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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published in Tribune
Friday, 18 August 2017 00:15

Russia re-examines relationship with Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune

Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Iraq’s influential Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, paid an unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia on July 28 and 29, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other senior officials. The meeting took place before the crown prince accedes to the throne, in order to draw up the coming relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Sadr’s rare visit raised concerns in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which has refrained from commenting on the trip.

The charismatic cleric has recast himself as the upholder of Iraq’s democratic process and a bulwark against the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias. The visit comes at a time when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are worsening. Would the visit of the Shia cleric, a member of an influential Shia family and son of the prominent Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, help defuse tension between Baghdad and Riyadh?

The timing of the visit is crucial to Iraqi politics. Sadr has returned as a leader in charge of uniting Iraqis under one umbrella, his office said. However, some Iraqi sources believe the visit to Saudi Arabia shows that Sadr has come on the Iraqi political scene to lead, not to linger in his Najaf office to receive followers.

The visit can be perceived as an attempt to consolidate his support and reap the fruits of his involvement in the coming parliamentary elections in April 2018, as Iraq would not have a government without him. Sadr is crucial for many Iraqi leaders as he heads a political bloc with almost 10% of parliamentary seats and has great influence on both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. His persistence to bring about change by bridging gaps between Iraqis is not welcomed by many in government, who are controlled by Iran.

The cleric and his followers are making deals in an attempt to enter positions in Iraq as mediator between Iraqis, Iranians and Saudis. Sadr is now delegated by Saudis to play a role in Iraq to serve Saudi interests and to return Iraq into its Arab fold by playing a role in bridging the differences and gaps between the three countries. That explains why he received $10 million from Saudi Arabia and the promises the kingdom has given him to build up the consulate in Najaf.

The question that arises is the following: Is Riyadh leaning toward Sadr, or is he leaning toward Riyadh at Tehran’s expense?

Sadr’s appearance as a powerful national leader could have some advantages, as seen by Saudi Arabia, because of his newly-minted nationalist stance that has made him a potential bulwark against Iranian influence. This became clear in his April 2017 statement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling on him to step down. Right now there is tension between him and rival Shia factions, especially after his militias clashed with the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, which is concerned with Iran’s influence not only in Iraq but also across the greater Middle East, wanted someone like Sadr to step into the Iraqi field to draw up its relations externally and to organize domestic affairs. This started with the invitation from Prince Mohammad. Saudi Arabia, and mainly its crown prince, views Sadr as a man of the people who is a fervent Iraqi nationalist and federalist, upholding the democratic process by non-violent means. Sadr, who is an advocate of the quota system in parliamentary elections, believes this method can ensure that Iraq’s main ethno-religious constituents — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds — share power.

Some Iranian commentators and political analysts warn that Saudi Arabia is playing games by courting Sadr to influence Iraqi politics — especially after Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Riyadh in June — which could threaten Iranian interests in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis called on the Iraqi prime minister by giving him a chance to either reconsider his policies toward Iran and bear the consequences that Iranian control of Iraq’s politics and its resources would carry, including the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis, or to U-turn toward his Arab brethren in order to proceed with regaining stability in Iraq.

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

Since the Saudis received no positive response from Abadi, they thought of other alternatives, Sadr being one. Some view the cleric’s visit as a concession from the Saudis to Iran, especially as a result of Qatar and the Islamic Republic growing closer at the expense of Riyadh’s influence amid the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rift over Doha.

Sadr is known for shifting alliances in order to remain in a position of power and influence. He proved this in February 2016, when 100,000 of his followers demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad, calling for government reform and for building bridges with Sunni tribes and politicians. He is famous for shifting political positions in the past, including stopping militant activity against the United States, turning against the government in Baghdad and speaking out against Assad.

Among Iraqi politicians, reports circulate that Saudi Arabia is attempting to control Sadr. Some journalists suggest the kingdom will be monitoring what he does after returning to Iraq and what his plans would be in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Some argue that Sadr would serve as a stepping stone for Saudi Arabia into Iraq, where the cleric could help Riyadh put pressure on the Shia-led order in Baghdad to distance Iraq from Iran.

Officials have not, thus far, disclosed details surrounding Sadr’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. However, among those who are close to the cleric, there are suggestions that Sadr may have gone to the kingdom to seek financial help from Riyadh in preparation for Iraq’s elections in 2018.

Another important Shia cleric on whom Saudis pin high hopes is Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was the largest party in the country’s Council of Representatives from 2003 until 2010. He is exiting his bloc to create the National Wisdom Party, an umbrella group of Shia and Sunni political parties — a new political movement in the country. This would be a reason for Sadr to set up his own front, benefiting from his close and strong ties with other Sunni leaders in Iraq and the GCC states.

SERIOUS DIALOGUE

Sadr’s latest visit to Riyadh was the second since 2006, when he met with the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. With Riyadh’s latest invitation, it turned out that Saudi leaders have resorted to dealing with Baghdad in order to either change the political scene in Iraq or to ask Sadr to use his connections and channels of dialogue with Iran to melt the ice between Riyadh and Tehran. Riyadh is seeking to have a stable Saudi Arabia without any external interference from Iran, and it also wants Iraq to be back to its Arab track, away from Iranian influence. Once the seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections are secured by Shia and Sunni moderates or those pro-Saudi Arabia, the war game with Iran will change in favor of Riyadh.

The Saudi government has also extended invitations to other Iraqi Shia leaders, who have not yet made a decision whether or not to visit Riyadh. Iraqi politicians close to these leaders believe that Mohammad bin Salman aims to improve his image among the Shias in the country by inviting the clerics from Iraq to mediate between him and Iran, as Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is known for its dissent against the Saud rulers.

The invitation has come after Sadr’s April statement calling on Iran’s ally, President Assad, to step down to avoid further bloodshed in the Syrian conflict. Sadr has also avoided using any hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Arab states. In May, he urged Tehran and Riyadh to start a “serious dialogue to bridge their difference and gaps for regional stability.” He also called on the two to “care for their peoples — regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity — and engage in serious dialogue with a view to restoring regional peace and security.”

Regardless of the outcome of visit, the most important is that it came at a critical moment and would be an inspiration for further sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq after the defeat of Daesh (Islamic State) in Mosul. Once the war against terrorism is over in Iraq and Syria, it could pave the way for a potential war between sects in Iraq supported by regional powers, as some countries in the Middle East have started to gain power shortly after the demise of Iraq. Once issues of terrorism are resolved, this might mean that the Iraqis could return to wielding control over neighboring countries, politically and militarily. Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Article published in Fair Observer

Photo Credit: thomas koch / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune

Diplomats from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States have begun a fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana with the Syrian government and representatives of some Syrian opposition groups to help Syria move to the next phase of defusing tension in all area to restore the country’s peace and stability as the country has been locked in a vicious conflict since early 2011

In the middle of continued violence in Syria, the 5th round of the Astana talks is set to convene to further discuss the establishment of the four proposed de-escalation zones in Syria in Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa. This Astana meeting was preceded end of June by meeting by talks in Jordan involving U.S., Russian and Jordanian officials discussing a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria on the border with Jordan.

The July discussions will define the boundaries of the de-escalation zones, implement mechanisms by the three guarantor countries—Russia, Turkey and Iran— and will lead to the establishment of a new Syrian National Reconciliation Committee, that would split the other Syrian opposition groups.

The success of this round of talks depends on whether Russia succeeds this time in committing the parties involved in the Syrian conflict on the ground to the cease-fire as without a sustained cease-fire, no pathway to conflict de-escalation in Syria would be seen in the near future.

Sources to the 5th round suggest that monitoring over de-escalation in Syria be conducted from 2 monitoring centers — Jordanian and Russian-Turkish. In other words, the first will be Jordanian-Russia-US due to the meeting held in June between Jordanian, Russian and American security officials in Northern Jordan. This center will be in charge of the southern de-escalation zone. The second center will be in on the Turkish Syrian borders and it will be Russian-Turkish. These two monitoring centers would exchange information and suggest measures to prevent violations, such as military disengagement and any further military escalation on the borders with Jordan and Turkey to avoid any direct clash or skirmishes between the armies of these three countries which would deteriorate the situation to expand to the Israeli front.

As for the final declaration of the meeting, it will entail the formation of the National Reconciliation Committee of representatives of the Syrian authorities and local respected people, elder statesmen and opposition leaders. The commission would focus on all domestic issues, including security. It is expected that the committee would lead to the division of the Syrian opposition outside Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations secretary-general's special envoy on Syria, who is taking part in the meetings of Astana, keeps calling on all parties to reach ceasefire and this would be a very good chance to bring peace to the war-torn country.

The meetings of Astana have paved the way for further deployment of Russian military to police the borders of de-escalation zones in Syria within two to three weeks after finalizing a deal with Turkey and Iran.
The details of the deal will be agreed upon by the three countries: Russia, Turkey and Iran in spite of some concerns about Iranian role in this process as voiced by the opposition.

In these talks there will be many Syrian opposition representatives

According to Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, there will be nine representatives of Syria's armed opposition at the talks on July 4.

The meeting will be attended by Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hoessein Jaberi Ansari, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, and the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East affairs bureau, Stuart Jones.

The fourth meeting in Astana in May was a breakthrough, as the three ceasefire guarantor states signed a memorandum on the establishment of four de-escalation zones in Syria without demarcation of these zones. Monitoring over the de-escalation zones is now the main topic on the agenda of the fifth meeting in the Kazakh capital.

The Astana meeting sounds to put an end to proxy wars in Syria as external military intervention—including arms and military equipment, training, air strikes, and even troops threaten to lengthen the conflict.

The Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Kurdish armed groups that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the People's Protection Unit (YPG), are fighting Daesh and Al Qaeda fighters to control more territory in Syria. The Astana meeting would help define the lines that each of the fighting parties would reach in this conflict before a final political settlement is set inspire of Russian and Iranian support to the Syrian government. The main objective of such conferences including Astana and Geneva are to reach ceasefire and then to avoid any direct confrontation between neighboring countries armies on one hand and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.

The ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful radical elements and extremists to increase their influence and pose hiking threats to countries neighboring Syria: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Israel.

The first round of Astana talks were held on January 23-24, 2017 brokered by Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Russia and Iran, which support Bashar al Assad.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, more than 400,000 have been killed and more than 11 million displaced and fled the country to Jordan and Lebanon as well as Turkey seeking shelter.

Photo credit: AFP

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune
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