On December 5, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, announced that provincial and parliamentary elections will be held on May 12, 2018; yet, many domestic events and regional developments would delay the elections as the Iraqi community is undergoing many societal and economic as well as political hardships.

As the date of Provincial Councils and the House of Representatives elections is approaching, some Iraqi leaders started to call for further procrastination due to two reasons: The first is the bad financial situation in the country, and the second is the that more than four million displaced Iraqis have been sheltered in various places of Iraq which are not part of their original constituencies. They will not be able to return to their homes in the coming few months. That would force the government to announce the postponement.

However, the pace of political events in Iraq is at present accelerating especially after the defeat of ISIS at a time the activities and movements of political blocs and parties started to set up the platform for the upcoming elections. Though the year is closing its final chapter with many turbulent incidents in North Africa, the Levant, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraqis are highly affected by the regional powers, steering the outcome of the political scene in Iraq for the coming years.

Despite the lack of an appropriate environment to hold such elections due to logistic and technical hardships, the political conflict has intensified in recent weeks and reached unprecedented levels, with some visits of shuttle tours of some politicians to the provinces where they announced they would start their electoral campaigns.

Corruption and terrorism

Some politicians resort to the public to gain political support and others resort to blaming other political figures for the failure of Iraqi economy and its political achievements. In Iraq, the process of forming blocs and electoral lists is supported by regional players. After his success in liberating Iraq, al-Abadi, started to gain more confidence and people started to trust him more. The war on ISIS has lasted three years, but the war on corruption needs more than that to liberate the state and purge it because corruption is not only political, but administrative and financial. Thus, war on corruption is more difficult than the war on a terrorism. And any political figure who will have these slogans on his election campaign would gain many votes that help him form the government.

Whether the elections will be held on the scheduled date or not, Abadi, depending on his victory over ISIS and his attempts to counter corruption, will be able to free Iraq of uni-polarity and dominance of one party.

Shehab Al-Makahleh

Iraq is now a relatively in a good security situation compared to previous years, which has been culminated with opening its borders with Jordan and the resumption of flights to Iraq from various countries. Abadi's visits to some neighboring Arab countries has helped Iraq regain its stability and its security amidst calls that Iraq restores its pre-1991 status at the regional level, which has been in the orbit of the Arab countries rather than Iran. Under al-Abadi, Iraqi is regaining its Arab identity; yet, there should be many changes at the political spectrum in order for Iraq to be off Iranian control which includes amongst other things a new block that entails both Sunnis and non-Sunnis including Shiites and Christians as well as other minorities in order to change the Iraqi political map.

The Iraqi political parties are holding their conferences in preparation for the electoral process. The question here is: Are political figures quitting major Iraqi blocs or defecting due to their dismay over old blocs’ performances. Are the new political figures going to succeed in convincing the Iraqis at the ballots?

Iraq's Sunnis have been badly affected in the past few years and at present many of them are facing challenges, stemming from strained ties with Baghdad and the sectarian tensions caused by the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Front. To many observers, Sunni population are detached from Sunni leaders in Baghdad, granting Abadi a better chance to win in the coming elections as he is regarded by many Sunnis and Shiites as a compromise between various blocs.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finds himself isolated from the rest of Iraq's political blocs. Badr bloc has recently announced it will run as one independent party. Representatives of the Popular Mobilization Front, known as “Al Hashd Al Sha’abi”, are running for the elections as well. Badr, Iraq's largest militia group which is led by Hadi Al Amiri, is establishing a political coalition to take part in 2018 elections.

The early preparation of these blocs and political lists is a clear tough competition between political parties and blocs with the opportunities of al-Abadi to win for the second term as he is supported by Arab and other countries against his rival leader former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other opponents. The competition between all these forces will be reflected on the nature of political life in Iraq. The coming government of Iraq will get rid of the concept of hegemony and control of Iraqi political decision, paving the way for building the new Iraq without any foreign interventions into its domestic affairs.

Whether the elections will be held on the scheduled date or not, Abadi, depending on his victory over ISIS and his attempts to counter corruption, will be able to free Iraq of uni-polarity and dominance of one party, opening the door wide open for other parties and blocs to joint in efforts to build Iraq.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/12/09/Will-Iraq-s-upcoming-elections-be-dead-on-arrival-.html

Photo credit: Johan Spanner for The New York Times

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:53

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

Article by Shehab and Maria al-Makahleh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:48

Daesh defeated, but what comes next?

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

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

Maria Dubovikova

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

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

Photo credit: AFP

Published in Tribune

With the demise of Daesh faction in both Syria and Iraq shimmering in the horizon, Iraq has started getting back on track with official visits of top Iraqi officials  to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, preparing to re-establish security and to reignite development in the war-torn country.

Amman has sent an invitation to the Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who pays a three day visit to Jordan where he had two closed door meetings with King Abdullah II and held meetings at the highest levels. This visit coincides with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

According to Jordanian media reports on the office of the Shiite leader, the latter received an invitation from the king. Prince Ali bin Al Hussein also had talks with the Iraqi cleric regarding "internal Iraqi reconciliation”.

The presence of Abadi in Riyadh is necessarily understandable. Amman has resumed its relationship with Baghdad for some time now, and today there is a trade that passes through the Iraqi "Turaibeel" crossing with Jordan. An oil pipeline is supposed to be on the verge of implementation, and many other economic details are on top of the talks as well.  However, Abadi has shed the light on his vision for a unified Iraq on his visit as well as Al Sadr, who prefer a unified Iraq to a divided sectarian country.

Although there are not many details about Abadi's new vision, the Iraqi prime minister wants to send various messages to all regional powers that Iraq can tackle all issues without any external interference. Such two visits of Iraqi officials also coincides with Rex Tillerson to the Gulf States as he issued a statement for Iranian troops to leave Iraq.

Some experts in Jordan believe that such an invitation to a Shiite leader may show a real Jordanian inclination to measure the possibility of a cautious rapprochement with the Iranians through Shiite Iraqi clerics, who are gatekeepers to Tehran.

On the other hand, Iraqi observers believe that Abadi's visit would not certainly stand within the boundaries of the Saudi-Iraqi committee despite the great importance of such as visit to enhance relations between Riyadh and Baghdad at various levels, but it would also inevitably address the volatile situation in the city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi prime minister who headed a high-level delegation of more 60 ministers, officials and government advisers who attended the signing ceremony of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council agreement.

The signing of the agreement of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, after the meetings and mutual visits between officials of the two countries in recent months, and the talks of the Iraqi Prime Minister on June 14 in Jeddah which resulted in the resumption of flights from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad, after they were suspended for 27 year reflect that Iraq and Saudi Arabia are heading towards a new page of relations, especially after the fall of Daesh.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken part in the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council. Such meetings are regarded in Baghdad as how the Americans delegate Saudi Arabia to deal with Iraq.

 A new phase of joint Arab action began with the warmth of the Saudi-Iraqi relations, which culminated in the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abbadi to Riyadh, the establishment of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council and his visit to Jordan few days ago.

Al-Abbadi's visit to Riyadh and Amman in the past few days marks the emergence of a new world in the Arab region after the expulsion of Daesh from Mosul and Raqqa, where the reconstruction phase and the great role regional companies can play in the reconstruction of Iraq.

After four months of Abadi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he returned to resume talks which are critical to both countries at this time. These mutual visits of Iraqi and Saudi officials indicate the mutual interest of both Baghdad and Riyadh to move ahead with their ties to another level. Such improvement in relations will reflect on the strategic and security cooperation between both countries.

However, the talk about the role of the council indicate that Riyadh wants to have a role in reconstruction of Iraq and may be later on Syria after the end of war on terrorism especially with the upcoming conference that will be held in Kuwait for the reconstruction of Iraq. The other important angle is that such enhancement of relations would empower Iraq balance out its positions and strategies towards regional conflicts to avert any political and military as well a security repercussions which have destroyed Iraq since 2003.   

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were cut for 25 years, before recent rapprochement, after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia has blamed Baghdad for being in the Iranian orbit and under Tehran’s influence. With the visits of Iraqi top officials to Amman and Riyadh, Baghdad is going to play a pivotal role in the coming era for regional stability and will help regain Iraq to its status before 1990 away from any regional influences. Saudi and Iraqi diplomats agreed at a March 12, 2017 meeting in Riyadh to stop exchanging aggressive remarks against each other and they are willing to open a new page in economic, security and tourism fields despite concerns over Iran's influence in Iraq. Normal bilateral ties between Baghdad and Riyadh would serve both peoples and their interests. 

 

Published in Tribune

Fighting terrorism by the military means has always required a surgical precision and in-depth understanding of people and forces that take part in a local conflict. A well-known French expert on Islamic studies Gilles Kepel in 2000s explained a model of counter-terrorist activity that can still be applied for modern conflicts. According to this model if a responsive strike against Islamists is carried out without decent planning and leads to the casualties among the civil population, the civilians will start to sympathize terrorists, creating an impasse for conflict resolution.

Let’s imagine that the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor are freed from the Islamic State. It does not matter who will free them - Syrian Democratic Forces alliance with direct US military support or pro-government forces operating together with the SDF to claim some territories in these provinces. We may also omit the topics, which may fuel the conflict and contribute to ISIS revival: partition of the territories, ethnic and confessional misbalance and the timeframe for political settlement in Syria. It is just important that the East of the country is free from ISIS thanks to the joint effort that somehow resembles a broad international coalition, which Kremlin has long been pleading to create.

So, it may seem that the mission is accomplished – Russia and US have achieved their goals and can go on arguing which one of them has defeated ISIS. But will it mean that the terrorism has been obliterated? In order to answer this question some other issues should be cleared out…

Inconvenient questions

The military intervention in Syria has predictably divided Russian public into three main camps: those who are firmly in favor or against the participation of the country in the conflict and those who have a shifting position. The last group is mainly represented by the middle-class.

The partisans of the operation are sure that Russia has a long-term strategy in the Middle East, knows how to get out from the Syrian impasse and they approve of Kremlin’s decision to wage war against all the militants in Syria that is required “for us and for the whole world”. They discard any criticism towards Assad regime as “the Western conspiracy” and believe that Russia may risk being attacked on the rear by the remaining “other terrorists” if it engages ISIS in the East. They do not acknowledge that these “other terrorists” may be an opposition to the regime and consist of Syrians.

The opinions of the critics of the pro-government media are portrayed as cries of madmen, who are condemning unreasonably high military spending and losses, participation of Wagner Group, imperial ambitions and interests not only in Syria, but also in Egypt and Libya.

Ordinary Russian citizens who are fed by the media which blames everything on US and Gulf countries, speak about “fighting terrorism early on”, “ruining the plans of the damned West” and about the resolution to support the strategic allies – Damascus and Teheran. Although sometimes Afghanistan is recalled, Russians always comfort themselves by saying that it is a completely different case – the scale of involvement was different and the losses were significantly higher.

It is not worth an effort to participate in this argument. As always the truth is somewhere in between. But the qualified experts prefer not to risk their career and begin their publications or speeches on Syria by mentioning “the machinations of the West” and the terrorist nature of the entire Syrian opposition to please the ruling regime.

For instance, analysts in Russia should avoid the following topics:

  • Why Russia launched its operation in the end of 2015 when the Syrian army was loosing and decided to side first with Shabiha and then with Iranian Shia International, letting them into the country?
  • Whether the late intervention of Russia into the Syrian crisis is directly related to the Ukrainian crisis and to the willingness to impose a “dialogue on an equal footing” on the West?
  • Whether Kremlin projects its perception of Russian opposition on the Syrian one and whether the list of the moderate groups is related to the forthcoming presidential elections in Russia?
  • Why did Assad regime fuel Jihadi ideas among Sunnis during the Iraqi war and send “green buses” with militants from Aleppo and Damascus provinces to Iraq through border town of Al-Bukamal?
  • Why did Assad regime free the most extremist imprisoned Islamists at the beginning of peaceful demonstrations?

If these issues are considered, Russia will have to admit that at first Damascus supported Islamists and suppressed healthy opposition, ignored Russia’s requests for extradition of extremists who fled to Syria after the war in the North Caucasus, and then took part in islamization of protest movements. For Russia it is better not to comment on the cooperation of Russia with Free Syrian Army in 2015 and on the bombardments of Liwa al-Haqq in Raqqa and Jabhat al-Nusra - in Deir ez-Zore, while these groups were not actually present in these cities.

So, it is very inconvenient to comment on these issues and it is in fact useless – any honest answers will be silenced by the wave of criticism. It is trendy to fight terrorism now. Thus, many Russian experts and media wrote about the “fall of ISIS in Aleppo” in the end of 2016 without even suspecting that the first ones to engage ISIS in Syria were the FSA units in Aleppo but not the Kurds in Kobani.

Syrian counter terrorism

From the very beginning of the military operation Moscow in fact refused to acknowledge the civil character of the war in Syria, depicting the conflict only as a struggle of Damascus against terrorists. Unfortunately, this idea became hardwired in Russian expert community and represents one of the gravest mistakes in the fight against terrorism made by Russia. The truce achieved in December despite the regime’s attempts to suppress the enclaves of opposition is surely the correct way to counter terrorism. However, even in the event of successful negotiations in Astana and the armistice preservation, there is still a risk that these measures will not be sufficient to resolve the real causes of the conflict.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that Syria and Iraq resemble communicating vessels (the so-called Wilayat al-Furat). And not only on the ground, but also underground: the Syrian-Iraqi border is crossed by the system of tunnels that was upgraded during Saddam Hussein rule. It is a perfect hiding place and R&R base for ISIS militants in case they lose Mosul and Raqqa.

Causes of “disease”

Despite the accusations of the US for ruining the balance in the region by launching the invasion in Iraq in 2003 that eventually led to the creation of ISIS and Sunni resistance, Syria is also partially responsible as it was a hiding place for many leaders of the would-be monster. Syria was a favorable country for the growth of then “Islamic State of Iraq” not only because of its refugee camps for the Iraqis but for the following reasons:

  • Extremely violent means of protest repressions during the first eight months of the Syrian uprising;
  • Ideological vacuum: a large share of Syrian Sunni were politically passive and lacked religious education;
  • Confessional nature of the war waged by the Alawite Assad’s regime and his elites against the Sunni population, which became a gift for Al-Qaeda and later for al-Nusra, ISIS and other groups.

Instead of concentrating its efforts against Al-Qaeda and ISIS from the very beginning, Damascus focused on eliminating ideologically moderate armed groups thus augmenting the opportunities for extremist organizations. The strengthening of Shia groups just upgraded the scale of war.

The fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS

The leadership of Al-Qaeda set a course to infiltrate Syrian revolutionary movement back in 2012 and used ideological pressure on poor Sunni population to achieve this goal. Generally speaking, Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Syria was not limited to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. For instance, the exit of Jund al-Aqsa (then Sarayat al-Quds) in 2013 from al-Nusra when the latter confronted ISIS on the North of Syria, was conceived to assure the influx of foreign Mujahedeen to Idlib and Hama. In this sense, the religious rhetoric of Ahram al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam largely prevented Syrians from joining international al-Nusra and Islamic state. Nevertheless, in the context of struggle with the regime in the West al-Nusra gained a reputation of the main military movement participating in the large-scale opposition operations. The rebranding of al-Nusra into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its divorce with Al-Qaeda was supposed to dissolve it among other fractions and make it an exclusively local movement. This new image was presented mainly for the Syrians themselves.

Unfortunately, Russian airstrikes, which continued the strategy of Damascus and Teheran, led not to the dispersion of the opposition but to consolidation of radical and moderate movements and to enforcement of al-Nusra by more than 3-4 thousands new Syrian recruits. So, the situation is aggravated by the fact that al-Nusra became a movement with a Syrian majority.

It seems that the IS will retain its capacity of the international terrorist organization, even in the event of the defeat in Syria and Iraq. Firstly, due to the spread in more than 20 countries they will still be able to maintain the brand of a “state”. And the independence of the branches of the parent company makes the situation more difficult. Secondly, the experience of the survival of Al-Qaeda after the defeat in Afghanistan tells that a relatively small area is needed to lead terrorist operations form "safe haven".

But the experience of Iraq shows that even a few dozen experienced jihadists are able to revive an old structure. In these conditions, reactionary methods should be replaced by a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Published in Tribune
Thursday, 30 March 2017 10:47

The Lesson

“Half claim the vocation of a leader, a quarter believe they are prophets, and at least ten percent take themselves for gods,” former Syrian President Shukri Al Qawatli, speaking about the Syrian people in 1958.

I have lived or worked in the Middle East and the Arab world most of my life. In one way or another, I experienced a half century of its culture and politics. I have seen its spikes, its highs and lows, its impetuous sixties led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dreams, its more practical if turbulent eras through the 80s and 90s, and then, the death of the Arabs in the first decade of the 21st century, when they were surpassed by the resourceful Turks, the wily Iranians and the ever-inventive Israelis.

I also shared with the Arabs the excitement and the hope of the Arab revolutions of 2011. These seemed to herald a new time, a new Arab, less ideological and defeatist. Somehow, the events even seemed to represent a global leap: politics at its best in the sense of being truly a reflection of the people’s needs. Some of the early events even hinted at a shift towards new kinds of democracy and citizens’ engagement. But, the descent since has been clear and certain. Chaos, fragmentation and disorder are the rule of the day. No one knows what is up or down, left or right, or, most importantly, how to take a country forward.

The region now is the example to all of what not to become, a lesson of human madness and foibles that must be avoided. Reeling in the past, fossilised in ideology and dogma, sustaining the unsustainable (such as the necessity to have many children), the Middle East seems to be its own worst enemy. Above all, the region is soaked in high emotions and distrust rather than a sober and moderate attitude required to address serious, even possibly mortal, resource challenges amidst severe global competition.

It is correct that Egypt is not Sweden nor Iraq - Canada, and that the cultures differ. But, demographic and resource problems, as well as social alienation across the world, are human, not Arab problems. Trying to solve them by an obsessive attachment to cultural identity is madness if it blinds you to the needs of reality – and survival.

The Middle East is exactly what the rest of the world should not be: egoistical, dreamy, distrustful, excessively attached to the past and to identity. It is “I” before anyone, however, that “I” is defined (self, family, tribe, party, religion, or nation), and dreams and excitement before reality, i.e. the triumph of illusion while the body and mind fall apart. One look at Cairo from any height will paint that picture of the body sinking, dust filled air, garbage covered rooftops, a human hive of survival with little consideration for the quality of that life. It’s a credit to Egyptians that they do so well under such conditions, their social culture remains full of humour and generosity, but for how long?

There is no doubt that there are many young Arabs who do not share these unsavoury qualities of the region. Somehow due to virtual or real-life exposure to new knowledge and other cultures, and despite poor educational systems, they have become free of the traditional dead-ends to some degree. However, these youth do not run the region, they do not have the experience to, and will not have this chance for at least a couple of decades, during which time holy havoc may be wreaked through political mismanagement, and the in-fighting between all and all. The Lebanese civil war serves as a good example to the Arabs today, every group fought every other over 15 years and achieved no result at the end of the day. It’s a lesson not likely to be learned but repeated, as we now see in Syria.

There are many that blame conspiracies for the Arab failure. In their neat world of good guys bad guys, the people of the region are once again the victims of the conspiracies of the rich and powerful, i.e. NATO, Israel and the USA. This can mean that the “evil three” is behind Al Qaeda or, the opposite, Assad. During one day recently in the region, one person told me that the Americans are behind the Islamists in Syria, and by another highly educated individual, that they are conspiring to keep the Syrian regime in place. It does not matter, whether the USA intervenes or not, it is at fault. The key point is that it certainly cannot be the fault of the locals; the devil lies elsewhere. Ironically, these Arab views mirror the simplicities of Bush’s Axis of Evil, but no one sees the parallels. The truth of international politics is much more mundane than conspiracies. It is a mixture of blindness and guesswork among leaders that most people outside the system cannot (or will not) fathom. The truth is that the systems and the bases for effective diplomacy, i.e. one that consistently produces results, don’t exist today, and if that in itself is a conspiracy then the conspirators are as much victims as anyone else – for they know not what they do.

The truth is also that the failure in the region is not just an Arab failure. Israel is guilty of a profound self-centeredness in almost all its policies since its inception. The whole program has been about its survival, neighbours don’t exist or don’t belong. No matter whether this is the result of trauma and terror – no one is bound to horror forever – the bottom line is a profoundly destructive policy. It is not possible to build a constructive path out of a starting point that implies deep within it that one group is simply superior in needs and destiny to others.

The Turks and Iranians are not much better. Implicit in their attitudes towards the region is imperial over-reach, each is deeply involved in a trance about an imperial past that must somehow take root in today’s realities. The Ottoman and Persian empires, however, are not destined to show their might again, for the conditions are not those of the 4th century B.C. or the 15th A.D., even if Iran and Turkey may well have a proper and constructive place in today’s world as economic and cultural powers.

The region was not always like this. It was once the font of brilliance and enlightenment so captivating that it infected Europe with its knowledge. The seed of understanding went from the Toledo school of translators, the many interactions of the Crusades with the East, and even from the Islamicized Normans of Sicily up to Florence and the European city-states. From there it developed into the flowering of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the basis of much of the cultural and scientific gains we have today. If we reach back further, the region was also home to ‘Um El Dunya’, Ancient Egypt, truly the Mother of the World (and civilizations), as well as the daring of the original monotheism of the Levant, from the Jewish prophets to Akhenaton, and the creativity and craft of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites, their alphabet and navigational skills the equivalent of our information technology today. Even before that, the Middle East was the source of the most advanced leaps of human development from the cultivation of wheat to the magical draw of Gobekli Tepe, a temple site that may have been one of the most civilising events of history. We would not be who we all are without the Middle East, there is no doubt of that.

However, the world, maybe the universe itself, may be marked, by ascent and descent, and so it is with civilisations. Once the height of human potential, the region is now in full and profound descent, reaching lows as quickly as it can – and with determination. It is true that nothing can continue to rise forever and that decline is inevitable, but there is always the possibility of new adaptation, or of stoically waiting during difficult periods. The rush to insist on reliving the past, of reasserting old identities and rituals over and over again, is however, an action in one direction: sure and fast descent, because it belies the nature of today’s reality. There are many people in the Middle East who would rather die and destroy than give up or change their habits, identities and dreams.

It is here that the region offers a crucial lesson to us all. These are difficult times across the world. We have made a world of our own creation that is not sustainable, and continue to look within its limited logic for answers, looping further into consumerism and techno-distraction, worsening our condition in the downward spiral. We eat too many fish, pollute too much air, and want too many goods, while distrusting those from other tribes around us. Meanwhile, we expect solutions by staring into a screen, a state that only creates a deadened trance or a froth of excitement. Others look to international meetings for answers, but these are processes enveloped in processes, very distant from producing results. This is hardly the ground for real and concrete solutions to our problems. Our challenges are many and, sadly, one of the first steps we may have to do is look at the Middle East, and know what road not to follow. Even long-suffering Africa may be rising in new, wondrous and unexpected ways into wealth and riches while the Middle East spirals into an inchoate psychosis of identities.

It may well be a strange wonder that there are places in this world that serve as a dramatic reminder for the rest of us of what not to do, in a sense so humanity can save itself. Unbeknownst and unconscious of its role, the Middle East may be like a sacrificial lamb so other regions have a hope of successfully diminishing their appetites or seeing more broadly into a common humanity. The lesson is there: self-obsession, whether of the individual or the group, and an insistence on a life of illusions will breed little but war, shortage and suffering. We must absorb this reality by looking clearly how the Middle East mismanages, and avoid that fate.

Indeed, if that lesson is to be learned, then it may be worthwhile to be clearer regarding the problem. From this very region, in Sufi lore, there is the idea of the Commanding Self, the ‘Nafs el Ammara’, that is equivalent to the modern idea of the ego but, clearer in definition: it is that part of us that is crucial to survival, a life force we share with a hamster, but that also ‘commands’ the rest of the mind to sometimes follow its self-centered and potentially selfish ways. It does so through the mortal twins of positive and negative expectation, of pleasure and pain, hope and fear, the tools of basic survival. It can either perform its limited if necessary function, or infiltrate and even take over our minds like a clever parasite.

Over a lifetime of practice, it can lead to endless greed and desire and the desperate anxieties and dissatisfactions that come with those tendencies. It can even take over our dream centres and, in a dark weave, ensure that we only imagine a massive illusion that, it assures, is ‘for our survival’. It also demands stasis in the tentacled house of selfishness it has built, and it does so by speaking in profoundly commanding ways of what to do and not. In other words, the Commanding Self can twist its basic purpose, as a force of life, and use our complex mind for its ends. The result? A self-affirming loop of endless appetite and anxiety. This is a kind of mental greed that is as devastating as the material greed plaguing so much of the planet. It is this state that is behind much of the region’s errors and falsehoods, an explanation of why its problems are cultural and psychological rather than material.

The Middle East is shot through with the vigorous and muscular arms of the Commanding Self. The devil lies there, not elsewhere. From the megalomaniacal speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, to the mother using emotional blackmail to keep her children near her, from Ghaddafi’s African manias to the exaggerated pride of the Arab male, the Commanding Self shows its might. It also translates into daily dishonesty and distrust. Meetings are held, agreement come to, but afterwards, each participant feels the right to ignore any consensus: the right to an absolute veto because “I” am the most important. This pattern causes everyone to take advantage before being taken advantage of, and the fangs of the Commanding Self become finely honed indeed.

At a fundamental level, this is a world of ‘either or’, with me or against me, the greys disappear and the unit trumps the whole. Stimulation and emotion must be immediate. Authority – the Commanding Self – is cherished and sought after and duplicated at all levels. The untamed pride and self-importance prohibit the validity of others, and the new. From parent to child, from the mosque to television, the habit of grasping and emotional turmoil and tyranny of authority, of the ‘command’, is passed on in the broken culture of the region. A consequent lack of creativity, and individual and group self-obsessions, come to define the culture.

There is no doubt that every region in the world shares some of these qualities, but, as media headlines and the chaos on the ground show, the Middle East is ahead of the game. As stated above, it is far from only the Arabs, Israel’s attitude towards its neighbours is also a testament to the power of this part of our psyche. Distrusting of all, dismissive of the needs of Palestinians, and fearful of eternal oppression, the Israelis have fed into the grand pipeline of darkness in the region, feeding it and growing in it: survival at all costs, including life itself.

This way can be given up. Humanity has much more to consider for itself than the Commanding Self. Our imagination, creativity, reason, empathy and many other qualities working in a balanced way, along with a Commanding Self that serves greater interests, can lead to wonders and solutions that are barely a twinkle in any one’s eye now. With the proper level of self-awareness, practise, and learning; above all by deciding to wake up to what is really going around us, we can become fuller human beings. It is when people in the region realize that they are just parts of a whole and not in some way entitled to privilege, including that of the victim, that the healing will begin. Such a sensitive, positive and active humility cannot harmonize with terms like Party of God or Chosen People, the superiority of one faith over another, or of frozen rituals from the past as ways of managing societies today. It is the opposite: our spirits and minds liberated from their regular chains and worn patterns and translated into action that are the road to our answers.

Enchained by the past, the Middle East refuses – so far – to reach these new paths. Yet it is also, ironically, the great lesson from the Middle East that it can be done. Many great people from there have shown the way, from Rumi to Mohammad, from Isaiah to unrecognised men and women of wisdom, to simply those who demonstrate daily their generosity or the courage to change convention. From its past, we can seek out some of the lessons of positive change and human possibility. For now, we must see the region soberly as a lesson of the dangers and disaster of descent. Maybe one day again, it too will join in the chorus of ascent that we are all designed to pursue.

 

John Bell is Director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid and also Director of The Conciliators Guild, an initiative aimed at redefining our politics by addressing key aspects of human nature. IMESClub member.
Initially published by The Strix : http://www.thestrix.com/the-lesson/ 

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article published in Arab News

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

Published in Tribune

Russia's relationship with the Persian Gulf and the independent Arab monarchies, which have formed in the region over the past century, is proving complex and malleable. It ebbs and flows, characterized by significant political differences, which are related to various aspects of regional and global politics and are ultimately also a function of internal political transformations, both within Russia itself and the states of the region.

However, it should be pointed out that – all disagreements and heated discussions about the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear deal notwithstanding – Russia and the GCC have never been such close partners, as they are during this current complicated and painful turn in Middle Eastern history, in that they share a wide range of common interests and understand each others' concerns. There is a mutual impact between, on the one hand, prolonged regional destabilization, multiple sources and theatres of violence and the loss of governability in the region, and the internal processes within the GCC member states, on the other. The GCC, a political-military alliance with great financial and economic potential, has - in Russia's view - transformed into a real power centre, exercising leverage on the overall situation not just within the region.

Everything is relative, so the mutual appeal between Russia and the Persian Gulf is best understood in its historical context. Let us take, for instance, the longstanding relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which plays a leading role in the GCC:

The Soviet Union 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 as a progressive development, especially against the backdrop of the colonial policies of Western powers, which had competed to divide the spoils of the Arab world amongst each other. The Saudis never forgot that Moscow, in those difficult initial years of the Kingdom's development, provided Riyadh with oil products, especially gasoline. This interesting historical fact must appear amusing and paradoxical today.

Later, after the Russian Ambassador was recalled from Riyadh, bilateral relations were frozen for a protracted period. The reason was not any foreign policy disagrement, but rather the internal political repression arising within the Soviet Union, which claimed many respected diplomats as victims.

During the post-World War II period of bipolar confrontation, the Soviet leadership viewed the Gulf region as a sphere of Western preponderance. This view was reflected in Soviet ideology at the time, which divided the Arab world into states characterized by a Socialist orientation and perceived as acting compatible with Soviet foreign policy doctrine, and into the «reactionary» oil monarchies, considered US satellites. This artificial distinction was also fuelled by Nasserist Egypt, which at the time was ambitious to spread Arab nationalism across the region, especially towards the Arabian peninsula with its significant oil resources. Soviet Middle East policy was then undoubtedly driven by apprehensions about Cairo's intentions, and it was occasionally difficult to establish, who was exercising the greater influence on whom.

A reinstatement of relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the end of the 1970s – a period when conditions seemed ripe for reconciliation – was complicated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which caused great damage to Moscow's position in the Muslim world. It was not until the 1990s that both countries established diplomatic representations in each other's capitals, though bilateral relations were overshadowed by a whole range of irritants, such as the conflict in Chechnya and events in Kosovo. While the Saudi perspective on these conflicts prioritized the need to protect the Muslim population, the Russian leadership, urging the reestablishment of constitutional legality in Chechnya and refusing to recognize Kosovar independence from Serbia, looked at the situation through the prism of international legal norms, such as the sanctity of territorial integrity and the principle of noninterference in internal affairs.

Russia's internal problems in the 1990s, causing it to reduce its political activity and economic ties in the Middle East, additionally complicated relations with Saudi Arabia, as well as the other GCC states. To many in the world, Russia appeared to have turned its back on the region. This impression was reinforced by the fact that Moscow, against the backdrop of rapidly unfolding democratic changes inside Russia, embarked on an increasingly pro-Western oriented foreign policy course. Hence, the Persian Gulf was not so much looked at from Moscow as a region that ties should be fostered with bilaterally, but its importance was rather assessed within the overall context of Russia's partnership with the US, which was to provide the framework in which to devise a reliable Middle Eastern regional security system[1].

Russia's return to the region from the early 2000s then occurred under very different circumstances. There was a change in the very paradigm of Russian-Arab relations, which became mutually beneficial and evolved in different spheres. Purely pragmatic considerations assumed priority: the support of a stable political dialogue, whatever the disagreements, the strengthening of economic ties, as well as regional security. On this basis, Russia started building relations – rather successfully – not just with traditional partners, but with all Arab Gulf states, which were gaining in political and economic weight at the time.

During the same period, the GCC underwent a process of increasing institutionalisation internally, for instance in the spheres of common defense, coordination of actions on the international stage, coordination of oil policies, as well as economic integration. Given the emergence of this new, more integrated center of power in the Gulf, relations with Russia acquired an additional dimension.

From 2011, a Russian-GCC dialogue started to develop in parallel to the nurturing of bilateral relations; the former was aimed at the convergence and coordination of the participants' positions on regional and global problems of common interest, as well as the development of trade and economic relations. Five rounds of talks between all foreign ministers were held in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Kuwait, Moscow, as well as New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Regional security, especially the fight against international terrorism and a political solution for the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – both intended to stabilize the Middle Eastern situation more broadly – became the central item on the Russia-GCC agenda. In this context, the Gulf participants emphasized, in particular, Iran's regional role and its relations with Russia, since they viewed Tehran as the main threat in the region.

The extent to which questions related to Gulf security are of utmost priority to the Arab states of the region is well understood in Russia. These questions already acquired heightened significance in 1990 during the First Gulf War. At that time, the priority for both the GCC and, by the way, Russia was to neutralize the threat emanating from Iraq. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the GCC started to view Iran – a state with substantial military might and wide-ranging possibilties to influence the Gulf states through its support for their Shiite communities – as their main enemy.

As a result of this development, the challenges of Gulf regional security acquired a new, more complex character, especially considering the heavy legacy of relations between these two centers of power in the region, a legacy that has its roots in the emergence and spread of Islam as a world religion.

The destruction of the old state foundations and the social and political upheavals, which afflicted the entire MENA region with the beginning of the «Arab Spring», forced the GCC to adapt to changing circumstances and to seek additional resources, in order to forestall the spillover of destabilization into the Persian Gulf at a time when power relations between major regional players were in flux. Egypt, living through two revolutions and suffering from their disruptive consequences, was temporarily weakened. Syria and Iraq have been torn by internal strife between groups close to either Saudi Arabia or Iran. And Turkey, which claimed the universality of its model of «Islamic democracy», has ceased to be regarded in the Arab world as a role model, given its growing domestic and external problems.

Unlike Jordan and Morocco, which swiftly embarked on a path of political modernization, the Saudi kingdom decided for more gradual development, starting by introducing economic reforms. And this is understandable: Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of the holy sites of Islam, carries a particular responsibility for the maintenance of stability, especially at a time when it found itself, as officials in Riyadh argued, caught between two perils: that of revolution and acts of terrorism, on the one hand, and that of surging Iranian regional ambitions, on the other. It should be noted that, while these worries shared by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies were not entirely unfounded, they were in some instances overexaggerated, according to most Western and Russian experts.

It is certainly true that Shiite Iran has enhanced its position in Iraq over recent years, paradoxically enabled by the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which changed the sectarian balance in positions of power in favour of the Shia, a fact that Iran has used in its favour. Saudi hopes that the Assad regime, close to Iran, would be swiftly overthrown did not materialize. Iran's influence in Lebanon, exercised through the militarily well-equipped Hezbollah movement, also increased. And at the same time, the Shia opposition in Bahrain became more active, as did the Houthis in Yemen, which are considered an outright product of Iran, though this is well known to be a stretch of logic.

Developments North to the Gulf, where a Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis was perceived to form, as well as South, where the Houthis overthrew a legally elected President, were seen by the Arab Gulf states as a real threat to both their security and very existence. A new strategy, comprising a whole range of political, military, financial, economic and propagandist counter-measures, had to be devised. Changes at the top echelons of power in the Saudi kingdom hastened this strategy, which was ultimately intended to contain Iran, into action.

Given these assessments of developments in the Middle East, which are prevailing among circles in the Gulf, the US' changing regional policy, especially in relation to Iran, and its possible impact on regional relations, has been of particular concern. Should recent US policy be understood as the manifestation of a new regional strategy, aimed at rapprochement with Iran and the creation of a new regional equilibrium, or rather as a tactical feat? Especially Saudi Arabia viewed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak as resulting in the loss of a trusted ally and, even worse, as evidence of the unreliability of American patronage. America's flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, ascending to power at the time, caused yet more suspicion, which was then further exacerbated by President Obama's decision to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. The not unfounded Saudi allegations that the US' policy of supporting Shia authoritarian leaders in Baghdad further allowed Iran to enhance its sphere of influence in Iraq, became an additional irritant in Gulf-US relations. The two sides also differed sharply on how to deal with the conflict in Syria. US policy in Syria was regularly criticsed in the Gulf as weak and inconsistent. As a result of the above-discussed irritants, and for the first time in history, US-Saudi relations were seriously tested, a development which reached its apogee in Riyadh's renouncing of the strategic partnership and heralding a «sharp turn» in its foreign policy[2].

Worries about losing the US as the traditional security guarantor in the region also precipitated the GCC's activisation of political contacts with Russia, including at the senior level. The Saudis figured it wise to assess the extent to which Russia could play a moderating role with respect to Iran, as well as to broaden their foreign policy ties in the international arena, given the new system of flexible and self-regulating balances in the region. Russia, in turn, had already from the early 2000s adopted a balanced foreign policy course intended at the levelling of relations with states of the «Arab bloc», which it viewed as an increasingly influential player and serious partner not just in the region, but also on global political and economic issues.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and the «P5+1» on July 14, 2015, generated a whole range of commentary and prognoses. Two opposing camps, each assessing the deal in terms of its likely global ramifications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as well as its impact on Iran's regional politics, emerged.

The JCPOA's opponents in the US, like those in the region itself (including Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states) are far from convinced that the deal will lower Tehran's nuclear ambitions and moderate its regional strategy. Some even fear a regional nuclear arms race, driven by Iran's apprehensive neighbours[3]. The Gulf States do not hide the fear that the financial resources released to Iran post-sanctions relief will be used by Tehran to support the pro-Iranian forces and movements within the entire so-called «Shia crescent». The JCPOA's supporters, on the other hand, argue that the deal will not lead to a distortion of the region's military balance and that the US remains committed to its security guarantees in the Middle East. They also hold that the deal will strengthen moderate elements in the Iranian leadership, which compete with those who continue to support a harder line, especially on Syria. According to the supporters' logic, an Iran emerging from international isolation will act more responsibly, be ready for compromises, and the other Gulf states, having received guarantees that they will be protected against possible Iranian expansionism, will equally conduct a more restrained foreign policy in the region.

The agreement with Iran did not have any negative impact on Russia's relations with the Gulf countries. There is even reason to argue that – the disagreements regarding Iran and the Syrian crisis notwithstanding – meetings and conversations at the heighest political and diplomatic level became more frequent and assumed a more pragmatic outlook.

 President Putin, for instance, met with King Salman in Antalya in November 2015, and with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in June 2015 in St. Petersburg, as well as in October of the same year in Sochi. Of course, in view of the complexity and multifaceted nature of the situation prevailing in the region, it was difficult to expect any major breakthroughs. Nonetheless, the two sides agreed on those issues, on which they differ most acutely and agreed to continue the political dialogue and cooperation in the trade and economic sphere. A mutual understanding prevailed that differences, whatever they may be, should not become a pretense for breaking relations. Both sides were cognizant of the fact that their disagreements were outnumbered by their converging interests and approaches on a wide range of issues on the regional and international agenda, including the Middle East peace process, regional security (including in the Persian Gulf), the promotion of a dialogue among civilizations, the fight against terrorism, extremism, piracy and drug trade. Such agreements, if carried out by both sides, would in themselves be a good achievement, if compared with the ups and downs in the history of relations between the two countries.

It is possible that the change in the very style of negotiations – from emotional outbursts to candid, business-like conversations – occurred precisely because both sides recognized their own and  their respective partner's important role in averting the materialization of worse-case scenarios in the region. This is especially true after Russia called for a broad antiterrorist coalition and started supporting the Syrian army decisively with airstrikes.

It is also worth pointing out a special relashionships between Russia and the Kingdom of Bahrein which are on the rise in all spheres – political, economic, banking, scientific, cultural etc. The relationships of the kind are based on close personal ties on the highest level between President Putin and His Majesty the King Hamad who had been visiting Russia four times during the last six years.

The Russian side, in the context of bilateral and multilateral (with the GCC) consultations, has been eager to convey to its Arab Gulf partners which regional and global considerations drive its policy in the Middle East. This has concerned, in particular, Moscow's relations with Tehran and its views of Iran's regional role, as well as Russia's perspective on international cooperation in the fight against ISIL and other terrorist organizations, which instrumentalize Islam to hide their political objectives.

It is critical to pause and discuss these issues, which take a central place in the Russian-Arab common agenda, in somewhat greater detail – especially given that mutual mistrust and mistaken interpretations of the respective other's intentions and motivations prevail in both the Gulf countries and Russia. From time to time, distorted ideas about Russian strategy in the region circulate in Gulf political circles.

For instance, before the Moscow meeting between the Russian and GCC foreign ministers in May 2016, the Al Hayat newspaper alleged that Iran assumes «the central place in Moscow's system of regional and international alliances», that «whoever rules Iran, be it radical or moderate mullahs, or even the Revolutionary Guards, Moscow views its bilateral ties with Tehran as of overriding concern, whether the Gulf Arabs like it or not» [4]. It is also no secret that, besides those who support building a constructive relationship with Russia, there are also those in Saudi Arabia who believe that an «either-or» choice – being with the Saudis or with Iran – will be inevitable for Russia[5].

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed these questions, which appear of particular concern to the Gulf, during yet another round of the Russian-GCC strategic dialogue in Moscow. At the joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, Lavrov noted that any country has the right to develop friendly relations with its neighbours and to strive to grow its influence beyond its borders. He also emphasized that this has to be done with full respect for the principles of international law, transparently, legitimately, without pursuing any hidden agendas and without trying to interfere within the internal affairs of sovereign states. The Russian side has also always warned of the dangers associated with portraying disagreements between Iran and the GCC as reflecting a split in the Muslim world. Russia believes it is unacceptable to further provoke the situation exploiting sectarian prisms[6].

The majority of Russian experts view Iran as one of Russia's major southern neighbours, with whom mutually advantageous cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional and international questions – including trade, energy and (military) security – is absolutely essential. Not just the Middle East counts here, but the entire Eurasian context. Russia is interested that Iran become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a political alliance comprising non-Western states, which was founded by China and Russia.

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 Rouhani regime understands perfectly well that Russia cannot build relations with Iran to the detriment of the GCC states' security. In Syria, Russia and Iran form a close military alliance, which however is not tantamount to a common political strategy. 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 is not set on retaining Assad personally, or the Alawite minority, in power, but is principally concerned with the integrity of the Syrian state, albeit a reformed one friendly to Moscow. In the security realm, Russia also closely coordinates its actions with Israel and therefore views Iran's reliance on Hezbollah suspiciously[7]. Iran's most prominent politicians are also far from contemplating the formation of an outright alliance with Russia. As Rouhani stated, «good relations with Russia do not imply Iran's agreement with any of Moscow's actions.» [8]

In general, many Russian and Western experts agree that, regarding Syria, there is Russian-Iranian agreement on the basis of  a situational confluence of interests, but that one cannot speak of a full-fledged military alliance between the two powers[9]. Unlike Tehran, Moscows maintains pragmatic contacts with a wide range of political forces inside Lebanon, eager to support national consensus and to prevent a slide of the country into the abyss of violence and religious strife. And regarding Yemen, their positions equally clash. While Tehran unequivocally supports Ali Abduallah Saleh and the Houthis, Russia has adopted a more neutral position on the conflict.

Drawing conclusions, it is critical to emphasize that Moscow does not support any Iranian great power ambitions in the Persian Gulf and categorically avoids interference in the Sunni-Shiite conflict, aware that - in conditions of acute rivalry for spheres of influence in the region - Iran instrumentalizes various Shiite forces in pursuit of its narrow political interests. Relations with Saudi Arabia are without a doubt valuable in themselves for Russia. Therefore, it is important to appreciate, just how difficult a balancing act it is for Moscow to simultaneously develop what it views as an indispensible partnership with the Saudi kingdom, to strengthen friendly ties with the other Gulf monarchies and to deal successfully with its Southern neighbour Iran, with which it shares a centuries-long history. Especially at the current stage, when the regional confrontation has gone too far and, most alarmingly, has become conceived as a clash between the two religious centers of the Muslim world, the Saudi leadership has decided to contain Iran by force.

As the two opposing camps deplete their resources, and the international community feels increasingly tired and powerless to stop the vicious circle of violence, conceptualizing a new regional security order, as proposed by Russia, will become all the more urgent. The Arab states have agreed in principle to such an initiative, but are against Iranian integration into a regional security system until Tehran starts pursuing a policy of good-neighbourliness and non-interference. But without Iran, the Russian project is not viable. Therefore, Russia has signalled its readiness «to use its good relations with both the GCC and Iran, in order to help create the conditions for a concrete conversation on the normalisation of GCC-Iranian ties, which can only occur through direct dialogue.» [10]

However Russian-American relations will develop, the Gulf States need to understand that, in recent years, the balance of power in the Middle East has been changing, alliances have been forming and breaking. The level of unpredictability is growing, new risks are emerging. Today, the US' allies in the region are not necessarily Russia's enemies, in the same way that Moscow's friends are not 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. The number of supporters of the «caliphate» in Saudi Arabia and in the South of the Arabian peninsula is far from insignificant. Both also have ambitious plans for economic development and are very interested in creating a favorable external environment for their aspirations.

Dr. Alexander Aksenenok, Ambassador (ret), member of Russian International Affaires Council, senior researcher, Institute for Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Siencies.

 

 

[1] См. Свободная мысль, Россия и Саудовская Аравия: эволюция отношений, Косач Григорий, http://svom.info/entry/608-rossiya-i-saudovskaya-aravia-evoluciya-otnosheni/

[2] см. http://lenta/ru/articles/2013/10/23/unfriended/.

[3] См. РБК, Ричард Хаас, Скрытая угроза: чем опасно ядерное соглашение с Ираном, http://daily.rbc.ru/opinions/politics/16/07/2015

[4] «Москва арабам: Иран наш первый союзник», «Аль-Хаят», 19 февраля 2016 года, http://www.alh

[5] «Аль-Хаят», 26 февраля 2016 года, http://www.alhayat.com/m/opinion/14165741 ayat.com/m/opinion/14041679

[6] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова, http://www/mid/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/...

[7] Russia and Iran: Historic  Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership, Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center, http://carnegie.ru/2016/08/18/russia-and-Iran-historic-mistrust-and-contemporary-part...

[8] См. Газета RU, 06.03.2016

[9] См. Брак по расчёту. Перспективы российско-иранского регионального сотрудничества, Николай Кожанов, Россия в глобальной политике, №3 май-июнь 2016

[10] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ министра иностранных дел России С.В. Лаврова 15.09.2016, http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy_/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/...

Published in Research
Friday, 02 October 2015 01:57

Russian role in Syria still anyone's guess.

Russia's increased aid to Syria remains the center of attention among experts and the world media, where rumors of a possible "Russian intervention" have begun circulating. Russian officials deny them, calling them speculation, but they often give evasive answers on the subject. At the same time, Moscow has emphasized that on the Syrian conflict, it will keep operating on two parallel tracks: actively opposing terrorist groups — primarily the Islamic State  and continuing the political process toward a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

The additional support has to be understood within the framework of the first track: President Vladimir Putin has been calling for a united front to fight terrorism. At a Sept. 22 press conference in Moscow, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian said Tehran welcomes the Russian president's proposal.

But what will happen next? Given the ambiguity of the current situation, one can only suggest a few hypothetical scenarios.

Scenario 1

Russia doesn’t directly engage in the conflict either by land or air and limits itself to providing military/technical aid and advice to Damascus, including the development of Russia's naval base on the west coast. This situation is quite plausible, but it is unlikely that IS could be defeated in this context.

Some Middle East analysts have opined that Russia’s main objective is to ensure the safety of a future Alawite state in western Syria in the event of the country’s partition, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawite religious minority. The authors of Middle East Briefing write that one of the inevitable consequences of Russian intervention would be precisely that: the partition of Syria. Allegedly, "There are several indications that Russia is deploying its forces along the lines believed to be separating areas of strategic interest to Iran and the Assad regime [the western coastal region] from the rest of Syria. These are the lines where suggested UN forces could deploy in the future."

I am convinced that Russia isn’t preparing for such a scenario and that it will instead make every effort to help preserve Syria as a unified state.

Scenario 2

At the request of the government in Damascus, Russia participates in hostilities against IS in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army and volunteers from neighboring countries. There are two possibilities for implementing such a scenario. The first would be to launch rocket attacks and airstrikes with the direct participation of the Russian contingent in ground operations. This is unlikely, mainly because of the inevitable losses to the Russian military that would cause an extremely negative reaction among the Russian public. However, an analogy between this situation and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that has been circulating in some regional media is inappropriate. In the Afghanistan situation, almost all states were against Moscow, while now many regional and global players have an interest in seeing Russia participate in the fight against IS.

The second possibility would be to launch rocket attacks and airstrikes on IS positions — and possibly those of other jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra — without boots on the ground, as the Americans say. In this case, only the Syrians and their regional allies would fight on the ground. This scenario is also rather risky, as it does not offer much chance of success. In both cases, at least some limited coordination with the forces of the US-led international coalition would be needed, at the bare minimum to prevent aerial vehicles from inadvertently colliding and to avoid accidentally striking each other’s positions. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed this very topic during recent talks in Moscow.

Scenario 3

Russia joins the international coalition already operating in Syria. However, given the current state of relations between Russia and the United States — and the West in general  it is impossible to assume that Moscow would put its armed forces under US command (and Washington will never give up control). Besides, the US administration is unlikely to cooperate with Damascus unless we suggest the unthinkable, namely that Moscow would play the role of a bridge between them and facilitate the necessary level of cooperation. This scenario is totally unrealistic.

Scenario 4

Russia creates a parallel coalition to the current one composed of Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran, with the participation of volunteer troops from neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but without getting involved in ground operations. This scenario is plausible, but in this way a full victory against IS seems hardly possible.

Scenario 5

Russia forms a wider parallel coalition by joining forces with its main strategic ally, China. While this may sound like a fantasy, it would radically change the situation, and a whole set of circumstances speaks in its favor.

First, China has an interest in strengthening its presence in the region, not only in economic terms, as before, but also in the military and political sphere. Strong evidence for this idea is provided by the naval base Beijing is building on the Horn of Africa in Djibouti, where China plans to accommodate nearly 10,000 Chinese soldiers. Likewise, it plans to post units of elite Chinese counterterrorism forces — the Snow Leopard Commando Unit  in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is already talk of their likely deployment in Syria. There is participation by 1,000 Chinese peacekeepers under the UN flag in Lebanon, another 1,000 in South Sudan and 500 in Mali. In Africa, it has long been rumored — yet never verified — that workers and employees on Chinese sites in several countries such as Sudan are in fact military personnel.

Second, there is Beijing’s growing concern about the threat posed by jihadist terror organizations, heightened after a Uighur terrorist group from China known as the Turkistan Islamic Party captured a Syrian air force base.

Third, there is the ever-growing military cooperation between Chinese and Russian armed forces on a bilateral basis and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In this context, we can point to a series of military exercises in the region of Inner Mongolia. It is said that plans for the next such drill already involve not only Russia, but also new SCO members India and Pakistan. They, too, are interested in destroying IS and its "franchise" strategy, under which more and more terrorist groups are rising around the world. Will it be possible to include India and Pakistan in the fight against IS in Syria? And what if the SCO also accepts Egypt, which already has experience in joint military exercises with Russia and China and is also extremely concerned about the terrorist threat? In any event, one has to acknowledge that despite the SCO’s slow and difficult evolution, there are signs it is transforming into an organization with the characteristics of a political and military alliance.

Of course, China will have to consider some constraints. It has close ties with energy suppliers in the local market, primarily Saudi Arabia, which won’t like such a scenario. China has a difficult yet working relationship of cooperation and interdependence with the United States — and the United States is already extremely annoyed at China’s rapidly growing international activism. At the same time, there may be other considerations. Christina Lin, former director for China policy at the US Department of Defense, wrote in a blog post for The Times of Israel, "China and SCO’s entry into the war against [IS] would be a welcomed step in Washington."

If this scenario is really implemented, it will dramatically strengthen "Coalition 2" and its chances for a convincing victory over IS and other terrorist groups. For now, Al-Monitor has no concrete data on any noticeable preparation to create such a broad coalition, but circumstantial evidence gathered from Chinese diplomatic circles leads us to believe that the ground is being tested, at least.

The intrigue about Russia’s true intentions in Syria will obviously continue, at least until Putin’s Sept. 28 speech at the UN General Assembly. As befits the Russian president’s style, there may be surprises. According to Russian military affairs journalist Vladimir Gundarov, "No one knows what objectives the Kremlin has set [for] itself. The intrigue has reached such a climax that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has spoken with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu." Now everyone is expecting the start of negotiations between the military chiefs of the two countries, as suggested by the Kremlin.

Would a new anti-terrorism coalition — parallel to the existing one  operate with the participation of Russia? What would happen to the political process then, and how would relations between Russia and the "healthy Syrian opposition forces" develop?

Published by Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/09/russia-anti-terrorism-intervention-syria-isis.html 

 

Published in Tribune

via Al Arabiya English: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2015/05/26/How-can-Russia-contribute-to-the-fight-against-ISIS-.html 

It’s a high time to look at the measures taken by the international community in the fight against ISIS and to ask ourselves a question: If we keep going like this, how soon will ISIS reach the borders of the West? How much has already been lost? How much are we ready to lose in the upcoming months in our unwillingness to change approach, to rethink the situation and to understand that in this war no one can get off lightly. We cannot remain aloof or only relatively involved through assistance and useless air strikes without a full-scale international ground operation and global involvement in the settlement process. While Western aid stays inefficient and insufficient, the countries devastated and suffering under ISIS are seeking other options.

The Iraqi premiere’s visit to Russia is a sign that the pressure of ISIS is becoming enormous and that the country is running out of forces to resist it and has little hope that the sufficient aid will finally come from the West.

 

Iraq has a long history of bilateral relations with Russia, the rise of which started in the epoch of the Soviet Union. Since 2003 and the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which was strongly condemned by Russia, the contact between the two countries was practically lost and the parties have spent years on rebuilding the ties and once prosperous cooperation. Russia invests a lot in the country even now, when the investments are very risky, and this is highly appreciated by the Iraqis. Russia’s president has mentioned that the overall trade turnover between the two countries stays relatively low, but it has grown ten-fold in the past two years even despite the deep crisis in the Middle East and the economic problems.

Bilateral relations

The visit of the Iraqi PM to Moscow is a continuation of the long and sustainable process of the bilateral relations building, but in the current historical moment it’s much more significant especially in terms of regional stability.

Russia, is a needed partner for Iraq in terms of the urgent weapons deliveries. Russia can really deliver the needed weaponry in the shortest time, with no any precondition or stipulation. Then the price on the Russian weapons is lower, while the quality is very high.

Iraqi military trade with Russia is not a new trend. What is new is the word “aid” that was used while talking about the military cooperation. According to Russian officials, it is eager to take all possible measures to assist Iraq in its fight against ISIS. Iraqi’s PM arrival to Russia for assistance and support doesn’t mean the break of its relations with its Western allies, while the criticism of them will rise in Iraqi decision-making circles. Nevertheless it does not mean that Russia competes with or ousts the traditional dominant players in the region. Firstly it has no such interests, as its presence in the region is still very limited and the region is not in its high priorities. Secondly it has no such capacities and influence.

Non-involvement

The West has been willing to make Russia join the U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition for a long time. Opposing the core and philosophy of the ongoing operation that has no approval and mandate of the key international organization, Russia took the position of non-involvement in the direct fighting however keeping an eye on the processes there and cooperating with the regional powers in terms of security issues as well as delivering weapons to the allied Syrian regime, in what was seen with much skepticism and discontent by the international community. The threat of ISIS is far more tangible threat for Russia than for any other country outside the Middle East.

Now Russia, keen to condemn and demonstrate skepticism towards the coalition forces and measures taken, takes its own steps to contribute to the general attempts to stop the spread of ISIS. These steps and maneuvers are in the interests of all the players.

The problem of the ISIS spread, the barbarity and mass killings that follow each of their victories, needs to be countered by a common and united response. There will soon be a point of no-return, when either we send ISIS to hell or this world is turned into hell by ISIS.

Published in Tribune
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