Maria Dubovikova

Maria Dubovikova

Maria Dubovikova is IMESClub President.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

– Maria Dubovikova

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 December 2017 04:46

Russia ready to fill Middle East void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jorge Silva/AP

The assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is likely to have tremendous repercussions for the country’s conflict and its future, which is expected to be split in terms of loyalties and political ideologies, aggravating the humanitarian issues. The Yemeni scene is undoubtedly complex and the future cannot be determined with any certainty because of overlapping interests and the fact it is closer to a regional and international conflict than merely an internal one.
It is believed that Yemen now needs a person who represents the overwhelming majority of its citizens, regardless of their age and political affiliation, to save the country from further bloodshed.
One should recall that the rift in the Saleh-Houthi axis started a few days before Saleh’s death. Before the assassination, thousands of Houthis and supporters of Saleh gathered in Sanaa, leading to bloody clashes near the Saleh Mosque. The rift and subsequent clashes reveal how fragile political alliances are in the region. No external party can help solve the issue if there is no domestic will to end the conflict and save the lives of the people.
Saleh has left behind a thorny issue that cannot be solved, and no one will be able to bear this very convoluted legacy. He was the president who unified Yemen in 1990, with many wars against the Houthi movement following the killing of Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi in 2004.
During the Arab Spring, which erupted in 2011, Saleh was ousted after 33 years. This led to the war that has destroyed the country’s infrastructure and seen the death toll rise in the past few months. Saleh’s cooperation with the Houthis was a secretive concordat in the beginning, but it was later fully announced. Nevertheless, this coalition was for fake political purposes rather than for true and honest reasons, due to the many contradictions between Saleh and the Houthis in ideology and interests.
A few days before the assassination of Saleh, the Houthis installed billboards on the streets of Sanaa depicting their leader and defending his right to rule the country. Such political moves show a kind of monopoly of power, at least in North Yemen. This led to the recent escalation between Saleh and the Houthis and the exchanges of criticism, with each of the two former allies plotting to eliminate the other at any cost.

Yemen needs a person who represents the overwhelming majority of its citizens, regardless of their age and political affiliation, to save the country from further bloodshed.

Maria Dubovikova

With the death of Saleh, Yemen will be the new battleground of regional and international powers, turning the whole country into a fireball or a new frontier. The Bab Al-Mandab Strait’s importance as the southern gate to the Red Sea has substantial importance in the new world order, which seeks natural resources from Africa. Yemen is regarded as a confrontation field between the superpowers, who strive to set up and then promote their military manifestation and power.
It is difficult to envisage how events will unfold in the coming weeks, as the crisis has already dragged on for nearly three years. No one could have ever imagined the Houthis would ambush Saleh until his mission was over.
No one knows how this recent rapprochement between Saleh and the Arab coalition came about, nor the conditions of their pact. However, Saleh gambled his political career and his life by agreeing on a “political divorce” from the Houthis. It is recognized that the last-minute deal between Saleh and the Arab coalition overturned the balance of power and this switching of allegiances led to the Houthis’ decision to liquidate him at any price, putting an end to his political activities and to his manoeuvers to restore his political party’s power. It appears now that his move was too late.
For Russia, it is important to see Yemen as stable and in peace. The Russian government wants to see Yemenis having dialogue without any external influence on decision-making. Moscow is very much concerned about who will take the help of the General People’s Congress, who will keep the party intact and who will open channels of communication with other parties and with the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. As Yemenis were shocked by the killing of Saleh, the Russian government is hoping that Yemenis manage to tackle this issue to start a new phase and restore peace.
The Houthis may have primarily gained the most from Saleh’s assassination; however, this might not be accurate as many developments could happen at any time and loyalties may change, leading to a rising scale of hostility toward the Houthis.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1205421

Sunday, 03 December 2017 17:30

China’s new role in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shortened version is published by Arab News

Wednesday, 29 November 2017 21:48

Daesh defeated, but what comes next?

After the demise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the question on everyone’s mind is: What comes afterward?
History has proved that defeating the symbols of terrorism has little impact on the phenomenon of terrorism itself, or its ideology — the international community, after all, heralded the defeat of terrorism after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
What happened in Syria and Iraq should be a wake-up call for everyone. The answer to the terrorist threat must be global. Battling against the influence of extremists is part of the nightmare that Muslim populations — tormented by anguish and uncertainty — are suffering daily, with many killings everywhere. The war on terrorism will not end with the defeat of terrorist factions; the many-headed hydra of terrorism will breed more of them from those who are marginalized in their communities, those who are unemployed, and those who have their own, more personal, reasons for becoming terrorists.
Daesh is on the brink of collapse on all military fronts; its cells are likely to continue with bombings and assassinations, but the terror group is no longer able to occupy land or open new fronts.
But after all the blood, displacement and destruction in Syria and Iraq, how will things look on various levels when Daesh is finished?
Perhaps all the bloodshed can lead to a serious reasoned response.
Since the 1960s, decision-makers have not placed terrorism at the top of their priority list. There are various reasons for this: Arms sales are one of them. Terrorism is not perpetrated only by those who have their hands stained with blood. Terrorism starts with dialogue and discourse, notions and concepts; then it expands into a sense of hatred, rejection and exclusion of others before turning into murder. The more extremist the education is, the more bloodshed humanity will witness.
The world must eradicate the circumstances that gave rise to the incubation of extremist ideologies and must neutralize the role of deviant clerics. The role of fighters may end when the fighting does, but the role of artists, intellectuals, the media and civil society can formulate new concepts and breathe life into them without directly interfering with social customs and traditions.

Many of its fighters have fled to many different countries, carrying with them Daesh’s ideology, and waiting for the chance to try again.

Maria Dubovikova

For example, many of the countries most-ravaged by terrorism lack any theatrical movement — the kind of thing that can, through satire and comedy, mix education with entertainment.
These countries should also initiate employment programs and plans to rescue the poorest families from their tragic realities. And perhaps the most important step that must be taken by these countries is to create new education programs for children based on a new vision. They also need to provide young people with sports and social clubs, instead of relying solely on mosques as a gathering place for youth. Of course, mosques and religion can play an important role in the transmission of morals and ideals, but those who would use religion to disseminate hatred and sectarianism must no longer be allowed to do so. Indeed, sectarianism should be officially criminalized through the UN.
One of the major obstacles to defeating terrorism is the rehabilitation of those who have been radicalized. Once they are trapped in the web of terrorism and extremism, it can be very hard for them to extricate themselves from it. A road map must be prepared to accommodate them and lead them back to normality.
Daesh has come to an end as a state; its dreams of a caliphate destroyed. But many of its fighters have fled to many different countries, carrying with them Daesh’s ideology, and waiting for the chance to try again.
After all that Daesh and other terrorist groups have done, and after all the condemnation of their bloody actions, can we now hope that terrorism will not return with other groups under other names? Or is that something we can no longer aspire to?

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1200191/columns

Photo credit: AFP

The leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia, the guarantor countries trying to broker peace in Syria, will meet just before the new round of Geneva talks. The timing is significant, as Syria is again boiling over, developments on the outskirts of Damascus are making matters worse and rebel groups are threatening the ceasefires reached in the de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria. 
At the beginning of the month, after Astana talks that were attended for the first time by Saudi representatives, the Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran to meet Iranian and Azerbaijani leaders, with the Syrian issue on the table. The Syrian opposition will meet in Riyadh on Nov. 22 as Saudi Arabia tries to unify them under one umbrella. At the same time, Russia, Iran and Turkey will discuss the peace process, apparently choosing a strategy for different scenarios depending on the success or failure of the Geneva talks, and will discuss the possible outcomes of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference next month organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Some perceive this conference as an attempt to foil the UN Geneva talks, but that is what they once said about Astana — which was, and remains, an instrument for making Geneva more effective. The conference is intended to launch an indispensable reconciliation dialogue to proceed in tandem with political dialogue and the post-war political process.
The meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents on Nov. 22 in Sochi will touch upon the latest developments in Syria and the Middle East. It is particularly important taking into account tensions with the US. Ankara has threatened possible attacks on US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey’s ties with NATO are becoming more hostile than ever. 
Washington is trying to revise the Iran nuclear deal and restore sanctions against Tehran, so Iran is openly inviting Moscow to form a coalition to counter the US. Iran’s activities in the region are anathema to the Gulf states, the US and Israel, while Moscow, Ankara and the Assad regime view its participation as vital.
The summit in Sochi has to be seen in the context of the Dialogue Congress 10 days later; timing that suggests Putin wants to draw united positions from Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani to declare the end of the war in Syria.
The three countries’ coordination on Syria has increased since 2016, although Ankara’s position on the Assad regime differs from Moscow’s. Putin and Erdogan discussed the Syrian crisis in Sochi on Nov. 13, when they announced that relations between them were fully restored. Later, Ankara announced the purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S400 missile defense system.

There is a clear mutual understanding about a political solution in Syria, and on other related issues, but Russia and Turkey appear to prefer to keep the details secret. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that during the talks the parties will discuss the possibility of the expansion of de-escalation zones in Syria, which is indispensable for peace. 

Some years ago, the West and regional allies were insisting that Bashar Assad should go and the political process had to start before Daesh could be destroyed. Now it is clear that any political process goes hand in hand with national reconciliation and the launch of post-war restoration, without necessarily clearing Syria of every terrorist cluster. 
Moscow, which has changed the course of the Syrian conflict since it intervened militarily in September 2015, has given a series of signals that it is continuing to craft a political solution. The agenda of the Sochi Dialogue Conference is the political future of Syria after transformations in which the opposition lost large parts of its control, and Daesh is on the verge of defeat. A Syrian national unity government may be proposed, but the most important topics are the constitutional reforms and parliamentary and presidential elections.
As for the Syrians themselves, they have little hope that the conflict will be settled any time soon. Some fighting groups have transformed into criminal gangs sucking blood and money from the miserable people living in territory they control, and profiting from the continuing war — which explains why they are trying to break the ceasefires. The international community, notably the West, is ignoring many issues, playing with facts to serve their own agendas and hiding behind noble statements. There is pessimism, but also a clear understanding that most of the foreign players are not interested in conflict resolution. Kicking the “annoying players” — Russia, Turkey and Iran — out of Syria would clearly serve their national interests, but not the peace settlement goals. However, there is still hope that the next Geneva talks will be more successful than the previous rounds and give hope for other initiatives to be successful as well. Syria needs peace.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1196166

Photo credit: www.facebook.com/SyrianNationalCoalition / Facebook

The current status of the Middle East is similar to that of the Balkans in the years before the World War I. Are we going to witness a Balkanization of the region — geopolitical fragmentation caused by other countries’ foreign policies? And what are the chances of an Iranian-Arab war or a Shiite-Sunni conflict that could lead to the redrawing of the Middle East map?
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said a ballistic missile fired at Riyadh this month from Houthi militia-held territory in Yemen was supplied by Iran, and described it as “direct military aggression” and an “act of war.” The accusation was repeated by the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in his resignation statement: “Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq. I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” He specifically blamed Iran for interference in the affairs of Lebanon.
Saudi rhetoric aimed at Iran has escalated in the past few weeks, and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir accused Tehran of being behind all evil acts in the region. “The Iranian terror continues to terrorize the innocent, kill children and violate international law, and every day it is clear that the Houthi militias are a terrorist tool to destroy Yemen,” he said. “The Kingdom reserves the right to respond to Iran at the right place and time.” Last week Saudi Arabia called on the UN to take measures against Iran to hold Tehran accountable for its conduct.
Events are moving fast. They could lead to a military confrontation, including the intensification of proxy wars, and a deepening of the Shiite-Sunni divide. The danger persists as long as the two superpowers, Russia and the US, stand on opposing sides of the spectrum on many regional issues, especially Iran. Recent comments from the Oval Office make it clear that the latest events have full US approval and conform with its expectations and policies.
The Iranian ballistic missile program is a key factor in Arab strategies and alliances. Many countries in the Middle East started heading east and west to purchase air defense missiles, such as the Russian S-300 and S-400 and the American Patriot and THAAD systems. Arab countries also started to think of producing their own military equipment by having offset projects with weapons manufacturers in China, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, France, the UK, Germany, Brazil and the former Yugoslavia.
Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the influence of Iran in Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, even more so since Riyadh believes Hezbollah operatives fired the most recent missile launched at the Kingdom from Yemen. “The Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return,”  said the Saudi Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan.

Russia is keeping a close eye on the growing threat of military action against Iran — not a direct conflict, which is unlikely, but an extension of existing proxy wars.

Maria Dubovikova

This war of words may lead to a military clash in the Gulf or in Lebanon, further escalation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where Iran has a strong presence, and further proxy wars, unless the Americans take direct action against Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq. And that would lead to a dramatic escalation of tensions between regional and international powers already competing for influence in the Middle East.
Iran is a direct threat to the stability of the region, and US President Donald Trump has listed it as a major global threat. Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, as well its activities in support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, pose a threat to the interests of the Arab world.
Action may be taken, including the military option, against the Iranian presence in the Levant. Escalation in Lebanon, the worst-case scenario, may result in a military conflict that would explode the region and drastically affect global stability because the players involved are so numerous and the stakes so high.
Nevertheless, the concerned sides understand that direct conflict would be a zero-sum game, and has to be avoided. The way to do so is by conducting proxy wars, but the cost of such wars on global stability and human life would also, inevitably, be too high.
Russia closely follows developments in the region because it has become directly involved. For Moscow, regional processes are critical. Historically, stability in Russia depends a lot on the climate in the region, and the Middle East is again one of its national interests. It has succeeded in building normal ties with all the players in the region, even those that are rivals with one other. Having good ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has been proposing itself as a potential mediator in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, although the offer has not yet been taken up. Russia is worried about the possibility of escalation of already existing proxy wars and the emergence of new ones, especially in Lebanon. 
In commenting on the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has used diplomatic rhetoric, calculating all the possible risks and scenarios. A war in Lebanon would mean a drastic deterioration in regional stability, especially in Syria. The region needs stability, and political and diplomatic solutions for its disputes.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1194021

Photo credit: Mersad

The agenda for the next round of Syria talks in the Kazakh capital Astana was determined in an Aug. 7 meeting in Tehran of the three guarantor countries — Turkey, Iran and Russia — amid expectations that the Astana conference will be held in the last week of August. What is expected from this meeting between the Syrian government and opposition representatives?
The answers lie in the two de-escalation zones that have been effective so far. The first was announced in early July in the southwest, covering Daraa, Suwaida and Qunaitra. The second was announced on Aug. 2, covering northern Homs, including Al-Waer neighborhood. The expectation is that there will be a push for de-escalation zones in other parts of Syria.
Negotiators will also discuss a proposal shared by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. It contains the “four baskets” of transitional governance, a constitutional process, elections and counterterrorism. The conference will discuss which topic to handle first; the Syrian government insists on counterterrorism.
The outcome will have a long-term impact on regional stability, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees. The meeting could help stop the spill-over from Syria into these countries, provided that Russia and the US continue to cooperate to expand de-escalation zones. The Astana meeting will also call on all countries not to interfere in Syrian internal affairs and focus on how to rebuild the country.

Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Despite the failure of previous Geneva talks to stop fighting in various parts of Syria, the government and opposition have agreed 15 evacuation deals that have allowed opposition fighters to safely leave besieged cities and towns for Idlib.
A cease-fire in three southwestern governorates was announced on July 10 shortly after long meetings between Russians and Americans in Jordan, which helped bridge the gap between them. Under the deal, Russian officers are monitoring the cease-fire.
To many analysts, things are moving faster than expected in Syria due to coordination between both superpowers, and a belief among the government and opposition that there has been more than enough fighting. Both parties acknowledge that now is the time to stop the war and open a new page for all Syrians to rebuild their country.
Some opposition leaders have started echoing the government in saying a solution cannot be imposed on Syrians by other countries, particularly since the US said it will no longer push for Bashar Assad to be removed from power. Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1142776/columns

Photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Monday, 10 July 2017 03:29

G20 comes with a breakthrough on Syria

G20 Summit was much awaited globally, and mostly not because of its format and discussions, but because of the top level bilateral meetings regularly held on its sidelines. The most intriguing talks were the first meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that lasted over two hours, giving impression that the two leaders enjoy company of each other. However, agreements or significant declarations were not expected, while some breakthrough has been achieved. And the achievement doesn’t concern Russia-US bilateral ties, that remain at their low, but Syria issue, as countries seem to have finally found the common ground on the Syria matter.

Both the US and Russian leaders claim the political victory after brokering a ceasefire in Syria for the first time since the breakout of the Syrian conflict. The unprecedented deal was not expected even by those who were optimistic regarding finding a solution to the Syrian conflict.

US President Donald Trump and his counterpart Vladimir Putin have agreed to a ceasefire in Southwest Syria starting from midday of Sunday, July 9, 2017, a day that follows their meeting at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.

A statement by Russian ministry of foreign affairs reveals that talks were held in Jordan one month ago, in June, aimed to reach the deal on the “de-escalation region” in southern Syria.

A memorandum of understanding to establish a de-escalation zone in the regions of Dara’a, Quneitra and Suweida was agreed upon Saturday July 8, 2017 between Russian, American and Jordanian military and security experts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who confirmed the news said that the deal will be effective as of midday Damascus time on July 9 which stipulates that a ceasefire will be in effect.

The deal provides that Russian troops will be deployed near the Jordanian-Syrian borders to replace the Iranian forces as Jordan has conservation regarding any militias or sectarian forces near its borders. This deployment is in interest of all the players, as it minimizes the dubious and undesirable Iranian presence in strategically important areas in Syria that threatens the Syrian conflict settlement and deteriorates regional stability and climate.

The Hamburg face-to-face meeting between both leaders allowed to discuss in details the agreement which also includes areas that have seen recent clashes between Syrian army forces on one hand and Israeli and rebel fighters in the Golan Heights on the other.

After Hamburg, what is Syria about? Is Washington still focusing on overthrowing the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad? Why did Putin stress that the shift in the American stand would help reach a final deal and settlement to the Syrian conflict peacefully? The answers would come simply from the trips made by some Jordanian officials to Moscow and Washington in addition to Syrian-Jordanian meetings at high security levels in the past few months which helped to culminate the deal, crowned by inking the agreement in Amman to help regain peace to the war-torn Syria.

Regardless of the Astana talks and the outcome of the negotiations between the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, the aspirations of the Syrians would come true if this deal gets into effect with sincerity from all concerned parties whether regional or international as any spillover of the Syrian crisis would this time be a deluge, affecting the whole Middle East, igniting further sectarian wars that would spread like fire in the bush.

This year Russia has been involved in talks with Turkey and Iran over the creating of 4 de-escalation zones in Syria to be policed by two surveillance centers: one in Jordan and the other in Turkey.

Though the monitoring process will be conducted mainly by Russian military police in coordination with Jordanian and American officers, the situation on the ground will be decided by the deployment of heavy artillery and troops. This justifies why the Syrian army and its allies started an expansive and comprehensive military campaign to regain many strategic positions before ceasefire gets into effect.

The tripartite agreement was also in line of contact agreed upon between the Syrian government forces and associated troops on one side and rebels on the other hand. The three signatory countries voiced their commitment to working on a political solution" based on UN-backed talks in Geneva and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Jordan seemed the focal point nowadays to the US administration and the Russian policy makers as the understanding was designed to reduce violence in an area of Syria near Jordan’s border, which is critical to Jordan’s security and Israeli stability. Jordanian King Abdullah II is a frequent guest both in Washington and Moscow these days, negotiating many regional issues with the two superpowers.

A warm welcome and support came directly from the UN on the reached promising agreement between the US and Russia, saying it would enable upcoming peace talks.

Much work lies ahead to ensure that constructive talks would yield to the positive results aspired to perform a sustainable ceasefire over the long term.

In order to avoid any whiplash, Russia, the USA and Jordan, should establish a more comprehensive plan to better control the de-escalation to proceed ahead with the three other de-escalation zones. This will help to avoid any consequential issues in the relationship between the three nations through direct and candid address of their concerns.

The meeting between Putin and Trump has set up a robust and comprehensive framework for future cooperation on Syria and for solving other Middle Eastern issues. Yet, this cannot be achieved without regional cooperation and coordination from the parties concerned, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular, as the peace process majorly depends not only on the situation on the ground, but on what is going on at the negotiating table and on the presence of the consent between the negotiating sides. At least on the possibility of its achievement, that mostly depends not only on the will of the sides, but also on the influence projected on them by their regional supporters.

Photo credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

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