Maria Dubovikova

Maria Dubovikova

Maria Dubovikova is IMESClub President.

Who benefits from a chemical attack such as the one reported to have taken place in Douma last weekend? Is it Russia or Syria? Hardly. It was already clear that any such attack would provoke a tough response from the US and its allies — direct military involvement in Syria with the aim of punishing Bashar Assad, his forces and allies, and ultimately toppling the regime.

The alleged attack raises many questions, the most important being the timing; there was no reason for the Assad regime to carry it out. The Syrian and Russian armies had recaptured most of Eastern Ghouta. Russia was in talks with the militant group Jaish Al-Islam over a deal to allow their fighters to leave Ghouta for Idlib. Civilians trapped in Ghouta had been released. 

Videos reporting the supposed attack do not stand up to scrutiny. One shows a reporter filming as he goes down into the shelter where it took place, but without taking any precautions or wearing any protection. Later, another White Helmet appears with a mask, and says the place is full of gas. Is this logical? Then the White Helmet puts on a mask, but with his bare hands, in ordinary clothes and with his neck uncovered. If there was a chemical attack, how is this possible? 

The White Helmets also reported that most of the victims of the attack were in an underground shelter. But Assad was accused of dropping barrel bombs filled with toxic gas. If this were true, most of the victims would have been at ground level. In addition, Russian military personnel in Douma were not affected by any kind of chemical poisoning, and an investigation by the Russians found no traces of chemical weapons. 

An investigation should be carried out first by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other independent international bodies. The stakes are enormous because for Assad to carry out such such an attack would be to commit suicide. He is surely not naive enough to fall into this trap.

There are genuine concerns about what happens next. Any military retaliation without a detailed investigation, on the sole basis of reports from the White Helmets, would be an attempt to change the course of recent developments in Syria, and deprive Russia and Turkey of their achievements on the ground.

The ramifications are enormous, and the price of military intervention may be too much to bear. The examples are clear: The military intervention in Iraq cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and led to the emergence of Daesh. The operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa also cost thousands of civilian lives. We can hardly calculate how many lives would be sacrificed if the West’s aggressive declarations were followed through, or how long that road to hell would be. 

A full-scale attack, as was the case with Libya, would lead to terrorist and extremist gangs spreading all over Syria and the region, leading to chaos and anarchy. Furthermore, we would stand on the brink of a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers, Russia and the US. Nobody would be able to count the innocent victims of such a confrontation.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1283061

Photo credit: Anadolu

Sino-Russian relations have been historically quite close, as the countries have shared the same vision of the need for multipolarity and diversity while looking to counter US dominance. Facing increasing competition from the US, China considers promoting regional economic partnerships as a key strategic priority. Moreover, the improvement of China’s recent ties with its regional partners has added extra assets to its economic integration. Meanwhile, Russia is also looking to counter US dominance by constructing a multipolar world of equals and fair play. And here the two countries have “found” each other.

China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is aimed at further opening up to other countries and speeding up domestic reforms, is deemed an effective approach to integrating into the global economy. The partnership with the 10 ASEAN countries — Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — as well as India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand would give China the flexibility to counter the American trade measures against its economy.

China views the American shift toward the Pacific region — as Washington increases its influence through economic activities and through military and political cooperation, in addition to a rise in anti-China rhetoric — as a major threat to its sovereignty.

The history of China’s dreams of ending US dominance started in the late 1990s with a book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” written by Chinese generals Liang Qiao and Wang Xiangsui. The main idea is that China can defeat the US, despite it being technologically superior and a more developed country, by avoiding traditional means of warfare. It proposed a variety of means that could be used to defeat the US, including lawfare, economic warfare, and network warfare. The book had a big impact in the US and, nearly 20 years after its publication, we can see that America and its Western allies have adopted many ideas of unrestricted warfare, developing them in accordance with new opportunities, technological breakthroughs and the peculiarities of the modern world.

The trade war launched by the Trump administration is being used as leverage and an instrument of exercising power, rather than for protectionism of the American economy. The aggressive rhetoric against China and exchange of tariff hikes on certain products and goods are raising the heat in bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington. The US is officially considering China a threat to its national interests. In keeping with Asian traditions, China is keeping its door open for talks until the very last moment, but it is unlikely this generosity will be appreciated by the US. 

Taking into account that the two powers have the same perceptions of how the world must be shaped, their alliance is promising to be fruitful and will cause many headaches in Washington.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) 

Understanding that the US has practically declared war on China using non-military means will bring Russia and China closer together. Taking into account that the two powers have the same perceptions of how the world must be shaped, their alliance is promising to be fruitful and will cause many headaches in Washington. Both China and Russia have repeatedly declared that they are trying not to mix politics and economics, but are trying to form a new kind of relations. There is therefore an urgent need to reset relations and establish permanent channels of communication based on the interests of both countries.

Russia and China have in recent years demonstrated agreement in the UN on many issues, including Syria, to the great disappointment of the US. But Sino-Russian cooperation in Syria goes far beyond the hall of the UN Security Council, as they successfully cooperate on the ground. China has deployed its limited special forces contingency to back the Syrian army and is active on many fields nowadays without the need for pompous announcements on its philosophy and foreign policy approaches.

China and Russia oppose the deployment of the US missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula, as it is deemed to be jeopardizing their national security and damaging the strategic balance in the region. The decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is part of the global anti-missile shield that Washington wants to serve US superiority. The move, which was said to be for protecting South Korea from North Korea, is undoubtedly directed against both China and Russia. At the same time, Russia and China have merged their satellite tracking systems into one global navigation giant.

Russia now awaits a visit by the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, who postponed a trip to Moscow last week. In the framework of the growing US-China tensions, this visit will boost Sino-Russian cooperation. The agenda promises to be huge and will cover most fields of bilateral and global interest. China’s new Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe is already in Moscow and has declared that the visit by the Chinese delegation is aimed at showing the US the strength of bilateral ties and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. He explained that he made Russia his first port of call in his new role to demonstrate China’s will to deepen the strategic cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. Wei also stressed that China is ready to show full-scale agreement with Russia on most of the issues on the global agenda.

Russia and China, despite their differences, are now moving closer together to counter the US and reshape the world.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1279186/columns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

The paradoxes between the strategic priorities of global and regional powers are an inherent trait of Middle Eastern conflicts. This was clear when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said last month: “The priorities of Western countries are contrary to those of the countries of the region. Therefore, the process of finding solutions to the crises of the region has not been possible; the clear examples are the Syrian, Libyan and Yemeni crises.”

It is well known that the West, led by the United States, is serious in its fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. However, Western countries build their alliances not with governments but with specific groups, ethnicities or minorities — this prolongs the war on terrorism. On the other hand, the priority of some European and Middle East states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is to remove the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. On the contrary, Sudan, Turkey and Qatar support the group. This conflict of priorities has led to the escalation of crises and prolonged regional wars.

The changes that have taken place within Western countries, mainly after the rise of populist trends in America and Europe, have led to radical shifts in their policies toward the Middle East. For instance, shortly after US President Donald Trump was sworn in, he changed American foreign policy regarding the Middle East, ending the approach of former President Barack Obama, who preferred a state of non-interference.

The last seven years have witnessed an expansion of the influence of regional forces threatening Western powers’ interests. This has been a result of erroneous policies adopted by Western countries, such as the change of the political system in Iraq and the support extended to the Arab Spring, which has led to security and political vacuums in some countries, allowing terrorist organizations to emerge. The priorities of the international community have turned from changing political regimes to fighting terrorism. Though the terrorist threat has not yet ended, but has rather cloned into other forms, the focus has moved to how to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East. 

Only Middle Easterners should have a say in solving their issues and avoiding sectarian wars — the international players should just monitor and help the Arab world achieve a positive solution.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

The contradictory agendas of international and regional powers will not lead to a solution to the conflicts in the Middle East but rather will lead to complicating them, helping them reach a state of deadlock; causing further arms races, more bloodshed and anarchy. The Middle East is currently witnessing rapid change, with zero-sum outcome wars and inevitable conflicts between several international and regional actors. What people in the Middle East ignore or pretend is not true is that the world at present is not the world before 2011. The foundations of the global political and military systems have changed within a structure that enshrines control and exclusivity of power within the US, Russia and China, who delegate some regional powers to act on their behalf. History does not repeat itself, but events are the same.

The most important outcome of this game is to build the foundations of an era of collective security. All means are available in this risky game because the most important thing is a Middle East with no sectarian war. Iran is a major political influence in the region and it is also a military power, so much so that even superpowers make careful considerations before taking action against its army. Where would a regional war take place? Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, or anywhere else in the region?

Are we in the midst of a new Marshall Plan for rebuilding the Middle East? The inevitable outcome of this game is a comprehensive peace that will be followed by strategic and psychological variables that will allow Middle Eastern countries to develop political stability and peace with more moderate and open cultural and political concepts.

In the 20th century, the “sick man” was the Ottoman Empire, and in the 21st century it is the turn of the Arab world. Arab interests are at stake because of structural weakness and disintegration, which comes as a result of the fall of Iraq in 2003 under the US-led invasion. Since then, the Arabs have lost their compass and can’t find their way.

Middle Eastern political actors are striving to have a say in the future of the region, to have a seat for the journey and to turn from being paradigms into effective models. For this purpose, it is important to note that China is pushing to achieve its One Belt One Road Initiative at the same time as the Century Deal led by Washington and Riyadh. To what extent these two projects will succeed without colliding or clashing, only the next few months will reveal.

The chaos the Middle East is undergoing will lead to more losses. Only Middle Easterners should have a say in solving their issues and avoiding any sectarian wars that could destroy everything. The international powers should just monitor and harmonize the players to reach a positive solution and avert any destructive repercussions.

Article published in Arab News: 

Thursday, 15 March 2018 23:16

Major powers step up battle for Africa

Rex Tillerson’s final overseas visit before Donald Trump fired him as US Secretary of State was to Africa, where many global and regional powers are coming into direct competition. Tillerson’s trip came within the framework of the American administration’s bid to secure its influence in Africa following the humiliation caused by President Donald Trump’s alleged comments, which badly affected Africa-US relations. Tillerson’s visit was also to compete with the Chinese and Russian influence in Africa, as the continent becomes like a tart that should be divided among these powers and some other less-developed regional players such as Turkey, Iran and some Middle Eastern countries.

Visits to the continent by Tillerson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov all came just a few weeks before the African Union announces the huge Continental Free Trade Area, which is expected in April and will make the African economy and its markets a global economic bloc that all countries should take into consideration. The continent’s Gross Domestic Product will amount to about $3.5 trillion annually and the population is estimated to reach 1.3 billion by the end of 2018. Many African countries are also working hard to counter terrorism and eradicate corruption.

Statistics issued by the World Bank forecast that Africans will make up 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its workforce by 2100. Africa will also continue to be a major natural resources and raw materials reserve. Economic and political experts believe that whoever controls Africa controls the world — after all, Africa is the bridge between America, Europe and Asia.

The visits of Russian, American, Turkish and Chinese officials to Africa stem from their readiness to help African states fight terrorism. This is one of the pillars Tillerson relied on in his tour. He wanted first to beautify the image and reputation of the US in Africa and to neutralize Russia and China on the continent, as many governments are geared toward enhancing economic as well as trade ties with Moscow and Beijing. This explains why Tillerson warned African governments not to ink arms deals with China or approve any military assistance from Moscow. 

Conflict and political rifts between the US, China and Russia are shifting to the fast-growing continent, where many new geopolitical and economic opportunities are available.

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

Tillerson also tried during his tour to erase, which was cut short by a day so he could return to Washington and face the music, to erase the tensions caused by Trump’s alleged remarks on African countries two months ago. He voiced his country’s commitment to supporting development and democracy, and to building bridges of trade and investment relations with the continent.

Over 30 percent of Chinese firms in Africa are in industrial fields, compared to only a small fraction of the American businesses operating there. However, 90 percent of American businesses in Africa are oil-related.

China has supported development in Africa without enforcing terms and conditions that would turn Beijing into a political dictator or an economic authoritarian. In short, the Chinese have adopted an approach that focuses on the establishment and development of infrastructure and transport projects across the continent. China’s projects include funding a $3.2 billion railway network in Kenya, which was inaugurated last year, and the construction of the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital. This was fully built by the Chinese and handed over to the AU as a gift in 2012.

It is not only Ethiopia that the three great powers fight over, it is also Djibouti, where China has built a 750-kilometer railway connecting the coast with Addis Ababa. Security-wise, China has begun to expand its military presence in the Horn of Africa, specifically in Djibouti, to support anti-piracy efforts in East African waters. Beijing has also deployed 3,000 peacekeepers in Africa under the flags of the UN and the AU.

China’s growing presence in Africa prompted the now-fired Secretary of State to warn African leaders during his tour that, while welcome to accept Beijing’s assistance, they should “not forfeit any elements of your sovereignty as you enter into such arrangements with China.”

Turkey has also regarded Africa as an area open to expanding its interests, which are ambitious, but not up to the level of Chinese, American and Russian dreams. Turkey’s attitude toward Africa has been palpable in meetings between the sides since 2011, and has been crystallized in a military base in Somalia. Since 2003, Erdogan has undertaken many trips to Africa, the most recent of which last month saw him take in four major countries: Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, and Algeria. Turkey has greatly increased its embassies in Africa, while Turkish Airlines reaches nearly 50 destinations on the continent. Significantly, at the end of 2017, Ankara and Khartoum announced cooperation to rehabilitate the Sudanese island of Suakin — a former Ottoman era base on the Red Sea.

For Russia, Africa is a buffer zone against America's expansionist policies. Last week, Lavrov made a state visit to Zimbabwe as Moscow searches for an African foothold following the overthrow of former President Robert Mugabe. Lavrov began his African tour on March 6, Tillerson two days later. The Russian minister’s schedule included five sub-Saharan countries — Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Ethiopia — while the American took in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Nigeria, and Chad.

It seems that conflict and political rifts between the three major world powers is shifting to Africa, and that new geopolitical and economic interests are on the rise. This may ultimately ignite a new world war, but this time on the African chessboard.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1266261

The situation in Syria is heating up, as the international powers play an expanding geopolitical game on the Syrian chessboard. The sequence and timings of recent events raise many questions. The situation in Eastern Ghouta is developing in the same way it has for the past several months without attracting much attention from the international community. However, following continuous violations of the de-escalation zone by militants, targeting residential neighborhoods in Damascus, both Russia and Syria have intensified operations in the area.

The situation is aggravated by the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked groups and militants using civilians as human shields; a common tactic in civil wars.

The media reaction was started by activists on the ground, reporting through text messages and WhatsApp about the calamitous situation in Eastern Ghouta. However, it seems nobody was paying attention to the fact that Damascus is also populated by civilians, and the constant shelling of the city is causing death and destruction. It seems as if not all lives matter to the international community.

The international coverage of Eastern Ghouta shows how biased and subjective media coverage is compared to what Afrin is undergoing at present; just because Turkey, a Western ally and a NATO member, is acting against the Kurds, whom Ankara labels as terrorists. Thus, it is apparent that the West needs Ankara right now more than Turkey needs the West. This justifies why the latter does not denounce what the Turkish army is doing in Afrin, while blaming the Russian and Syrian armies for their role in Ghouta. Turkey looks the potential winner in the tug-of-war between Russia and the West, as both need Ankara in the war against terrorism. The losers here are the Kurdish people, as they appear to be mere pawns in the geopolitical game.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the conflict as, instead of solving the crisis, all the players prefer to engage in geopolitical games using their pawns on the ground.

– Maria Dubovikova

After long debates at the United Nations Security Council, the members unanimously voted for a resolution requesting a one-month armistice in Syria. As expected, the armistice is not working. The international media reported a probable chemical attack in the suburbs, after which the UK threatened to strike Damascus, as if Western powers have the right to strike any country they want. When the British and Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 after suspecting that Iraqis were producing biological and chemical weapons and long-range missiles, the reports were proven to be false. Launching such strikes on Syria now could bring about the same result.

The UK and the US are picky in their reporting. They forget how many people have been killed in Iraq or how many were killed recently in Deir Ezzor. They channel their news coverage to serve their own interests by distorting the image of other nations.

Attempts to ease the humanitarian status have been disrupted by militants. It is common knowledge that Ghouta is suffering from starvation and illnesses, and civilians, spending most of their time in basements, want to get out from the suburb. However, the militants do not let them out, forcing families (who reach the checkpoints, seeking to leave Ghouta for safety) to return. The rebels are using the civilians in their own media game and abuse them as human shields.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson laid responsibility for the disastrous situation in Syria on Russia. His tone was clear, and the direction everything is now moving is becoming clear as well. It seems that American procrastination over a political settlement in Syria is aimed at partitioning the country. This violates the US-Russian agreement and thus Moscow will be forced to counter US efforts to divide Syria and will play the game until the end, including not allowing the Americans to have a base there.

Meanwhile, the risk of a clash between the US and Russia over Syria is on the rise. The consequences of such a scenario are hard to calculate, but Russia is undertaking diplomatic measures to avoid such risky developments. Moscow is calling on the Western powers to use their influence on the rebel groups. Russian demands are simple: Once the rebels stop shelling the city, the strikes will be stopped. The terrorist groups should also leave the area, as there is no way they will be accepted as a part of cease-fire talks or any agreement. Had this been achieved already, humanitarian missions could have gained access to the affected areas sooner. All of this can be achieved through international cooperation and the proper exercise of pressure on the militants on the ground.

The entire international community bears responsibility for the Syrian war, as all countries prefer to play geopolitical games instead of solving the crisis, using their pawns on the ground regardless of how many people are killed. All countries should stop being Machiavellian in their deeds and decline the motto “the end justifies the means.”

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1263946

The Valdai Discussion Club — the main expert discussion platform in Russia — last week held its annual conference on the Middle East. It was the most representative Middle Eastern Valdai in history, as it was attended by two foreign ministers (Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and Iran’s Javad Zarif), the deputy foreign ministers of some Middle Eastern countries, former top-level politicians and leading experts and advisers from all over the globe.

The conference, which was titled “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on all Fields,” focused on the major regional conflict knots like Syria, Palestine and Israel, Libya, Yemen, and Iran. Russia’s role in the settlement of these crises was discussed but was not the cornerstone of the conference.

The conclusions that can be made following the two days of debate are as follows: Russia is standing strong on its positions and is serious about its intention to settle the Syrian conflict through international institutions, alongside supportive formats like the Astana process and the Sochi congress. But Moscow is deeply concerned by the activities of the US in Syria. Lavrov, answering a question on what more Russia can do to improve the current situation, said it is not about what Russia can do but what the US should not. There is a high level of mistrust between Moscow and Washington that threatens the whole settlement process in Syria. 

Russia initially blocked the United Nations Security Council resolution on a ceasefire in Ghouta, mostly because of its doubts about the intentions of the US and its allies. Russia also stood firm on the exclusion of terrorist factions, such as Al-Qaeda and Faylaq Al-Rahman, from the ceasefire. The tendency to present Al-Qaeda-linked groups as merely militants or rebels started last month and has gained momentum. 

What does provide hope for the region’s future — and underlines Russia’s potential as a negotiator for peace — is that every year Valdai gathers in one hall representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, the Kurdish community, the US and others, and encourages them to talk openly.

 – Maria Dubovikova

Russia is calling on the international community to work together on the Syrian conflict settlement. It will work closely on the establishment of the constitutional committee that was approved in Sochi. But it has become clear Russia will face severe problems with the Assad regime, as the declaration approved at the conference was modified by Syria — to remove the paragraph on the UN’s dominant role — with no coordination. The speech by Bashar Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban made everyone feel that Damascus is far from understanding the real situation and is absolutely unwilling to negotiate. Russia is facing a series of problems in dealing with Damascus and this will be the main challenge to its bid to establish a constitutional committee with the UN’s support.

Meanwhile, Zarif called for peace talks and the establishment of a regional security system: A mechanism that would allow the region to openly discuss its challenges. Avoiding the topic of Tehran’s expansionist policies in the region, Zarif highlighted Iran’s readiness to cooperate and negotiate. Iran slammed Israel for its policies, backed by the US, which was not surprising, but the speeches by Israeli representatives really were different. 

This can be summed up by one passage by former Israeli Foreign Minister Dore Gold, who summed up his speech regarding Israeli support for an independent Kurdistan by stating that the occupied Golan Heights are and will remain Israeli territory. Parrying the statement that such declarations violate international law, he answered that territories annexed following a war of aggression are illegal, but territories annexed as a result of a war of self-defense are a totally different story. Israel, blindly backed by the US, is getting tougher and more impudent and that will, sooner or later, have severe consequences for the regional powers. While Palestinian representatives are giving strong signals that greater Israeli oppression will only produce greater resistance, what is typical for both sides is a total unwillingness to listen to one other.

The Yemeni and Libyan conflicts have stalled. We can point to the problems and even draw ideal world solutions, but there is no chance we will succeed in implementing any of them. Russia is trying to facilitate a peace settlement in Libya after being asked by the Libyans to be more involved in the conflict, but Yemen is not its playground. On Libya, there is intense cooperation between global powers, but Yemen seems to be a forgotten war that nobody cares much about.

The speeches at the conference seem to suggest relations are degrading toward further escalations and confrontations. The problem in all these cases is like so much in the region: We are all speaking but not talking. We hear but do not listen. The Middle East is ruled by fear and mistrust and that engenders new phobias and misleads individual players and their global allies. But what does provide hope for the region’s future — and underlines Russia’s potential as a negotiator for peace — is that every year Valdai gathers in one hall representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, the Kurdish community, the US and others, and encourages them to talk openly. 

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1254091/opinion

Monday, 19 February 2018 21:33

Russia plays kingmaker in the Middle East

While US representatives are going to Middle Eastern countries to discuss American concerns, the region’s leaders are visiting Russia. In the space of about two weeks, Russia has hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Russian President Vladimir Putin also spoke on the phone with Saudi King Salman.

Netanyahu failed to persuade Putin about anything regarding Iran’s presence in Syria, in the wake of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian military facilities. Abbas arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for talks on Jerusalem and a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “From now on, we refuse to cooperate in any form with the US in its status of a mediator, as we stand against its actions,” Abbas told Putin.

The US has lost credibility as a mediator, having obviously taken sides in the conflict, and having threatened and blackmailed the Palestinians, which is unacceptable. Washington will not be happy with a stronger Russian role in settling the conflict, but Moscow will not retreat.

King Abdullah headed to Russia’s capital on Wednesday to boost bilateral ties, after meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It has been about a year since the monarch’s last visit to Russia, and it is his 19th to the country since 2001, making him the most frequent visitor of any head of state.

The king’s current visit is of great importance, because it comes at a time when the Middle East is beset by clashes, including between Syrian and Israeli forces near the Jordanian border, and after US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The king seeks Russian intelligence cooperation to confront terrorism and extremism, and Putin’s personal support on Jerusalem.

Full-scale Moscow-Amman cooperation, based on mutual trust and respect, may bring balance to regional affairs.

– Maria Dubovikova

In the past few days, after the confrontation between Israeli, Syrian and Iranian forces in southwest Syria increased the possibility of direct warfare, it has become clear that if Russia did not intervene to calm tensions, things would have escalated. This could have affected the borders of Jordan, Syria, Israel and Lebanon.

“I do feel that the international community has let down our people, who have paid and shouldered the burden of responsibility of 20 percent of our country of Syrian refugees, of other refugees that have come through,” the king told Russia’s TASS agency on the eve of his visit.

Jordanians’ economic concerns were the impetus behind his visit; he does not want any political or military escalation on the Jordanian-Israeli-Syrian border that may add to his people’s frustration. Any escalation could engulf the whole region in a new, possibly endless, war.

The king wants assurances from Putin on the agreed-upon de-escalation zones, mainly in southern Syria. So he will ask Putin for the removal of Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the Jordanian-Syrian border, and away from the disengagement line in the Golan Heights.

Of all the countries neighboring Syria, Jordan has been the most cautious since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011. Amman was deeply concerned about the threat of widespread instability and violence. Its response to developments in Syria was driven primarily by concerns about the potential security and political impact of the crisis on the kingdom, not to mention the fact that there are more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan.

King Abdullah discussed with Putin the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the aftermath of America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and its intention to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. The two-state solution, which the king believes in, is the best solution to the conflict. He wants Putin to work on such a solution, and to keep the issue of Jerusalem until final-status negotiations.

The beneficiaries of any delay in a political solution to the Palestinian issue are extremists on both sides.

Russia and Jordan fully agree on this matter. The king believes that resolving the Palestinian issue requires US-Russian coordination.

Full-scale Russian-Jordanian cooperation, based on mutual trust and respect, may bring balance to regional affairs. Russia’s politics have proven consistent and Jordan is becoming a particularly important regional player, with balanced policies.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1247946/columns

It is hard to believe that Western powers could ever have expected the invitation extended by Moscow to concerned parties to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Sochi has become the hottest topic for Syrians and regional powers, along with the Astana conference and the UN-led Geneva gathering, both of which are of equal importance in the view of Russia.

However, suspicion has marred most Russian attempts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. That is, in great part, due to the negative influence of Western media reports on Russia’s role in Syria and the wider Middle East, often accusing Moscow of attempts to destabilize the region.

Even now, the US State Department describes Sochi as “a one-time solution,” and it is close to impossible to predict the outcome of the talks.

More than 1,600 delegates will attend the Sochi congress, each calculating the risks and benefits of this ongoing, multiplayer geopolitical chess game.

That game, of course, includes Turkey’s current military operation in Syria's Afrin — which Turkey has named “Olive Branch.”

Russia, US and other regional players are concerned now with the post-Daesh and Al-Nusra era, and with the threat of global extremism expanding from Syria and Iraq. The Afrin operation prompts all parties to offer a clearer definition of the division of areas of influence and control in Syria in order to implement a realistic plan that goes beyond strategic and idealistic ambitions to determine the future of Syria.

“Operation Olive Branch” could not have been launched without the approval of Russia, which controls Afrin’s airspace. The operation shows how deep the rift between Turkey and its ally, America, has become, as Turkey has effectively engaged in a battle with US-backed Kurdish militias.

Through “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey is sending a message to the Americans and Russians that it will not allow any threat along its borders. The military action is complicating an already tense and unpredictable situation. Regiments of the Free Syrian Army, who receive military aid from the US but are supportive of Turkey, are now reportedly threatening to combat US forces in Afrin. The more awkward that situation becomes, the more it benefits the Damascus regime and its allies.

Russia — or Vladimir Putin’s Russia as it effectively is now as one man holds the strings of the country’s military and political institutions — is not, as some Western media depict it, “playing both sides.” It is, like all the players in Syria, trying to see how best to serve its national interest, fearing that if the Americans support the Kurds in Syria and play on existing ethnic tensions there, Washington will then use the Kurds to oppose Russian interests in Syria.

Moscow is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the Middle East.

– Maria Dubovikova

Russia’s alliance with the Syrian state and the Syrian army is strategic; Moscow will do its utmost to deny any country any influence on this relationship.

In politics, there are no ethics, no honesty and no sincerity; just interests. That is true of all countries in Syria.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, recently said that the US and Russia currently “perhaps” share “tactical symmetry for a convenient moment, but not a strategic alliance.”

What Ryan meant is that Washington and Russia have very different aims in Syria. America’s goal, simply, is to finish off Daesh and retain alliances with other militias in order to combat Iranian influence in Syria. He made that clear when he later added: “What matters most to us in Syria is defeating (Daesh) and preventing Iran from having a land bridge and Hezbollah a foothold.”

Tension between Ankara and Washington has escalated in the past few days: Turkey has threatened to extend “Operation Olive Branch” as far as Manbij, which is located north of Aleppo and lies between Afrin and the Kurdish autonomous region, home to a regiment of American soldiers advising the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). US President Donald Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did little to calm the situation.

Trump warned Erdogan of the “growing risk of conflict” between the two nations and reportedly promised to stop supporting the Kurds. Once given, the promise was almost immediately broken. Besides, it seems neither promise nor threat will dissuade Turkey from its course in Afrin.

This plays into Russia’s hands. Russia is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the region. Russian tactics permit Moscow to stay above controversies in which Washington and even Turkey have become embroiled, enabling Russia to take the initiative in a number of activities in Syria.

The Afrin issue, then, could shape Syria’s future and the future of Turkish-American relations.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1234711

The Turkish military operation in Afrin in northwestern Syria has started, and future military operations are likely in Manbij and as far as the borders of Iraq as Turkey strives to expel the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers this organization to actually be the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regardless of the name it is given by the Americans. 

Following the US announcement that it would form a border force of 30,000 fighters led by the Kurds — which was swiftly retracted — Turkey accused Washington of trying to protect the Kurdish people in order to divide Syria. Ankara viewed this number of fighters, which were to be led by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as an existential threat to its security and stability and a step toward a future Kurdish state. 

Russia temporarily benefited from the US-Turkey conflict over the Kurds, as it had from the differences between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian government, when Russia continued supporting the regime while Turkey backed the opposition. After the downing of the Russian jet fighter in 2015, Russia successfully used the Kurdish card against Erdogan to acquire more political concessions. 

There are two likely scenarios for the war in Afrin and the rest of the Syrian territory that the Turkish army is eyeing up: The first is a large-scale operation aimed at undermining the Kurdish control of Afrin. This would be similar to Operation Euphrates Shield in terms of preparation, assault and the participation of several departments of the Turkish army, as well as Free Syrian Army fighters.

The second is a limited operation aimed at taking certain areas from the hands of the PKK in order to keep its fighters away from the Turkish border. This requires isolating the Kurds, cutting their communication with the eastern cantons and preventing them from accessing the Mediterranean. 

International players are making their final moves on the country’s chessboard as Turkey aims to oust US-backed Kurdish fighters from northwestern region.

– Maria Dubovikova

There are many challenges facing the proposed Turkish plan. The first is the difference in Afrin’s terrain from the areas taken during Euphrates Shield, making this campaign more difficult and complicated. Moreover, Ankara is not satisfied with the long-term positions of Moscow and Washington. Ultimately this is a Turkish battle — or rather a battle for Turkey itself — but it will also affect the course of events in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that US “provocations” are a key factor that have complicated the situation in northwestern Syria and prompted Turkey to launch its military operation in Afrin. Russia labeled the US as irresponsible and said its actions would pose a threat to the peace process in Syria.

The Kurds blame Russia for betraying them, but they were trying to milk two cows at once as their relationship with the US threatened Russian interests and its project for the stabilization of Syria. US policies towards the Kurds are also a direct threat to Turkish national interests, with Kurdish separatism a cause of deep concern in Ankara. Additionally, Kurdish ambitions, fueled by the US, have become a threat to the integrity of Syria and the process of reconciliation. Thus Moscow found itself on the same side as Ankara. Before the Afrin operation, Russia and Syria both expressed their concerns, but now it is clear that the move was silently approved by Damascus and Moscow from the beginning. 

On Tuesday evening, Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Erdogan to discuss the situation. The sides expressed a solidarity and common vision, vowing to continue working to resolve the crisis based on the principles of preservation of territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of Syria. 

The situation in Afrin is changing not only the regional framework, but also the global one. The move by Turkey — a NATO member with close ties to Western nations — against a group backed, equipped and financially supported by the US takes them a huge step away from their former allies. This demonstrates Ankara's independence and alters their former path towards integration with the West. The ongoing situation will bring Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, pushing them to forge a more solid alliance. The West is unlikely to be able to stop Turkey from realizing its plans in the region, as any confrontation would definitely not play into their hands.

Despite claims the assault on Afrin may harm Syria, Turkey insists its operation is limited and will not affect the integrity of its neighboring country. However, the numerous interventions from various regional and international players have complicated the political and military scene in Syria after a glimmer of hope had started to appear at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The international players are now making their final moves on the Syrian chessboard ahead of any peace talks aimed at discussing a political settlement, draft constitution and interim government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1232356

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