World War III would take place. And yet, how did it all turn out?

Ronald Reagan reasserted America’s place in the world. He made comprehensive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, he pushed back against the Soviet Union and he ended the Cold War. It is a wonderful history. When we look at the Trump administration, we see a president who is pragmatic and practical, a businessman, a problem-solver, a man who is not an ideologue. We see a man who has a certain view of the world. He wants America to play a role in the world.

Our view is that when America disengages, it creates tremendous danger in the world, because it creates vacuums and into these vacuums evil forces flow. And it takes many times the effort to push back against these evil forces than to prevent them from emerging in the first place.

For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.

Adel Al-Jubeir

Trump believes in destroying Daesh. So do we. He believes in containing Iran. So do we. He believes in working with traditional allies. So do we. And when we look at the composition of the Cabinet and the personalities that he appointed — secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of homeland security, director of the FBI, secretary of commerce, secretary of treasury — these are very experienced, highly skilled, highly capable individuals who share that world-view. So we expect to see America engaged in the world. We expect to see a realistic American foreign policy and we look forward to working with this administration very, very closely. Our contacts with the administration have been very positive and we are looking at how we can deal with the challenges facing our region and the world.

When I look at our region today, I see a challenge that emanates from Iran. Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has — as part of its constitution — the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite — the “dispossessed,” as Iran calls them — all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. This is unacceptable for us in the Kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.

The Iranians do not believe in the principle of good neighborliness or non-interference in the affairs of others. This is manifested in their interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan. The Iranians have disrespected international law by attacking embassies, assassinating diplomats, by planting terrorist cells in other countries, by harboring and sheltering terrorists.

In 2001, when the US went to war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the board of directors of Al-Qaeda moved to Iran. Saad Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son, Saif El-Adel, the chief of operations for Al-Qaeda, and almost a dozen senior leaders went and lived in Iran. The order to blow up three housing compounds in our nation’s capital (Riyadh) in 2003 was given by Saif El-Adel — while he was in Iran — to the operatives in Saudi Arabia. We have the conversation on tape. It is irrefutable. The Iranians blew up Khobar Towers in 1996. They have smuggled weapons and missiles to the Houthis in Yemen in violation of UN Security Council resolutions in order to lock these missiles at our country and kill our people.

And so, (when) we look at the region, we see terrorism, and we see a state sponsor of terrorism that is determined to upend the order in the Middle East. The Iranians are the only country in the region that has not been attacked by either Daesh or Al-Qaeda. And this begs the question, why? If Daesh and Al-Qaeda are extremist Sunni organizations, you would think that they would be attacking Iran as a Shiite state. They have not. Could it be that there is a deal between them that prevents them or causes them not to attack the Iranians? This is a question that we keep asking ourselves.

The Iranians talk about wanting to turn a new page, wanting to look forward, not backwards. This is great. But what do we do about the present? We cannot ignore what they are doing in the region. We cannot ignore the fact that their constitution, as I mentioned earlier, calls for the export of the revolution. How can one deal with a nation whose objective is to destroy us? So until and unless Iran changes its behavior, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this. Not just for Saudi Arabia, but for other countries.

We are hopeful that Iran will change. We respect Iran’s culture, we respect the Iranian people. It is a great civilization, it is a neighbor of ours. We have to deal with them for many, many years. But it takes two to have a good relationship. For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.

• These are edited excerpts from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s address at a session — titled “Old Problems, New Middle East” — at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. The session was moderated by BBC’s Lyse Doucet.

Video of the address is available here : https://www.securityconference.de/en/media-library/munich-security-conference-2017/video/statement-by-adel-bin-ahmed-al-jubeir/ 
Initially published by IMESClub's partner : Arab News

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 12 February 2017 15:33

Moving towards Geneva: Giving peace a chance

Syria is moving to the fourth round of the Geneva talks. Two days of inclusive talks in Riyadh, bringing to the negotiation table the expanded Syrian opposition, including the Astana delegation and the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee, finished yesterday. 

The opposition was harmonizing its positions on the threshold of the new Astana round, setting the priorities for Geneva Talks and discussing the outcomes of the previous Astana meeting.

The Astana meeting did not replace the format, but became a supplementary in-strument, a back-up tool for the Geneva negotiations. Astana permitted the realiza-tion of ceasefire, and the first round of talks resulted in the elaboration of trilateral monitoring mechanisms of the ceasefire regime in Syria, guaranteed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

On February 15-16, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry will host another round of talks, welcoming delegations from the Syrian government and the rebel side, along with the UN Special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistoura, and the delegations of three guarantors.

Jordanian and the US delegations are also invited to take part in Astana II.  

Resolving problems 

The Astana format is set to solve the problems preventing the Geneva format from being a success, by instituting the communication process and resolving ground is-sues, mostly related to the military sphere, and paving the way for political resolu-tion and the long-awaited and inevitable transitional process. 

The Geneva talks are set to be held on February 20. A lot has changed since the previous round. The third round practically did not leave hope for a political solu-tion. The Opposition, both moderate and otherwise, was so much fragmented, that it could not come to any agreement even within its own ranks. The International community was supporting separate opposition groups, thus somehow fragmenting them even more and politicizing the whole negotiation process, putting it in the framework of global geopolitical rivalries. 

The major changes in the global sphere, the focus of the US on presidential elections first and then on the cataclysms in face of Trump’s administration, with the West watching the goings on in Washington, together with changes on the ground in Syria have significantly changed the situation and prospects of the negotiations. 

The foreign states have cut their financial support to the rebel groups, and there are practically no more voices calling to topple the Syrian regime by force. 

As was stated by prominent Syrian dissident Louay Hussein, “the armed conflict for the state is over”, and the majority in the opposition are going back towards a political struggle. Even though Hussein’s conclusions are premature, his words have a grain of truth.

 

The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. 

Maria Dubovikova


The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. Such attempts to disrupt negotiation and political process do not correspond to the expectations of the majority of the rebels and opposition forces. They alienate themselves from the political process, lose credibility, drifting to the terrorist Islamist formations in the company of which they have all chances to end up their fight. But this will hardly inflict significant damage to the negotiation process. 

Assad’s stubbornness 

What can be done about the stubbornness of the regime in Damascus. Russia’s in-fluence on the regime is overestimated than real. Damascus will keeps listening to advice as long as that that corresponds to its own expectations and vision. 

Iran has more influence on Damascus than anyone else, taking into account the strong Iranian support of the ruling regime. Iran is not interested in transition and in toppling Assad. Iran is interested in guaranteeing its influence on Syria in the post -war scenario. That is Tehran’s main priority. And during the negotiation process, Iran will do its best not to let anyone kick it out from the post-war political system rebuilding in Syria. 

Nothing is guaranteed for the outcome of the Fourth Geneva round. However, the sides attending it are far more organized than ever, and the opposition is looking forward to these talks with more enthusiasm and hope, than before, when the for-mat was considered mostly useless for them. 

There is a high risk that Damascus and Tehran can sabotage the talks with their stubbornness, as their positions are poles apart on many issues to the expectations of the opposition. Even in case of success there are many issues that will have to be faced during the political process and that will provoke at best tough debates. One such issue is the Kurdish matter.

While all the sides are seriously getting ready for talks, Syrians are looking to the future with hope. Reportedly, people have started to return to Syria, mostly to the ruins of their past, but they are strongly motivated to restoring their country and homes with their own hands. 

Life is returning even to ruined East Aleppo. Peace got a chance it did not have before, during all the long years of the bloody war.

Initially published by Al Arabiya English: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/02/12/Moving-towards-Geneva-Giving-peace-a-chance-.html 

Published in Tribune

The Saudi-Iranian conflict will compel Moscow to make a hard choice: stand with its Iranian partner or step aside and remain ostensibly neutral.

However Russia decides to react to the ongoing spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the consequences for the Kremlin’s goals in the Middle East will be negative.

On the one hand, keeping quiet would affect the dynamics of Russian−Iranian relations that had been on the rise. Moscow invested diplomatic and economic effort in improving the dialogue with Tehran,includingthe opening of a credit line. It cannot afford tolosethese dividends considering Russia’s economic dire straits.The Russian authorities are desperate to retain Iran within its sphere of influence and avoid any drift westwards. Without Iranian ground forces fighting the opponents of the Assad regime, it will be difficult for Moscow to attainits goals in Syria −Russia needs Iran’s military and political support to compel the Syrian opposition and its sponsors to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s silence on the diplomatic quarrel between Tehran and Riyadh would also provide opponents of Russo-Iranian rapprochement among Iranian reformists and Russian pro-Western policymakers with furtherproof that the two countries are unable to forge any kind of effective partnership.

If, however, Moscow takes the Iranian side, this would affect Russian relations with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)−whose money is still considered by the Kremlin as a potential source of investmentintothe Russian economy. The financial support and political blessing of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is important for the successful implementation of joint projects with Egypt such as the creation of a joint industrial zone or the development of the nuclear industry in Egypt. The Russo−Iranian alliance undermines Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to settle the Syrian crisis by making the Saudis less willing to talk to Russiaand effectively drags Moscow into the middle of the broader Sunni−Shia confrontation, allowing anti-Russian political forces in the Middle East to portray Kremlin as an enemy of the Sunni world.

This will be a serious threat, not only to the Russian position in the region, but also, conceivably, for the domestic security of Russia, where the 15 million-strong Muslim community is predominantly Sunni.Salafi groupingsin the Gulf have depicted Russians as new crusaders at least since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Moscow received a warning in October 2015 when approximately50 Saudi clerics signed an open declaration calling for jihad against Moscow. Thishas created an ideological background for the unification of radical forces in Syria and provides motivation for supporters of radical Islam in the GCC to intensify their financial support for Islamists inside Russia.

(Russian silence on Tehran’s diplomatic confrontation with Riyadh might also be an attempt to improve Moscow’s image in the Sunni world.This image severely suffered after the beginning of the Russian bombings of the Syrian opposition that together with the radical Islamists became one of the main targets of the Russian airforces in the autumn of last year.)

By supporting Tehran, Moscow will most likely harm relations with its ‘silent partner’ in the Middle East – Israel – whose position on the annexation of Crimea, on Western sanctions against Russia and on Russian air forces in Syria corresponds to Russian interests. Recent statements by Israeli officials demonstrated concernsabout growing Russian−Iranian cooperation in Syria and beyond. Previously, Israel tolerated the rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran as long as it was not considered as a threat to the national security of the country. Yet, recently, Israeli officials have begun to openly worry that the Russian government may begin to close its eyes to anti-Israeli moves by Tehran. Although these speculations seem to have little basis, active Russian support of Tehran in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia would almost certainly be considered in Israel as further proof of the growing Russian-Iranian alliance.

There is also a dilemma related to Russia’s image on the international stage. Putin tries hard to maintain an image ofaleader who does not leave his partners in trouble, but the Kremlin also traditionally positions itself as the main (sometimes only) protector of international law. Iran is a partner. Yet the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was a clear violation of international norms. From this point of view, backing a country with a laissez-faire attitude towards the rights of foreign diplomats might not be in Moscow’sinterests.

The Russian authorities dounderstand the difficulty of their situation. Consequently, they are trying to fudge it and avoidboth complete neutrality andallying fully with Tehran. Are there any alternatives?Shortly after the beginning of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early January, Russia declared its readiness to play a mediating role between Riyadh and Tehran.This would allow the Kremlin avoid a further diplomatic disaster and to burnish its image internationally. Sadly, the initiative has little chance of success: the Saudis simply do not trust Russia.Theyconsider it aloyal ally of Iran.Besides, Riyadh is interested in Tehran’s isolation, not its reintegration.

So Moscow must choose between two bad options– both of which involve losing investment and influence.

Initially published by Chatham House

Published in Tribune
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