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
Friday, 15 December 2017 00:10

Trump's Double Toe Loop

The recent decision of President Donald Trump with regard to Jerusalem is just one more surprise in the endless series of surprises in the Middle East. Numerous analysts overlook the fact that there are actually two separate parts to the decision, which has proved fateful for the Middle East. It is a double toe loop. The first part is about recognizing the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while the second is about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These two points are interrelated. More than this, one seems to logically stem from the other. But, as they say, opinions may differ.

 

While the situation in the White House has been evolving precisely in this direction ever since Trump's election, I must admit that, until the last moment, I did not want to believe that the president would take such a reckless step. There is no doubt that the move was made under the strong influence of a small group of incompetent people who determine Trump’s Middle Eastern Policy (leading U.S. experts specializing in the region that I have had a chance to talk with see them as incompetent). Their names are well known, as is the motivation behind their recommendations to the President of the United States, who quite enjoys surprising everybody. At least three of them are believed to be supporters of radical right-wing forces in Israel. Shibley Telhami, a Washington-based analyst at the Brookings Institution, wrote: “His advisors live in their own bubble, reinforced by unprecedented inexperience.” At the same time, polls indicate that 81 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of Republicans, would prefer Trump to rely on experts in Middle Eastern diplomacy, not inexperienced members of his family and personal lawyers.

It is true that Trump is not abandoning his policy of seeking a truce between Israel and Palestine. However, if we are to believe a leaked plan allegedly devised by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and submitted by the latter to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salmad Al Saud, handing East Jerusalem over to the Palestinians as the capital of their future state (which appears to be nothing more than a handful of scattered territories). It is hard to imagine any Palestinian leader agreeing to such a plan. There are far more painless and certainly less disgraceful ways to commit suicide. On the other hand, as Steven Simon, former United States National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, states in an article for The New York Times International Edition, “For all the talk from successive administrations, a Palestinian-Israeli peace has never been a strategic imperative for Washington”.

Let us list just a few of the possible consequences of Trump’s decisions.

Trump’s decision to bury the already modest results secured by Barack Obama to improve Washington’s relations with the Islamic and Arabic worlds, shape an image of the United States that is not guided by Israel in its foreign policy and set a course that can be defined as neutral with regard to the conflict in the Middle East.

It delivers a deadly blow to the war on terror, and raises the threat of terrorist, extremist and radical religious and nationalist organizations to mobilize new supporters, with terrorists and extremists taking advantage of the desperation of the Palestinians and the fury of Muslims.

It also undermines the reputation of the United Nations, the significance of the UN Security Council’s resolutions (which were passed with the participation of the United States) and, in the broader sense, international law.

It also affects the Middle East Quartet, which was on its last legs as it was, and is now a good as dead. Any attempts to resuscitate the format would be futile. Equally irrecoverable is one of the few channels of constructive foreign political interaction between Russia and the United States. This work needs to be continued, but merely for the sake of the process. There certainly will be no results.

It also undermines the positions of the moderate Palestinian leaders, who are already having a difficult time defending their views before their more radically inclined fellow countrymen.

It also damages the reputation of the allies of the United States around the world and in the Middle East, weakening the United States’ partnership with a number of influential Islamic states – states which had until now been the country’s closest partners. We are talking primarily here about Turkey, a NATO member. The partnership will probably remain, but there will be no more trust. On December 8, Le Figaro published the following headline about Trump’s demarche: “The U.S. President isolates his country in the international arena by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” President of France Emmanuel Macron stated in no uncertain terms that Trump’s decision contravened the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, which does not seem to bother the President of the United States. On the contrary, he appears to derive some kind of pleasure from it. It will be difficult for the Gulf monarchies, which are closely linked to the United States and are now starting to court Israel. Jordan, which is living through difficult times of its own, appears to be in a particularly difficult situation.

Trump’s decision strengthens the positions of Iran, the exact opposite to what the President of the United States wants. We are reminded of 2003, when the United States’ invasion of Iraq made Iran the most influential external force in that country.

 

The decision is ruining the very concept of the Middle Eastern peace process, which contains such issues as refugees, borders and Jerusalem (the most important and difficult issue), all of which lying at the core of the talks on the so-called final status.

The wave of violence caused by Trump’s decision will be difficult to stop, as the U.S. President does not back down from his word. Anti-U.S. sentiments will continue to mount in the Islamic world, which will put the lives of American citizens at risk. The threat does not just come from the Middle East, but also from Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.

Trump is doing a disservice to Israel, which needs peace with Palestine in order to secure a safe and comfortable life for its citizens.

Talking about the possible variants, some of my colleagues, the most authoritative American experts on the region, are attempting to move Trump to rectify the damage that his decision has most definitely done to the interests of the United States. In particular, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now a professor at Princeton University, suggested in an article for the New York Daily News that Trump did not have to repeal the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. All he had to do was announce that, in the future, when the plan to create two states in Palestine is implemented, he would also recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Trump might also announce that, following the implementation of this plan, he would open a U.S. embassy to that new state in Jerusalem. It is, however, unlikely that the overconfident President will heed the voices of those naively aiming to “correct” his policy.

Why does Trump Need This? And Why is he Doing it Now?

Some believe that Trump wants to suck up to Israel’s right wing (even though much seems have already been done in that direction), and to Netanyahu in particular, who might capitalize on this and avoid prosecution. On the other hand, Trump, as people have come to believe, is primarily guided by domestic policy considerations. Polls carried out by the University of Maryland in November 2017 indicate that 59 per cent of Americans would prefer for the president to abstain from taking sides in the Israel–Palestine conflict. In addition, 57 per cent, including a majority of Republicans, believe he is leaning towards Israel. Another survey, conducted by the Brookings Institution, indicates that 63 per cent of those polled, including 44 per cent of Republicans, are against moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Even among the respondents who represent Trump’s main beacon of support in U.S. society, Evangelist Christians, only 53 per cent support the moving of the embassy, with as much as 40 per cent being against the move.

Or does he want to appease the Evangelicals? But we have already seen that not everything is clear-cut with the Evangelicals. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is targeting this segment of U.S. society. According to Steven Simon, Netanyahu believes that the next generation of Americans, or the one after that, will no longer contain liberal Jews, and that Evangelical Christians alongside Orthodox Jews will stand up to counteract America’s pressure on Israel.

 

Or is Trump’s idea to simply shock the international community once again, forcing it to live with any decision that may take his fancy, even the most extravagant ones?

If Netanyahu hopes that the common interest of Israel and Saudi Arabia to restrain Iran will force King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad to reconcile with the fact that all hopes have been lost for retaining Muslim control over at least some part of the third most significant city in the country (after Mecca and Medina), he is obviously wrong. Israel, and the United States in particular, have always underestimated the central place the Jerusalem issue takes in the eyes of Muslims. It is true that the Saudi Arabian rulers currently view Iran as a greater problem for themselves and the region than the Israel–Palestine conflict. However, the Saudi leader cannot possibly lose Jerusalem. James Dorsey, a well-known Singapore-based expert on the Middle East, believes that Mr. Trump’s recognition and any plan to grant Israel full control of Jerusalem would see the genie turning on the kingdom and its ruling family

It appears that the events in the region are giving Russia a window of opportunity just in time to revitalize the country’s weighted and respectful attitude towards all of its Middle Eastern partners and highlight its role as a unique mediator in conflicts.

They say that an experienced figure skater can do a double toe loop easily. Could the same be said of the President of the United States?

Article published in RIAC: http://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/dvoynoy-tulup-trampa/

Фото: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Published in Tribune

December 9, 2017 was the 30th year anniversary of the first Intifada. So far, the Palestinian responses of yesterday took three tracks: Diplomatic, nonviolent, and violent. Here is a description of each, and I will close with some conclusions.

The diplomatic track included two crucial steps that were taken immediately: One is cutting the relations with the US administration, and the declaration by Azzam Al Ahmad, member of the central committee of Fateh, that President Abbas will not meet Mike Pence on December 19 in Bethlehem as was scheduled. The second was about submitting a complaint to the UN Security Council by the PLO Mission to the UN against the USA. It is said that point 3 of the article number 27 of the UN Security Council does not allow the USA to use the veto right against a complaint submitted against it. It is also said that nevertheless if the veto will be used, then the next step will be about going to the UN General Assembly to make a resolution under the “United for Peace” clause, which will be an obligatory resolution. 

The nonviolent track expressed itself through the hundreds of demonstrations that took place yesterday in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

At the same time rockets were launched to Israel from Gaza, this time by Al Qaida and ISIS-affiliated groups. Hamas called for an Intifada without defining clearly its tools, while the Islamic Jihad and the PFLP called for struggle against the Israeli occupation by all means. 

These three tracks have the following significance: 

The new diplomatic track of cutting contacts with the Americans, if it continues, will mean the end of counting on negotiations as the path to the Palestinian statehood, and going instead to the path of popular resistance (as it was called by Jibril Rajoub in his recent interview with Al Arabiyya), and motivating the Arab world and the international community to take steps against the Israeli occupation and to pressure the United States by using all the diplomatic and the legal means in that direction.

The nonviolent track will be, like it or not, confused with the violent ones. The reasons for this confusion is manifold. In this regard, they are not only about the inability of the Palestinian young people to be fully rational when they are in a mood of rage and anger, but there is something deeper that has to do with the full collapse of trust in the political process of negotiations and its bitter harvest over the last 26 years since the Madrid Conference. Accordingly, it is time for the political leadership to plan and lead a full and continuous nonviolent campaign. 

In order for the leadership to be able to convince its people to do so, it will need international support by giving it some concrete results to present to its people, such as more recognitions for the Palestinian State, building Palestinian facts on the ground in area C and East Jerusalem, rebuilding Gaza, creating free access between Gaza and West Bank, and finally taking care of the dignity of the Palestinian refugees until their right of return issue is solved. The non-achievement of these steps will create the conditions that are conducive to growth of violent extremist groups in both West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinian refugee camps in the Arab neighbouring countries as well.

Article published in Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/trump-declaration-and-the-palestinian-response/

Published in Tribune

President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem represents a crucial change in the American policy. This change can be described as a shift from the previous biased mediator position to the new position of the partner of Israel in its plans towards the Palestinians.

 This shift is not only a violation of the international law and the UN resolutions regarding Jerusalem, but also a violation of the 1993 Declaration of principles, signed in the White House and known as the Oslo Accords. According to that Agreement (Article 5), Jerusalem as a whole, including its East and West parts, will be subject to negotiations between the two sides. The agreement also warned against any procedures to be taken unilatarely in a way that would prejudice against the permanent status issues including Jerusalem. President Trump unilaterally decided to go beyond this Oslo commitment and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel before an agreement about its borders and its division between the two sides. This is a crucial violation.

 

Process-wise, this move to unilateralism goes against the multilateral/international concerted efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it will give the Israeli government additional motives to increase its unilateral steps to change the landscape of Jerusalem in a way that will leave no place and no space for the East Jerusalem Palestinians in the city. They will face more and more ethnic cleansing and forced migration. Different means will be used in this regard such as evacuation of the Bedouin neighborhoods around Jerusalem, ousting Palestinian communities from the city (such as Kufur Aqab, and Shufat Refugee camps), and identity cards confiscation. 

 The response to this American move might take one of two shapes: the first is to give President Trump a chance to develop the “ultimate deal” and present it to the parties in the coming months. Those who adopt such a position say that President Trump referred in his speech to the two-states solution, the preparation for the deal, and that the borders of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem will be decided by negotiations. That is in addition to his call for preservation of the status of the Holy places in Jerusalem.

The second argues that the hopes on the Americans to present a solution is over after 26 years of trial and error in the negotiations since Madrid 1991 conference till today. As such, this response calls for adoption of another path: to get to the Palestinian State in the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. It includes creating a Palestinian nonviolent campaign for independence, establishing Palestinian facts on the ground, especially in area C, Gaza and East Jerusalem, linking Gaza and West Bank together, promoting the Palestinian people’s unity, stuggling for more international recognition of the State of Palestine, and suing occupation in international courts.

The second looks to be a path for the creation of a new momentum towards Palestinian statehood. It advocates that the Palestinians should start this path, and then to ask the international community to support it as a path to their national emancipation.

As such, the second position argues the hit can be transformed into an opportunity for the Palestinians to get their right of self-determination in their independent state.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/trump-s-decision-on-jerusalem/

Photo credit: Mohammed Zaatari/AP

Published in Tribune

Trump occupies his post for already a year and during this time his Middle-Eastern politics has become an object of heated criticism from active and retired diplomats, Middle-Eastern experts and political scientists. There is even an opinion that Trump, unfortunately, listens more to his relatives, so it is unclear where the White House ends and where Trump’s family begins. He listens more to the opinions of unqualified people on the Middle East, than to the experienced diplomats. Moreover, the situation in the Department of State remains rather volatile. Despite one year has already passed, many offices remain unoccupied and Tillerson prefers a rather authoritarian mode of management, without listening to the Middle-Eastern specialists. At the same time there are several points of disagreement between Tillerson and Trump on the Middle East, which have become public.

Speaking about this very decision, now I can say that there is absolutely no logic in it. Even from the point of view of the US national interests in the region. There is an opinion that many of Trump’s advisers have planted in his mind an idea that now the situation in the Arab world has changed so much that the Arab states do not pay attention to the Palestinian issue and that his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem or to recognize this city as Israel’s capital will not provoke backlash in the Arab world. He thinks that maybe Arabs will have some minor protests, but not like in the 50ies and 60ies. Probably, such thoughts made Trump pass such decision. But there is absolutely not logic in it, and the reaction of Arab states, even of Saudi Arabia that now established special relations with Israel, of Iraq, Egypt, of European states like France, is naturally negative and will complicate the resolution of many other regional issues. This will hamper Trumps policy not only in the Palestinian-Israeli dimension, but also in Europe and in the Islamic world as a whole.

Photo credit Mandel Ngan/AFP

Published in Commentaries

The main result of the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7 July 2017 was a ceasefire agreement for a de-escalation zone in the governorates of Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda in southwest Syria and on setting up a ceasefire monitoring center in Amman.

The United State's involvement in the multilateral Syrian settlement format marks an important new milestone in this process. American, Jordanian and, unofficially, Israeli participation in the settlement process allows for inclusion in the negotiations of the American-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in As-Suweyda and the Syrian Desert, as well as pro-Jordanian factions on the Southern Front, which refused to send their delegations to the fifth round of the Astana process. This achievement could potentially help preserve Syria's territorial integrity and include in the peace process all Syrian forces that are inclined to engage with other states diplomatically, and the territories they control, without any exceptions.

It should be noted that reports about a certain planned de-escalation zone with US participation in the south of Syria surfaced long before the meeting between the Russian and American presidents. For example, on 6 June 2017, commenting on the airstrike on a convoy of Syrian government forces travelling towards the Al Tanf border crossing, the Pentagon noted that the pro-government forces had entered a “coordinated de-escalation zone”. Simultaneously, reports started coming in (at that time still without official confirmation) about Russian-US consultations in Amman on one or several de-escalation zones. At the same time, experts began questioning the compatibility of the possible agreement for southern Syria with the memorandum passed in Astana in May. Even after the official rollout of the zone on the sidelines of the G20 summit and after the ceasefire came into effect on 9 July, these questions have not yet been fully answered.

Scenario one

The United State's involvement in the multilateral Syrian settlement format marks an important new milestone in this process.

The United States and Russia expand the southern de-escalation zone originally agreed upon in Astana to cover the As-Suwayda Governorate and also, unofficially, the opposition enclave in Eastern Qalamoun and territories in the Syrian Desert, including those around the population centre of Al-Tanf, which accommodates detachments of the local Sunni tribes from Revolution Commando, supported by American, British, Norwegian and Jordanian special operations forces. At the same time, Washington and Amman will not be promoted to full members of the Astana format and guarantor countries. Iran and Turkey, for their part, will retain their status as guarantor countries in this southern zone, in accordance with the Astana agreements.

The newly included territories are not mentioned in the Astana memorandum on de-escalation zones but let us not forget that reports from those areas have repeatedly caused public repercussions in the past. To begin with, the United States decided against raising the level of confrontation in the east by attacking the pro-government forces that, instead of advancing in the direction of the pro-US units, formally announced their intention to fight against the Islamic State (while, on the other hand, creating a “Shiite corridor” into Iraq). Also, in parallel with these incidents, unofficial talks in Amman continued. Furthermore, it appears that the parties were interested in what such an agreement has to offer.

Scenario two

The United States and Russia officially expanded the southern de-escalation zone identified in Astana by involving external players that are instumental in Syria's southern regions, namely Jordan and, informally, Israel. If were to happen, then Washington and possibly Amman would effectively become full participants in the Astana talks. Such a development could be regarded as an undoubted success of both Russian and American diplomacy: Moscow made Washington shoulder the responsibility for the actions of the Syrian opposition, while Washington, for its part, forced Moscow to influence Damascus and Iran, which is an extremely difficult task. The Russian media prefer not to mention it, but it is in the best interests of the Al-Assad government and the Iranians, whose clout in Syria depends directly on survival of the current Syrian regime, to discredit the entire opposition without exception.

Scenario three

What the United States and Russia did was “reset” the format of the southern de-escalation zone as defined in Astana. In particular, this is the scenario at which Associated Press sources hinted when saying that the current agreement between the United States and Russia has nothing to do with the Astana memorandum.

It is possible that, following the creation of the southern de-escalation zones and the security zone, with the USA among the guarantor nations, creation of similar de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria will be discussed or is, indeed, already being discussed.

Since February 2017, pro-government forces have been conducting active operations in the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra not just against Tahrir al Sham, but also against the aforementioned Southern Front coalition of FSA groups, which enjoys the support of Jordan's Military Operations Center. Following the inclusion of these governorates in the de-escalation zones identified by the Astana memorandum, there was no cessation of hostilities as there were in other regions incorporated into the ceasefire agreement. In other words, there has been no actual de-escalation in those provinces, so the format of a “zone” including them has been declared untenable. This third scenario appears to be the most probable. It also opens up additional opportunities for replicating such zones in other Syrian regions. It is possible that, following the creation of the southern de-escalation zones and the security zone (the latter implies a certain buffer separating the opposition from the pro-government forces), with the USA among the guarantor nations, creation of similar de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria will be discussed or is, indeed, already being discussed. This possibility has been voiced by certain US experts.

Tehran is concerned about the Amman consultations, fearing that the Jordanian negotiating format should gradually begin to replace the Astana process.

As mentioned above, it would be logical to set up such zones in the north/northeast of Syria, on the territories controlled by the SDF. Long-term US military presence has already been secured in those parts in the form of a network of US military bases. In addition, despite the fierce resistance on the part of the Islamic State, the fate of that movement's informal capital city Raqqa is all but sealed.

Therefore, the talk concerns the need for proactive measures aimed at configuring security zones in the northeast of Syria, with delimitation boundaries drawn beforehand for the Al-Assad and SDF forces advancing on the Islamic State from opposite directions. This would help avoid incidents and armed clashes. The Ankara factor is also important here: Turkey's position is understood to be aimed exclusively against any legalization of the SDF alliance, which Ankara perceives as a cover for the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

Iran's position

The greatest problems with implementing any scenarios involving the United States in the Syrian settlement could come – indeed, have apparently long been coming – from Iran, and from the part of the Syrian leadership in Damascus which relies on that country.

Tehran is known to have stated in the past that it opposes both the United States’ participation in the Astana talksand an American presence in any of the de-escalation zones. Washington's current stance with regard to Tehran similarly rules out any interaction with Iran and its allies (for the exception of Iraq) in regards to the Syrian settlement. This makes a situation when representatives of the two countries would sit down at the negotiation table as equal partners virtually impossible. During the first round of the Astana talks, while giving an overall positive appraisal of the format, the American Department of State expressed its bewilderment at Iran's participation.

According to some reports, the United States and Jordan insist on all pro-Iranian Shiite forces being pulled out from those regions in southern Syria, which are planned to become part of the de-escalation zone. Israel supports this position: Tel Aviv has repeatedly delivered strikes in the past on Shiite forces supporting Al-Assad in southern Syria. Sources point out that Tehran is concerned about the Amman consultations, fearing that the Jordanian negotiating format should gradually begin to replace the Astana process. Iran appears to be particularly worried that the current list of guarantor countries in the Syrian settlement process could begin to change over time, with Tehran being driven out of the country. On the other hand, since the beginning of Syrian warfare Tehran has set up multi-layered presence in the country: it relies not only on the numerous Shiite multinational communities and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specialists, but also on the local National Defense Forces and the unofficial units of the Syrian Hezbollah chapter.

Russia could be accused of aiming all its reconciliation initiatives as a smokescreen in support of the revanchist sentiments harbored by Iran and by the “party of war” in Damascus.

Tehran, therefore, is apparently demonstrating its unwillingness to recognize any agreements regarding Syria to be concluded without its participation. Washington and the Gulf countries had anticipated such behaviour from Iran and the groups it controls. For Moscow, this development is fraught with complications. Russia could be accused of aiming all its reconciliation initiatives as a smokescreen in support of the revanchist sentiments harbored by Iran and by the “party of war” in Damascus. The implications of such an accusation cannot be ignored.

Despite the fact that the agreement between the United States and Russia officially came into being on 9 July, there is so far no clarity as to what it actually entails. There remain questions as to how the ceasefire in the south of Syria will be monitored, what the parties' positions are on Iran's involvement, and how the fight on the radicals will be carried out in a way that would not affect the “healthy” part of the opposition. Hypothetically, under a sustained ceasefire the opposition itself would be prepared to fight terrorist units. The main thing is for all the parties to strive for a sustained ceasefire regime and for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. For as long as such uncertainties exist, the ceasefire will continue to be violated.

Article by Anton Mardasov and Kirill Semenov

Article published in RIAC: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-southern-deal-between-moscow-and-washington-a-duel-of-diplomacies/

Photo credit: picture alliance

Published in Tribune

Following the Pentagon’s June 14, 2017 statement on a military deal regarding a squadron of 35 F-15 jets delivery to Doha, expectations are ramping up for a cluster of tranquility in the Gulf diplomatic mess which could have paved the way for a military confrontation between four countries against Qatar, as they blame Doha for funding and supporting terrorism in the region.

The total amount of the deal is not just US$ 12 billion – the price of the announced 36 jets, as additional 36 jets are to be agreed upon later on – making the deal worth more than US$24 billion.

Jets manufacturer Boeing in a statement on its website said: “This is a very important deal for preserving the production of this sort of planes and creating 60,000 job opportunities in 42 American states.” This means that the money acquired through the Qatar deal helps Americans proceed with their business as the production of the jets was at risk due to lack of demand.

The American president has fuelled the threats against Doha by his strongly-worded warning, where he accused Qatar of being a “funder of terrorism… at a very high level,” calling on Qatari government to “stop immediately supporting terrorism”.

Shortly after the deal was closed, the President Trump’s tweets of a few days earlier in which he said that “Qatar has a history of backing terrorism at a very high level, and must be punished” as well as other in which he insisted that “the isolation of Qatar is the beginning of the end for terrorism”, the tweets have completely disappeared from his Twitter account. Moreover, they were succeeded by other statements praising Qatar as a strong US ally, while stressing that the warplanes deal represents a big step towards ‘consolidating’ strategic and security cooperation between the two countries.

Earlier, US president Trump has expressed Washington’s support for Bahraini, Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati anti-Qatar coalition. This has been made clear during recent White House press conference when he announced that along with “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people”, he decided [that] “the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding”.

The already complex Gulf crisis was further complicated with the subsequent US fighter jets deal with Qatar and the ensuing joint US-Qatari military exercise that have together sent counter-signals to the four-state alliance, effectively contradicting the US Secretary of State’s conciliatory request delivered in a calming tone to the countries directly involved in the rift.

Though the American Secretary of State is preparing a meeting for the Saudi, Qatari and Emirati officials in Washington, Trump seemed angry with the Qatari officials, mainly the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim, for turning down an invitation to visit the US, under suspicion that the invitation was a trap similar to the one his grandfather fell into, when while on a visit in Egypt and the UAE, his son Hamad carried a coup that dethroned him.

Was then the American Qatari multi-billion jet deal a placebo or a relaxant to the belligerency against Doha from its neighbors?

As the deal is still to be considered by the Americans and their officers since the jets won’t be instantly handed over to Qatar, the deal is said to be absorption of the American anger as the US has about 10,000 troops in Al Udaid base in Doha, which would act as a springboard spearheading any coup schemata.

With the UAE ambassador to Washington statements that there would be no military intervention in Doha, this has double meaning from diplomatic and political viewpoints as history has proved it a long time ago. When diplomats speak about something, the opposite takes place.

It was evident from the outset of this crisis that it would get increasingly serious amidst expectations for further escalation, especially after a number of GCC officials started paying visits to the UK and Russia. The latter being under radar to gauge whether Russia would side with the four-states’ alliance or Doha, due to the huge economic benefits it would gain through yet unannounced agreements with Qatar.

It is speculated that Russia is considering taking control over the world natural gas industry. Once Russia wins over Qatar, as it has already done with Iran, more than 80 per cent of world gas production would be at its disposal. Was this recent rapprochement between Moscow and Doha the real reason for the uproar between Doha and its Arab brethren rather than ‘funding and supporting terrorism’? Will this crisis set the Middle East region partially or wholly ablaze?

The Qataris are now playing politics, as far as the F-15 deal is concerned. The deal has helped the American administration secure an additional US$ 12 billion injection into its military industry. It remains to be seen whether it will help Doha to disentangle itself from the brotherly ambush.

These are all chess pieces moved around adeptly by the superpowers, at the suitable time, especially after the 55 Arab and Islamic states alliance meet up in Riyadh Summit last month. As to who will make the check mate move to end the game is anybody’s guess at this point.

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/06/the-future-of-the-gcc-ignited-brouhaha-in-the-region-between-the-us-and-russia/

Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN /Getty Images

Published in Tribune

Trump's overseas visit, the first since he has become the 46th US President, is not typical as it started with Saudi Arabia, the first leg of his external tour which takes him also to Israel and with the Vatican as his final destination, defying traditional first state visits that are usually paid to Washington’s old allies. That is one of the reasons why the world is following the visit with a pity dose of skepticism, while the Middle East region is boiling with happiness.

This time the tour is not only a purely geopolitical matter. It is predetermined by a complex pack of geopolitical, political, business reasons and personal beliefs. The Middle East is at the center of the major global turbulences. The Middle East is the cradle of the world’s religions and of civilization. The Middle Eastern countries are important partners in terms of investment and trade, as they have high financial capabilities for investments and trade development while undergoing intensive full scale development in many sectors. With this tour, based on visiting three centers of three main world’s religions, Trump somehow gives a message of coexistence, and of building bridges between the religions and of reconciliation. 

The Riyadh Summit has become the starting point not only of his tour, but is deemed a new face-off of regional and world order. The summits may enter the modern history as a cornerstone of the new unprecedented tomorrow. 

They were not only about fighting terrorism and extremism, that are fundamental threats for the whole mankind, but about forming new alliances, closing the rows of the Muslim world under the powerful shield of the US. It is about formation of a new system of cooperation and breaking off with the heritage of Obama, considered weak-willed. However, the speech in Riyadh delivered by Trump at some extent reminds of Obama’s one, delivered in 2009 in Cairo University, during his first few months as president, entitled “The New Beginning,” which addressed Muslims from a Muslim capital. That time the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has stated that the choice of Egypt was predetermined by the consideration, that “it is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab World.” Trump has targeted in his speech not only the Arab World, but the whole Muslim community, except Iran, from heartland of Islam. 

The Muslim world is at the same time both the source of terrorism and extremism and its main victim. And Trump’s decision to make the first foreign visit not to the old allies, but to Riyadh can be explained also by the fact that old allies are incapable to lead the fight against the main threat to the world and to eradicate terrorism and radical Islam. Unfortunately, old Europe is incapable to take actions, be effective in crisis management, while plunging in everlasting disputes, vain rhetoric, loud declarations with fatal absence of real action. Old allies are incapable to make “America great again.” To become great, America needs to lead those who really hold the keys to the resolution of the main tragedies and problems of humanity. Trump gambled on the Middle East. The only powers that can save the whole international community are the Muslim ones. Absolute responsibility of leadership lays on the shoulders of the Kingdom as it is a custody of two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, for the sake of the religion and believers, of humanity and peace.

The meetings were not only about fighting terrorism and extremism, that are fundamental threats for the whole mankind, but about forming new alliances, closing the rows of the Muslim world under the powerful shield of the US.

Russia is left outboard of the historical alliance and initiative, while suffering from and fighting the terrorism and religious extremism on a daily basis, being targeted by terrorists and having regions majorly populated by the Muslim community. But even if the gates of the alliance and cooperation launched in Riyadh are left open for the “friendly” states, Russia, one of the few allies of Iran, will hardly be welcome on board. 

Friendly to Iran, Obama is replaced by hating the Persian State Trump. Trump unites the countries against Iran, which he has pointed as a main trouble maker of the region. Taking a unique flight from Riyadh to Israel, he will make an effort to bring to an end the Arab-Israeli conflict that splits the region and breeds strife, damaging global stability. Most likely he will fail to become the peacemaker we all aspire for, but anyway the effort is worth to be made. With this historical first ever flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, he is trying to bring Israel to the congregation of the regional states as an equal partner. From the view of the current US administration this can be explained by the fact that Israel and the Arab States are facing the same enemy – Iran. The formation of a structure resembling Middle Eastern branch of NATO has already sparked criticism in the US. Trump’s opponents who consider the perspective of the US to support one side in a sectarian conflict threatening to the national interests. The visit in general was covered most critically by the US media, to the contrary to Arab ones, which praised the historical visit in the most flattering and complimentary evaluations and appraisals. 

The Arab World feeling weak in face of the new threats, suffering from the oil price cut that is posing a heavy burden on the national state economies which were not accustomed to austerity measures, feels in dire need of the US shield and of the strong and determined president in the White House. Trump has already demonstrated his might with airstrikes in Syria last March that have much pleased the regional powers. The Arab world pins high hope on Donald Trump; however, the presence of the US in the region has never brought anything but wars, instability and destruction. But the hope for the better dies the last. But this time it has all chances to perish completely. Donald Trump, with whom the Arab world is so happy, despite his uncomplimentary remarks about the regional powers he had been making before running for president of the US and his presidential campaign, forgotten and forgiven by extraordinary Arabic magnanimity, makes his countrymen very dissatisfied. And the things are developed in such a way so far that Trump has all chances even not to remain in office even by the end of this year. If the things follow such a scenario that is predicted by most renowned analysts’ that would mean the return into power of the Democrats and return of Obama-like agenda back on track with a much more friendlier approach to Iran, and far less friendly one to the GCC and mainly Saudi Arabia. In such circumstances, somehow rephrasing Trumps words from his speech delivered during Riyadh Summit, the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children. It is a choice America cannot make for Middle Eastern states. And instead of waiting for anyone to protect them and solve their problems, it is the most appropriate time to unite their forces themselves, to trespass contradictions, to diversify global ties, to fight terrorism and radicalization themselves, to take the lead in building their own future. The upcoming 22 years will be the hardest for the region. And how the regional powers will survive the turbulence depends exclusively on their own potentials rather than relying on others.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1103896

Published in Tribune

By Maria Dubovikova and Shehab Al Makahleh

After shuttle visit of some officials from Syria and of Jordan to a number of capitals along with meetings in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Rejeb Erdogan in the aftermath of a tripartite meeting of ministers of defense of Syria, Russia and Iran in Moscow early April, 2017, the prospects to establish safe zones under the supervision of three guarantors of a truce in Syria - Russia, Turkey and Iran are at stake as chances of success are in the offing to cease the 6 year long war in the country, which incurred a death toll of 400,000 and displacement of more than 11 million people.

Some regard that the agreement, signed by the representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the city of Astana which provides for the establishment of areas of "easing the escalation" in Syria in implementation of a plan presented by President Vladimir Putin after a phone call with American President Donald Trump to restore Geneva roadmap to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis, would be fruitful if the concerned parties are committed and if the memorandum is applied literally. This would be successful to uncover those who are against reaching a real and true peace truce in the country which are Daesh and Al Nusra or the so-called Al Sham Liberation Organization (Ahrar Al Sham).

After the approval of the Astana memorandum to set up four 'security areas' or what is geopolitically known as safe and buffer zones - in Syria, the implementation depends on the areas that will be included as per the map which will be announced by June 4.

The memorandum stipulates that there should be four safe zones with check points and points of observations near the borders of low-tension zones or buffer zones which are labelled as ''de-escalation zones''.

Though the opposition members have not approved the document and walked out of the meeting, the three guarantors, mainly Turkey which has very close ties with both Daesh and Nusra fighters will help set up these zones in Syria to pave the way to restore peace and stability before the major air-strikes on Daesh in Eastern parts of Syria and Western parts of Iraq start this summer at a comprehensive level.

The memorandum stipulates that there should be four safe zones with check points and points of observations near the borders of low-tension zones or buffer zones which are labelled as ''de-escalation zones''.

The most important point in this document is the literal text, which stipulates that "the three guarantors of this agreement must assist the Syrian government forces and the armed opposition in organizing and supporting the armed forces and their affiliates, as well as forming a working group within five days to establish the safe areas."This paragraph means that the "moderate" armed factions are to join the Syrian armed forces efforts in combatting and fighting Daesh and Ahrar Al Sham. This is a major political and military makeover in the Syrian crisis, which gives credit to the Syrian regime.

Some Jordanian sources believe that the Astana memorandum provides for a halt to hostilities between the military opposition and Syrian armed forces in these 'safe zones' where ceasefire will be effective as of May 6, 2017. The memorandum is valid for six months, extendable for another six months.
The four 'safe zones' encompass province of Idlib and some parts of Lattakia, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, Reef Damascus or the so-called al Ghuta or Damascus Vicinity, Dera’a and Quneitra by the borders with Jordan. The inclusion of Dera’a and Quneitra was the main one as it is of great concern to both Jordan and Israel due to the intensive presence of terrorist fighters in these two areas along with Hizbollah and Iranian forces.
The signs of the success of this memorandum were uttered by UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura who called the memorandum ''important, promising and positive, a step in the right direction to deescalate the conflict''. The chances of success of the agreement are reasonable because alternative options are disastrous, and the Syrian people are looking forward for a sigh of relief and a breakthrough for their conflict after six years of killing and destruction. However, there are chances to "sabotage" the agreement through a continuum of arming and funding these terrorist groups.

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Tribune