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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

– Maria Dubovikova

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune

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

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

 The resurgence of Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

 

Conflict scenarios 2018

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Arc of Crisis’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune

The importance of the Middle East region for the US stems from the fact that it is part of a wider geography which includes Europe and Asia, whose security has been one of the main American concerns since the 1900s.

The Middle East has been considered a source of conflict since the 1948 war between Arabs and Israelis, affecting not only neighboring countries in Asia, Africa and Europe but also countries distant from it, such as the US and Australia. Thus, the importance of the Middle East to the US is an essential element of its global security system.

Washington perceives that failure to resolve conflicts in the region affects its national security as well as the security of its allies. This has been clear when a violent waves of attacks struck the United States and Western Europe in 2017 because the Middle East, though distant from the US in geography, is very influential in its domestic security and stability as well as prosperity.

Many other Middle East crises badly affect American stability and security, ranging from the influx of refugees from Syria, threats ofweapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons. The other issue that Mideast countries cause to the US is energy and oil as the Middle East oil producers either aggravate the performance of the American economy or improve it based on the prices of oil in the global market.

However, Americans believe that Russians won the first round of 2017 in the Middle East by winning the war in Syria, which has strengthened the position of the Kremlin internationally. This could be a very positive justification for the Americans to reconsider their status in the Mideast and how to counter Russia and China which are expanding their influence in the Middle East and Africa.

American concerns are linked to major developments in Syria that took place last year. These developments are also significant for the Kremlin, particularly in view of the forthcoming presidential elections in spring as they are not only linked to the strengthening of Russia’s regional and international influence but also in calming domestic fears that Russia is not slippinginto a new Afghanistan or facing a wide and heated confrontation with the United States.

 

US involvement in Middle East this year will be more than in 2017 as it will try hard to find a new balance of power

Shehab Al-Makahleh

US in the Middle East in 2018

Washington now has a great opportunity to benefit from its security partners in the Middle East region. What is happening in Iran at present is a new development that is not only triggered by burgeoning inflation in the country but more deep-seated resentment among most Iranians towards the country’s domestic and foreign policies. The Americans believe that ‘ordo ab chao’ (out of chaos comes order) should start in Iran so that peace prevails.

US President Donald Trump tweeted a warning against Iranian government regarding its crackdown on protests and demonstrations saying: “The world is watching”. Iran from Trump’s viewpoint can be drawn away from its Russian orbit if it stops sectarian and proxy wars and gives up its plans of having a nuclear weapon.

Thus, the US administration would cement its relations with its traditional allies in the region to enable them to thwart any Iranian misadventures. Trump considers North Korea as the US’ first major threat and Iran as the biggest threat to the stability of the Mideast region, given Tehran’s ambitions to dominate the Middle East as a revolutionary theocracy.

The American strategic plan for the Middle East in 2018 is expected to first scrutinize Iran’s strategy in the region and analyse its capabilities politically, economically, and militarily in order to avoid direct confrontation with Tehran because it is active in many countries in the region unequivocally as in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain and clandestinely in some countries in Africa and in Asia.

As Iran advances its influence in many Mideast countries which have very weak governments, Washington would seek indirect intervention in Iranian affairs. Therefore, Trump’s administration is expected to address its 2017 failure of strategies in the Middle East to neutralise Iranian presence in the Arab states. This will start with enhancing ties with Iraqi government to freeze Iranian influence.

Since US-Iraq relations appear more stable at present, mainly in light of the camaraderie of Trump with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, the commonality of their perspectives along with those of some other Shiite clerics in Iraq who oppose Iranian influence as they favour Iraq regaining its Arab identity, it can be speculated that the Americans would use their utmost to ensure that Abadi wins the coming elections in order to neutralise Iran from intervening in Iraqi affairs.

In 2018, the United States is expected to reinforce ties with Abadi administration and would seek to incorporate Iraq into the regional and international community, mainly with talks about the reconstruction of Iraq. Washington will also push for continuous US military training for Iraqi soldiers to thwart the return of any terrorist group including ISIS to free Iraq from Iranian dependence.

The US policy in Syria

On 5 December 2017 the US Defense Department announced that the American forces in Syria would remain as long as necessary to ensure that ISIS will not return to Iraq and Syria. It is expected that the American presence in Syria would hinge upon the situation in eastern parts of the country as it seeks to stop terrorist factions and to stabilise the liberated areas with no clear timetable for pulling out US troops from Syria. The United States has nearly 2,000 soldiers on the ground in Syria.

The growing involvement of Russia in the Middle East and the American presence in the Mideast would lead to the rise of extremist activities in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Thus, Moscow and Washington will be competing not only in the Middle East region but also in Central Asia.

The Palestinian issue returned to the top of regional issues in past few weeks and it will be so in 2018 after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Jerusalem issue will be a key factor in reshaping American ties in the Middle East in 2018. Turkish President, RecepTayyip Erdogan, countered Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem by hosting a meeting for the Organisation of Islamic Conference in Istanbul December 12, 2017.

It is expected that Americans would try to mend fences with the Turkish government, especially after news of a meeting between Syrian opposition and pro- government representatives will be held in Sochi in January 29-30 after Russians have mediated talks between Syrian Kurds and the Turkish government for Kurdish representatives to attend the upcoming Sochi conference.

Thus, American involvement in the Middle East in 2018 is likely to be much more active than it was in 2017 and Washington will try hard to find a new balance of power and more countries will join its alliances in order to neutralize Iranian presence in Arab countries and to defuse any wars by focusing on Central Asia and Afghanistan which are closer to China and Russia, the arch rivals of the USA, to keep them away from the Mideast region.

Article published in Al-Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/01/02/Trajectories-of-2018-American-policy-in-the-Middle-East.html

Photo credit: Getty images

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 24 December 2017 04:46

Russia ready to fill Middle East void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune

“A Russian wife equals a Russian spy.” This could be a phrase taken from the dialogue of an American Cold War era novel, but actually it is a genuine phrase that was uttered a few days ago at a conference in the US. And this phrase could serve as the perfect illustration of the current status of bilateral relations between the US and Russia.

Having started to deteriorate in 2014, the relationship between the two major powers is getting worse every year. The sanctions war, diplomatic scandals and media wars have all led to a multi-dimensional confrontation that is getting entirely out of control.

Worsening relations between Russia and the US are being fueled by the media on both sides. However, in the US the media is a bit more successful because it is more effective in influencing people. One can argue though that the current crisis has made ordinary Russians more informed about the US political system than any ordinary American citizen is about Russia’s geographical location.

Russians are interested in knowing about their rivals, while Americans prefer just to demonize and create fear. It is even clear in terms of science. In Russia, there are many experts on American policies and studies of the US are growing, attracting young people. However, American specialists are very few and research on Russia is limited. Thus Russia knows the US well — about its weaknesses, policies and approaches — while Russia remains a big question mark for the US, enveloped by fake perceptions, demonization and deep phobias.

But this is not a new Cold War. All that is happening between the two powers now has nothing to do with a clash between a prosperous democracy and its values against bloody dictatorship, it is not about a clash of ideas and doctrines — it is pure geopolitics.

The Middle East is transforming into the battlefield of Moscow and Washington, as a new world order is emerging amid a struggle of two paradigms: Russian and American. One particular trait of this confrontation is that the result is mostly predetermined not by the capacities of the rival states, but by the choices made by the minor players who are the subject of this confrontation.

Worsening US-Russia relationship is not about a clash of ideas and doctrines like during the Cold War — it is pure geopolitics.

– Maria Dubovikova

American policy toward the Middle East has already left a bloody print on the sand as well as growing chaos and instability. With Donald Trump’s arrival into power, the US position has become unpredictable.

The Russian position on Arab revolutions has not been the subject of widespread public interest, except in the case of Syria. Having abstained on Libya, Russia embarked on a vision that distinguishes between the interests of the Syrian regime in actual reforms and the prevention of Western intervention in the country, which would have disastrous consequences not only for the unity of Syria but also for the stability and security of the region. In Syria, the consequences would be far more disastrous than the West’s mission in Libya.

The US trying to kick Russia out of the region complicates the situation and threatens stability, but America is acting with only one purpose: Not to let Russia take the lead. Thus Syria is turning into a battleground between the Russian bear and the American eagle. The entire Arab region, including Syria’s neighbors, will be affected. It is like the African proverb: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most.”

Confrontation between Moscow and Washington makes the world extremely unsafe, but their bilateral ties drastically lack a positive agenda and grounds for a sustainable dialogue. From the deteriorating American-Russian confrontation, only terrorist groups and organizations are benefiting. A recent exchange of classified information between the CIA and their Russian counterparts reportedly helped Russia prevent a terrorist act on its territory, and that raised hopes for a stabilization of ties. However, such positive moves are rare exceptions to the regular rules.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1211661

Photo credit: Jorge Silva/AP

Published in Tribune

The specter of federalism is wandering the Middle East. On the political horizon, there are more and more federalization projects, where external and internal actors see the opportunity to get out of the cloaca of universal conflict with more and more countries and regions being created.

There is Yemen, where the number of projects of this kind has already exceeded a dozen; Syria, where a vigorous struggle for a new constitution unfolds and only the lazy does not participate; Iraq, where the Kurds recently showed the shakiness of the line between federalism and secession; Libya, where decentralization is the only chance to stop anarchy and chaos.

The most ambitious plans concern Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Morocco. One country, Sudan, was dismembered, but this did not solve the acute internal problems of the two states that were created on the site of the former unified one.

The external actors, including those who do not even know where one  or another country is located, and who get ideas from tourist guidebooks (although we will have to wait for the return of tourism to the region), have begun drawing new boundaries with enthusiasm. They could be suspected of an ambitious desire to taste the glories of the famous apologists of colonialism, the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot, who forever left a mark in history, but with a bad taste. 

An array of political scientists have long been talking about the death of pan-Arab nationalism. Certainly, all sorts of unionist projects on the background of universal particularization seem to be out of fashion today, but how can disappear a nationalism that often only changes its face? The King is dead, long live the King! After all, it was Arab nationalism, and not the Sykes-Pico sweet couple, that created the system of states that existed in the Middle East, but recently suffered an ever-widening crack, unable to withstand the test of globalization. Even a new attempt against the sancta sanctorum, undertaken this time by the eccentric leader of the largest world power, the Arab character of East Jerusalem, is no longer strong enough to consolidate the Arabs as one would think, and even the Muslims, in the fight against the terrible threat of losing control over the sanctuary. I am sure that nationalism has not only not perished, but is preparing for a revival, although it can take new forms. Moreover, while a significant part of the local society will see in various sorts of unification projects a way to get rid of the internal conflicts that are destructive for the peoples, eroding their identity, these projects will remain unsinkable.

However, we will hope that the perverted-jihadist version of the Islamist unification project is disappearing into oblivion after the liquidation of its territorial base in Syria and Iraq. As for another radical version of the Pan-Islamic project, the Muslim Brotherhood, the rumors of its death may prove to be exaggerated.

Will the universal federalization ensure a successful way out of the crisis in the region that does not cease to amaze the world, or at least of those countries, which became classified as failed states? Perhaps this will happen. However, let us not downplay the risks that a radical change in the configuration of the state structure of any country brings, especially in the context of the traditional confrontation of unionism and particularism, Islamism and secularism. Anyway, such a restructuring should be carefully prepared, verified in all details, based on qualified expert knowledge. And most importantly, it must get the support of the population

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/middle-east-pandora-s-box-of-federalization/

Photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 03 December 2017 17:30

China’s new role in Syria

What is China’s incentive for a greater involvement in Syria? The new Chinese involvement in Syria would lead to a further competition between the Washington and Beijing. China will deploy troops in Syria as Beijing is very concerned about the amounting number of militants of Chinese-origin (the Turkmenistan’s or the so-called Uighur) that have joined Daesh in both Syria and Iraq though China does not interfere in any country unless it has economic benefits. The Chinese Ministry of Defence is considering to send two units known as the "Tigers of Siberia" and the "Night Tigers" from the Special Operations Forces to fight terrorist factions in Eastern Ghouta (Suburbs of Damascus) as some of these fighters hold the Chinese nationality and they would pose a high risk on China once they return. Chinese Special Forces will soon head to Syria to participate in countering terrorism of the “Islamic East Turkestan Movement” from Xinjiang in the Damascus countryside.

An estimated 5,000 Chinese militants are fighting alongside various insurgency groups in Syria. China's involvement in military operations against Daesh is due to Chinese  own interests in Syria economically and politically as well in spite of the country’s doctrine of defense sufficiency not to intervene in other’s affairs. Their role in Syria has many facets including sending Special Forces to act against those Chinese Muslims who fight in Syria and because Beijing is afraid of these fighters to get back to China with their extremist, terrorist and Jihadist ideology. Moreover, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syrian infrastructure.

China does not want Syria to become a haven or a hub for Uighurs to launch terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and interests overseas. Driven by the August 30, 2017 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Krgyzstan, which was planned by “Islamic East Turkestan Movement” in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, was an justification for the Chinese to be in Syria as the movement’s acts will not stop at this point but would rather be aggravating due to the end of the Syrian conflict. For some analysts, the involvement of the Chinese and the Russians in Syria is Similar to that of the intervention of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001 to deny al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against any US targets.

Though the Chinese statistics show that there are 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from China fighting among Daesh and other terrorist groups in Syria, the Chinese army has taken this decision quite late which reflects that the main objective for getting involved in the military acts against extremists and terrorists in Syria is economic.

China which seeks to obtain economic benefit from the Syrian crisis has received earlier a number of the Syrian government representatives who asked for further Chinese economic support for Syria which resulted in the announcement of more than US$6 billion in direct investments.

After the demise of Daesh in Syria, Beijing will be investing in Syria heavily to take over oil and other resources. However, politically, China will endeavour to coordinate actions with all parties concerned in the Syrian issue including Russia and the USA.

Last week, there were Chinese-Syrian talks in Damascus where Al-Assad's advisor Buthaina Sha'aban on November 23 held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on countering terrorists from the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" in Eastern Ghouta region after being spotted in the countryside of Damascus.

Since the "East Turkistan Islamic Movement" group has committed more than 200 terrorist acts in China in the last few year, China is looking for finishing them off in Syria before they get back to China where they would act against the government in a bid to stir revolution that may endanger China’s economic development and progress.

China is reliant on on Central Asia and Mideast energy sources, and volatility in these countries; thus any control by Salafist regimes affiliated to Uighur intimidates China’s power supply and the so-called “Eurasian One Belt One Road”(  (OBOR)  project which connects more than 60 countries with the Chinese Xinjiang functioning as bridgehead China’s trade strategy.

Xinjiang, which is located in Northwest of China, is restless and susceptible to violence and anarchy. The Chinese government, blames disorder on radicalism and violent separatist movements, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement where more than 10,000 armed Chinese police marched through Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, last February in a show of force.

Sources are quite sure that Chinese military advisors are already in Syria, paving the way for the troops to act as combat drones have been shipped from China to Syria’s Humaimeem Airbase in Lattakia, North West of Syria, to be used to counter-terror capabilities. The Chinese will send more troops if the Americans send other military forces to Syria; in other words, China’s involvement hinges on American conduct because China will not allow the US to corner the arm of Beijing by harboring Chinese terrorists for future acts against Chinese interests in Syria, or elsewhere. The coming few weeks will witness many meetings between Chinese and American military and security officials due to the involvement of the Chinese forces in Syria. Though the Chinese involvement is to safeguard their power energy to ensure their trade superiority worldwide, the Americans would not allow the Chinese to win in the Syrian conflict against the Chinese fighters for future considerations because China has become a global actor in various fields including trade and military, depending on energy from the Middle East region. Once China is in Syria, this means it will have more active role in the Mideast and in Central Eurasia, affecting American strategic interests.

 

Shortened version is published by Arab News

Published in Tribune

yrian government representatives arrived in Geneva on Nov. 29 — a day late — for the latest round of negotiations aimed at resolving the country’s civil war. The meeting began Nov. 28, but representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delayed their arrival reportedly until they were assured there would be no discussion of removing Assad from power.

The rebels, however, still insist any settlement must include Assad’s departure.

There are many, many cooks in the kitchen trying to serve up their own resolution to the nearly seven-year war. The United Nations is sponsoring the talks in Geneva — this is the eighth round — but related meetings have taken place in other locations.

Moscow is participating in the negotiations and has shifted its focus from military activities to finding and implementing a political resolution to the conflict. Russia hosted a trilateral summit last week in Sochi in an effort to calm Turkey and Iran after the United States and Russia agreed earlier in November that there is no military solution in Syria. Russia’s summit also allowed for a meeting of minds ahead of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that Russia plans in Sochi. The congress is tentatively scheduled to be held sometime between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, during the break between the first and second stages of the Geneva talks.

Also last week, Saudi Arabia hosted a preparatory three-day meeting of opposition parties in its capital. Moscow praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unite the opposition for the Geneva talks and to help draft a new Syrian Constitution. Moscow sent Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia's special envoy to Syria, to the meeting.

During those talks, the various opposition groups chose Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, to lead them in negotiations. He had filled the same role at previous talks in Geneva and Astana, Kazakhstan.

The 36 opposition representatives at Geneva include eight from the Syrian National Coalition, five from the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, eight independent delegates, four each from the Cairo- and Moscow-based platforms, and seven from military factions. 

The armed opposition delegates will represent Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Yarmouk, several Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and the Free Tribes’ Army, a confederation of tribal militias trained by Jordan.

Hariri took over the High Negotiations Committee from Riyad Hijab. Before Hijab resigned Nov. 20, he made it clear that under his leadership, the High Negotiations Committee had been pressured into making concessions that favored Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hailed Hijab’s resignation as “the retreat of radically minded opposition figures from playing the main role.” However, Hariri reaffirmed his stance that a transitional governing body should be established without Assad. Hijab also said Russia’s proposal to host the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi will not contribute to the political process, as talks on Syria should be organized under UN auspices 

At first glance, one might expect the many separate summits and meetings to force Assad and the opposition to bring the armed conflict to an end. Arab and other countries have extended their seemingly warm welcome to Russia’s efforts — if the attempts are really aimed at reforming the system and preparing the ground for Syrian fair elections in the future.

However, the “if” matters most. Russia’s military intervention in the war in 2015 tipped the scales in favor of Assad’s regime, and Russia has strongly backed Assad's remaining in power. For these reasons, opposition representatives have said the upcoming Sochi congress amounts to “the regime negotiating with the regime.”

Also, many opposition representatives object to the inclusion in their ranks of what they call “puppet opposition” groups that are considered quite loyal to the regime and Syrian intelligence. Syria faced demonstrations against the groups’ participation in negotiations, as they have nothing to do with the Syrian revolution. 

Nevertheless, the representatives were included in the “unified” delegation in Geneva, even though decision-making on behalf of the opposition requires an approval from 75% of the delegates. Some representatives of the opposition believe the “puppet” groups will help the regime block any proposals it doesn’t like.

The Syrian regime has wielded considerable negotiating power at the Geneva talks as, on the one hand, it enjoys the support of Iran and Russia and, on the other hand, Syrian forces mounted successful military operations in eastern Syria. The regime quite clearly is ready to enter into a dialogue with the opposition and even take it back into the country — but only if the opposition agrees to abide by any conditions imposed by the authorities.

Regardless of all the divisions and disagreements, the pro-government coalition remains relatively united both militarily and politically. The forces that oppose the regime, on the contrary, are still splintered. Moscow is well-aware that despite large-scale international support, the opposition is being pulled in different directions by its various allies. Russia has been ruling the roost as the country that managed to uphold and protect Syrian state institutions and impose its rules of the game in the absence of Washington's clear agenda in Syria, the Saudi-Qatari crisis and internal problems in the Gulf region in general.

Russia is approaching a Syrian settlement with a “healthy skepticism,” which, by the way, appeals to the masses. Most Russians are quick to equate any FSA group with the Islamic State and continue to believe in the legitimacy of the ruling regime. The prove-that-they-are-not-terrorists stance toward the armed rebels allowed Moscow to carry out strikes against moderate opposition groups, only to recognize them as such during the talks. That was followed by the emphasis on Moscow's ability to seek and accept a compromise and hold a dialogue with all the parties to the conflict, regardless of the voting outcome. Moscow, thus, stressed its readiness to recognize any politician the Syrian people will vote for, be it Assad or his opponents.

I would like to be in the wrong here, but the current momentum has Assad as the sole victor in the civil war, while ostensibly factoring in the opposition's sentiments. But his Nov. 20 visit to Sochi shows there is no equal, full-fledged rival to the authorities among the opposition forces. In this sense, holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress — even though it allows Kurdish participation — implies granting equal voting rights to the puppet opposition.

Moscow’s stance is also apparent if we consider its attitude toward the de-escalation zones. Russian diplomats recognize the legitimacy of local councils as civil administrations of the opposition-controlled territories, and military negotiators are ready to work with them on the ground. However, the punishment mechanism for violations has remained unilateral. Essentially, the opposition, as a defeated party, is granted some concessions in the form of the de-escalation zones to avoid further operations and prevent new bloodshed. At the same time, the de-escalation zones are largely meant to gently and gradually reintegrate the opposition and bring it under the control of the regime. Perhaps this accounts for Moscow’s statements that, to date, governmental forces control more than 98% of the territory, including the de-escalation zones and the areas run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/11/syria-opposition-meeting-geneva-assad-russia.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Martial Trezzini

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:53

The End of ISIS is in Sight. What is Next?

Article by Shehab and Maria al-Makahleh

Given that the last strongholds for ISIS (known as Daesh in the region) in Raqaa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq have fallen, it is likely the group in its current territory-based form will gone by the end of 2017.  Only weeks ago, Daesh was allowed to leave central Syria before the Syrian Army closed the 5-kilometer gap between Al-Raqqa and Homs. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian Air Force, had liberated over 90 percent of the country’s territory. 

Fortunately, there has been a plan for this moment.  The Americans and the Russians—the main power brokers in the conflict– have been in direct talks regarding the future of Syria since 2015; indeed, everything is on the table regarding a transitional phase, the presidency, and even the future governing body. According to leaks and news reports, the two sides have agreed on that the president and transitional governing body shall exercise executive authority on behalf of the people but in line with a constitutional declaration. As for the president, he or she may have one or more vice presidents and delegate some authorities to them. This draft will be proposed during the Geneva Conference at the end of November.

As for the transitional governing body, it reportedly will serve as the supreme authority in the country during the transitional phase. According to drafts we have seen, it is proposed to have 30 members: 10 appointed by the current government, 10 from independent individuals named by the UN Secretary General and 10 by the opposition. The chairman will be elected from among the independent members by simple majority. This representative structure—which includes representatives from Assad’s government—stems from the recent visits to Damascus by officials from the European Union, Russia and the United States.

According to American sources, an important provision of the new constitution would be Presidential term limits. The proposed article states that “The President of the Syrian Republic shall be elected for seven calendar years by Syrian citizens in general after free and integral elections. The president might be re-elected only for one other term.”

The involvement of the Assad government in these deliberations should surprise no one. Former American ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford stressed in a recent article published in Foreign Affairs that “The Syrian civil war has entered a new phase. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has consolidated its grip on the western half of the country, and in the east. By now, hopes of getting rid of Assad or securing a reformed government are far-fetched fantasies, and so support for anti-government factions should be off the table. The Syrian government is determined to take back the entire country and will probably succeed in doing so.”

After Daesh, Syria still matters, and not only because of the scale of the humanitarian crisis there. Major political trends in the Middle East tend to happen because big countries want spheres of influence in geostrategic locations.  Russia has an interest in Syria, for example, as a Middle Eastern forward operating base, for access to warm water ports, and more generally, to check U.S. influence. The U.S. (and its allies) see in Syria a country cleared of Daseh that must now be “held” to prevent the regrowth of the terrorist caliphate, as a bulwark to protect neighboring Israel, and to maintain the free flow of oil.

In other words, the big countries that represent such geostrategic players such as Syria aspire to influence and change the geopolitical situation within her borders to improve their own strategic position and enable them to gain cards in the Middle East region.

But Syria is not merely a proxy battlefield for the big powers. With the end of Daesh in sight, Syria has a chance to reclaim her sacred sovereignty, which as the basis of the international order gives it the ability to control what happens inside its own borders. The upcoming constitutional process is an opportunity to restart and reconnect the Syrian people to its institutions, which should in turn serve them and only them. It should not be lost.

Article published in Foreign Policy Association: https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2017/11/28/end-isis-sight-next/

Published in Tribune
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