From March 25 to 28, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid a sudden visit which surprised the world; however, some world leaders and heads of states have lauded the visit as a step towards defusing tension between North Korea and the US. The United Nations hailed the trip: “The latest positive developments are the beginning of a longer process of sincere dialogue, leading to sustainable peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, while the White House said: “We’re going to be cautiously optimistic, but we feel like things are moving in the right direction.”

Whether the trip was a signal to the Americans or not, the coming few weeks will reveal that North Korea will not talk about its ballistic capabilities and nuclear powers at a time Washington imposes new taxes on China. The talks are mere political to give the US a signal not to tamper with the current trade status between Washington and Beijing as the key to Kim is in China and not in the US. The general picture of Chinese-North Korean leaders’ talks have left no qualm that Beijing has mediated between Pyongyang and Washington.

 Signals of Kim-Xi meeting

Observers do believe that the talks between Kim and the Chinese President People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping aimed to give Washington a signal that only Beijing’s efforts can bring peace to the Korean Peninsula as China has the upper hand for the projected meetings with the leaders of South Korea (end of April) and the US (in May).

Regardless of the North Korean desire for denuclearization, the Chinese have benefitted from the timing of the visit to give various messages to the US and to the West that only China can have an influence on Kim and that whoever seeks to negotiate with him should first talk to China. The visit has helped China to have a leverage in a sense on the North Korean issue. This is clear when Xi proposed talks about some points during his meeting with Kim to settle the issue on the Korean Peninsula.

The first point which was proposed by Xi was that diplomacy is the breakthrough of the American-North Korean conflict. Beijing has been insisting to bring all talks under the United Nations Security Council’s umbrella and to bring the parties concerned to the negotiations table. As both considered this option, the pivotal role China is playing regarding the denuclearisation is based on what Kim has pledged if the Americans and South Koreans respond positively to his initiative with good will.

The second is that China and North Korea agreed to resume their long-time traditional relationship, including state-to-state and party-to-party ties, giving American side that the Chinese can proceed further to cement their ties with the North Korean if the US fails to accept the Chinese proposal to settle the issue peacefully. To improve the Sino-U.S. relations, Beijing finds a way to solve the issue between Washington and Pyongyang in peaceful means and to disarm North Korea from its nuclear technology.

Though the Americans did not copiously appreciate what the Chinese are doing as they don’t like others to twist their arm, especially Beijing which attributes to itself the laurels of convincing Kim to reconsider peace talks with South Korea and with the Americans to avoid any nuclear escalation in the region, the Chinese are cautiously addressing means to exercise excessive pressure on North Korea, which Beijing uses as a card against Washington, Japan and other enemies in the region.

The visit of the North Korean leader comes at a time the American President Donald Trump reshuffled some leading positions at his administration which included the appointments of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton to reinforce the hawkish stance against China and Russia. The Xi-Kim meeting demonstrates that China is forming stronger ties with North Korea, demonstrating that any meeting between Trump and Kim will be a meeting with a North Korean president backed by China.

In other words, the US will not be able to deprive Pyongyang of its most lethal weaponries because both Pyongyang and Beijing will ask for serious guarantees that the Americans will not deceive them. Thus, both will ask for concessions from the American administration first and after that they will consider disarming North Korea from its strategic weapons gradually. Russia, of course, backs China and North Korea in their demands.

The impact of Pyongyang-Washington scenario on Tehran

The North Korean status quo would have also an impact on the Iranian weaponry and ballistic missiles as well. Iran is expecting that Trump will rip up the nuclear deal in May; the North Koreans are also watching closely to see how the Americans are dealing with their deals with other countries and how this would affect any future deal between Pyongyang and Washington to settle the military threat North Korea poses on other countries.

Despite the fact that the Americans are still a key player in the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese are the only ones who can have the big say on Kim to dissuade him from his nuclear ambitions by militarily securing North Korea from external threats. What applies to North Korea applies to Iran. The only guarantor to the security and stability of Iran will be its allies: Russia and China. Thus, the talk about another deal with Iran goes through Moscow and Beijing before it goes to Tehran.

The issue of North Korea is its proximity to the American territory and its Pacific fleet at a time China considers North Korea as one of its provinces. Iran is deemed another threat as it has the North Korean ambitions which are a source of threat to the stability of the Greater Middle East. In both cases, China has a big say.

Article published in Geostrategic media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2018/04/05/the-impact-of-pyongyang-washington-talks-on-tehran/

Published in Tribune

The recent series of firings and appointments in the American administration have come quicker than expected. After the sudden dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US President Donald Trump appointed conservative politician and hardliner John Bolton as national security adviser, triggering mixed reactions. Bolton’s appointment as successor to H.R. McMaster has created an earth-shaking outcome worldwide, especially as the US government was already heading in a hawkish direction with the appointment of Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement.

From the beginning of the Trump era, Bolton was named as a candidate for foreign affairs or national security. Although he was previously ruled out by Trump, the president had many times voiced his appreciation of Bolton’s approach to Iran and North Korea. While Trump’s foreign policy remains motivated by his “America First” motto, Bolton’s appointment came after Pompeo had already bolstered the hawkish pro-war neocon camp in the White House.

Are these appointments indicating a strike against North Korea? Are they a signal for ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran? Both Bolton and Pompeo favor a hard line approach to Pyongyang, possibly even a pre-emptive strike, and are for cancelling rather than amending the Iran deal.

The selection of Bolton means that the US is probably seeking to impose more sanctions on Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s election victory. Pompeo, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Bolton are all similar in their attitude toward Iran. They call on ending the pact with Tehran and even toppling the regime as they see no prospect of reforming the nuclear deal, which is deemed a strategic disaster for the US. 

Thus, the three recent changes in the American administration — including the appointment of Gina Haspel as Pompeo’s successor as director of the CIA — means three hawkish officials will be dealing with North Korea and Iran in a harsh manner. All of this means the serious rise in tensions between Moscow and Washington in the Middle East and globally will continue. The three partisans all support US military involvement in conflicts, adopting regime change in rival countries, and the use of hawkish rhetoric.

It is important to remember that Bolton served as under secretary of state under George W. Bush, was the US ambassador to the United Nations between 2005 and 2006, and was one of the signatories to a letter sent to Bush shortly after 9/11, which publicly called for the US to launch a unilateral war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Despite the disastrous outcome of that intervention, Bolton continues to boast that the Iraq War a right step.

With neocon hawks such as Bolton and Pompeo in place, the White House will be far less careful in its foreign policy decisions, potentially endangering the world by escalating conflicts and further destabilizing war zones.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

Both Pompeo and Bolton reject the nuclear deal with Iran. Last August, Bolton presented a plan to rip up the agreement and to blacklist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its terrorist activities. Thus, the three new appointments will support Iranian opposition forces in bringing about regime change, and will back imposing comprehensive sanctions that cripple the Iranian economy.

The views from Iran about these appointments are that the US seeks to humiliate an arch-enemy. However, this may have negative repercussions if Iran seeks Russian and Chinese support, leading to limited regional clashes that could lead to international involvement in the region on a larger scale.

The American appointments are considered an enhancement of its security approach, with Washington set to become more extreme and less rational. With the new White House team, there is a growing belief that the administration will not endorse the Iran agreement and will renew all US sanctions on Tehran, meaning Iran will likely act on its threat to resume the production of highly enriched uranium within five days of the deal being revoked. This will drive the whole region to a nuclear arms race.

Britain, France and Germany had proposed new EU sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and its role in the Syrian war in order to ensure the US will not revoke the nuclear deal or impose any further sanctions. This means further concessions from Iran, which Tehran will not accept.

The scene is generally viewed as being set for further tension. The US announced last December that it was working to build an international coalition to counter Iran’s behavior, calling on all countries to join it in facing down the Iranian threat and indicating that the international community should act before Iran becomes like North Korea.

Surprisingly, Russian reaction to the appointment of these hawkish figures in the White House has been quite reserved, with Moscow asserting that it is ready for constructive dialogue. Furthermore, during a question and answer session on an official visit in Hanoi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shared his personal views regarding the personality of Bolton. Lavrov characterized him as “a professional” and “a tough diplomat and politician.” Lavrov added that “after he resigned (as ambassador to the UN), he remained active in politics and we called each other from time to time.”

Russia continues to hope that the US might start constructive dialogue with Moscow on the burning issues of the international agenda, but current trends show that the process is moving in the opposite direction. With neocon hawks such as Bolton and Pompeo in place, the White House will be far less careful in its foreign policy decisions, endangering the world by escalating conflicts and further destabilizing war zones. The chances of a Russia-US confrontation will increase significantly as the issues surrounding Syria, Iran and North Korea are less likely to be settled though dialogue as the US administration closes the door on talks.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1274436

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

Published in Tribune

While the world’s attention remains focused on the nuclear brinkmanship and missile launches on the Korean peninsula, the Middle Eastern arms race, pitting Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates against Iran has been slowly heating up and could soon reach a boiling point.

The spending boom among the gulf states, the Saudis and Emiratis chief among them, has accelerated in recent years but is not a wholly new phenomenon.  Careful observation can discern that increases in Saudi military spending appear to be linked to moments when the House of Saud feels threatened by the growing power of its Persian neighbor.  Following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979—a moment that also coincided with the takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca by extremists and Saudi financial involvement in repelling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—the Saudis embarked on a spending spree, buying sophisticated weapons from Western countries in the billions.

Saudi Arabia has long feared that its leading position in the Muslim world would be threatened after the clerics took power in Iran. Between 1978 and 1982, Saudi Arabia doubled its military expenditures. Again, in 2003, after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq and signs that it would be replaced by a Shia-led government far friendlier to Iran, Riyadh again boosted its arms purchases.  Between 2003 and 2015, the Saudis quadrupled their military budget, persisting in large outlays despite the effect that depressed petroleum prices have had on other areas of the government’s budget.

With Saudi Arabia feeling new pressures from Iran in recent years, particularly in Yemen, it’s no surprise that its leaders have once again opened the coffers to acquire the latest in military hardware. Last May’s deal between the Saudis and the United States, in which the Americans would supply a package of arms, maintenance, ships, air missile defense, and maritime security totaling an astronomical $100 billion, was followed only months later by a deal between Riyadh and Moscow for the Saudis to purchase Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia has spent more than 10% of its GDP on weapons purchases in each of the past three years.  For the sake of comparison, the United States has spent, on average, 3.3% of GDP during the same time period while the United Kingdom has spent 1.9%.  The UAE regularly spends more than twice as much on military hardware and arms as Iran despite having a population approximately one-tenth the size of Iran’s.

Shiite Crescent

Saudi Arabia remains convinced that its nightmare, a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean, passing through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, remains a real possibility if Iran is left unchecked. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi lobbied extensively, and unsuccessfully, against the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that the Obama administration negotiated with Tehran.  Both the Saudis and Emiratis have a fundamental distrust of Iran and suspect that eventually their Persian rivals will renege on the commitments made in the agreement.

On the other hand, Saudi and Emirati doubts about the credibility of the United States of America as a strategic ally have risen, especially following the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the lifting of the economic sanctions against Tehran.  The Obama administration’s decision to refrain from enforcing its red lines on Syria also caused a shift in thinking, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi convinced they may have to rely on themselves in the event of a conflict with Iran.

During the 2012-2016 period, Saudi Arabia ranked second and the UAE third in global imports of weaponry (India, which buys largely from Russia, was first).  That four-year period marked a 212% increase in Saudi military spending compared to 2007-2011.

Winning Western countries’ loyalty

There is a secondary reason as well for the large military outlays by the Saudis and Emiratis. Gulf countries seek to win the support—and in some sense, the loyalty–of Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany through huge arms deals worth billions of dollars. The Gulf states hope that should their cold war with Iran ever turn hot, their close ties with Western powers—achieved, in part, by decades of weapons deals—will translate into tangible military and diplomatic backing.

Yet the alliance between the Gulf states has been marked my mutual mistrust and internecine disputes. During the Obama years, Washington encouraged the Gulf states to build a join missile defense shield against a potential Iranian attack, but the GCC countries could not resolve their disagreements about how and where to do so.  Fundamental differences over the Muslim Brotherhood and several conflicts in the region further undermined the alliance, as did the drop in petroleum prices in 2014, which has strained budgets and nerves.  While the Yemen war has showcased the close working relationship between the Saudis and Emiratis, it has also revealed the depth of disagreement within the bloc, with Oman and Kuwait declining to participate in the war while Qatar, which originally made a modest commitment of troops, has now decided to withdraw its forces against the backdrop of its dispute with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama.

The Gulf states are also well aware that before Yemen, they lacked military experience, unlike Iran which fought a long war against Iraq during the 1980s, sent paramilitary forces to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, and has been deeply involved in Syria since 2011.

Although Iran has more modest financial resources than its rivals across the Persian Gulf, it too is working to strengthen its military arsenal. In 2017, the Iranian parliament passed a resolution to raise military spending to 5 percent of GDP. In the meantime, Tehran has indicated no halt to its development of long-range missiles, armed drones, and cyber warfare capabilities.

In recent years, Iranian arms imports have declined, from nearly $14 billion in 2010 to just above $10 billion the last several years (though it did see an uptick to $12.3 billion in 2016). In the past, Iran has equipped its armed forces with Russian and Chinese weaponry in addition to developing its own indigenous capabilities. Despite its lower spending, most military analysts in the region believe that Iran would remain competitive with its Gulf rivals in any conflict as a result of its more-developed tactical capabilities.

As Saudi Arabia and its allies invest their money in acquiring the latest fighter aircraft, tanks, and Western missile defense systems, Iran continues to develop its missile program and its aims of expanding its political and military influence in the region show no signs of abating. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces maintain a presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and possibly even Yemen, all of which fuel the fears of Saudi Arabia and its allies over the spread of Iranian influence in the region.

Despite the continuation of the economic embargo and the recent street protests over corruption and economic conditions, Iran maintains sufficient financial resources to fund its military and paramilitary influence in a number of the Middle East’s hot spots. The Saudis suspect that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have not been eliminated, only postponed.  And thus, the buildup of military capability, and the overall arms race, continues to grow hotter and more dangerous by the day.

Article published by Foreign Policy Association: https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2018/02/27/saudi-arabia-uae-heat-arms-race-iran/

Published in Tribune
Monday, 26 February 2018 22:12

Atomic derby in the Middle East

The Middle East has entered the nuclear age. The existing strategic equilibrium in the Middle East is shifting as the region seeks a new balance, an equipoise which has been in perpetual flux over the past 30 years. The Arab-Israeli and the Iranian-Arab conventional weapons race began in earnest in the mid-1980s. Some countries plunged into nuclear others into biological, chemical and ballistic missile systems. Since then, the new strategic dimensions have become part and parcel of imbalance ever since. Many atomic states are on a hair trigger in the Middle East, which is the most capricious and volatile region which has been witnessing gigantic political transformations in the past two decades.

When American president Donald Trump said that he would revise the nuclear deal with Iran if he wins in the elections, the Middle East has started to change. Many countries started to think of means to get nuclear plants for energy. The question is which countries are making nuclear arms or which countries have the ability to produce them in the Middle East? Two countries for sure: Iran and Israel.

Since 2000s, Middle Eastern countries have voiced their interest to have their own peaceful atomic nuclear programs, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Middle East states have announced their atomic energy plans in response to Iran’s stagy progress towards nuclear supremacy. The reason behind the deal with Iran was to thwart any bids by Tehran to have a bomb which would lead to a nuclear race in the Middle East. 

Doctrinal Shifts

Arab countries’ fears are not far-fetched. They have started changing their military doctrine since1991. Arabs, mainly in the Gulf region, started looking for tactical and strategic non-conventional weapons to make a balance of power with Iran by securing clear inclination for technological advances and institutional torpor and apathy to proceed at their own impetus. The Middle East states, after the gradual pullout of the American troops from the region, have been undergoing a state of transition at all levels — strategic, political and economic, militarily structural to reach the point of “balance of terror” with their enemy: Iran.

Debate over Iran’s nuclear program has heated up since the beginning of 2000s. Even after Tehran reached a nuclear deal with the international community, the USA and other countries still accuse Iran of seeking to build nuclear arms. Tehran for its part denies these accusations and says Iranian reactors are for peaceful purposes to produce energy.

Though Israel and other Arab countries tried hard to foil the attempts to sign the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East countries are heading towards atomic arms race, fueled by fear of Iranian expansionism and resurgence, mainly from Saudis and Emiratis.

Both Israel and the Arab countries have at present one enemy: Iran. Israeli and Arab fears from Iran are much bigger than having a nuclear bomb but rather an existential threat that can turn Tehran into an independent atomic capability.

Proxies ignite nuclear race

Sunnis in the Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, view Iran as a religious risk, fueling proxies and threatening the stability of the Arab world through Tehran’s endeavours to revive Shiite states in the heartland of the Middle East region.  Since Iran is regarded as a political rival since 1979 Revolution, which has been threatening the Arab monarchies, Arabs started to think of having a deterrent weapon that can curb Iran from continuously interfering in their internal affairs and intimidating their people.

In 2016, Al-Riyadh daily commended Saudi Arabia to start preparing an atomic program for peaceful purposes” to have the first Saudi nuclear reactor operational by 2030. Though there are rumors that Riyadh has purchased “off-the-shelf” atomic bomb from Pakistan, this has not been confirmed by either of the two countries. Thus, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East has also dragged other countries.

Middle Eastern states may have genuine reasons and authentic motives to invest in nuclear power. For example, Jordan has almost few quantities of oil and gas; this has prompted the government to ask the Russians to help set up a nuclear power plant to produce energy. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have colossal crude reserves. Turkey also imports huge amounts of oil and gas to produce energy. Thus, it is in dire need of nuclear plants for this purpose.

Saudi nuclear plants

Within less than a month, Saudi Arabia will unveil the names of companies winning the tender for the construction of two nuclear power reactors, scheduled to start at the end of this year 2018, in a move Riyadh aims to enter the nuclear club for the first time in its history.

Under the framework of the National Atomic Energy Project, Saudi Arabia aims to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20-25 years, which are to be under the supervision of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and are aimed at enabling the country to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear power.

Washington’s approval for the Saudi move remains one of the main dilemmas facing Riyadh, and it is expected that it will top the agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the United States early March which will take him to other states as well.  Donald Trump’s administration faces a critical position in this regard as negotiations between Saudis and Americans on nuclear energy had reached a deadlock.

The idea to construct nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia is not new; however, the pace accelerated more during the past two years. New motives for Riyadh have crystallised to proceed with the construction of nuclear reactors, particularly in the aftermath of the agreement signed with Iran during Obama’s administration, which hampered negotiations between Riyadh and Washington. Some analysts in the White House believe that the deal with Iran “made it difficult to force Saudi Arabia to abide by law 123.”

Trump’s two options

Trump knows that American companies are competing with Korean, Chinese and Russian. If he seeks to support the American companies in this deal, he has to give the green light when Prince Mohammad bin Salman visits Washington in March 2018. With this he has to abandon certain controls that restrict nuclear proliferation. Thus, if Saudis reach agreement without any restrictions, it would be a remarkable shift in US nuclear policy since 50 years. Analysts view this case as a new test for Trump’s negotiating skill as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner who visited Riyadh several times.

It seems that Kushner has prepared well in anticipation of the upcoming visit of Mohammed bin Salman to Washington to conclude the deal in favor of “Westinghouse” company.

Russian, American and Korean rivalry

November 2017, Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, expressed Rosatom’s interest to be involved in building nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia.

The company presented its offer during the meeting of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul Aziz with Novak, and discussed ways to strengthen and develop bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy.

The Russian company has applied to participate in the construction of two nuclear reactors in the Kingdom. In mid-December 2017, Moscow and Riyadh signed a roadmap for cooperation in the field of “peaceful nuclear energy” to promote cooperation in the field of atomic power.

The signing of the road map has coincided with Riyadh’s announcement that it intends to build 16 hydroelectric reactors over a period of 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, as well as other small desalination plants.

On the other hand, a Saudi-Korean meeting revealed several months ago the completion of more than 20% of the engineering designs of the SMART reactor and the completion of the success of the first and second stages of the human development program for Saudi engineers participating in the project.

Nuclear power in Jordan 

Jordan imports over 95 per cent of its power requirements, at a cost of about 20 per cent of its GDP. In 2007, Jordan set out a program for atomic energy to provide 30 per cent of electricity by 2030. In 2015, Jordan signed a US$10 billion agreement with Russia to construct the first nuclear power plant in the kingdom with two reactors to produce 1,000 megawatt power. The construct is expected to finish by 2022. According to the agreement, Jordan will buy fuel from Rosatom for both reactors for 10 years.

UAE first nuclear plant to open summer 2018

The UAE is due launch the Arab world’s first nuclear power station in summer 2018; the other three plants will be commissioned by 2020. Once the four nuclear power plants are fully operational, they will produce 25 per cent of the country’s electricity demand. By 2050, The Barakah nuclear plant will deliver up 50 percent of the country’s power requirements. The UAE has committed not to enrich uranium itself and not to reprocess spent fuel.

Egyptian nuclear program

Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Cairo on December 11, 2017 with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi where a delegation from both countries signed an agreement to launch Egypt’s atomic energy plant at El -Dabaa. Rosatom has announced that construction work on the El-Dabaa plant, which is located west of Alexandria, had started end of December. The Russian company will service the plant’s four reactors for 60 years.

To sum up, the major countries surrounding Israel and Iran are setting out plans to have their nuclear power plants. If Sunni Arabs become nuclear-armed or even just nuclear-capable, the strategic advantage Israel has enjoyed for more than 40 years will disappear and the ballistic missile technology that Iran prides itself with will vanish. Though the Israelis know that the Arab target is Tehran not Tel Aviv, will the Israelis approve the nuclear trend of the Middle East? Failure to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement or a settlement to the current Arab-Iranian conflict would lead to further escalation and tension, a prelude to armed conflict or external intervention.

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 17 January 2018 20:02

US national security strategy: facta, non verba

By using a geostrategic approach that combines old rhetoric with the status quo, US President Trump's new "National Security Strategy" (NSS) which was published on December 18, 2017, seems to raise many questions that match the number of answers he provides on how his administration conducts foreign policy especially from the viewpoint of the Great Middle East countries, Russia and China as well as North Korea which are very interested in the new NSS for being decisive for their future. The new NSS hinges on the American National Security Policy for 1940s though the present one focuses more on the economic factor, military power competition compared to pre-Trump administrations. 

The good news is that this view avoids isolationism at a time it seems to correct some impurities and illuminate some of the ambiguities of modern US foreign policy, either by stressing the dangers of China and Russia, by not emphasizing global "good deeds", or by rejecting the idea that the universal triumph of liberal values is inevitable. Thus, Trump’s NSS document explicitly singles out “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence”. 

However, the NSS has not been able to answer some questions:  Is there a global order that contributes more than American interests, it the world order wroth defending it?

Unlike former NSS, there is a conviction that the new "strategy" emanates from the president himself, making it far more important than those documents that have been issued irregularly. Trump had repeatedly raised questions about the essential content of American involvement in international affairs. Each national security strategy must answer two key questions: What is the central vision of American role in the world? What tools and policies should be used to strengthen this vision? This NSS reflects more nationalist view as it poses “America first” compared to previous policy documents with less national tone. Trump’s NSS plainly stresses the conventional American role and reaction to vital US interests and those of the international community. 

The answer to these questions lies in what Trump refrained from commenting on. Previous American President Barack Obama’s administration has issued two different documents on the NSS in 2010 and 2015; however, it has maintained the following language to describe American main national interests which is “an international norm-based system provided by the US leadership to promote peace, security and opportunity through stronger cooperation to address global challenges”. This does not exist in Trump’s policy document.

Thus, the organizational vision of the new NSS does not appear to be a global but rather a view from the 19th century which represents the view of one of the Great Powers in that epoch. In other words, the new NSS is based on the 19th century mentality to compete for power as a fundamental continuity for the USA to be a leading country. This way of thinking sounds which suggests more globalization appears to be in one of the four pillars of the document: to "push the US influence forward," “to turn the American influence in the world as a positive force for the sake of achieving peace, prosperity and society progress, “to establish partnerships with those who share aspirations for freedom and prosperity with the USA” and “to ally with those whom the US considers a great force and a positive addition to its policy worldwide”.

As per analysis and prognosis of the NSS, the present American policy shows that America will be facing 3 key rivals in the world: First, military and economic rivals: Russia and China, second the “rogue states: Iran and North Korea, and transnational groups and organisations represented by extremist, terrorist and jihadist factions which are all competing to terrify the Americans and their allies and gain more at the expense of the Americans. Moreover, the political conflicts between those who favor repressive regimes and those who favor free societies are also on the priorities of Trump in his NSS document.

Thus, what is required of countries in the Greater Middle East? Those who are US allies such as some Arab states are benefitting from the NSS new document while those who are not benefitting from it such as Iran and its advocates in the Greater Middle East are not content with what Trump is seeking to achieve. 

In Trump’s NSS the Middle East has been allotted one short section covering Iranian expansionism, the collapse of states and regimes in the Middle East, jihadist ideology, social stability, economic stagnation and terrorism without giving any way out of the Middle East conflict but leaving the space wide open for further interventions and misconceptions.

“North Korea seeks the capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons. Iran supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction. Jihadist terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida are determined to attack the United States and radicalize Americans with their hateful ideology. Non-state actors undermine social order through drug and human trafficking networks, which they use to commit violent crimes and kill thousands of American each year”. 

From the perspective of North Korea and Iran, the obvious answer is that these states do not challenge the United States as much as they challenge the fake world order which has been unilateral for decades, and which has been facing a geopolitical gap since 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Americans have to form an alliance to liberate Kuwait from Iraq at that time which has led to Iranian military intervention in Iraq to safeguard its national interest. The NSS document scored the following as stated in page 49 of the document against Iran:

“Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has taken advantage of instability to expand its influence through partners and proxies, weapon proliferation, and funding. It continues to develop more capable ballistic missiles and intelligence capabilities, and it undertakes malicious cyber activities. These activities have continued unabated since the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran continues to perpetuate the cycle of violence in the region, causing grievous harm to civilian populations. Rival states are filling vacuums created by state collapse and prolonged regional conflict”. 

As for North Korea, it has considered itself under the threat from the South Korean government where a huge American base is located. North Korea’s communist regime has responded to Trump’s (NSS) with a statement from its foreign ministry condemning the document as “a typical outcome of the Yankee-style arrogance” and dismissing all of America as “a corpse.”

To address Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programmes, the NSS said Washington will augment its ballistic missile defence efforts and seek new methods to stop missiles before they are launched. On the other hand, .North Korean foreign ministry accused “previous U.S. administrations” of throwing “all the agreements reached with us into a garbage can like waste paper” and rejected the use of the term “rogue state” against them.

“For U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, the NSS suggests the strategic importance this region has for the United States. For instance, the NSS signals that this administration considers the Indo-Pacific region the most strategically important geographical area by referring to the region at the top of the section devoted to discussing the regional implications of its “America First National Security Strategy.” The Indo-Pacific appears ahead of the Middle East, which has dominated past U.S. administrations’ strategic attention”. 

The most important conclusion to be drawn from this new NSS is that Trump administration officially declares its position and supports two apparently contradictory matters: The pivotal vision that largely deviates from the emphasis of the "world order" and the group of values that this NSS should serve at the international level.

In other words, Trump’s NSS vision lacks realistic perspective to deal with critical matters and issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, terrorism, how to counter terrorism and democratisation without leading to the sudden surprising collapse of regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world that would lead to total anarchy and mass killing of innocent people and displacement of millions of citizens.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/us-national-security-strategy-facta-non-verba/

Photo credit: Virginia Mayo/AP

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

Jordanian perspectives of the Syrian conflict, ISIS, Hezbollah, Assad regime and any prospects of a confrontation and the US strategy regarding some regional conflicts which have led to extremism and terrorism.

The kingdom of Jordan, a pro-Western monarchy lying on Syria’s southern flank, has been less beset by political violence than Lebanon or Turkey. The effectiveness of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate – the country’s primary military intelligence service – at identifying and neutralising security threats is well above the regional average.

Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 later on the Iraqi-Iranian war in 1980-1988, Jordan started new strategies to deal with the regional developments which have been undergoing many political and economic transformations that drove the late King Hussein to seek balanced policies with the East and the West to avert his country the consequences of any miscalculation. In the past we had ups and downs with Syria for many years until the Iraqi-Iranian war ended in 1988. Relations started to get back to normal because of the tribes on the borders of each and because of common interest for both governments.

When the so-called Arab Spring erupted in the Middle East and North Africa causing chaos, destruction of cities and economies, displacement of millions, of people and the death of hundreds of thousands of people, Syria was the last to be affected by these demonstrations; however, it was the first in terms of death toll and in the number of displaced whose numbers reached 12 million and the refugees’ figures amounted to 5 million in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries.

Jordanian Syrian ties since 2000 were quite normal until demonstrations broke out in all provinces of Syria, forming high risk on Jordan due to the presence and influence of Iran on the Syrian government and the interference of regional powers in the country’s internal affairs: Arab and non-Arab. Thus, the Jordanian leadership decided to close the borders and to the presence of foreign forces in Syria.  Jordan feared that any spillover from Syria's crisis, the kingdom will be the first to be affected. A public opinion poll in Jordan was conducted in late August through early September 2017. The poll was based on personal interviews with a random, geographic probability national sample of 1,000 Jordanian adult respondents. The sample is fully representative of the overall population: 98 percent Muslim, 61 percent with less than a high school diploma, 55 percent in the 18 to 34 age cohort. The statistical margin of error is approximately plus or minus 3.5 percent.

The poll shows that 86 percent of Jordanians hold a negative view of Hezbollah. Somewhat lower proportions, though still a solid majority, see its role as significant in both causing conflict in Syria (74 percent) and broader extremist strife (64 percent).

Jordanians see no "good guys" in Syria today: the Syrian regime, its outside supporters, and its main internal enemy all receive highly unfavorable ratings. Asked their view of each player "considering their recent policies," Jordanians rated Syria's government at 91 percent "fairly negative" or "very negative."

After Friday prayers April 14, 2017Jordanians gathered in the northern city of Mafraq and they burnt Iranian flags and pictures of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while demanding the expulsion of Iran’s ambassador from the Hashemite Kingdom.

The demonstrations came in response to a war of words between senior Jordanian and Iranian officials. In a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post on April 6, 2017 King Abdullah II addressed the challenge of growing Israeli settlement construction while trying to fight terrorism.

In 2004, the Jordanian monarch was the first Arab leader to warn against the so-called Shiite Crescent in the region from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The king said talked about terrorism reasons and factions and he entailed Iran with them saying:   “These issues give ammunition to the Iranians, to [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and ISIS [Daesh].”

The remarks of Jordan's monarch stunned many in Tehran because he seemed to equate the Iranian government with Daesh. The response from Iran was swift, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi blasting King Abdullah’s comments as “silly and careless,” reflecting his “ignorance and superficial” view.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry promptly summoned the Iranian ambassador in Amman, Mojtaba Ferdosipour, rebuking the Iranian envoy for his country’s verbal assault. Ghassemi’s words stung as Jordanians expect that those who oppose the country’s policies will criticize the government, not taunt the king himself, which is considered a red line in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Beyond the rhetorical insults, the latest spat between Amman and Tehran reflects a genuine policy divide that is unlikely to disappear in the short term. Abdullah warned in the Post interview about Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces operating only 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Jordan's borders, adding that non-state actors approaching Jordan will not be “tolerated.”

Jordan is geographically far away from Iran. Iranian forces have no business to be on by the Jordanian Syrian borders at all. The only conclusion that Jordan can reach is that they are there to threaten and pressure Jordan.

Iran views the Syrian civil war as a conflict mainly aimed toward undermining the Islamic Republic. Given Syria’s historically close ties to Iran and its important geostrategic position on the Mediterranean — including its proximity to Hezbollah — the Iranians will never give up Syria willingly. Iran views outside incursions into Syria — including from Jordan’s borders — as unacceptable and will work to secure the border area.

Iranian or Hezbollah forces' approaching Jordanian sovereign territory could be especially destabilizing for Amman. Iran and Hezbollah have previously tried to carry out attacks inside Jordan.

In other words, Assad, Hezbollah and Iran are viewed negatively in Jordan.

Iranian policies a major problem but not Iran as a state

Similarly, when asked about Iran's recent policies, Jordanians overwhelmingly characterize them very negatively (50 percent) or fairly negatively (43 percent). The recent P 5+1 nuclear deal with Iran is also seen as problematic: just one-third of those polled classified the agreement as a good deal, compared with the plurality (45 percent), who call it bad; one-fifth say they don't know enough to judge.

Looking ahead, only 13 percent of Jordanians expect Arab-Iranian relations to improve; a narrow majority (53 percent) say those relations will get worse, while 29 percent predict they will remain about the same. More unexpectedly, given a list of six regional conflicts including Syria, Yemen, Israel-Palestine, and ISIS, a plurality of Jordanians say top priority should be either "the conflict between Iran and Arab countries (15 percent) or "the conflict between sects or movements of Islam" (13 percent).

Jordan's and Iran's Last Tango": "Relations between countries are like a tango. They require two parties, and cannot develop unilaterally... Over the years, and perhaps throughout the last four decades, Jordan's relations with Iran were based on two main criteria, from the Jordanian perspective: first, on whether Jordan's relations with the Gulf [states] were [characterized by] crisis or by normalization, and second, [on the state of] the relations between Tehran and Washington. As a matter of principle, Jordan cannot disregard her two main allies, Washington and Riyadh.

"Every time Jordan wanted to convey a message of good will to Iran, it was met with a cold shoulder and with a blow. Amman's and Tehran's last tango occurred last night, when a Lebanese friend of mine asked me about Brigade 313 of [Iran's] Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is [reportedly] being formed in southern Syria and is headquartered in the town of Izra in the Deraa Governorate. This is happening even though Tehran – one of the guarantors in the track of the Astana talks [on Syria] – is well aware of the Jordanian position which firmly demands that the 'sectarian militias' [i.e., the Iranian forces and their affiliated Shi'ite militias] maintain a buffer zone between themselves and the Syria-Jordan border. Moreover, these reports arrive when the region is on the brink of the abyss, and it takes only a small push or some accidental unfortunate incident to [make it] slide to the bottom.

Jordan, the first to warn against a Shiite Crescent

When Jordan feared the establishment of Shiite crescent that supposed to be extending from Iraq to Lebanon, Jordan was right and precautions were taken against the expected crescent.

Jordan adopted a very strong foreign policy to prevent any militia’s presence on its border .When the preliminary results of the Syrian’s revolution has become against Jordanian vision and it serves the interests of Russia and Iran, Jordan tried with the U.S to avoid the circumstances resulted from the collapse of the Syrian opposition, thus, the American foreign policy towards the Middle East began to be very clear in the region. As a strong competitor to the U.S, Russia wants to play a big role in Syria to pave the road to an economical gate to Europe and to find foothold along the Mediterranean coast.

In order to study American foreign policy in the Middle East, I would like to introduce the priorities of U.S policy:

Israel’s security: whether the Syrian opposition won the war or not, it doesn't make a sense to Israel, the most important Israeli priority in the region is to restrain Iranian nuclear plant and to disrupt Hezbollah's operations that affiliated to Iran functioning on Syrian soil, therefore, the bombardment of Hezbollah’s positions by Israeli warplanes reflects Israel's concern over Iran's nuclear program, and it is important to realize that Israel has bombed weapons and ammunition sites belong to Hezbollah’s militia and it didn’t bomb one single site belongs to Syrian regime. As has been noted, Americans try to adopt a long-term political program to secure Israel as a very strong ally in the region.

When talking about the US strategy, then the Iranian nuclear file and its repercussions on Israel should be mentioned. For me personally, the Iranian nuclear file is the most active factor that shapes American strategy in Syria as well as the presence of Russian forces in the Middle East. Some analysts do not pay attentions to this file and link America's procrastination policy towards Syrian crises to Russian intervention in the region, although this linkage has its political value, but the Iranian nuclear program factor was present and strongly has calculations in the US strategic plan on the long-term, overwhelmingly, U.S supported the Syrian opposition tactically and logistically to see what will be the next step in the future.

Iranian or Hezbollah forces' approaching Jordanian sovereign territory could be especially destabilizing for Amman. Iran and Hezbollah have previously tried to carry out attacks inside Jordan.

In 2015, Jordan’s military court sentenced 8 Hezbollah suspects — seven Jordanians of Palestinian origin and one Syrian — for conspiring to launch a terrorist attack against American and Israeli targets inside Jordan using machine guns and homemade explosives, while recruiting members to join the Lebanese militant organization. Jordanian security forces also foiled an attack in 2015 by the Iranian-sponsored Bayt al Maqdis group with 45 kilograms (99 pounds) of powerful explosives found in the suspect’s possession.

Jordan’s view of a US role

Given five options for their most desired action from the United States, Jordanians are most inclined to opt for "more economic or technological assistance," with 35 percent picking this option as their first choice and 33 percent as their second choice. The second most listed choice is "more weapons and training for Arab countries to defend themselves." Only in third place is "more diplomatic support to solve regional conflicts."

Surprisingly, "more opportunities to study, travel, or live in America" comes last, with just 13 percent choosing this option as their top priority. Even more surprising is that a mere 3 percent say they want "none of the above" from the United States -- although the large majority have either a fairly negative (33 percent) or very negative (52 percent) view of recent U.S. policies.

These findings suggest that when weighing risks to Jordan's stability, it is unlikely that either Daesh or Iran and its allies could gain enough popular support to cause serious unrest. Moreover, King Abdullah's policy toward Syria seems well calculated to keep him out of trouble.

On the other hand, outside pressure to increase Jordan's role in Syria would probably be so unpopular that it might create a significant social backlash. Instead, Jordan's public would be much more receptive to increased U.S. economic and military support -- with the aim of keeping Jordan insulated from rather than more involved in the conflicts raging just across its borders.

Conclusion

The Jordanian perception of Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS is somehow the same as they are destabilising factors of the region. As there are Iranian troops by the borders with Jordan, the Jordanian government asked many times both Russia and the USA to keep the Iranian and its militias away from Jordanian borders to activate the de-escalation zones agreed on in Astana conference. It sounds that the Russians are now increasing their political and military influence in the Greater Middle East. And this includes Jordan.

Published in Tribune

Iran remains under intense pressure from the United States, supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration would clearly like to force Iran back into international isolation. Regional powers are also pushing back against what they see as growing Iranian influence among its neighbors. How is Iran negotiating these trends? What countermeasures can it employ?

There is nothing new under the sun here. From the first days of the Islamic Revolution, the country began its adjustment to the difficult conditions of international isolation – something it’s only recently been able to start coming out of. But hardly all countries see Iran as part of an “axis of evil” – the European Union’s stance is different from that of the US and its axis of Middle East allies.

The best Iranian countermeasures to the new US diplomatic and economic offensive are simply to continue to abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif uses the word “restraint” quite often in interviews, and one gets a definite sense that the Iranian establishment is wary of being provoked into rash action.

It’s not even clear to what extent the Trump administration is playing an “Art of the Deal” game with noisy threats to withdraw from the agreement. Trump talked in his campaign a lot about US money wasted on recent wars, the cost of NATO, etc. – the expense of empire. A hot conflict with Iran would not be cheap. Of course, that’s assuming there’s some reasoning behind Trump’s actions…

In any case, as of now Trump has only passed the buck on the JCPOA to congress by requesting them to review the agreement. They may well stick to it – surely there is an awareness in Washington, despite the rhetoric, of the damage a unilateral US withdrawal would inflict on its own reputation and international security. If congress balks, Trump can still say he fought it, but lawmakers wouldn’t go along.

But there are and will continue to be new attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and new provocations. In this kind of game, Iran will continue its displays of “insubordination” to the will of the hegemon while taking care not to go too far.

Of course, if the US continues to use its influence and economic might to block the economic integration promised by the JCPOA – perhaps the deal’s primary incentive from an Iranian perspective – there is a danger that the Iranians will decide it’s not worth it. The tactic of signing an agreement but then stalling its implementation is also not new. It’s worth noting that the Iranian side was complaining about this during Obama’s tenure; it’s not something that cropped up with Trump.

How do you view the continuing hysteria surrounding Iran? Is “hysteria” an overstatement? What can be done to stop the escalation of the Sunni-Shia clashes?

You mean hysteria in the West? I don’t think we are hysterical about Iran here in Russia. I don’t know what can be done about Western hysteria. It’s a very old tradition. Somehow they’ve gone from the “Omar Hayyam Society” in Victorian England to the “Axis of Evil.” Although I think anti-Russian hysteria in some countries may soon outdo anti-Iranian hysteria – that might be a kind of solution to the problem: just replace it with somebody else. 

Perceptions of Iran in many of the Gulf states also seem to verge on paranoia at times. There are historical divisions. Russia has great potential as mediator but much of depends on Russia being seen as objective and not too

What are Iran's national interests internationally? What are its foreign policy goals – both stated and unstated? In other words, where does it want to go? Where does it see itself in the medium term? 

All players in the region (and some outside of it) are striving for influence, and Iran is no exception. But we should not underestimate the degree to which the perception of threat drives Iranian actions. Its goals are to ensure stability on its boarders, to avoid open conflict with the West, at the same time preserving and strengthening its defense capability. The more the perceived danger nearby, the more instability, the more urgent Iran’s need to have a strong influence outside of its borders – in Iraq and Syria, for instance.

But Iran also wants a better dialogue with the West – something that started to happen, but is now uncertain. Iran has become good at maintaining its “resistance economy” – some of my friends in Tehran laughed when I told them several years ago about sanctions imposed on Russia: “Oh, try dealing with it for thirty some years!” they said. But Iran wants and needs to build a better economy, and increasing ties with the West is part of this. Still, the Iranians will be loathe to engage in a dialogue that they feel is one-sided. From their perspective, there have been too many years – decades – of this.

You asked about foreign policy, but many domestic issues are closely connected with foreign policy, so I should talk at least a little about that as well. The economic and social burden of massive numbers of refugees from neighboring failed states – or states forced into failure – is one example that comes to mind. There is also the ethnic policy inside of Iran. Many of the tensions of minority groups in Iran – Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Turkmen and others – depend on the situation with those same groups just across the border in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – all bordering on Iran with ethnic populations spilling into Iran. In recent years, the central government in Tehran has taken steps to improve the living conditions of minorities in the country and to address their complaints, but the success of these measures is also dependent on outside factors.

It is reported that Iran was heavily involved in defusing the recent incident between Arab Iraqis and Kurds around Kirkuk. If you remember, they were on the verge of an armed conflict. Some will say: again Iran is meddling. But how could Iran not be considered a stakeholder? There are seven to eight million Kurds living in Iran.

It would seem that Iran really does view Russia as an ally. The two countries have achieved significant successes in Syria. How permanent is this alliance? How is it backed up by contracts, treaties, etc.?

It’s difficult to imagine Assad and his government still existing without Russia and Iran. Whether or not that is a success depends on your perspective. Preventing a radical Islamic takeover of Syria is certainly a success. Liberating Palmyra is certainly a success – there was no participation in the battle from the Combined Joint Task Force of half a dozen Western countries, unfortunately. From a logistics point of view alone, cooperation in Syria is not simple. There are diplomatic and cultural nuances too: Russian missile launches from Iranian territory raised questions in the Iran Majles (parliament) – the Iranian constitution categorically prohibits foreign military bases on Iranian territory – this is the specter of Iran’s colonialized history, in which Russia – alongside Britain and America – played a not always positive role.

It will take more work to develop a true alliance – and the long, complicated history between Russian and Iran is an important factor. There were multiple wars, the Turkmanchai Treaty of the early nineteenth century, giving much of northern Iran to the Russian Empire. At the moment, the two countries have common interests, not only in Syria, but security issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For a long time now, Russia and Iran have been trying to boost trade, but economic ties are still not anywhere near their potential. Yes, some contracts have been signed, but not nearly as many as have been proposed. There are issues of trust, perhaps, but also pressure from outside.

The fact is that while we may both disagree with much of the United States’ foreign policy, the US holds the keys to the global economy, and access to US markets and financial systems is paramount. And most of the youth of Iran is enchanted with the West and particularly the United States – the pop culture. Although I should say that Russian high culture enjoys an excellent reputation in Iran – the writers, musicians and filmmakers. Iranian culture is also making more and more inroads into Russia. Even in Moscow, we now have an Iranian film festival, there are evenings of Iranian music and poetry. The Iranian Cultural Center here does an excellent job.

It makes little sense to me that we do not have stronger ties, and I hope the future will bring them.

Photo credit: Fotolia / Borna_Mir

Published in Interviews

Article by Shehab Al Makahleh and Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

As it is apparent now that Russia has succeeded to help the Syrian government to regain stability to the war-torn country by various military means and then politically through its capacities so far as successful mediator, Moscow continues to translate the accumulation of military achievements in the Syrian field at the table of political talks and within the circles of the regional and international powers, realising its political and military weight and influence to make the necessary moves at the Syrian level at suitable time to break through the stalemated Syrian political scene at all stages.

However, Moscow has used various tactics to manage the Syrian conflict by forcing political, economic and military pressure on the countries that were deemed architects for the demise of the Syrian government and the division of the country. Thus, Russia used its political manoeuvring to gain momentum and impetus to win in the battle before imposing itself as one of the key players in the Middle East region in spite of all pressure being exercised on Russia since the inception of its military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Moscow cannot ignore demands of its Syrian peace partners: Iran and Turkey who have concerns over the Kurdish participation in the meetings. This is why the Congress of Syrian peoples, or the Congress of national dialogue, which was planned to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on November 18, was postponed to a further notice, as Ankara voiced objection to the invitation of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) to the conference.

The decisions adopted at the seventh round of the Astana talks of the Russian initiative to hold a Syrian national dialogue conference  (Congress of the Peoples of Syria) to be held in Sochi hold the following messages:

First, the increasing role and influence of the Russian Federation in the complicated files within the map of the Middle East through proposals which formed alternatives to American ones which have failed in the region. As an indicative, this applies to the Syrian scene through flexible transition of Russia as a player from a warring party against terrorism to a peace dealer and guarantor. Such a conference is deemed a very important development as conflict in Syria is transitioning from military to political with the forthcoming defeat of Daesh.

Second, the approval of the guarantor states, Iran and Turkey, to adopt the Russian proposal, and the rush of Damascus without hesitation to announce its participation were quite indicative. Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, David Satterfield, have made a stunning move by asking the opposition to participate effectively in all meetings and make crucial decisions to reach political solution. This indicates the approval of the stakeholders and the parties to the Syrian conflict to adopt the Russian vision or perspective - at least - in principle, although some regional powers are still rejecting such initiatives proposed by the Russian side. Though some observers are not upbeat with the conference; others consider it as a bail out from the current situation where there is no win-win in the Syrian conflict especially in some cities including the southern western parts and the northern eastern region.

Third, for the first time, political streams and Syrian social and ethnic components were invited to participate in such a conference which Moscow mobilised for even before announcing holding the gathering in Sochi at least in terms of the momentum of participation, which was shown by the list of invitations of 33 political Syrian components to participate in such an entitlement due to the failure of the international envoy to Syria, Stephan de Mistura, to implement the preamble of Resolution 2254 as a result of the international pressure exerted upon him and which turned him into non-neutral in his mission. Also this is coming from the understanding that none political process is possible without national reconciliation and without regional and international involvement with good intentions. Though this would not lead to instant solution to the current issue, but it would pave the way for future talks about the draft constitution, transition, and the future of presidential elections.

Fourth, the prelude to launching the so-called Sochi conference is an implicit declaration that the war in Syria is almost over. Strategically, Moscow may seek to withdraw the surplus of its forces, which have ended their counterterrorism mission throughout this month. The progress of Syrian army eastward the country and their coordination with the Iraqi army through the Russian Military office in Iraq and in Hmeimim would help strengthen the stand of the Syrian government in the coming dialogues and negotiations.

Fifth, the announcement by head of the Russian delegation to Astana, Alexander Lavrentiev, that the Syrian leadership's approval of constitutional reforms, and the formation of a national government, the achievement of national reconciliation and the battle against terrorism may be the most important headlines on the agenda of the Sochi Conference. Yet, some observers voiced their pessimism of the outcome of such a conference as Russia is considered dishonest broker or mediator.

Sixth, the consensus of the Syrians of various political and ethnic spectrums to modify the name of the conference proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The congress of Peoples of Syria” refers to two parts: The consensus of most Syrians on the unity of their country and fear of division. The other part is the acceptance of the Russian leadership to amend the name of the conference means the fall of anti-Russian propaganda on charges of trust or occupation of Syria.

These meanings and facts, which force themselves strongly on the political scene, face concrete obstacles. The first is the international infuriation expressed by the international envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura by refusing to participate in the regulatory measures, but only "accepting participation as an observer on conditions he presented to the Russian side”. The second barrier is the extent of seriousness of the Turkish guarantor to adjust behaviour and obedience to the Russian will in terms of countering and fighting against terrorism of Al Nusra Front in Idlib and increasing the stabilisation of the de- escalation zones, without vetoing on the participation of any Kurdish party or power in Sochi conference. The third barrier is the acceptance of Riyadh Conference members to participate in the Sochi meetings who will be adhering to the ethics of negotiations in line with the variables on the ground in Syria, which means they have to relinquish some of their demands as new results have become in favour of the Syrian government and its allies.

Lack of clarity of the conflict map in the northeastern region of Syrian geography may constitute a new obstacle if the United States continues to push Syria's Democratic Forces (SDF) towards more recklessness that may impose a de facto direct connection between the Syrian army and its allies with Washington and its alliance. The Kurds irk both Iran and Turkey who are guarantors in Astana talks and it would be a very thorny mission for the Russians to bring them to the table along with Iranians and Turks.

Whether Sochi Conference will be reaching a formula of Syrian national consensus in isolation from external interventions or not, what is certain is that former Kremlin initiatives succeeded in thwarting those of other countries which were held at conferences outside Russian geographical boundaries. Thus, such a conference sounds successful even before officially kick-off, with the number of attendees and the agenda which would lead to a transition government and the announcement of the draft constitution before being announced with amendments in Geneva end of November.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/will-sochi-congress-be-the-way-out-for-the-syrian/

Published in Tribune
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