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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expected scenarios for the Middle East:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Shehab Al-Makahleh

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

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

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

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

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

German troops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A meeting on August 7 between King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas established a joint crisis committee to follow up the Israeli violations at Al-Aqsa Mosque and evaluate the past and expected Israeli violations in Jerusalem.

This committee’s significance is to avoid the eruption of a third Palestinian Intifada that would be a result of excessive power by enforced by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

The royal visit to Ramallah was marked as “a sign of rejection of Israeli recent movements because Jordan is the sole custodian of the Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem,” stated King Abdullah.

“If a third intifada is coming, no one this time can stop it and it will spillover, not only affecting Israelis and Palestinians but rather affecting the whole region”, said a senior Jordanian officials who preferred to be anonymous.

The official said that “the Joint Jordanian Palestinian Crisis Committee’s major objective is to monitor any Israeli measures to change the identity of the holy city including installing metal detectors as this would be a pretext to ignite a third upheaval in the west bank that would have its repercussions on other countries in the Middle East”.

Members of the joint committee are security officials from both Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority, the official added.

They will be tasked to follow up on any further violations by the Israelis against Al Aqsa Mosque and to avoid any bids to change the identity of the holy shrines in Jerusalem.

“This committee will be in charge, as its members, are mainly of security and intelligence background, will help coordinate between the three parties in order to avert such violations that would negatively affect the peace agreements with Israel”.

The actions taken by Israel at the holy site in Jerusalem has led to demonstrations in Jordan, which resulted in the killing of two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy in Amman.

The perpetrator was received as a hero by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. His office, furthermore, distributed a video showing him welcoming the guard as a hero and has fueled Jordanian anger.

King Abdullah’s outrage was clear with him castigating Netanyahu, blaming the prime minister for exploiting the incident for “personal political gains”.

King Abdullah further stated that bilateral ties between Amman and Tel Aviv now rely on how Netanyahu would react regarding this issue, given the fact that Israel’s relations with Jordan were further strained with the recent expropriation of Palestinian lands in Jerusalem.

Jordanian officials have warned in meetings with Israelis and Palestinians that any acts that threaten the situation in the holy city would have grave consequences for the region as a whole.

Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs, Mohammad Momani, stated that Israel should reverse any unacceptable measures against Al-Aqsa Mosque and avoid any instigations leading to the deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/08/18/A-joint-Jordanian-Palestinian-crisis-committee-to-avoid-a-third-intifada.html

Photo credit: AFP

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 15 August 2017 14:15

De-escalation zones to end the war in Syria

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

Published in Tribune
Friday, 28 July 2017 20:50

Syrian Conflict Moves Closer an End

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

Quiet meetings in Amman between the Syrian opposition and other parties are a step forward.

The Syrian conflict is moving closer to its end. Despite global expectations, the key settlement process is occurring on the ground and in closed talks, not in front of the media and, therefore, not manipulated by geopolitical players and games in Astana or Geneva. Such formats on the ground and in talks beyond closed doors prove to be more successful and fruitful than all the pomp covered by the media, which just recycles the message of “no outcome.” But through minor steps the greatest goals are achieved.

One of such talks was held recently in Jordan for three days between representatives of Syrian armed forces and officials from Jordan, the United States and Russia. The meetings discussed the logistics of the de-escalation zones in southwestern parts of Syria, and they demanded that Al Nusra fighters pull out from this area. This move would give the Syrian army and its allies, as well as Jordan and its allies, the impetus to control the eight-kilometer “pinnacle” that has been a thorny issue for the Syrian, Israeli and Jordanian armies.

The talks included 58 representatives of the Syrian rebel alliance, including the Free Syrian Army, who label themselves the “Southern Front.” The meeting also discussed moving some of these forces to Al Shaddadi Military Camp near Deir al-Zour in order to liberate it from the Islamic State (Daesh).

After the meeting with the Syrian opposition, Jordan has started to change its tone toward Syria and its regime. This fact can be inferred from the recent statements of Jordanian officials, stressing the kingdom’s great interest in southwestern Syria. Official statements on-record and off-record about the security and stability of this part of Syria show that the region is of strategic interest for Jordan and the whole Middle East — an implicit signal that there is no rejection of the current government or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A ceasefire control mechanism brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan in southwestern Syria is nearly ready, as Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said following the Amman meeting on behalf of the Syrian opposition.

The Jordanians know very well that such phrases are aimed at approaching the nearest possible distance from the logic of the Syrian regime, which today prides itself with so many victories on the ground — recapturing many strategic locations that are deemed major victories, especially the “dubious melting away” of Daesh and the suspicious absence of other Islamic factions such as Al Nusra, which are supported by regional powers. The recent breakdown of many factions has led the Syrian armed forces to gain the momentum and to spread its troops into many parts of Syria, with the aim of liberating the whole country before the end of the year.

Assad has refused to demarcate the southern border by delineating an area of eight kilometers in southern Syria that would secure Jordan and Israel as well near the Nasseeb border crossing point. In other words, the Syrian president rejected the opening of the crossing point that would serve both Jordan and Syria. However, with Eid Al Adha approaching, the opening of the border indicates a gateway for cooperation, according to sources close to the president.

RUSSIA, TURKEY AND ISRAEL

More importantly, Jordan is investing its relatively “sophisticated communications” with Russia. In a closed-door meeting at the royal palace a few days ago, discussion about President Vladimir Putin described the Russian leader as a “trusted friend” and a “credible man.” Until now, Jordan has tried to reopen the Nasseeb crossing point, but President Assad has been “dodging” the issue for the past few months. With the agreement, Russia provided an opening for the Syrian leader to voice willingness to reopen the crossing point under certain security arrangements that will guarantee the eight kilometers. The whole area that will be the demilitarized zone in southern Jordan will include a 30-kilometer-wide strip in Syria running parallel to the Jordanian border.

Simultaneously, the Jordanian government held talks to reopen the Turaibeel crossing point between Jordan and Iraq. Turaibeel was closed after Daesh emerged in the eastern region of Iraq but now it is open, according to Jordanian officials. This fact is confirmed by Iraqi sources who said there are joint security and military operations nearby the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Private meetings helped to set the stage for the Turaibeel reopening where cooperation is essential. The Jordanian official spokesperson confirmed the talks publicly a few days ago with regard to the reopening of the Turaibeel crossing point.

Jordan is also focusing on Turkey’s recent public position that a “terrorist group” should not be allowed to have a base in northern Syria, as this factor would threaten other safe or de-escalation zones in the country. The Jordanians now strongly believe that Amman has great interest in Syrian unity, and they pin high hopes on the tripartite deal with the Americans and Russians for a “long-term ceasefire” in southern Syria.

The tripartite deal has neutralized Israel as this agreement serves Israeli security as well; yet Israel is pushed away from the Syrian battleground and any Israeli intervention in Syria remains a constant possibility. However, there are multiple hidden indicators that determine the mechanism of monitoring the ceasefire, which will be announced in its final stages very soon as the Syrian predicament is reaching its finale.

Amman is struggling behind the scenes to put in place a mechanism that would be mandatory for all parties concerned to adhere to for a Syrian truce. The Americans believe the truce will eventually lead to the formation of a “Daraa region” within a Syrian federal system that will determine matters in the future Syria. The so-called long truce is called “a wide, low-tension zone” by the Russians.

At present, the Syrian government sounds very “cooperative” and in line with Russian demands. Recent battlefield successes mean the Syrians are keen not to waste the army’s efforts, and they want to strongly invest manpower into rebuilding Syria and to avoid military attrition in southern regions of the country, instead focusing on a magnet for Daesh: Deir al-Zour.

Overall, Jordan seeks to stabilize Syria now and supports the de-escalation zones scenario not only in order for the region to prepare for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, but also to ensure Jordan’s share and role in any future regional and international arrangement in Syria’s south.

Jordanians believe they have the “winning card” as the closest and most connected to the bloc of Daraa tribes and to Druze tribes in Jabal Al Arab of northern Jordan. While it is possible to discern “differences” that must be monitored between all parties in any private and quiet arrangements in southern Syria, Jordan’s focus on a “ceasefire monitoring mechanism” is a realpolitik solution to secure the best possible military — and then political — truce by the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Article published in Fair Observer: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/syria-bashar-al-assad-jordan-russia-iraq-middle-east-news-01214/

Photo Credit: OBJM / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune
Friday, 02 June 2017 16:56

Jordan Not to Send Any Troops to Syria

Jordan’s official stance regarding Syrian conflict supports peaceful resolution, yet reports have appeared in the media claiming that the kingdom is readying for a ground invasion of Syria. As “Eager Lion” military exercises in Jordan this year coincided with the intensified anti-terrorist fighting along Jordan-Syrian border, the media speculated about the US, British and Jordanian joint plan to send ground troops across the Syrian border. The news triggered brief war of words between Syria and Jordan, while Jordanian officials reiterated that no Jordan’s troops will be sent to Syria. 

Late in April during a meeting with Jordanian journalists King Abdullah II reiterated his country’s commitment to the peaceful solution of the Syrian conflict, adding that Jordan will keep its military in combat readiness in order to prevent any conflict spillover across the border onto its territory.

The King then stated that, “We will not allow the developments in Syria to pose threats to Jordan. We are continuing with our policy of deep defence without the need to have the Jordanian army involved inside the Syrian territories.”

The King’s aforementioned statement, along with other Jordanian official statements, clearly demonstrates that the news about Jordanian troops in Syria can be labeled ‘fake news’, the kind the media has been awash with since Trump’s election.

What could then be behind these and similar allegations and fake news reports about the Syrian war situation and peace negotiation attempts, and why should they appear now?

A look back at recent developments in the diplomatic circles, including the US and its Arab allies, where Jordan plays prominent role as a peace broker, including Syrian and the Palestinian-Israeli files, there are evidently elements both in the US political establishment and elsewhere that prefer the continuation of conflict to peace.

For example, during the last round of Syrian peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan a tripartite agreement on establishment of ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria was signed, with Russia, Iran and Turkey as guarantors. While the US administration welcomed the ‘safe zones’, the anti-Trump establishment attacked it and liberal media continued with familiar tune that America ‘should do more’, calling for military involvement in both Syria and Iraq.

Shortly after the safe zones agreement was reached, president Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. Right after the meeting the uncorroborated reports appeared in the leading US media that the US president has shared sensitive intel with the Russians, allegedly endangering an ally’s spy embedded within the ISIS/Daesh ranks.

Israeli media claimed the intel sharing put the life of its agent in jeopardy, while some Arab media disputed it saying the ally in question was Jordan. Israel complained that the intel sharing was undermining its efforts to establish an historic alliance with some Gulf Arab states.

The key issue regarding the intel sharing claim is the timing of the news release and its effects on the efforts of the US president to resolve the problems inherited from previous administrations while establishing credibility in the eyes of the electorate.

Since inauguration Trump and his close associates have been targeted by the US mainstream media on diverse accounts, including his campaign promise to collaborate with all countries, including Russia. The Trump Russian connection saga culminated in ‘Russia hacking the elections’ claims, and the subsequent dismissals and resignations of number of Trump’s key allies.

Until today the war within the US establishment against Trump has not ceased, in fact, it seems to have intensified. Following the establishment of the Syrian de-escalation zones spearheaded by Russia, and Trump’s meeting with two Russian diplomats, the US president’s antagonists had to turn up the heat. So, it is likely that the whole story regarding intel sharing is in most part fabrication aimed to undermine Trump as president, as well as derail his efforts to find the solution for the Palestinian – Israeli issue where both Jordan and Israel are important actors.

Jordan has played a prominent role in promoting two-state solution for Palestine issue, and in anti-terrorism efforts in Syria and Iraq, hence those who oppose either may seek to undermine Jordan’s reputation as a reliable partner of both Russia and the US. Such unsubstantiated media claims have only one purpose – spoiling relationships.

In a similar vein, claims of Jordan’s troops intervening in Syrian south seek to undermine the efforts the kingdom has made in preserving its own security amidst mayhem on its doorstep, while building cooperation with both the US and Russia – two major international actors in the region.

Various Jordanian officials, including Jordan’s King, consider Russian role in Syria crucial in diminishing terrorist activities in the country. Jordan and Russia face similar situation in Syria, regarding terrorism, as the kingdom does. Around the same number of Russian citizens have joined terrorist ranks in Syria, as have Jordanian, so Jordan understands Russia’s vital need to prevent these fighters from returning home, carrying out terrorist acts and indoctrinating others on Russian territory. Latest statement of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is a proof of this, as he stated that Russia will destroy ISIS/Daesh terrorists in every part of Syria.

As for Russia so for Jordan – geography is destiny. Jordan’s central location in the Middle East determines its foreign policy orientation. Situated in the heart of the Middle East the Kingdom is deemed an oasis of peace and stability in the region fraught with peril and an important partner by both Russia and the West. As its future hinges on the regional security and stability relationships with all countries, especially those with high stakes in the Middle East are paramount. Riddled with the problem of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees Jordan seeks to balance its foreign relations in line with its national security interests.

The security of the Syrian southern border is of great concern to Jordan, and the quickest possible reestablishment of law and order, and cessation of hostilities in Syria are very much in Jordan’s interest. As the global powers have stepped up anti-terrorist efforts, including Russia and the US-NATO and its Arab allies, Syrian Army will succeed in reestablishing control over the country. Government retake of territorial control and elimination of terrorist pockets would enable the refugees to return to their homes, and most importantly, relieve the economic and security burden the refugee issue has placed on Jordan.

Whether we like or dislike Assad, he is a legitimate president of the Syrian Arab Republic, according to the international law. Every country in the world has political opposition, and whether it has a say in a particular country’s governance is an internal issue of each country.

The world has witnessed the outcomes of Iraqi, and Libyan regime change interventions. Egypt had also ousted its long-term president Mubarak during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ only to elect an even worse one, who within a year managed to bring country’s economy and security to the brink of collapse, and had to be removed by a military coup.

International relations studies recognize that every country’s road to democracy takes a different trajectory, and the majority of political experts today admit that Syrian conflict was not entirely of internal making. As for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, it is certainly not its job to decide the ruler of Syria. This is the matter that Syrian people have to decide on through a political process embedded within the country’s constitution and the norms of the international law. No country, including Jordan, would like outsiders to dictate its system of governance, and the same goes for Syria. Moreover, Jordan sees no threat from the current government of Syria, and has no intention of sending its troops to fight on its territory as doing so would represent the breach of its neighbors sovereignty and territorial integrity – which Jordan respects and will continue to respect.

Shehab Al Makahleh is a co-founder of Geostrategic Media, author, security and policy analyst

Published in Tribune

In recent months, the area of the so-called Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi triangle has seen fighting, negotiations, armistice, the breakup of old coalitions and the propping up of new ones. Over the past few weeks, the Russian media have given this area much attention, mainly due to repeated statements by Syrian authorities that an invasion of the southern regions of Syria in Daraa province is being prepared from Jordanian territory as part of a US-devised plan and that Damascus will regard this as an act of aggression.

In Russia, some hard-line observers have been interpreting this development primarily through the lens of seeing Western conspiracies and the need for a more robust support of President Bashar al-Assad. One trigger was the seventh annual Eager Lion military exercises, which took place May 7-18 in Jordan with the support of the US Army and involved 20 countries. A second trigger was a Lebanese newspaper report about the scale of a future “occupation” under which the “aggressors” would allegedly move to the Syrian city of al-Bukamal (near Qaim, Iraq) as well as occupy Daraa and Quneitra to include them in the Jordanian zone of influence and, if lucky, Suwayda, with Druze enclaves. The scale of this alleged occupation plan would exceed that of the Turkey-led Operation Euphrates Shield. Amman eventually denied the rumors of any invasion; some in Moscow even interpreted this as a sign of “Jordanian firmness” in the face of American pressure.]


Damascus' statements seem to have a strong propaganda element. Syria's overall purpose seems to be to neutralize opposition successes in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Qalamoun and to launch an offensive in the west in Deir ez-Zor (on the Euphrates between al-Bukamal and Raqqa) using army forces, the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Shiite militia to split the rebels in both eastern Qalamoun and around the Jordanian border. The regime hopes to advance to al-Tanf area, where US-allied forces have been training Syrian militias. Al-Tanf is on the Iraqi border, not far from Jordan. 

The fact is that for all intents and purposes, an invasion of the British, Americans and Jordanians into Syria (both to the north and to the south) took place a long time ago. At al-Tanf, coalition instructors and units of the special operations forces are acting together with the opposition and formed a buffer zone about 10-15 kilometers (6-9 miles) deep into Syrian territory, near the border with Jordan where American and British special forces are operating. In the summer of 2016, US helicopters even carried out landing tactical assault in the area of al-Bukamal in the rear of the IS militants, but the operation ended unsuccessfully. Reports on why this happened are contradictory. However, it appears that Islamists using a system of tunnels on the Syrian-Iraqi border struck at the rear of the New Syrian Army (NSA), while allied fighters from the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, as well as local tribes, did not support the “liberators” — US-supported groups. All this led to the disbanding of the NSA; its remnants then entered the alliance called Revolution Commando, composed of the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya and the so-called free clans army operating in the Syrian desert under the leadership of Mohannad Ahmed al-Tallaa.

Al-Bukamal is an important border gateway city, and controlling it is a goal for both the United States and groups such as Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya. The US interest is to first take control of al-Bukamal and establish a military facility there for future border control — an idea long discussed by some American experts. The prime driver for Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya is the desire to win back home territories, since several hundred fighters in this faction are coming from Deir ez-Zor. They receive a monthly payment of $150 for fighting IS from the center from the so-called Military Operations Command in Jordan.

From a military perspective, it is not clear why the United States and allied forces would want to seize the entire “southern triangle” along with the Druze enclaves; this would include actions from the Southern Front, which operates in Daraa and Suwayda and is not part of Revolution Commando.

Nevertheless, there is a confrontation between Revolution Commando and regime forces. In response to the airstrikes, Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya shelled the positions of pro-government forces using artillery. On May 10, Jordanians shot down Syrian drones. On May 13, a mobile Soviet-era manufactured Strela-10 SAM was seen in the ranks of the Syrian grouping — this anti-aircraft missile system apparently is to serve as a psychological deterrent and as something to have just in case. Tallaa said the positions of pro-government forces and the opposition in al-Tanfa area are 43 miles apart. “We saw their flags, and if they attack us, we will answer,” the commander of the opposition coalition said. 

Thus, Damascus used the idea of the invasion of the forces of the Western coalition in Jordan and presented drone-taken pictures in which regime armored vehicles were shown 43 miles from the Syrian border in a move separating the opposition in eastern Qalamoun and al-Tanf region and advancing toward Deir ez-Zor along the Damascus-Baghdad highway. Pro-government media promote this action by saying that the Syrians need to develop trade relations with Iraq. However, it is difficult to imagine that any trade relations are possible in the medium term when IS militants constantly organize attacks all over Iraq, including Anbar province, on the other side of the border from al-Tanf. There also is a rebel grouping in al-Tanf area that operates in conjunction with the US and British special forces, as well as the large, 75,000-strong al-Rukban refugee camp in northeastern Jordan near the borders with Iraq and Syria. In addition, an airfield may be operational soon in the Jordanian province of Mafraq, near the Syrian border, apparently for the operation of American or Jordanian helicopters that would support opposition activities in Deir ez-Zor province.

It is clear that Syrian forces are unlikely to give away control over such a critical neighborhood at the junction of Jordan and Iraq. Yet advancing toward al-Bukamal with a stretched-out group of forces that can easily be attacked by either opposition rebels or IS fighters makes it very difficult.

Pro-government formations will likely try to unite with those in Palmyra, and, accordingly, conduct operations against the opposition in eastern Qalamoun. While this would violate the truce, the regime forces will have an excuse, since this opposition enclave was not technically included from the very beginning in the “security zones” of the memorandum signed in Astana, Kazakhstan. In this case, Damascus and Iran could once again resort to calling the insurgents “al-Qaeda-associated terrorists.” At the same time, creating a “Shiite corridor” from Syria to Iraq might not only derail US-Russia talks but also trigger a counter-response from the Gulf states. None of this is a step toward a political settlement. 

 

Initially published on Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/05/syria-damascus-claim-invasion-jordan-russia-iraq-opposition.html

Published in Tribune

Eager to unlock the door to US-Arab cooperation on tackling regional issues following decades of disappointment with Washington’s lack of understanding of their concerns, three Arab leaders are engaging US President Donald Trump’s new administration over the next month.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met Trump at the White House on April 3; Jordan’s King Abdullah II will be in Washington on April 5; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to follow later this month or in May. In their meetings, these leaders hope to discuss a number of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the civil war in Libya, and the threat posed by global terrorist organizations. 

In their meeting on April 3, Trump and Sisi discussed holding an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in the United States in June and renewing joint military exercises, which former US President Barack Obama halted in response to the Egyptian military government's bloody crackdown on protesters in 2013. The Egyptian leader, a former chief of the armed forces, sought logistical support from the United States for the Egyptian army in its fight against terrorism in the Sinai. Sisi would like Trump to focus more on ending the six-year-old civil war in Egypt's western neighbor—Libya. The two leaders also discussed regional issues, including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. 

Abdullah, who hosted the Arab League Summit in Amman on March 29, is eager to solve a number of regional conflicts. Jordan is an important player in US-led military campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Abdullah will discuss with Trump the position of Arab leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis—at the summit in Amman Arab leaders reiterated their support for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and opposed the construction of more settlements.

Jordan has playedan active role in Arab efforts to end the stalemate in talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The king himself has advocated for Palestinian national aspirations. On his previous visit to Washington in February, Abdullah sought to persuade the new US administration to reverse itsrhetoric about moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to call for a freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank. In his meeting with Trump, Abdullah will likely reiterate Arab support fora two-state solution. Thus, this time, the royal visit aims to make Trump more sympathetic toward the Arab perspective on the Palestinian issue.

On his visit to Washington, Abbas is expected to ask Trump to seriously consider a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and will reiterate the Arab position that a two-state solution is impossible without East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. In his meeting with Trump, Abbas will likely argue that if there is no Palestinian state, no one in the Middle East, including Israelis, will enjoy the benefits of peace. Denying the Palestinians their right to statehood will only lead to a rise in the level of terrorism and extremism.

The Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement that on the sidelines of last month’s Arab League Summit, Abbas, Abdullah, and Sisi coordinated their positions on a number of regional issues and decided what they would discuss when they visit the White House.

These visits to Washington come at time when the greater Middle East is beset by numerous wars and political crises. Restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks based on the Arab Peace Initiative adopted at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002, which calls for “land for peace,” is a high priority for the Egyptian and Jordanian governments, as well as the Palestinian people. 

The Oslo Accords initiated a period of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, delayed permanent status talks on Jerusalem, and paved the way for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Two decades later, however, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and there is still no sovereign and independent Palestinian state. Obama—who believed that a multilateral effort, and not a single power, would be able to help reach a final settlement—was unable to resolve the crisis.

The Arab leaders want international powers to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis because they believe that if a peace agreement is reached it will resonate positively throughout the region and the world.

One positive outcome of the Amman summit was that it put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, overlooked for many years due to other conflicts and threats of extremism in the Middle East, back in the spotlight. In their final statement, Arab League Secretary General Ahmad Aboul Gheit reaffirmed a “commitment to the two-state solution and to the right of the State of Palestine to restore its sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

Will the Trump administration ask Israelis and Palestinians to prepare for talks in the near future? Will Jordan be in charge of liaising between regional actors and the United States in coordination with the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League? Will the forty-fifth US president become more sympathetic to Egypt’s agendas in Libya and in the Sinai? The answers to these questions remain to be seen.

What is known is that Abdullah, Sisi, and Abbas will do their best to convince Trump to begin taking more seriouslytheir ideas to resolve crises that threaten the security of Americans and Arabs alike.

For decades, Arabs have been justifiably disappointed with Washington’s stance on issues in the Middle East. The Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinianleaders are hoping to convince Trump to shift course and take Arab interests and concerns into account more than his predecessor did. If Washington fails to help the Arab world resolve its conflicts, there will be tectonic shifts toward radicalism, endangering governments in the region and opening the gate to even more chaos.

Initially published by Atlantic Council: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/arab-leaders-try-to-get-trump-s-attention 
Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates. IMESClub Member. 

Published in Tribune
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