Wednesday, 07 February 2018 18:23

Russia and Israel: trust despite disagreements

There is a high degree of trust in the Russian-Israeli relations, Valdai Club expert Irina Zvyagelskaya believes. “We have disagreements on Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But we can maintain good relations despite these disagreements and understand each other’s concerns,” she said in an interview with valdaiclub.com.

On January 29, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu’s aide Zeev Elkin described the trip as “very important.” “As always, such visits are very effective and, as always, effectiveness is due to the fact that the content of the talks remains between the two leaders,” he said in an interview with the Israeli Russian-language Ninth Channel. In turn, Russian president’s aide Yuri Ushakov said that the two leaders discussed bilateral relations and regional problems, including the Syrian settlement.

“The situation in Syria was discussed in several aspects indeed,” Irina Zvyagelskaya, chief researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with valdaiclub.com. “One aspect is our interaction, prevention of incidents. There is exchange of information between the military structures and this is of great importance for both sides. But the role of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria remains a much more painful issue for Israel. Israel maintains a very tough stance on this issue, fearing Iran’s strengthening near its borders.”

Because of the Hezbollah presence on the Lebanese-Israeli border, Israel has been saying for a long time that Iran is in his backyard, Zvyagelskaya stressed. Moreover, Israel and the Islamic movement have reached a level of mutual deterrence, which is unique in such an asymmetric conflict with military formations of Hezbollah not being a regular army.

According to Zvyagelskaya, “Israel’s top priority is its own security. It seeks to protect itself with methods it considers acceptable, and wants to have as few restrictions as possible in this regard,” she said.

“For our part, Russia cannot and should not become part of the complex system of regional relations,” Zvyagelskaya stressed. “We should resist attempts to make us part of the contradictions that exist there. Our position is that we are interested in stabilization in Syria and preservation of its statehood, that the country should not again turn into a hotbed of international terrorism.”

Another important aspect of the visit was, according to the expert, the fact that Netanyahu and Putin took part in events dedicated to the Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad. “Israel is categorically against rewriting the results of the World War II, and pays tribute to the Red Army and heroism of Soviet people during the war,” she said. “On this, we find a common language, especially because Red Army veterans who fought during the war still live in Israel.”

According to Zvyagelskaya, there is a high degree of trust in the two states’ relations. “We have disagreements on Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But we can maintain good relations despite these disagreements and understand each other’s concerns,” she concluded.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-and-israel-trust-disagreements/

Photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS

Published in Tribune

It is hard to believe that Western powers could ever have expected the invitation extended by Moscow to concerned parties to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Sochi has become the hottest topic for Syrians and regional powers, along with the Astana conference and the UN-led Geneva gathering, both of which are of equal importance in the view of Russia.

However, suspicion has marred most Russian attempts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. That is, in great part, due to the negative influence of Western media reports on Russia’s role in Syria and the wider Middle East, often accusing Moscow of attempts to destabilize the region.

Even now, the US State Department describes Sochi as “a one-time solution,” and it is close to impossible to predict the outcome of the talks.

More than 1,600 delegates will attend the Sochi congress, each calculating the risks and benefits of this ongoing, multiplayer geopolitical chess game.

That game, of course, includes Turkey’s current military operation in Syria's Afrin — which Turkey has named “Olive Branch.”

Russia, US and other regional players are concerned now with the post-Daesh and Al-Nusra era, and with the threat of global extremism expanding from Syria and Iraq. The Afrin operation prompts all parties to offer a clearer definition of the division of areas of influence and control in Syria in order to implement a realistic plan that goes beyond strategic and idealistic ambitions to determine the future of Syria.

“Operation Olive Branch” could not have been launched without the approval of Russia, which controls Afrin’s airspace. The operation shows how deep the rift between Turkey and its ally, America, has become, as Turkey has effectively engaged in a battle with US-backed Kurdish militias.

Through “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey is sending a message to the Americans and Russians that it will not allow any threat along its borders. The military action is complicating an already tense and unpredictable situation. Regiments of the Free Syrian Army, who receive military aid from the US but are supportive of Turkey, are now reportedly threatening to combat US forces in Afrin. The more awkward that situation becomes, the more it benefits the Damascus regime and its allies.

Russia — or Vladimir Putin’s Russia as it effectively is now as one man holds the strings of the country’s military and political institutions — is not, as some Western media depict it, “playing both sides.” It is, like all the players in Syria, trying to see how best to serve its national interest, fearing that if the Americans support the Kurds in Syria and play on existing ethnic tensions there, Washington will then use the Kurds to oppose Russian interests in Syria.

Moscow is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the Middle East.

– Maria Dubovikova

Russia’s alliance with the Syrian state and the Syrian army is strategic; Moscow will do its utmost to deny any country any influence on this relationship.

In politics, there are no ethics, no honesty and no sincerity; just interests. That is true of all countries in Syria.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, recently said that the US and Russia currently “perhaps” share “tactical symmetry for a convenient moment, but not a strategic alliance.”

What Ryan meant is that Washington and Russia have very different aims in Syria. America’s goal, simply, is to finish off Daesh and retain alliances with other militias in order to combat Iranian influence in Syria. He made that clear when he later added: “What matters most to us in Syria is defeating (Daesh) and preventing Iran from having a land bridge and Hezbollah a foothold.”

Tension between Ankara and Washington has escalated in the past few days: Turkey has threatened to extend “Operation Olive Branch” as far as Manbij, which is located north of Aleppo and lies between Afrin and the Kurdish autonomous region, home to a regiment of American soldiers advising the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). US President Donald Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did little to calm the situation.

Trump warned Erdogan of the “growing risk of conflict” between the two nations and reportedly promised to stop supporting the Kurds. Once given, the promise was almost immediately broken. Besides, it seems neither promise nor threat will dissuade Turkey from its course in Afrin.

This plays into Russia’s hands. Russia is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the region. Russian tactics permit Moscow to stay above controversies in which Washington and even Turkey have become embroiled, enabling Russia to take the initiative in a number of activities in Syria.

The Afrin issue, then, could shape Syria’s future and the future of Turkish-American relations.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1234711

Published in Tribune

The Turkish military operation in Afrin in northwestern Syria has started, and future military operations are likely in Manbij and as far as the borders of Iraq as Turkey strives to expel the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers this organization to actually be the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regardless of the name it is given by the Americans. 

Following the US announcement that it would form a border force of 30,000 fighters led by the Kurds — which was swiftly retracted — Turkey accused Washington of trying to protect the Kurdish people in order to divide Syria. Ankara viewed this number of fighters, which were to be led by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as an existential threat to its security and stability and a step toward a future Kurdish state. 

Russia temporarily benefited from the US-Turkey conflict over the Kurds, as it had from the differences between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian government, when Russia continued supporting the regime while Turkey backed the opposition. After the downing of the Russian jet fighter in 2015, Russia successfully used the Kurdish card against Erdogan to acquire more political concessions. 

There are two likely scenarios for the war in Afrin and the rest of the Syrian territory that the Turkish army is eyeing up: The first is a large-scale operation aimed at undermining the Kurdish control of Afrin. This would be similar to Operation Euphrates Shield in terms of preparation, assault and the participation of several departments of the Turkish army, as well as Free Syrian Army fighters.

The second is a limited operation aimed at taking certain areas from the hands of the PKK in order to keep its fighters away from the Turkish border. This requires isolating the Kurds, cutting their communication with the eastern cantons and preventing them from accessing the Mediterranean. 

International players are making their final moves on the country’s chessboard as Turkey aims to oust US-backed Kurdish fighters from northwestern region.

– Maria Dubovikova

There are many challenges facing the proposed Turkish plan. The first is the difference in Afrin’s terrain from the areas taken during Euphrates Shield, making this campaign more difficult and complicated. Moreover, Ankara is not satisfied with the long-term positions of Moscow and Washington. Ultimately this is a Turkish battle — or rather a battle for Turkey itself — but it will also affect the course of events in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that US “provocations” are a key factor that have complicated the situation in northwestern Syria and prompted Turkey to launch its military operation in Afrin. Russia labeled the US as irresponsible and said its actions would pose a threat to the peace process in Syria.

The Kurds blame Russia for betraying them, but they were trying to milk two cows at once as their relationship with the US threatened Russian interests and its project for the stabilization of Syria. US policies towards the Kurds are also a direct threat to Turkish national interests, with Kurdish separatism a cause of deep concern in Ankara. Additionally, Kurdish ambitions, fueled by the US, have become a threat to the integrity of Syria and the process of reconciliation. Thus Moscow found itself on the same side as Ankara. Before the Afrin operation, Russia and Syria both expressed their concerns, but now it is clear that the move was silently approved by Damascus and Moscow from the beginning. 

On Tuesday evening, Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Erdogan to discuss the situation. The sides expressed a solidarity and common vision, vowing to continue working to resolve the crisis based on the principles of preservation of territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of Syria. 

The situation in Afrin is changing not only the regional framework, but also the global one. The move by Turkey — a NATO member with close ties to Western nations — against a group backed, equipped and financially supported by the US takes them a huge step away from their former allies. This demonstrates Ankara's independence and alters their former path towards integration with the West. The ongoing situation will bring Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, pushing them to forge a more solid alliance. The West is unlikely to be able to stop Turkey from realizing its plans in the region, as any confrontation would definitely not play into their hands.

Despite claims the assault on Afrin may harm Syria, Turkey insists its operation is limited and will not affect the integrity of its neighboring country. However, the numerous interventions from various regional and international players have complicated the political and military scene in Syria after a glimmer of hope had started to appear at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The international players are now making their final moves on the Syrian chessboard ahead of any peace talks aimed at discussing a political settlement, draft constitution and interim government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1232356

Published in Tribune

The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, held in Sochi on January 29-30, showed that the Syrian society is ready for reconciliation, says Valdai Club expert Academician Vitaly Naumkin,  research director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. According to him, the Congress, which has been recognized by the UN, reinforces the negotiation process in Geneva and gives it a new impetus.

For the first time the idea to hold the National Dialogue Congress of the Syrian people, where all ethnic and religious groups of the country, representatives of the government and the opposition would take part, was voiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2017. According to Vitaly Naumkin, this event, unprecedented in its scope, summed up the results of the successful military campaign that culminated by the defeat of terrorists in Syria and marked the launch of a national dialogue.

"There is a hope that this national dialogue will continue in Syria itself and those people, who came to Sochi and for the first time sat next to each other in the same hall, will continue to maintain contacts," he said in a telephone interview with www.valdaiclub.com on January 30. – “They demonstrated, and this is, perhaps, the main result, that the Syrian society is ready for reconciliation. And Russia did it! Properly Russia was able to gather in one hall people who are in an acute conflict among themselves ".

At the same time Naumkin stressed the importance of coordinated efforts of the three guarantor states of the Astana peace process. "It is very important that the triumvirate of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the guarantor countries, succeeded and ensured the successful holding of the Congress," he said.

According to Naumkin, the discussion was stormy, tense, but nevertheless there were no serious clashes, which allowed to achieve the set of goals and objectives. "There was a lot of controversy - especially on the decisions that Congress ultimately took after all," the expert said. - This is primarily the Final Document and the Address of the Congress to the world community. It is shorter than the Final Document and concerns the problems of Syria's reconstruction, the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria and so on. But the most important thing is, of course, the confirmation of all the obligations undertaken by the organizers to hold this fateful, unusual phenomenon in the history of Russia, in the history of our peacekeeping, our diplomatic and military activities."

One of the main results of the Congress, according to Vitaly Naumkin, is the creation of the Constitutional Committee. "The work on the next steps to launch the process of constitutional reform, as well as work on the final formation of the Constitutional Committee will continue through the United Nations," he stressed.

Of particular importance is the fact that the Congress gained legitimacy by the international community through the participation of Staffan De Mistura, special envoy of the UN Secretary-General. In his address to the Congress De Mistura thanked the Russian Federation for the invitation and noted the importance of the elections of the Constitutional Committee. He promised to inform about the next steps to be taken by the United Nations and its general secretary, Naumkin said. "Most importantly, the National Dialogue Congress in Sochi reinforces the negotiation process in Geneva, gives it a new impetus," the expert said. "There is a hope that, as the UN special envoy said, this process will be successful and that the Syrian society will move along the path of national reconciliation."

According to Naumkin, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress caused great resonance in the world. This is evidenced by the wide presence of the media and representatives of interested states. "Judging by what we hear right now, everyone marks the significance of the Congress and the fact that it really took place. Of course, there are ill-wishers who question the achieved progress, but their voice is not dominant.  Today, no one can deny that the Congress will contribute to the settlement of the Syrian crisis," the expert concluded.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/syrian-national-dialogue-congress-as-unique-event/

Photo credit: Sputnik/Mikhail Voskresensky

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 17 January 2018 19:57

What is in 2018’s Pandora's box?

Hardly ever the international community has been looking in the new year with more anxiety than ever in the past decades. Challenges are growing. The ways to counter them are stagnating getting irrelevant to the changing realities. The West living in the imaginary world it got created in its perceptions to serve certain domestic problems is keeping a blind eye on the real dramas that are ready to break out on the streets of its cities. The logic of the international relations is collapsing to realpolitik while the major powers are struggling for their status: Some are striving to keep the status quo of «plural unipolarity», others are going for multipolarity with several dominant powers, setting the limits to the US influence and expansion.

So what to wait from the stormy 2018?

Before proceeding with expectations it has to be clarified that developments of 2018 will be mostly predetermined by the movements of the US which will echo with the reactions and counteractions of the players of the global stage, shaping the agenda for the international community and geopolitical climate map for the whole year.

The US with Donald Trump, unlike the president’s expectations, will not meet support for the American international initiatives and policies, facing more and more discordance and counteraction. Trump having get used to manage business is trying to apply the business models to the global stage, which do not work in global politics. Not everything can be bought and not everything can be sold. With Trump administration, it has become quite clear that the last months of 2017, the US Aid and other forms of US «assistance» programs are considered by the White House as a way of «purchasing» and managing national policies of certain states. This approach is perceived as humiliating and unacceptable. Since the announcement of the decision of Washington on Jerusalem, and vote in the UN and pursuant comments from the US administration there was no space left to illusions.

Promises to «take names»of countries which have voted against the American decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel and that the US has made very huge contributions to the UN over the past years reflects that Washington combines business with politics. Trump’s threatening words that he would withhold billions of dollars in aid for countries that voted against the US, saying “Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.” All of those threats did not work, but clearly unveiled the new strategy of the US on the world stage and its international approaches.

Not surprisingly King Abdullah II of Jordan during one of the recent meetings, gave a strong indirect message to the «countries» expecting to rule Jordan from out through the mechanism of financial aid, saying that Jordan will not bargain its political will and its inalienable rights in Jerusalem as a custodian of Christian and Muslim sites under any pressure by any power. «If any country would extend assistance to Jordan with 1 hundred billion dollars in exchange of Jordanian political concessions, we will decline this offer,» the king said.

But clearly the US will continue to take the course to rule the world through money, trying to buy or to sue those who reject its will through cutting the financial aid and with no doubt using the weak points of those countries fueling deconstructive forces in these states.

The world will get more unstable, especially taking into account new National Security Strategy «NSS» that can already be named the most awkward and worrisome one in history. The new NSS is provoking the two major powers of the East - namely Russia and China - on counteractions and growing mistrust. Taking into account that China is changing its foreign policy, getting from the regional power with global business ambitions to the global power with concrete geopolitical ambitions, the clash of the US-China relations will rise, creating new lines of tensions on the global map. Russia will continue strengthening its ties with China, Turkey, Iran following the US policies, forming an axe of counteraction, uniting around them those, opposing Washington. The US further steps may be considered as aggressive, as sanction policies, as this would ignite hostile reactions of other countries and will further deteriorate the political atmosphere.

Following the same new American policy the Middle East will find itself on the brink of extreme challenges, that may change the regional map and regional balance of powers with declines of ones and emergence of new ones. The process will start the upcoming year with open date of its final shaping. Will the USA enable certain actors to play more active role in the Middle East region?

If the game of war between the two super powers with the involvement of China, France and the UK continues in the region with terrorist activities on the rise that means 2018 will witness too much chaos that is promising to last for many years to come as the war on terrorism cannot be ceased when one party decides to end this political game but rather it is a game where two major powers have their say together to put an end to such a risk to humanity. Afghanistan, becoming new Mecca for the terrorists fleeing Iraq and Syria, will heat up collapsing in the battles of the rivaling terrorist groups. Situation in Afghanistan will influence the climate in the whole Central Asia that will face further fast radicalization of the local population, that will have really dramatic consequences for Russia and other neighboring countries in the short and mid-term perspective.

International terrorism will get new tactics and techniques. The «Lone Wolves» are likely to strike everywhere in the world, mainly in the West whom the terrorist consider as easy targets due to the great number of immigrants and proven failure of multiculturalism and integration policies along with malfunction of countering terrorist acts. The challenge to be faced is that the «lone wolf» terrorism is mostly impossible to be traced and countered. They may act wherever they are with minimum of instruments. Cars, buses, trucks have already proven to be «perfect killers» in the hands of terrorists. The new terrorist - this «lone wolf» is more targeted to sow panic and make people feel unsafe wherever they are rather than on numerous casualties.

Terrorism is benefiting from the rivalry of the great powers, as it can be properly countered only through inclusive cooperation and elaboration of joint strategy to be implemented globally, of all the powers and all the camps.

Conflict between the US and Russia is in a dangerous state where the contradictions are continuously growing without being discusses and the space left is only for the issues on which the countries have interdependent vital national interests. If this situation remain with no change, the contradictions are risking to gain a critical mass, so that a war will become the only solution. Eruption of the open conflict between the US and Russia is unlikely in 2018, but if the contradictions will continue raising heating up tensions with no detente  initiated from both sides, the prognosis of war to erupt for 2019 or 2020 will be more than realistic.

Thus, considering all the trends 2018 will be predictably boiling. Hopefully the international leaders will demonstrate enough sanity to take it away from the dangerous brink through cooperation and dialogue. However it has to be unfortunately admitted that the words «cooperation» and «dialogue» are drastically missing in the lexicon of the current US administration. But hope is that Old Europe will recall itself that it still has its own voice and weight. 

Article published in Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/what-is-in-2018-s-pandora-s-box/

Photo credit: Sputnik/Yevgeny Kolotev

Published in Tribune

Russia, Turkey and Iran — the guarantors of a cease-fire in Syria — agreed at the end of December to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russian resort of Sochi on Jan. 29 and 30. In their final statement, which was issued last month following the eighth round of Astana talks, the three countries called on representatives of the regime and the opposition to participate in these talks in a bid to end the fighting in Syria and start the reconstruction process.

The three countries agreed on the list of participants and also agreed to exchange prisoners, detainees and abductees and identify missing persons, Russian sources leaked to the media. After the Sochi meeting, a ninth round of the Astana conference will be held in mid-February.

The dialogue conference is deemed to be very important in the efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict, as discussions in both Sochi and Astana will be aimed at agreeing on the final process for a solution that will lead to a new constitution, new elections and a new government.

In December, the head of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Sipan Hamo, paid a visit to Moscow and he was informed that the Russians are pushing for Kurdish representation in Sochi, which would lead to a gradual federation of Syria. This, of course, cannot be achieved without the full approval of Turkey. However, Moscow is expected to be a mediator between the Kurds and Turkey. Russian defense and intelligence officials reportedly told Hamo in a private meeting that they were establishing tactical cooperation with Turkey to make Sochi a success, which means that the YPG will not be officially invited, but they will attend.

All components are designed to serve as a model for a future Syria based on geographical federation rather than a single national state, where elections would be held in the presence of US and Russian observers. In spite of the Russian push to achieve a tangible development toward a solution in Syria, the Kurds still receive Western arms, with a Kurdish leader confirming to Russian media that the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” which includes the YPG, received two shipments of American weapons in recent days. “We have a clear military program to raise the number of our forces from 25,000 to 30,000 with a clear change in the People’s Protection Units’ role after the defeat of (Daesh) to become a regular army,” the leader reportedly said, adding that they call on Washington “for a political recognition of the region under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

The previous Sochi summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani resulted in the three countries agreeing to discuss a list of those who should be invited to the Syrian dialogue conference. This was confirmed at the last Astana meeting, so that representatives of the “three guarantors” would meet to approve a list prepared by Moscow that included some 1,500 Syrians.

 

Moscow is in a hurry to come up with a solution that would lead to a gradual federation of the civil war-torn country ahead of its own presidential election in March.

– Maria Dubovikova

 

Moscow’s vision of the dialogue conference in Sochi is to prepare for the launch of the process of drafting a new Syrian constitution by forming a committee of representatives of the Syrian parties.

It appears Moscow is adopting a Russian model of federation for Syria, but Damascus does not view this as acceptable, as what applies to Russia does not necessarily apply to Syria, which is far smaller and less populated. The regime fears that the Kremlin’s view of the political solution for Syria will take too much time to achieve after carrying out the elections, changes to the constitution and giving more power to the prime minister.

The upcoming Sochi meeting is gathering under one ceiling the opposing parties from Syria, including the Kurds — against the will of Ankara and the desire of Tehran. The Russians are in a rush to find a solution because they have a political obligation, which is the presidential election in March.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the end of last month that “we have a dividing line” between areas controlled by US allies in eastern Syria and those controlled by Russian-backed government forces in the west, adding that “it would be a mistake to go beyond this line.”

This came in response to Bashar Assad’s words that “anyone who works for the interests of foreigners, especially now under American leadership... against their army and against their people is simply a traitor. This is how we see these groups that work for the Americans.”

Moscow believes that Tehran is pushing for a confrontation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime, with Russian generals telling Syrian Kurds that “other forces are pushing the Syrian government to confront you.” However, the Kurds have now received additional arms and military supplies from the US, which is shifting its role from fighting Daesh to maintaining the land it controls, clouding the issue of Syria’s future even further.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1220841

Published in Tribune

The US National Security Strategy document, which was released on December 18, 2017, marks the completion of an important stage in international relations and balance of power in international politics.

Russian military intervention in eastern and southern regions of the Mediterranean after many had started believing that Russia was a marginal power and the resumption of its military and political activities as a mediator in the Middle East has raised alarm bells in the US Congress and the Pentagon.

 The resurgence of Russia

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and decided to intervene in the course of the Syrian war in 2015, it became clear that Kremlin was looking beyond its borders to protect its national interests. However, a new international order is yet to fully take shape, which suggests that there will be no change in the existing order until the Syrian conflict is settled.

The US National Security Strategy document describes the existence of forces in competition with US power, namely China and Russia, which thrived under the Obama administration for Moscow and Beijing believed that the former US president was against direct confrontation with both countries and was an advocate of containment through economic measures alone. In other words, Obama tried to merely inhibit China and Russia from becoming powerful enough to oppose American policies.

In the recent years, Moscow’s expanding alliances and openness in foreign relations along with its military activities and the adoption of collective security theory with its partners has weakened US influence and there appears a shift in the center of gravity with the emergence of Eurasia.

The expanding sphere of Russian influence includes countries that were once important pillars and major allies of the US in the international sphere, such as Turkey and India. Its influence has increased through sale of strategic armaments including sophisticated weaponry. In fact, strategists believe such transactions have multiple implications.

First, Russia (through its military) and China (through its economic might) have decided to play an international role at the expense of US leadership of the world. Second, both countries seem determined to oppose US policies in many theatres, be it in Iran, Syria, and North Korea. 

US Department of Defense has recently published a report stating that the US Congress had asked the Pentagon to prepare a military plan for 2018 that would allow the US to attack Russia and China with nuclear bombs without giving them an opportunity to respond.

 

Russia has many Muslims living in its republics and it fears that if chaos ensues in Iran, it would spread to its borders in so-called ‘Arc of Crisis’ 

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

 

Conflict scenarios 2018

With the ending of terms of agreement in the de-escalation zones and possible reversion to an open-ended war — coming on the heels of the recent Iranian protests, as well as Saint Petersburg bombings (2017) — the military situation in Syria might intensify. 

Things might get further complicated in view of two major events in Russia: The first being the presidential elections in March and the second is the World Cup to be held in that country in the summer. These events might influence Russian response to developments in Syria and Iran or even at its borders with Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Thus, Trump can use these cards to exert more pressure on Moscow.

It is expected that Washington will become more involved in events taking place in Iran, if not at present then at a later stage in order to achieve a set of US goals linked to preventing Russia and China from transforming the international system into a multipolar order, noting that the Sino-Iranian economic partnership in the field of energy and security, specifically in Afghanistan threatens US strategy there.

Iran’s influence in the Middle East has given strategic depth to Russia’s military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. The security of Iran, Iraq and Syria ensures a safe haven for Russia in the Caspian region due to its proximity to the Middle East. Thus, Washington finds in Iran the weakest power among its strategic adversaries, which include North Korea, Russia and China. 

The US can start a process by destabilizing Iran which could then have a cascading effect on its neighbor Russia. If Washington is unsuccessful in its attempt at destabilizing Iran, it would look for other ways to confront Russia and China.

The ‘Arc of Crisis’

During US President Carter’s term in office, George Ball was appointed head of a special White House Iran task force in 1978, which recommended the President to stop supporting the then Shah of Iran in favour of the radical Islamist movement of Ayatollah Khomeini, which would instigate the balkanisation of the region along tribal and religious lines and would cause more chaos.

This explains the commonality of interests between Moscow and Tehran as Russia has many Muslims living in its republics and it fears that if chaos ensues in Iran, it would spread to its borders in the so-called “Arc of Crisis” that is likely to destabilise Muslim regions in the Russian Federation and the same applies to China.

If the year of strategic confrontation between the United States and Russia has begun with the destabilizing events unfolding in Iran, Ukraine, the Baltic and Korea, it is expected that many developments will be witnessed in 2018 on many fronts surrounding China and Russia to affect the political positions of both countries vis-à-vis international affairs.

This entails targeting the bases of Russian action in the Middle East and most importantly Iran and Syria as they both clash with the interests of Washington’s regional ally Israel which has kept raising alarm to Russians and Americans over a confrontation with Iran which is approaching its borders from Syria and Lebanon.

Thus, Israel and the US want to take the battle to Iran, a major ally of Russia, in order to put pressure both on Tehran and Moscow. Tehran by then would consider pulling out of Syria and Iraq and Russia will be in trouble once Iran retreats because of protests. However, the sphere of public discontent may expand and reach Russian territories.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/01/09/Will-a-new-world-order-start-taking-shape-in-2018-.html

Published in Tribune

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin went to Damascus Dec. 18 to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Their agenda focused on post-war restoration: Russia particularly eyes cooperation with Syrian authorities on oil drilling, energy, agriculture and infrastructure projects. Rogozin also went to the Russian air base in Khmeimim to address a session dedicated to the operational use of Russian arms.

Remarkably, at a meeting with Rogozin, Assad called the Kurds fighting under American command “traitors.” This is rather telling of Assad's mood. Now that large Islamic State (IS) enclaves have been demolished, the problem of compromise between Assad and the opposition, and the question of the regime’s stability without foreign support, have become the most important aspects of the Syrian conflict.

Moscow repeatedly points out that the successful functioning of de-escalation zones creates the environment for political resolution of the Syrian conflict and boosts the trust between the regime and the opposition. So when Russian President Vladimir Putin made his dramatic statement Dec. 11 about victory over IS and gave yet another order to withdraw troops from Syria, this instruction hardly mentioned the military police force — which is predominantly composed of Sunni Muslims from the Northern Caucasus. According to Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia's military group, since Putin’s order went into effect, only one unit of the police has been withdrawn back to Russia, quite possibly from eastern Aleppo, which is controlled by the regime and is not included in any de-escalation zone.

The Kremlin’s idea to summon the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi and to later embed its results into the stalling Geneva process is fully based on the four existing de-escalation zones. The Kurdish Afrin district may theoretically also become a new de-escalation zone. However, to function steadily, the zones need stability on the lines of contact between government forces and the opposition. With the existing system of control over the cease-fire allowing punitive measures only against the opposition, it is profitable for Damascus and Tehran to delay any real political dialogue with the dissidents, especially as the world community still hasn’t precisely defined the principles of the transition stage that should lead to actual reforms in Assad’s regime.

The Syrian government is evidently ready for dialogue with the opposition and even for some sort of integration with it, provided opposition forces disarm under conditions set by Damascus. Yet that won't lead to a political solution, but will rather look like an enforcement to surrender. That means the regime has every possibility to launch an assault on the de-escalation zones under the excuse of “anti-terrorist operations,” based specifically on the numerous foreign or local pro-Iranian groups. In theory, the fact that Russia devised the de-escalation zones and has positioned its military contingent there should have an impact over its allies, although the reality is different.

In theory, the fact that Russia devised the de-escalation zones and has positioned its military contingent there should have an impact over its allies, although the reality is different.

Moscow seems to understand that it succeeded in establishing its goals for settling the Syrian crisis over other foreign agents: The United States has no comprehensive plan for managing the problem, and the Gulf nations are busy arguing with each other. Yet Russia doesn’t have full control over its allies; neither does it want a fight with them.

The situation in the de-escalation zones is a good example of a "peculiar view" of the peace process by the pro-Damascus coalition. In the Idlib zone, the allied Assad forces and pro-Iranian groups move toward each other from northern Hama and southern Aleppo heading to Abu al-Duhur air base. Their goal is to give the regime control of one-third of the zone. This scenario probably was agreed upon in the negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, within the framework of the fight against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a radical Islamist alliance. However, the Russian Ministry of Defense's map shows one-third of the zone has already been given to Damascus without any explanation, raising concerns over the potential for discreet cutting off of territories from other de-escalation zones. The Syrian government, with Moscow’s quiet consent, also continues to fight in the East Ghouta zone against two insurgent groups that signed the cease-fire agreements in Cairo and Geneva.

In terms of its conflict potential, the situation in the southern de-escalation zone seems to be most complex. Although the zone was a product of the Astana negotiations, it is functioning under special conditions designed in the framework of the Jordan agreement by Russia and the United States. Israel, however, claims the agreements do not prevent pro-Iranian groups from conducting actions near Israel's border. Rumor had it that, during his October visit to Israel, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu agreed to create a buffer area of 5-10 miles around the border between Syria and Israel in the de-escalation zone, free of Hezbollah and pro-Iranian militants.

"It's clear that pro-Iranian troops being positioned near Israeli and Jordanian borders is unacceptable for Israel and the US, but Moscow can't prohibit Tehran from doing it, as the [Syrian] regime's stability depends on the powers supporting it. Russia only makes hints about it, while Iran either pretends not to understand the clues or rotates the troops, which doesn't change much [to the positive side for Israel],” a source close to Russian army intelligence told Al-Monitor. Thus Moscow cannot put a cap on the logistical route from Iran to Syria for Tehran, which, according to some reports, has already started to send trial weapon installments.

To avoid awkward inquiries, Moscow even uses diplomatic ploys to "answer" questions about withdrawing the Iranian proxy powers. “If we mention pro-Iranian groups, maybe someone will be tempted to dub the entire Syrian army as pro-Iranian. So what, should it surrender?” said Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, adding that the most serious threat comes now from American "charges," such as various foreign terrorist gangs tagging along with the US-supported armed opposition groups.

Damascus and Tehran enjoy the public silence about cease-fire violations, understanding that the political agreement on southwestern Syria largely allows both pro-Iranian groups and al-Qaeda affiliates to enter the area. Radicalization of the opposition in this respect is a good excuse for conducting operations in the de-escalation zones, more so when subjective foreign policy factors are added. With Arab-Israeli heated rhetoric on the rise and anti-American sentiments flaring up in the Arab world over US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Assad’s forces and Hezbollah started to position the troops for a new assault in the southwestern de-escalation zone. Also, Damascus is making appeals to attack the opposition in response to Israeli strikes on government forces designed to mark its “red lines” for the pro-Iranian groups.

In this situation, Moscow's position is important, and Russia can't always distance itself from the Iran-Israeli rivalry in Syria. However, since the Israel Defense Forces' assault in December, some experts on Russia are afraid that, using the defense of Syrian sovereignty as an excuse, Russia has started to send warning signals to Israel, meanwhile testing its arms in battle. For instance, during the December series of attacks that the Israeli military has launched on Syrian facilities, Russian media reported that a Pantsir-S1 air defense system had shot down an Israeli long-range attack, or LORA, missile around al-Kiswah area south of Damascus. Syria was provided with the last installment of Pantsir-S1 in 2013, although it's highly doubtful that the Syrian army is capable of stopping weapons as complex as a quasi-ballistic missile or a multiple rocket launcher.

To alleviate the escalation, it's logical to rely on the Druze armed groups included in Syria's pro-government National Defense Forces. However, since the Druze people also cooperate with Israel, they might minimize the influence of the pro-Iranian forces in the area. Yet Tehran and Damascus are unlikely to reduce their ambitions. Despite the claims about peaceful resolution, Assad’s regime will gradually integrate the opposition-controlled areas by force while imitating the willingness to yield concessions.

Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/12/russia-syria-military-post-war-rogozin-assad.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 24 December 2017 04:46

Russia ready to fill Middle East void

US President Donald Trump, who next month celebrates his first year in office, has formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has ended decades of American diplomacy by ordering the State Department to prepare for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, drawing anger and despair from people and leaders throughout the world, who now expect a possible third uprising in the Occupied Territories, the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts, the strengthening of extremists and an effect on the standing of the US in the world, mainly in the Middle East.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was one of his presidential campaign promises, but hardly anyone imagined it would be among those he kept.

Last week’s announcement turned Washington into a dishonest broker in any future talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis, opening the door wide for Arabs to seek Russian, Chinese and European support.

Though Trump received many warnings from Arab and European leaders and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, he insisted on his decision to move the embassy.

The Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which were signed in 1993 in the White House by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with the attendance of then-President Bill Clinton, stated that the final status of Jerusalem had to be settled by negotiations.

The dominant majority of the international community has condemned this decision and called on the White House to revise it.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterised it as “defying common sense”, while President Vladimir Putin shared his deep concerns. Putin phoned his Turkish counterpart following Trump’s announcement, calling for the Palestinians and Israelis to “hold back” and to renew talks. 

Putin had a short trip to the Middle East on Monday, paying an unexpected visit to Syria, notably the Khmeimim air base, where he met Bashar Assad and ordered Russian troops’ partial withdrawal from Syria. After that, he held talks with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. The issue of Jerusalem and the future of the peace talks were among the important topics that were discussed.

Putin’s surprise visit boosts country’s standing in the region amid fallout from US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

– Maria Dubovikova

The current situation gives great opportunities to Russia to strengthen its position in the Arab world. Russia has proved to be an honest peace broker in Israeli-Palestinian talks for years — its position is unbiased and unchangeable. The US manoeuver permits Russia to fill the void, attracting the region’s countries into its network of cooperation. 

Putin is seizing these opportunities with his brief Middle Eastern tour. Turkey, which is also gaining power in the region, is becoming a key partner for Russia. After the collapse of their bilateral relations following the downing of a Russian jet on the Syria-Turkey border two years ago, their relationship has been fully restored, and has even reached new levels. At the same time, Turkey is one of the few countries which permits itself to use tough rhetoric against the West, and it expressed in a threatening way its disagreement with the White House’s decision on Jerusalem. Russia stands by the side of President Erdogan and other leaders in the region, thus getting into an advantageous position.

The US is deeply involved in all Arab countries politically, militarily, economically and financially, but it arguably has a track record in sowing instability with notorious regime-change policies. Taking this into account, the Arabs are now grappling with the mistakes they made in previous decades.

The issue of moving the embassy dates back to 1995, when the US Congress passed a bill recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But that bill includes an item that allows US presidents to effectively postpone the transfer decision for six months to protect American national security interests. US presidents have been postponing this decision ever since.

Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem is merely symbolic, but it is an adequate reason for possible further chaos in the Middle East.

Palestinians feel they have been negotiating for peace for more than 20 years and have ended up with zero result. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process ended irreversibly with the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — it is a bizarre decision, but how can the Arab world reverse it?

Published in Tribune

There is growing interest in knowing the future of the Middle East with the emergence of new crises that may ravage the entire region. There is no global peace and prosperity without the stability and security of the Middle East. This cannot be achieved in 2018 in the event of turmoil and uncertainty after the incidents of the Arab Spring. Several countries resort to protect their strategic interests with dismantling existing brotherly alliances, replacing them with an association of interests, which may shift and end quickly once the end of the interest.

The Middle East is undergoing instability which will last for many years. An unpredictable American administration with other international opportunistic countries including Russia and China as well as some regional powers which try to cover their own internal fallacies and loopholes by instigating troubles away from their borders, this would aggravate insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa region, as long as the inter and intra-relations amongst nations has turned out to be based on energy, economic and security needs rather than on brotherly relations which was the case in the Arab region. A number of countries in the Middle East which seek to satisfy their the superpowers in the West and East through back channels are using the so-called soft power, which means using money, media and lobbies to pressure countries to achieve a policy or to pass specific papers to influence the shape of the map of the region, which is currently being done by some Arab countries in the United States and other countries through the race for influence and satisfaction to the White House and the Kremlin and “Downing Street.”

The next phase will witness the formation of an Arab alliance which would group countries that are interested in naturalising ties with Israel as a de facto without any terms and conditions to open a new page between Arabs and Israelis at the expense of other Arabs who, in spite of having peace agreements with Israel, have not transgressed and trespassed the borders of naturalisation at the expense of other Arabs including Jerusalem issues.

This would lead to further pressure on Arabs from both sides to accept or not to accept the American-Israeli terms and conditions or to be isolated in the coming few years as there are other resources that can provide Europe and the US with since the dependence on hydrocarbon energy is declining.

The coming year will witness a confrontation regarding the 5 permanent member states arms race to have bases in the Middle East including China and France: China in Syria and France in Lebanon while Russia in Syria and the USA in the Gulf and Jordan.

The Iraqi and Syrian wars on terrorism are almost over and the reconstruction process would start any time next year. this would lead to a conflict among countries as the stagnation and recession in some regional key powers would drive them to either contribute to reconstruction of both Iraq and Syria or would contribute to further conflicts to lubricate the regional powers economies. The upcoming presidential elections and predicted victory of Bashar al-Assad to be the coming president of Syria, some Arab countries which were against him will be find themselves isolated as they are the ones who were opposing a ceasefire in the country and because he will not accept any naturalization of ties with any of these states in the near future. Syria will accept Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon to open their borders to start trade and reconstruction process without giving any other countries any role in the building process except for those who supported Syria in its ordeal. No ties with the Gulf states is going to be the feature of the coming few years not only because Al Assad does not want it, but because the Syrian people at home will not accept relations with the Gulf states, some of which contributed to the war that displaced more than half the population of Syria, destroyed its economy and wiped out more than 400,000 of its people.

In 2018, Syria will have a Middle East affair in which everyone takes into consideration. The main reason for the war was oil in Syria which has been discovered by the Russians and Chinese in large quantities and the gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea and in Qara in the outskirts of Damascus which was most controlled by armed opposition.

With the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise it as the capital of Israel, the chances of having extremist and terrorist activities are slated to rise and that new forms of terrorists would be established.

Alliances are expected to change in the region with Jordan getting closer to Iran and Turkey as both countries have recognised the Jordanian right to be the custodian and guardian of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

For decades to come, the region will witness a state of insecurity and instability with some regional key players benefitting from this scenario, instigating sectarian wars and conflicts to export their own internal issues to other countries. Raising the issue of the minorities in some countries will be the main headings in the western and some regional media coverages, igniting wars in the name of saving the minorities fueled by regional economic deterioration, fiscal austerity, high joblessness and political corruption.

In short, the Middle East is in a whirlpool that would live in in the few years to come the “big bang” theory which many countries breaking down into smaller states.

Since the population of the Arab world is almost 380 million and the young generation is more than 75 per cent in most of these countries, constituting almost 300 million. According to the International Labor Organisation’s statistics, the Middle East and North Africa regions continue to show by far the highest youth unemployment rates – 28.2 and 30.5 per cent, respectively and rates have continued to worsen since 2012, particularly for young women.

In a number of countries in the Middle East, the youth have lost their identity and they would be a source of insecurity to their communities as they have nothing to lose more with new job opening, low salaries, low purchase power, high inflation rates, nepotism, misrepresentation in the parliament and in the government which have led to the state of “statelessness” among the youth to their countries and that they would be ready to put their hands in the hands of their enemies to destruct their communities. In other words, they can be easily attracted to the camps which are opposing their countries via media. Many countries in the region are suffering huge deficits in their budgets that would lead to a social uproar regardless whether these countries are royalties or republics as the gap between the rich and the poor is getter wider.

Expected scenarios for the Middle East:

In the aftermath of the demise of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria, some of the terrorist factions’ leaders (Al-Qaeda and Daesh) have been moved from their headquarters in both countries to other countries in the region to start a new war game that would turn the region into chaos for years to come. This time the international intelligence services and the establishment of camps in the desert areas in the MENA are aimed to use these leaders to have new targets, namely the Gulf States.

The attrition of some Arab armies would neutralise them in any coming war regionally and would lead to the mushrooming of terrorist factions in neighboring countries that would serve as a springboard to take action against targets in countries where some international players are not satisfied with their regimes.

Despite the American hostility to Iran and its warning to Tehran of the consequences of continuing its program to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, there is a preliminary agreement between the two countries that politics is not militarism; reciprocity of announcement on both sides against each other and the escalation is just for domestic and regional purposes. Neither Washington nor Tehran is serious about military warnings.  The USA seeks to loot the money from its Arab allies and Iran is benefitting from this situation by expanding in the Arab region at a time it is seeking alliances with Turkey, Syria, Russia, China and Qatar.

The return of Syria and Iraq to the regional arena means the sharpening of nails of those who have manipulated in the two countries’ security and stability for many years under the pretext of sectarian wars. This means the transfer of sedition to the heart of those countries that are suffering from internal social and political disorder.

This will be supported by the slow growth of these economies of the region due to security risks, terrorist threats and lack of investor confidence in the future of the region as a whole, which means more unemployment and more social and political pressures on governments that if they continue their austerity policies on the majority of the people while they proceed further with their extravagant expenditures on a less than 1 per cent of the population and even they started their strict policies against other Arab allies who have been serving their interests.

For this year, at best, the best growth rate expected in the region will not exceed 2% with a decline in the wheel of production compared to 2010 before the Arab Spring, as the growth rate of the economy in a number of countries recorded 3-4.6%.

Therefore, the Arab arena is expected to witness the following:

First: A game changer which means that countries that have been affected by terrorism will move to a new stage of reconstruction and peace as terrorism moves to hit other countries in the region.

Second: The spread of sectarianism is the most dangerous scenario. The recent sectarian tensions in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, increase the chances of a full-scale war between the Sunni and Shiite forces, and may divide the new Middle East into self-governing groups on a sectarian basis in accordance with its political orientations and interests in the region.

Third: The new authoritarianism and oligarchy in the MENA means the decline of the support of the middle class, which would lead to lack of balance in society in light of the rise of regimes which are new dictatorships as they play on the contradictions of religious, political and social society.

Fourth, countries in the Middle East will witness a severe shortage of economic and financial resources, resulting in huge financial deficits due to military and security tensions in the region that will make oil prices higher than $85.

Fifth: The security threats will divide Arab societies between the pro-government and pro-Islamic groups, including the organization of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, and in light of the previous economic factors, sectarian affiliations and government entities as well as terrorist and extremist groups. This split will create the incumbent hub for further deterioration in stability.

Published in Tribune
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