December 9, 2017 was the 30th year anniversary of the first Intifada. So far, the Palestinian responses of yesterday took three tracks: Diplomatic, nonviolent, and violent. Here is a description of each, and I will close with some conclusions.

The diplomatic track included two crucial steps that were taken immediately: One is cutting the relations with the US administration, and the declaration by Azzam Al Ahmad, member of the central committee of Fateh, that President Abbas will not meet Mike Pence on December 19 in Bethlehem as was scheduled. The second was about submitting a complaint to the UN Security Council by the PLO Mission to the UN against the USA. It is said that point 3 of the article number 27 of the UN Security Council does not allow the USA to use the veto right against a complaint submitted against it. It is also said that nevertheless if the veto will be used, then the next step will be about going to the UN General Assembly to make a resolution under the “United for Peace” clause, which will be an obligatory resolution. 

The nonviolent track expressed itself through the hundreds of demonstrations that took place yesterday in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

At the same time rockets were launched to Israel from Gaza, this time by Al Qaida and ISIS-affiliated groups. Hamas called for an Intifada without defining clearly its tools, while the Islamic Jihad and the PFLP called for struggle against the Israeli occupation by all means. 

These three tracks have the following significance: 

The new diplomatic track of cutting contacts with the Americans, if it continues, will mean the end of counting on negotiations as the path to the Palestinian statehood, and going instead to the path of popular resistance (as it was called by Jibril Rajoub in his recent interview with Al Arabiyya), and motivating the Arab world and the international community to take steps against the Israeli occupation and to pressure the United States by using all the diplomatic and the legal means in that direction.

The nonviolent track will be, like it or not, confused with the violent ones. The reasons for this confusion is manifold. In this regard, they are not only about the inability of the Palestinian young people to be fully rational when they are in a mood of rage and anger, but there is something deeper that has to do with the full collapse of trust in the political process of negotiations and its bitter harvest over the last 26 years since the Madrid Conference. Accordingly, it is time for the political leadership to plan and lead a full and continuous nonviolent campaign. 

In order for the leadership to be able to convince its people to do so, it will need international support by giving it some concrete results to present to its people, such as more recognitions for the Palestinian State, building Palestinian facts on the ground in area C and East Jerusalem, rebuilding Gaza, creating free access between Gaza and West Bank, and finally taking care of the dignity of the Palestinian refugees until their right of return issue is solved. The non-achievement of these steps will create the conditions that are conducive to growth of violent extremist groups in both West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinian refugee camps in the Arab neighbouring countries as well.

Article published in Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/trump-declaration-and-the-palestinian-response/

Published in Tribune

President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem represents a crucial change in the American policy. This change can be described as a shift from the previous biased mediator position to the new position of the partner of Israel in its plans towards the Palestinians.

 This shift is not only a violation of the international law and the UN resolutions regarding Jerusalem, but also a violation of the 1993 Declaration of principles, signed in the White House and known as the Oslo Accords. According to that Agreement (Article 5), Jerusalem as a whole, including its East and West parts, will be subject to negotiations between the two sides. The agreement also warned against any procedures to be taken unilatarely in a way that would prejudice against the permanent status issues including Jerusalem. President Trump unilaterally decided to go beyond this Oslo commitment and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel before an agreement about its borders and its division between the two sides. This is a crucial violation.

 

Process-wise, this move to unilateralism goes against the multilateral/international concerted efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it will give the Israeli government additional motives to increase its unilateral steps to change the landscape of Jerusalem in a way that will leave no place and no space for the East Jerusalem Palestinians in the city. They will face more and more ethnic cleansing and forced migration. Different means will be used in this regard such as evacuation of the Bedouin neighborhoods around Jerusalem, ousting Palestinian communities from the city (such as Kufur Aqab, and Shufat Refugee camps), and identity cards confiscation. 

 The response to this American move might take one of two shapes: the first is to give President Trump a chance to develop the “ultimate deal” and present it to the parties in the coming months. Those who adopt such a position say that President Trump referred in his speech to the two-states solution, the preparation for the deal, and that the borders of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem will be decided by negotiations. That is in addition to his call for preservation of the status of the Holy places in Jerusalem.

The second argues that the hopes on the Americans to present a solution is over after 26 years of trial and error in the negotiations since Madrid 1991 conference till today. As such, this response calls for adoption of another path: to get to the Palestinian State in the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. It includes creating a Palestinian nonviolent campaign for independence, establishing Palestinian facts on the ground, especially in area C, Gaza and East Jerusalem, linking Gaza and West Bank together, promoting the Palestinian people’s unity, stuggling for more international recognition of the State of Palestine, and suing occupation in international courts.

The second looks to be a path for the creation of a new momentum towards Palestinian statehood. It advocates that the Palestinians should start this path, and then to ask the international community to support it as a path to their national emancipation.

As such, the second position argues the hit can be transformed into an opportunity for the Palestinians to get their right of self-determination in their independent state.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/trump-s-decision-on-jerusalem/

Photo credit: Mohammed Zaatari/AP

Published in Tribune

In today’s speech president Trump announced his decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem without giving details about to which part of Jerusalem, but it is expected to be moved to East Jerusalem. His declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel will have a very negative effect on the peace process, and may even freeze it for the time being, opening the gates for extremists and radicals who will start working underground and even openly. They will be having hubs and will be harbored by many people. In the past they were working secretly and now they will be overtly operating against American and Israeli interests throughout the world. This deal between the Americans and Israel could not happen without an Arab approval of what is called the “Big Deal”, which means that the Palestinians would be having their own capital in Abu Dis, which is located near Jerusalem city. This could not have happened without this kind of deal, without some Arabs. The Palestinians will not be having their own independent state, which they were dreaming of in 1995 when they signed Oslo agreement. Back then the White House already believed that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, even though the other presidents of the US did not have the courage to announce it since then. But Donald Trump announced it without even thinking of any consequences and repercussions that would happen. That is why before he announced it, he asked the military, American Marines, to be ready for any outcome that would take place in the Middle East or anywhere in the world.

 

 

Photo credit: Renewer/Fotolia

 

Published in Commentaries

Trump occupies his post for already a year and during this time his Middle-Eastern politics has become an object of heated criticism from active and retired diplomats, Middle-Eastern experts and political scientists. There is even an opinion that Trump, unfortunately, listens more to his relatives, so it is unclear where the White House ends and where Trump’s family begins. He listens more to the opinions of unqualified people on the Middle East, than to the experienced diplomats. Moreover, the situation in the Department of State remains rather volatile. Despite one year has already passed, many offices remain unoccupied and Tillerson prefers a rather authoritarian mode of management, without listening to the Middle-Eastern specialists. At the same time there are several points of disagreement between Tillerson and Trump on the Middle East, which have become public.

Speaking about this very decision, now I can say that there is absolutely no logic in it. Even from the point of view of the US national interests in the region. There is an opinion that many of Trump’s advisers have planted in his mind an idea that now the situation in the Arab world has changed so much that the Arab states do not pay attention to the Palestinian issue and that his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem or to recognize this city as Israel’s capital will not provoke backlash in the Arab world. He thinks that maybe Arabs will have some minor protests, but not like in the 50ies and 60ies. Probably, such thoughts made Trump pass such decision. But there is absolutely not logic in it, and the reaction of Arab states, even of Saudi Arabia that now established special relations with Israel, of Iraq, Egypt, of European states like France, is naturally negative and will complicate the resolution of many other regional issues. This will hamper Trumps policy not only in the Palestinian-Israeli dimension, but also in Europe and in the Islamic world as a whole.

Photo credit Mandel Ngan/AFP

Published in Commentaries

Will the US move its major airbase in Qatar (al-Udeid) to another in Jordan’s Azraq city and will China replace the US airbase in Doha? A report in the US military’s daily Stars and Stripes claims that the Pentagon wants to pump in $143 million into upgrades at the Muwaffaq Salti Airbase in Azraq, more than any other overseas Air Force operational site, which implies that the US is planning to leave al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar for various considerations.

In February 2015, Washington and Amman had signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding in which the US vowed to pay $1 billion in military aid to Jordan every year until 2018 because it considers Jordan an irreplaceable partner in the Middle East. This US admiration for Jordan dates back to 1957 when Washington regarded Amman’s role as pivotal for ensuring security and stability in the region.

While the US has mainly focused on the military significance of Jordan, the latter’s role in the region will be critical in the coming decade following the recent setback in US relations with Turkey, and the fact that Washington is upset with Qatar’s position on countering terrorism that is one of the factors in its decision to shift its airbase in al-Udeid to Jordan.

In May this year, US President Donald Trump announced his plan to allocate $500 million for upgrading American airbases overseas. The budget of the Defense Department submitted to Congress includes $478 million for Air Force “military construction,” of which $207 million is meant for foreign facilities in the Middle East, including bases in Incirlik Airbase in Turkey and the Muwaffaq Salti Airbase in Jordan that the US uses for operations against the ISIS. The other $271 million is allocated for a number of airbases and airports in NATO member states.

 

The move from al-Udeid and Incirlik to Jordan may not be an easy transition for the US as it may entail enormous logistical hassles

Shehab Al-Makahleh

The Muwaffaq Salti Airbase is 55 kilometer from Amman (35 miles south of the Syrian border) and close to Iraqi borders as well. It has been used for military air operations. The earmarked amount will be used for paving the airfields, building shelters for aircraft and dormitories for pilots and crew.

Military reports from Jordan reveal that the aforementioned airbase has been used by Americans for flying US-built MQ-9 Reaper drones to strike targets in Syria and Iraq. The airbase, also known as H4, houses various platforms which belong to Royal Jordanian Airforce.

Since al-Udeid is host to a forward HQs of United States Central Command (CENTCOM, the HQs of the United States Air Forces Central Command - USAF), No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group RAF, and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF, shifting to the Jordanian airbase may not happen soon. It is noteworthy that the number of US soldiers at al-Udeid Airbase is more than 10,000.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing at the Muwaffaq al-Salti Airbase for the so-called a Life Support Area (LSA), which include supporting facilities and new infrastructure. The Jordanian airbase will undergo speedy expansion of storage facilities to enable the military to support cargo and personnel recovery operations at the base.

On July 12, US President Donald Trump said that the US was ready to relocate from al-Udeid, and that “If we (the US) ever had to leave, we would have 10 countries willing to build us another one (airbase), believe me, and they will pay for it”.

German troops

Meanwhile, Germany has been negotiating with Jordan for months over pull its troops out of Turkey to the Muwaffaq al-Salti Airbase. The decision of German military to move its troops from Incirlik to Muwaffaq al-Salti Airbase comes in the wake of political and diplomatic squabbles between Turkey and Germany over a number of issues, including differences over the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe and the Turkish government’s support for Islamists in Germany.

Even NATO is now considering moving out of Turkey as Ankara has moved closer to Moscow and the US is also said to have almost taken the decision of giving up its airbases in Incirlik and to gradually shift base to Jordan. Will China replace the US in Doha?

Meanwhile, Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun and Qatari Major General Sa’ad al-Khulaifi met on 27 September at the INTERPOL summit in Beijing, where they discussed cooperation on combating terrorism and signed a deal to increase their coordination in this regard.

Given the fact that Doha-Beijing ties have been strengthening in various spheres recently (such as in the fields of energy, banking, security and military), China has started considering Qatar as an attractive destination for cooperation in the area of defense. China is a major importer of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG). Thus, Beijing seeks to secure this source of energy which is very important for Chinese industries development and expansion.

It is reported that China’s military is eyeing Qatar’s al-Udeid base as the US plans to ultimately vacate it. To China, Qatar is important because it is the only Arab country that is connected to Islamist non-state actors and the fact that Doha can negotiate with them easily, especially with East Turkestan Islamic Movement of Xinjiang. Thus, China considers Qatar as a useful partner in the Arab world.

The move from al-Udeid and Incirlik to Jordan may not prove to be an easy transition for the US as it may entail enormous logistical hassles and infrastructure development.

However, the Americans as well as NATO member states have started rethinking the role of Ankara and Doha in the region, especially after a Turkish military base is being set up in Doha. However, if Americans leave al-Udeid, China seems to be ready to fill in the void.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/12/01/If-US-shifts-airbase-to-Jordan-can-China-fill-the-void-for-Doha-.html

Published in Tribune

It looks like that the international community has taken the final decision to put to an end the seven-year war in Syria with intensive conferences in the pipeline in November and December to reach a political settlement that secure the return of refugees to their homeland. However, both superpowers are right now strategically making counter moves, as Russia regards Iranian troops in Syria supportive and ancillary to the Russian forces and the Syrian army while the US considers Iranian troops, particularly those close to Jordan and Israel an existential threat to both countries.

Upcoming conferences in Astana, Riyadh, Sochi and Geneva prove the two superpowers had agreed on the final formula of the Syrian conflict. Albeit this could not have been achieved without the coordination of Moscow and Washington on the means to end the bloodshed and to silence the cannons, mainly with the Americans confirming that the future of Bashar Al Assad will be discussed after the transition period, while Russians insist on the principle that only Syrians have the right to select their leadership.

The forces involved in the Syrian conflict are now more aware that the war in Syria will be determined by the battle in Southern parts of Syria for its strategic importance today. The talk between Putin and Trump about the political agreement in Syria without prejudice to the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means that there is a complete change in the American and Arab position regarding the terms of the future negotiation between all parties.

The expansion of the “de-escalation zone” in the south of Syria means that there is a tendency to resolve the Syrian crisis for fear of its repercussions on neighbors - Jordan and Israel - who are concerned about the expansion of Iranian forces and its factions along the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

 

Competition and enmity between Russia and the United States still exist in spite of some breakthrough politically in some areas. The United States is opposed to the fundamentalist presence in power, supporting the opposition, trying to impose economic sanctions on the regime, trying to drain the regime and its capabilities in the crisis, as well as isolating and exhausting Russia and seeing the Syrian crisis as a quagmire that will trap Russian forces

Shehab Al Makahleh



Jordan has asked both the United States and Russia to pay more attention to its security concerns. This was raised by King Abdullah II in an interview with the Washington Post in April 2017. He was also the first to warn in 2004 of a Shiite crescent extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria.

Riyadh is hosting a meeting for about 140 members of the Syrian opposition on November 22-24 at a time when the United Nations prepares to convene a new round of Geneva meetings between Syrian opposition and the government on November 28, and Russia announcing the postponement of the Sochi meeting from mid-November to December. All these are indicators that regional and international powers are striving to reach a settlement as the Middle East cannot stand another bloody year due to so many sectarian grudges that would be aggravating regional stability.  

Riyadh meet crucial 

The coming Riyadh meeting is very important as it will help pick about 80 members to represent the Syrian opposition to the coming Geneva meeting or to Sochi. A unified opposition will be stronger and will help better negotiate the future of Syria.

The 8th round of the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva will focus on the next phase of Syria as the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said at the end of October that the “talks had reached a moment of truth”.

Turkey and Russia have agreed to focus on a political solution in Syria underlining the close coordination between the two countries that have played key roles in the Syrian conflict. That was clear in a joint statement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Teyyep Erdogan in Sochi on November 13, 2017. Moreover, the American President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart agreed during the Asia-Pacific Summit in Vietnam that “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria,” calling on all parties to take part in the Geneva process.

It is known that the three countries now are arranging the next scenario for Syria, as they are the three guarantor countries which brokered a ceasefire in Syria.

The recent expansion of the de-escalation zones in Southern Syria by the Jordanian borders aims to pave the way for a political transition and the announcement of a new draft constitution before Jordan and Syria sit to discuss opening the two crossing points: Jaber- Naseeb and Ramtha-Dera’a which have been a lifelinefor both countries.

The Russians started to defend Syria to keep it unified and to keep the Syrian government in full control of the whole territories to avoid any regional spillover.

Competition and enmity between Russia and the United States still exist in spite of some breakthrough politically in some areas. The United States is opposed to the fundamentalist presence in power, supporting the opposition, trying to impose economic sanctions on the regime, trying to drain the regime and its capabilities in the crisis, as well as isolating and exhausting Russia and seeing the Syrian crisis as a quagmire that will trap Russian forces.

Russia has expressed its concern that Assad will become a playing card for Iran, which has become a major knot for the Russians and a card in the conflict in Syria. Moscow has realized that Tehran was sharing Russian interests in the region, which emerged, especially after the Russian call for the integration of Iranian militias into the regular Assad forces. However, Iran also cooperated with Turkey in this context, which contributed to the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement, enhanced by mutual visits and the development of economic relations in the field of gas.

When Turkish Prime Minister said that: “Turkey is Iran;s gateway to Europe, and Tehran is our gateway to Asia, and this guarantees us exceptional possibilities in the field of transport and logistical support,” by then the concerned regional and international powers had to take such statements into consideration that both countries will be joining efforts to have their joint agendas at the expense of other regional countries.

The question that arises is: Are we witnessing a solution for the Syrian conflict by year-end, or will this process last longer? The answer is in the coming three conferences which will be held before the end of the year and only a political solution will be suitable for the coming era.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/11/17/The-Syrian-conflict-between-the-American-anvil-and-the-Russian-hammer.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

Published in Tribune

Article by Maria Al Makahleh Dubovikova and Shehab Al-Makahleh

Russia is finding it difficult to gain a foothold in the Middle East.

At a time when tensions between Moscow and Washington are on the rise, Russia is determined to have a greater say in global affairs, particularly in the tumultuous Middle East. At present, Russia considers itself as a major serious, honest and active player in the region and blames the United States for the chaos unfolding in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to recreate the former Soviet Union in a new form on the world stage, particularly in the Middle East due to its proximity to Russia.

On the other hand, Washington is committed to Gulf states’ security as well as Israel’s stability and full protection from any aggression. Yet Russia has strong relationships with Middle Eastern and North African states that could function as a springboard for future influence. Indeed, Russia has become a magnet for Middle Eastern leaders who seek a new balance of power, as illustrated by the Jordanian and Saudi monarchs’ planned visits to Moscow in October.

The start of Russian intervention in the region dates back to the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with whom Moscow had historically enjoyed warm ties and mutual cooperation. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime happened as a result of non-involvement as Russia refrained from voting against the 2011 United Nations Security Council resolution against Gaddafi. This had been a wake-up call for Russia, driving it to re-engage in the region and to take a stronger stance on Syria.

Today, Russia bets on the end of the Syrian conflict before the year’s end. The Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) that was established by the US and its allies to monitor and train armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the Tribes Army, has finally been shut down. With the return of the Syrian Army to the south of the country, near the crossing point with Jordan, there are mounting signs that the conflict is drawing to a close, especially given that America is no longer backing the opposition, which now finds itself in disarray.

As a result, Moscow is driven to focus more on Libya, where it plans to build a strong presence and establish a base from which to control North Africa. To emphasize Tripoli’s renewed importance, Moscow is giving due concern to the country and its affairs. Indeed, on August 13, the Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow. Because Russia supports both Haftar and the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who along with his government is recognized by the UN, the visit to Moscow appears aimed to broker a peace agreement to end the conflict in Libya, which has become a source of high risk to many countries in North Africa and Southern Europe.

This is the second time Russia received the two Libyan leaders in Moscow in 2017. Such meetings serve as a backdrop for Putin, who seeks to exert more pressure on the West to get more concessions regarding Ukraine and Syria.

Though Moscow wants to establish stable ties with many countries in the Middle East, it is difficult for Russia to find a strong foothold in the region, especially compared to that enjoyed by the US. This is because other players are trying to distract Russia by involving it in conflicts near its borders such as in Georgia and Ukraine. However, the Russian government has been planning, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, to build a presence in the Middle East at the expense of the Americans, the British and the French, benefitting from its impressive arms sales to the region in recent years.

Russia is not only affecting politics in Syria, Iraq and North Africa, but also those in the Arabian Peninsula, such as the crisis between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council members and the war in Yemen. Moscow tries to balance its policy toward Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain with non-interference. On the other hand, Moscow considers Tehran as a key player in the region and a main pillar of its stability. Russians view Iran as being influential in the Gulf, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Thus, this qualifies Russia to play the role of a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran to solve their regional dispute. In 2015, a meeting was held for Arab leaders in Morocco that set the stage for the UAE to align with Moscow, while Saudi Arabia would align with Washington.

In sum, Moscow has started to change the anti-Russian sentiment in the Middle East through its political, economic and media influence by partnerships, economic assistance, military assistance and strategic cooperation. Russia learned from previous lessons in Yemen, Iraq, Algeria and Afghanistan that, in order to be effective, it needs to be symbolically present without being extensively involved in these Middle Eastern affairs, as long as there are representatives or proxies that can help achieve the objectives with fewer harmful repercussions for Moscow.

Article published in Fair Observer: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/russia-role-middle-east-politics-syria-yemen-gulf-latest-news-16531/

Photo Credit: capitanoseye / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 15 August 2017 14:15

De-escalation zones to end the war in Syria

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

Published in Tribune

The main result of the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7 July 2017 was a ceasefire agreement for a de-escalation zone in the governorates of Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda in southwest Syria and on setting up a ceasefire monitoring center in Amman.

The United State's involvement in the multilateral Syrian settlement format marks an important new milestone in this process. American, Jordanian and, unofficially, Israeli participation in the settlement process allows for inclusion in the negotiations of the American-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in As-Suweyda and the Syrian Desert, as well as pro-Jordanian factions on the Southern Front, which refused to send their delegations to the fifth round of the Astana process. This achievement could potentially help preserve Syria's territorial integrity and include in the peace process all Syrian forces that are inclined to engage with other states diplomatically, and the territories they control, without any exceptions.

It should be noted that reports about a certain planned de-escalation zone with US participation in the south of Syria surfaced long before the meeting between the Russian and American presidents. For example, on 6 June 2017, commenting on the airstrike on a convoy of Syrian government forces travelling towards the Al Tanf border crossing, the Pentagon noted that the pro-government forces had entered a “coordinated de-escalation zone”. Simultaneously, reports started coming in (at that time still without official confirmation) about Russian-US consultations in Amman on one or several de-escalation zones. At the same time, experts began questioning the compatibility of the possible agreement for southern Syria with the memorandum passed in Astana in May. Even after the official rollout of the zone on the sidelines of the G20 summit and after the ceasefire came into effect on 9 July, these questions have not yet been fully answered.

Scenario one

The United State's involvement in the multilateral Syrian settlement format marks an important new milestone in this process.

The United States and Russia expand the southern de-escalation zone originally agreed upon in Astana to cover the As-Suwayda Governorate and also, unofficially, the opposition enclave in Eastern Qalamoun and territories in the Syrian Desert, including those around the population centre of Al-Tanf, which accommodates detachments of the local Sunni tribes from Revolution Commando, supported by American, British, Norwegian and Jordanian special operations forces. At the same time, Washington and Amman will not be promoted to full members of the Astana format and guarantor countries. Iran and Turkey, for their part, will retain their status as guarantor countries in this southern zone, in accordance with the Astana agreements.

The newly included territories are not mentioned in the Astana memorandum on de-escalation zones but let us not forget that reports from those areas have repeatedly caused public repercussions in the past. To begin with, the United States decided against raising the level of confrontation in the east by attacking the pro-government forces that, instead of advancing in the direction of the pro-US units, formally announced their intention to fight against the Islamic State (while, on the other hand, creating a “Shiite corridor” into Iraq). Also, in parallel with these incidents, unofficial talks in Amman continued. Furthermore, it appears that the parties were interested in what such an agreement has to offer.

Scenario two

The United States and Russia officially expanded the southern de-escalation zone identified in Astana by involving external players that are instumental in Syria's southern regions, namely Jordan and, informally, Israel. If were to happen, then Washington and possibly Amman would effectively become full participants in the Astana talks. Such a development could be regarded as an undoubted success of both Russian and American diplomacy: Moscow made Washington shoulder the responsibility for the actions of the Syrian opposition, while Washington, for its part, forced Moscow to influence Damascus and Iran, which is an extremely difficult task. The Russian media prefer not to mention it, but it is in the best interests of the Al-Assad government and the Iranians, whose clout in Syria depends directly on survival of the current Syrian regime, to discredit the entire opposition without exception.

Scenario three

What the United States and Russia did was “reset” the format of the southern de-escalation zone as defined in Astana. In particular, this is the scenario at which Associated Press sources hinted when saying that the current agreement between the United States and Russia has nothing to do with the Astana memorandum.

It is possible that, following the creation of the southern de-escalation zones and the security zone, with the USA among the guarantor nations, creation of similar de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria will be discussed or is, indeed, already being discussed.

Since February 2017, pro-government forces have been conducting active operations in the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra not just against Tahrir al Sham, but also against the aforementioned Southern Front coalition of FSA groups, which enjoys the support of Jordan's Military Operations Center. Following the inclusion of these governorates in the de-escalation zones identified by the Astana memorandum, there was no cessation of hostilities as there were in other regions incorporated into the ceasefire agreement. In other words, there has been no actual de-escalation in those provinces, so the format of a “zone” including them has been declared untenable. This third scenario appears to be the most probable. It also opens up additional opportunities for replicating such zones in other Syrian regions. It is possible that, following the creation of the southern de-escalation zones and the security zone (the latter implies a certain buffer separating the opposition from the pro-government forces), with the USA among the guarantor nations, creation of similar de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria will be discussed or is, indeed, already being discussed. This possibility has been voiced by certain US experts.

Tehran is concerned about the Amman consultations, fearing that the Jordanian negotiating format should gradually begin to replace the Astana process.

As mentioned above, it would be logical to set up such zones in the north/northeast of Syria, on the territories controlled by the SDF. Long-term US military presence has already been secured in those parts in the form of a network of US military bases. In addition, despite the fierce resistance on the part of the Islamic State, the fate of that movement's informal capital city Raqqa is all but sealed.

Therefore, the talk concerns the need for proactive measures aimed at configuring security zones in the northeast of Syria, with delimitation boundaries drawn beforehand for the Al-Assad and SDF forces advancing on the Islamic State from opposite directions. This would help avoid incidents and armed clashes. The Ankara factor is also important here: Turkey's position is understood to be aimed exclusively against any legalization of the SDF alliance, which Ankara perceives as a cover for the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

Iran's position

The greatest problems with implementing any scenarios involving the United States in the Syrian settlement could come – indeed, have apparently long been coming – from Iran, and from the part of the Syrian leadership in Damascus which relies on that country.

Tehran is known to have stated in the past that it opposes both the United States’ participation in the Astana talksand an American presence in any of the de-escalation zones. Washington's current stance with regard to Tehran similarly rules out any interaction with Iran and its allies (for the exception of Iraq) in regards to the Syrian settlement. This makes a situation when representatives of the two countries would sit down at the negotiation table as equal partners virtually impossible. During the first round of the Astana talks, while giving an overall positive appraisal of the format, the American Department of State expressed its bewilderment at Iran's participation.

According to some reports, the United States and Jordan insist on all pro-Iranian Shiite forces being pulled out from those regions in southern Syria, which are planned to become part of the de-escalation zone. Israel supports this position: Tel Aviv has repeatedly delivered strikes in the past on Shiite forces supporting Al-Assad in southern Syria. Sources point out that Tehran is concerned about the Amman consultations, fearing that the Jordanian negotiating format should gradually begin to replace the Astana process. Iran appears to be particularly worried that the current list of guarantor countries in the Syrian settlement process could begin to change over time, with Tehran being driven out of the country. On the other hand, since the beginning of Syrian warfare Tehran has set up multi-layered presence in the country: it relies not only on the numerous Shiite multinational communities and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specialists, but also on the local National Defense Forces and the unofficial units of the Syrian Hezbollah chapter.

Russia could be accused of aiming all its reconciliation initiatives as a smokescreen in support of the revanchist sentiments harbored by Iran and by the “party of war” in Damascus.

Tehran, therefore, is apparently demonstrating its unwillingness to recognize any agreements regarding Syria to be concluded without its participation. Washington and the Gulf countries had anticipated such behaviour from Iran and the groups it controls. For Moscow, this development is fraught with complications. Russia could be accused of aiming all its reconciliation initiatives as a smokescreen in support of the revanchist sentiments harbored by Iran and by the “party of war” in Damascus. The implications of such an accusation cannot be ignored.

Despite the fact that the agreement between the United States and Russia officially came into being on 9 July, there is so far no clarity as to what it actually entails. There remain questions as to how the ceasefire in the south of Syria will be monitored, what the parties' positions are on Iran's involvement, and how the fight on the radicals will be carried out in a way that would not affect the “healthy” part of the opposition. Hypothetically, under a sustained ceasefire the opposition itself would be prepared to fight terrorist units. The main thing is for all the parties to strive for a sustained ceasefire regime and for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. For as long as such uncertainties exist, the ceasefire will continue to be violated.

Article by Anton Mardasov and Kirill Semenov

Article published in RIAC: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-southern-deal-between-moscow-and-washington-a-duel-of-diplomacies/

Photo credit: picture alliance

Published in Tribune
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