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Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Moscow on February 15 to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials as well as clergymen. Jordan feels isolated because of the Jerusalem issue and other regional crises, and it is particularly vexed about two matters regarding the ongoing Syrian civil war.

First, Amman does not want to be a magnet for extremist and terrorist groups. The king’s message to Putin was to keep Jordan out of the fray as much as he can. Second, Amman will not accept any spillover from the Syrian conflict and will not bear any more influx of refugees.

“I do feel that the international community has let down our people, who have paid and shouldered the burden of responsibility of 20 per cent of our country of Syrian refugees,” the king said in a recent interview.

The quest by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to pass the “century deal” at the expense of the Jordanians and Palestinians has left Jordan questioning its alignment with Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh. It is now looking to both Moscow and Ankara for support in its stand against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

King Abdullah II has visited Russia 19 times since his ascension to the throne in 1999. This latest visit is significant because of the delegation accompanying the king, which included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Mahmoud Freihat (who is also the king’s military adviser), Adnan Jundi (the director of the General Intelligence Department, and National Policies Council Rapporteur Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad. Thus, talks focused on countering extremism and combatting terrorism. Given that Russia has between 2,000-5,000 of its own citizens fighting in Syria with armed groups, and Jordan has very good information about these groups, the two countries have vested interests in greater cooperation at the intelligence level.

Bilateral military cooperation has been improving since 1999 between both countries with a number of deals such as “Kornet” anti-tank systems and the portable “Igla” ground-air defense system. Moscow has already started producing RPGs in Jordan as well. Sources close to the Jordanian and Russian governments believe that 2018 will be special for both countries as they mark the 55th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties.

The king commended Russia’s supportive role in promoting a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the first time, the king feels he is closer to Russia than to any other international power. At the moment, Jordan is seeking Russian military assistance in southern Syria to keep that area a safe haven, and to avoid any further escalation between the Jordanian army and Israeli forces, which erupted earlier this month and led to the downing of an Israeli F-16.

Jordan is also concerned about Iranian efforts to expand its influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Since Iran is a Russian ally, Amman hopes that Moscow can pressure Iranians to stay away from Jordanian borders and avoid skirmishes with the Jordanian army or with the Israeli troops. At this point, Jordan does not want further deterioration of security on its borders because it has its own internal security and economic concerns. That was the main reason for the separate ceasefirefor southern Syria brokered by Washington and Moscow in the summer of 2017: to address apprehensions by Amman and Tel Aviv about Iran’s military presence in areas adjacent to Jordan and Israel.

King Abdullah II is also looking for greater Russian support for its custodianship of the holy sites in East Jerusalem. Thus he met with Vladimir Gundyayev, the patriarch of Moscow and the rest of Russia, to discuss the peaceful coexistence between religions. Both sides stressed the interfaith dialogue that Jordan has been calling for since a long time ago. The king also met with Sheikh Rawi Ain El Din, the president of the Council of Fatwas in Russia, and other Islamic scholars, to convey the message that mosques can play an important role to promote a tolerant Islam that repudiates violence and hatred. Jordan can also play a role in the Muslim community in Russia since the kingdom has very strong ties with the Muslim republics in Central Asia and in the Caucasus. “We have a duty to uphold the true tolerant image of Islam,” said the king.

Jordan and Russia are currently building on their common interests. Moscow needs a pragmatic partner in the region that can help Russia acquire a more influential role in the Muslim world. Amman regards Moscow as an honest broker that can mediate between Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the deadlock. Russia’s decision to include Jordan in the Syrian peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, is another sign of the growing relationship and of Jordan’s efforts to further hedge its bets with the United States.

Article published in Lobelog: http://lobelog.com/jordan-threads-the-needle-between-moscow-and-washington/

The moment his plane landed in Moscow on February 15, Russian media broadcast the king while saying: “I am always very delighted and warmed by the opportunity to see my dear brother, President Putin, as a friend, a dear friend of his as well as a friend of Russia ’, with this statement King Abdullah II started his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The wording is very important at this time as the king expressed the Jordanian fears of a comprehensive regional war with non-conventional weapons which some countries have and would use at certain points and areas if war breaks out.

Some western diplomats frankly expressed their interest in the royal visit to Moscow, saying that the main reason is a Jordanian farsightedness of a comprehensive war in the region that would involve not only regional but rather international powers, adding salt to the Middle Easterners’ wounds. Putin knows that Jordan’s strength is through pre-emptive and tactical upkeep of working diplomatic ties with players across the region. Both Jordanian and Russian leaders know that their mutual interest lies in further cooperation at the highest levels.

The Syrian conflict

King Abdullah has succeeded to maintain affable, and somehow purposeful ties with many countries involved in the Syrian conflict. Amman is the only conduit of collaboration between Washington and Moscow in Syria. However, this has driven Jordan into many challenges starting from balancing out its policies with various regional and international players in the Syrian war.

The king, who was the first to warn against an Iranian or Shi’ite Crescent in the region from Tehran to Beirut in 2004, has tried to persuade the Russian president who has strong ties with Iranian leaders, to contain the escalation by the Jordanian, Syrian and Israeli borders to avoid any future war as this will drag every country in the region to war which can start any moment but no one would be able to put an end if it breaks out.

The king was not only conveying a Jordanian message to Russia to foil all attempts to escalate tension near Jordanian northern borders, but also a regional message that war is in the offing and that the ramifications would be destructive for all parties. Thus, the Jordanian monarch has tried to receive Russian support, as Russia is an effective player in the Syrian conflict.

King Abdullah is sure that Iran would not accept to leave Syria after all its military and financial aid with a perception among Iranian leaders that they were the ones who backed Bashar Al Assad. The drone incident and the downing of the F-16 last week reveals that only Russia can control all players on the ground including Iran.

When King Abdullah has realized what a further escalation means if Iran, Syria and Israel get into war, conducive to major explosion in Syria and turning it into a full-fledged war at the regional level, he listed this new development to his agenda as the visit was prepared few weeks ago.

‘Bang bang’

The Syrian “Big Bang” will turn the region into a state of anarchy. Any war in Syria means that the region will turn into states fighting against each other to delineate the borders, which will cause more bloodshed and mayhem that we do not know when and how it will end.

The historical heritage of Jordan over the holy sites in Jerusalem has made Amman very sensitive to any changes or transformations of the status of the holy city. 

– Shehab Al-Makahleh 

The Jordanian monarch tried to persuade president Putin that it is necessary to convince the Iranians to be involved into indirect negotiations with Israel in order to avoid any regional war that will incur heavy losses on all countries and would lead to instability of the Middle East for decades to come, fueling more fanaticism and terrorism in the region which will be crossing borders to other countries.

The king himself believes that Russia is the only party that can influence Iran because of the Russian military presence in Syria on the one hand and because the missiles used to protect Syrian airspace are Russian-made .Jordan needs Russian cooperation to buttress its own susceptibilities and predispositions.

The predicament of Jerusalem

The Jordanian monarch has sought through this visit to gain momentum and support from Putin who is an advocate for the Jordanian guardianship over the holy sites in East Jerusalem.

On the eve of his trip to Moscow, the king received U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. King Abdullah reiterated the strength of the US-Jordanian ties in spite of the Jordanian rejection of American President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Few days ago, Jordan has secured a five-year American aid pledge.

The historical heritage of Jordan over the holy sites in Jerusalem has made Amman very sensitive to any changes or transformations of the status of the holy city. This is the main reason for the rift with the USA since December 2017.

For Jordan, there was no alternative to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. It is regarded as the only solution for ending the conflict. In this regard, Jordan seeks not only American backing but also a Russian support.

To sum up, Jordan has been playing with its cards to bring about peace to the region through resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and putting an end to the Syrian war, as well as countering terrorism. This cannot be accomplished without a backing from Moscow and Washington as dominant powers in the region as both capitals are the ones that can shape the future of the Middle East. The visit of the king to Moscow has been successful and he has received very positive signals from the Russian leadership to sustain the stability of the kingdom and avoid any endeavors to drag the Middle East into regional war.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/18/Did-Jordan-king-visit-Moscow-to-avert-disaster-in-the-region-.html

Monday, 19 February 2018 21:33

Russia plays kingmaker in the Middle East

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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

The tune heard from the American administration and its Envoy Jason Greenblat in the last two weeks, includes two messages which are as follows: Any plan that we present will be for implementation, and not for negotiations. Also if the Palestinians want a capital in Jerusalem then they should go an build it the same as Israel built its Jerusalem.

The first message is clear: We do, and not just saying:In this regard our decision regarding Jerusalem was followed by other acts, such as cutting the support from the UNRWA, and other acts will follow.

The second message, is a call to the Palestinians to design and put in the ground their facts, not only as what Israel is doing, but also as the United States itself is doing as the first message bluntly telling.
The hurdles confronting the Palestinians to create their facts are very huge, and in regard to creating facts in the ground in Jerusalem their hands look to be completely tied. Nevertheless the PLO Central Council took decisions in its 15th of last of January meeting regarding Jerusalem, these were included in article 3:3, with five components that can be translated as follows:
“- Providing with all the requirements for steadfastness to our people in Jerusalem, and develop a comprehensive program to promote This steadfastness in all fields.
- support their struggle against the judaization of the city.
- Increase the national cohesion among the Palestinians in Jerusalem under a one united leadership.
-The creation of a United
- The formation of Amanat Al Quds ( The Palestinian Municipality of Jerusalem) according to an appropriate and nationally agreed upon democratic and representative formula.
- Calling upon the Arab and the Islamic counties to fulfill their obligations in regard to Jerusalem”.
These resolutions are self explanatory. The problem is in implementetion, and the question is if there is a political will to derail Trump decision about Jerusalem, or just it is suffice to battle against it in the international and regional arenas in addition to keep initiating days of rage to express what is called as” Shouting in the history instead of changing it”?

To derail the American decision regarding Jerusalem another way of handling matters will be needed. In this regard we have a time ceiling till the end of 2019 when the American Embassy will be fully moved to Jerusalem. This gives us around two years to work in derailing the step, and in this period a lot can be done within a systematic plan for derailing. Some of the actions that can be done include the implementation of the Palestinian Central Council resolutions regarding Jerusalem, building Palestinian facts in the ground with an international support in East Jerusalem and area C, and rebuilding Gaza in order to show that the Palestinian side is functioning and capable, boycott the Israeli products, the investemets in Israel and the work in the settlements. Conduct creative Palestinian non violent activities to sustain Palestinian villages as it is the example of Al Aqaba village close to Jenin.

Jerusalem wise other key initiatives can be done, starting with building on the international consensus that we have against the President Trump decision about it,and build on that support towards more acheivements to Jerusalem. To be also added parts of those points mentioned above, and others by making the world as a whole the courtyard for the struggle for Jerusalem by doing many things such as going once and again and again without getting tired to each capital in the world asking for recognition of Palestine and Jerusalem as its capital, using the good offices of our Ambassadors , and the Palestinian communities in each country to lobby for that in coopration with the civil society organizations and grassroots movements in the world countries. Besides that go to the UN again and again with new resolutions and propositions, and communicate intensively with the international diplomatic missions to Palestine to influence their countries positions, and to get their suppport to the creation of Palestinian facts in the ground in East Jerusalem, area C, and Gaza Strip.
Work with the key Arab and Islamic countries to coordinate steps in the international arena together, and to bring their support to Jerusalem.
In the United States itself: Make appeals againdt Trump decision to the American courts from Americans, American Jews, and Arabs and Muslims, and also from Americans who are originally from Jerusalem. Communicate intensively with the Republic Party members, the Congress members, and the American think tanks. Address the American people by the American media..etc.

This list above is far from being comprehensive, a lot can be added to it, and it is also can be modified. It is presented only in order to show that there are another way around if the political will to do it is present. Can we?

Article published in Akhbar Al Balad

Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Pool via AP

The Middle East has undergone major vicissitudes following the “Arab Spring” demonstrations. The Mideast is one of the most important regions in the world and the stability of which is mandatory to peace and stability in the world. Since 2011, the Middle East has entered a state of uncertainty with many conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other states that are apt to witness internal wars.

Nowadays, tension is on the rise between Turkey and Egypt on energy resources in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, relations between Ankara and Cairo after Egyptian foreign ministry’s statement regarding Turkish rejection of the agreement signed between Cyprus and Egypt in 2013 rings an alarm bell. Egyptian statement reads: "Any attempt to prejudice or undermine Egypt's sovereign rights in its economic zones in the Middle East is rejected and will be countered.”

 Agreement equals access

The Egyptians believe that the agreement signed with Greek Cypriots gives Cairo access to an area in East Mediterranean that is of particular interest for hydrocarbon companies since the discovery of the huge Zohr gas fields in 2015, while Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Çavusoglu contested the deal, declaring that Turkish Cypriots had been unfairly prevented from claiming their “inalienable rights to the natural resources” around the island, and revealed Turkish plans to begin exploration in the area.

As long as Ankara does not recognize the demarcation of the border signed between Egypt and Cyprus in 2013, describing it as illegal, the region is once again turning towards a new approach of belligerence and rivalry. And the reason is gas politics. The same applies to the gas fields between Israel and Lebanon.

Such a sudden escalation of tension between Egypt and Turkey is a sign of a blow to the efforts to abate any militarization of the Mediterranean Sea as this would be the ignition for other regional and international wars.

Gas exploration

On February 5, 2017 the Turkish Foreign Minister announced that his country plans to start oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean soon in the areas at the continental shelf at latitudes 32, 16 and 18 degrees. The Turkish minister issued an implicit message to both Cairo and Nicosia, saying: “No foreign entity, company or even ship can carry out any illegal scientific research or exploration for oil and gas in the continental shelf of Turkey and the maritime region.” On the other hand, the Egyptian side sees its full right to defend its interests according to the agreement it deems perfectly legal. The Turkish government believes that the Greek Cypriot cannot unilaterally adopt laws regarding the exploitation of natural resources on behalf of the whole Cypriots.

The Eastern Mediterranean is expected to witness wars on gas and oil between Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Greece in territorial waters. In July 2017, Ankara reacted strongly to the Greek Cypriots when they started to drill for gas. As a result, the Turkish army dispatched a frigate in the Eastern Mediterranean to monitor a drilling ship that is believed to have begun searching for oil and gas off in spite of Turkish government’s rejection, considering it as a hostile act.

When Egyptian president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi paid a visit last November to Cyprus, he had talks with Greek Cypriot officials on gas and oil resources in the region. Tensions since then started to amount, with both Turkey and Egypt blaming each other of interfering in the other’s internal affairs. 

It is expected that Ankara would resort to legal proceedings to nullify the agreement because of what it called “violation” of the continental shelf. 

– Shehab Al Makahleh

 Nowadays, a drill ship is exploring for oil and gas in the region. Turkey sounds unhappy with the agreement between Italy, Greece and Israel to construct a gas pipeline from East Mediterranean to Europe at a cost of US$6 billion. This would ignite another tension, with Italy being party of it.

Why war is shimmering in the Mediterranean? 

Political differences are the preponderant factor determining relations between countries and intimidating to bring about instability and chaos to the region with acts of hostilities caused by race toward gas and oil reserves. The Eastern Mediterranean basin is one of the most affluent areas with natural resources, the most important of which is natural gas. An American study conducted in 2010 shows the gas reserves in this region are estimated at 345 trillion cubic feet. The region also contains 3.4 billion barrel of oil reserves. As long as there is no mutual cooperation between the countries concerned due to demarcation issue, any war would break out any moment and the region is becoming a time bomb.

What do Ankara and Cairo want?

It is expected that Ankara would resort to legal proceedings to nullify the agreement because of what it called “violation” of the continental shelf. The Turkish moves are likely to disrupt the efforts of Egypt and Greece to conclude a maritime demarcation agreement.

With regard to the economic crisis facing Egypt since 2011, Cairo is prudent to finish the demarcation issue with Greece and Cyprus in order to avoid any rift with Turkey. Since Cyprus has also signed another agreement with Israel, the ghost of war is chasing the countries in the Middle East. In the past, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was procrastinating to discuss the issue of gas and oil agreements with Greece and Cyprus until the dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus is over as he was considering this conflict a “political headache.”

Gas diplomacy might seem germane regarding Israel’s ties with Arab neighbours. The state of suspicion between Israel and Arab neighbors would lead to skirmishes on this basin as it could be a strategic alternative to Russian Liquefied Natural Gas which is exported to Europe. This justifies why China and Russia are playing a pivotal role in Syria today which has a huge natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey are flaunting their emerging energy dexterity as a prospective weapon as each of them draws a plan to have the upper hand in the region and play a pivotal role in shaping the Middle East’s political scene.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/10/Gas-and-oil-diplomacy-in-Eastern-Mediterranean-prelude-to-regional-war.html

Saturday, 10 February 2018 18:14

Can Geneva build on Syrian peace talks in Sochi?

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Russia's recent Syrian National Dialogue Congress elicited rather strong, mixed reactions. Admirers of Russian foreign policy hail the event as a triumph for Moscow, calling it another testament to the country’s ability to overcome notoriously difficult problems no one else can manage. But critics deem the Sochi conference a major setback, highlighting the limits of Russian influence in the Middle East.

Both sides are wrong.

It wasn't a triumph; rather, it was a resolution of the specific issues identified. It wasn't a defeat, but a demonstration of the boundaries of attempts to end Syria's seven-year civil war.

Let's recall that Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced the idea for the congress in October 2017 in an address at the annual Valdai Discussion Club conference. At that time, however, it wasn't entirely clear what he meant by the “scheduled event in Sochi."

The information that surfaced in the media or came from Kremlin experts in the following months did little to clarify the case. Different dates and locations were announced, a list of participants was made public only to disappear sometime later and the name of the event changed. Some said Putin needed the congress ahead of the 2018 presidential elections. Others believed Moscow intended to announce the end of the conflict and wrap up the peace settlement. Many feared the Sochi negotiation process would detract from the Geneva format.

Undoubtedly, the Kremlin took care to organize media coverage of the congress, held Jan. 29-30 in Sochi. However, it wasn't described as an important element of the presidential campaign. Actually, even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's statement shortly before the congress highlighted Russia’s moderate expectations about the event. Moreover, the Sochi venue was never a substitute for the Geneva peace process. On the contrary, the commitment to the UN-backed negotiations and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 — a timeline and structural guide for the Syrian peace process — became a major part of the congress’ official discourse. It appears the organizers tried to reflect the wishes of Syrian society and international players to reach an agreement.

Those who are serious about successful peace-building urgently need to make the Geneva process work. One example of this urgency can be seen in the de-escalation zones established in peace talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan. The zones emerged as relatively effective instruments for reducing violence on the ground at first. However, they have failed to achieve the stated objective of revitalizing the Geneva talks. Their limits are becoming clear, and they appear to be gradually losing their effectiveness, as evidenced by the fierce fighting in eastern Ghouta, Idlib and Afrin. Disagreements between the guarantor countries — Iran, Turkey and Russia — and some revenge-seeking players who want their pound of flesh will make it even harder for the cease-fire program to hold. At the same time, the nascent institutions of self-government, independent from Damascus, may ultimately transform the de-escalation zones into Kurdish-style quasi-states.

The Geneva program's ineffectiveness so far seems linked to how the warring parties perceive the situation.

The Syrian government, which has emerged as a strong player on the ground, doesn't really find it necessary to reach common ground with the opposition. Time is on Damascus’ side.

At the same time, the opposition is going to be even less disposed to engage in dialogue with the regime. Opposition leaders, who are incapable of winning the war, are at a crossroads. Some may agree on a limited and uneasy compromise, which Damascus still needs, to improve their international standing. For others, however, this is a forbidden path. Thus, they will have to adopt an increasingly rigid stance and wait for the second stage of the conflict to come after they have opted out of the game for some time. The failure to overhaul the country’s political system keeps the conflict going. Finally, others again derive far more benefits from the peace process than from its potential end. Under such circumstances, they are interested in endless foot-dragging over the issue.

Thus, Syrian society and international mediators — first and foremost Russia — are the only parties really pushing toward ending the conflict quickly.

By convening the congress, Moscow naturally sought to reassert its status as an indispensable mediator whose creativity and flexibility could help in most difficult situations. In the meantime, the participation of Turkey and Iran ensured the organizers' impartiality and allowed for strengthening the uneasy tripartite alliance.

Some 1,500 Syrians who arrived Jan. 29 in Sochi represented the civil society of the Syrian ethnic, religious and tribal groups; various political forces; and external and internal opposition, including the armed opposition.

Some groups, however, were not present. Representatives of the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party failed to come because of Turkey’s implacable position. The regime wasn't represented; President Bashar al-Assad felt it would be inappropriate to attend, as he obviously considers his government to be legitimate.

A large part of the High Negotiations Committee refrained from attending the event. Two dozen of the group's 34 members voted against going, though several still went.

Shortly before the main session, some opposition representatives walked out; they reportedly had been promised that all regime flags and emblems would be removed from the venue ahead of time, but those symbols remained. After the delegation left, Turkey agreed to represent the group's interests.

The decisions not to participate seem ill-conceived, given that UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attended. His presence was expected to give international legitimacy to the event. Opposition members who turned down the invitation opened themselves up to accusations that they were unwilling to contribute to the peace settlement.

The absence of some prominent Syrian forces deprived the assembly of its desire to project inclusivity but didn't render the event irrelevant. The congress was not conceived as a political negotiation; it was merely a get-together of different forces of civil society whose consolidated position could give fresh impetus to the peace process. In addition, some participants told Al-Monitor that many of those who intended to come had been threatened or otherwise pressured into abandoning the idea.

The organizers believed the agenda would focus on a number of items: drafting a new constitution, setting the stage for general elections under UN supervision, addressing humanitarian problems and developing a long-term comprehensive reconstruction program for Syria. However, the discussion revolved predominantly around a constitution.

Even before the start, it was known that the congress was due to adopt two documents. The first was a final communique compiled on the basis of the Naumkin document, a number of proposed basic principles of an inter-Syrian settlement named for Vitaly Naumkin, the head of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and an Al-Monitor contributor. The second item was an appeal to the world community regarding the urgent need to resolve the humanitarian crisis and move toward conflict settlement and Syria’s restoration. In addition, plans were made public to create special working groups and a constitutional commission whose work would help boost the Geneva process.

The blueprints of the documents, as well as the proposals regarding the commission, had been drafted in advance. However, the composition and the underlying principle for the constitutional commission aroused fierce controversies among the participants. As a result, the compromise reached by midnight included a list of 150 candidates — 100 from the government and 50 from the opposition — for the constitutional commission, while de Mistura was empowered to adjust the proposed list at his sole discretion in the interests of the settlement.

The final agreement can't be called a breakthrough, but it is the most notable result of the settlement efforts over the last year. The problem, however, is that even though the agreement was more comprehensive and had more signatures in its support than previous efforts, it's completely unclear how it would be able to make the negotiations in Geneva work, given the continued conflict among the parties' true interests.

Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/02/syria-settlement-process-next-sochi-russia.html

Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday, 07 February 2018 18:23

Russia and Israel: trust despite disagreements

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There is a high degree of trust in the Russian-Israeli relations, Valdai Club expert Irina Zvyagelskaya believes. “We have disagreements on Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But we can maintain good relations despite these disagreements and understand each other’s concerns,” she said in an interview with valdaiclub.com.

On January 29, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu’s aide Zeev Elkin described the trip as “very important.” “As always, such visits are very effective and, as always, effectiveness is due to the fact that the content of the talks remains between the two leaders,” he said in an interview with the Israeli Russian-language Ninth Channel. In turn, Russian president’s aide Yuri Ushakov said that the two leaders discussed bilateral relations and regional problems, including the Syrian settlement.

“The situation in Syria was discussed in several aspects indeed,” Irina Zvyagelskaya, chief researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with valdaiclub.com. “One aspect is our interaction, prevention of incidents. There is exchange of information between the military structures and this is of great importance for both sides. But the role of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria remains a much more painful issue for Israel. Israel maintains a very tough stance on this issue, fearing Iran’s strengthening near its borders.”

Because of the Hezbollah presence on the Lebanese-Israeli border, Israel has been saying for a long time that Iran is in his backyard, Zvyagelskaya stressed. Moreover, Israel and the Islamic movement have reached a level of mutual deterrence, which is unique in such an asymmetric conflict with military formations of Hezbollah not being a regular army.

According to Zvyagelskaya, “Israel’s top priority is its own security. It seeks to protect itself with methods it considers acceptable, and wants to have as few restrictions as possible in this regard,” she said.

“For our part, Russia cannot and should not become part of the complex system of regional relations,” Zvyagelskaya stressed. “We should resist attempts to make us part of the contradictions that exist there. Our position is that we are interested in stabilization in Syria and preservation of its statehood, that the country should not again turn into a hotbed of international terrorism.”

Another important aspect of the visit was, according to the expert, the fact that Netanyahu and Putin took part in events dedicated to the Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad. “Israel is categorically against rewriting the results of the World War II, and pays tribute to the Red Army and heroism of Soviet people during the war,” she said. “On this, we find a common language, especially because Red Army veterans who fought during the war still live in Israel.”

According to Zvyagelskaya, there is a high degree of trust in the two states’ relations. “We have disagreements on Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But we can maintain good relations despite these disagreements and understand each other’s concerns,” she concluded.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/russia-and-israel-trust-disagreements/

Photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS

ey has sought to exploit the Qatar dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to grab a historic opportunity in the region. The dreams of a strong, regional Turkey necessitates great financial capabilities that cannot be achieved in light of the decline of the Turkish economy and its suffering from several crises, especially with its strained relations with the USA. Thus, Turkish President Erdogan found his relations with Qatar and Russia a decisive solution to Ankara’s financial problems.

Turkey has maintained its footprint in the region and has expanded its influence in 2011, principally with the historical opportunity of the so-called "Arab Spring" in the Middle East, which was exploited by many countries including Turkey and Iran. As for Turkey, the Arab Spring has enabled political Islam Movements (Muslim Brotherhood) to jump to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and Ankara has become the major supporter of these movements. On the other hand, Iran has benefitted from the demonstrations in the Arab World to have a say in the region and to expand its influence as well.

Turkey has intervened vigorously in many regional crises in order to achieve its objectives and interests in the beginning with full support from the United States of America with which it has strategic relations until both Washington and Ankara had taken a new approach after Turkey had chosen to form its foreign policy that serve its own interests, deviating away from the course that was drawn for the country for many years.

Turkey's involvement in the Middle East has increased due to its effective use of soft power, such as the public debate between Erdogan and the then Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos a few years ago, the flotilla incident, and Turkey's support for some Arab demonstrations, including those of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as Syria.

The Cold War has largely defined Turkey's strategic perspective vis-à-vis the Middle East in general and the Arab world in particular. Ankara's strategic perspective to limit the influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East has been shaped. The Arab Nationalist trend was also a means of supporting the influence of the Soviet Union in the region. This view was formed according to the perspective of the Western Camp to ensure the flow of oil from the Middle East region in a safe way to world markets. At that stage, Turkey has adopted a Western Camp stand.

Two political tremors

Since the end of the 1980s, changes in Turkish politics have been clear as there have been international and regional transformation as well which had driven Ankara to change its foreign policy. This has affected Turkey's view of the Middle East after the end of the bipolar world in the aftermath of the Cold War. There were two political tremors that have affected the Middle East since 1980-1990s: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf crisis.

Turkey was deeply affected by these tremors, and the Gulf War increased Turkey's interest in the Middle East. Everyone is aware of the importance of the region; mainly Iraq and Syria for Turkey. The Turkish government has started to consider how to develop a new vision that better serves its interests in the Middle East.

Turkey has abandoned its defense policy after 2011, years after the adoption of "zero problems" policy. The godfather of this policy is Ahmet Davutoglu, former Turkish prime minister. Turkey is no longer waiting for the problems of the region to come to its borders, but rather it is acting to defend itself as the Turkish foreign policy stipulates. Davutoglu said on October 19, 2016: "As of now we will not wait for problems, we will not wait for the terrorist organizations to attack us, but we will attack the areas where these organizations are hiding, and we will destroy their bases over their heads and we will uproots of all parties supporting them."

That is the policy adopted for their attack on Afrin and even beyond Afrin that would take them to Idlib and east to the Iraqi borders. Turkey saw the attack as the best way to defend itself and contribute to the formulation of new maps instead of being imposed on Ankara, especially after the attempted coup d'état in mid-July 2016. This has been the justification for the Turkish parliament to approve military operations outside Turkish borders, chiefly in Syria and Iraq for an additional year.

The Turkish moves in the context of the Turkish foreign defense policy, which Ankara has adopted recently to protect its national interests, are based on its belief that soft power is no longer effective to achieve its external ambitions, especially in light of the competition between regional and international powers. Therefore, Turkey has incepted to activate its military tools for several reasons as follows:

First, the desire to open up new markets for Turkish weapons. Turkish military industries rose in 2015 to reach $4.3 billion, of which $ 1.3 billion was exported. Second, the new military tool aims to strengthen its presence in the Arab region and Africa by controlling the international crossings to protect its economic interests and national security interests from any regional or international interventions or sanctions that would be imposed in the future on Turkey as a result of its foreign policies. Third, the other motive is the desire to participate in the international coalition against terrorism not only to counter the threat of terrorists near its borders, but to stop the expansion of Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria for fear of independence.

Moreover, Turkey has the intention to besiege its enemies in their areas of influence and to cut off all logistic support for them that some regional and international powers are extending. Besides, Turkey is keeping abreast regional and international moves towards the region in order to limit its future negative repercussions on Turkish power, particularly in light of mounting Iranian and Russian dominance.

These Turkish accounts would put Ankara in the circle of friction with Russia and the US at a time the world is passing through a new type of Cold War and the Middle East is passing through its Cold War as well with many alliances and axes being formed. On the issue of the Kurds, Turkey has a spat with Washington regarding the future of the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. While Ankara is moving to prevent the Kurds from strengthening their power and influence, especially in the areas near Turkish borders, Washington regards them as a key ally in its strategy to counter extremism and terrorism; this justifies why the Americans provide the Kurds with weapons and help train them.

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/02/03/Turkish-foreign-policy-From-defensive-to-offensive.html

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

Sunday, 04 February 2018 23:16

Jordan’s foreign policy message from Davos

Written by

It is palpable that a nation’s foreign policy mirrors its political leaders’ perspectives and views. These are a product of internal and external factors that influence political orientations in relations with other countries and international organizations.

Jordan, like other Mideast countries, has always been inclined to its geopolitical environment, international relations, and causes and effects of its geographical, demographic and economic situations which include among others national wealth, foreign aid and socio-economic changes.

Among the major challenges that have been facing Jordan are the Zionist projects and their risk on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as on Jordan. Jordan's foreign policy depends on its geography and geostrategic location. It also depends on the positions of major powers and axes. This confirms Jordan's continued need to balance its foreign relations network with the aim of achieving its political stability in line with its leadership strategy.

Since his assumption of constitutional powers, King Abdullah II has been striving to strengthen Jordan’s political and economic relations with other countries. Jordan, too, has a geographical location located between strong Arab forces: Saudi Arabia in the south, Iraq in the east and Syria in the north, and these countries are of great importance. Its adjacency to Palestine is also critical and is one of the challenges to the countries national security.

Determinants of Jordanian foreign policies:

Jordan has a high percentage of educated citizens. Since many of them work overseas and in other countries of the region, this affects the decision making process in the kingdom. Any decision would affect the Jordanian labor force in other countries due to kingdom’s stances vis-à-vis certain issues and causes including the recent developments in the question of Jerusalem when American President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as capital of Israel. In other words, Jordan balances out its policies to ease tension that would affect its human resources in other countries.

Moreover, the structure of Jordan’s population has a significant impact on Jordan's foreign policy. Since Jordan is scarce with its economic resources, it depends on assistance from foreign countries. That limits and restricts decision-making in the country and poses a major challenge on its leadership. The religious ideology of the Jordanian leadership and its doctrine regarding the Christian and Muslim Holy Sites in Jerusalem have given Jordan an important weight in the region. This justifies why King Abdullah denounced Trump’s decision regarding Jerusalem.

Though there is a growing polarization in the Arab arena, Jordan is watching attentively to set its own directions. 

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

Though Jordan cannot do much about the American decision, the kingdom orchestrates to clarify the Jordanian stand regarding the holy sites in Jerusalem.

This is clear when the king said on Thursday at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos: “Jerusalem is a city that ends up dividing us, which I think will be catastrophic for mankind, or is it a city of hope that brings us together.”

The king voiced Jordan’s support for resolving the status quo of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Some analysts believe that Jordan's foreign policy recently shifted from the role of competition with other regional countries to seeking national interests while moving with a quick dynamic to keep up with world changes. The political equation is that Jordan is fighting in order to preserve its survival and existence. It does not replace its old allies with new ones; it balances out its policies. The kingdom is striving to secure economic and water supplies necessary for the country’s progress and development.

Symbol of moderation

The king’s speeches in the US Congress, in the European Union as well as the United Nations, have always depicted a moderate Jordan, based on understanding of international and regional variables. The king, who leads the Jordanian foreign policy, links the history of Jordan with the modernity of the country that shape its identity when he speaks with other world leaders. This is how he promotes opportunities in the country at the international level. He usually interacts with Western decision-making circles. Many people wonder about the frequent visits of His Majesty to Washington and London. The reason is that further clarification leads to more communication and cooperation.

Jordanians believe that the Hashemite family is the true wealth of Jordan. Though there is a growing polarization in the Arab arena, Jordan is watching attentively to set its directions. This justifies why the king said in Davos that there is a need to reserve judgement on the future of the two-state solution until the United States presents its proposed peace deal.

To conclude, Jordan, globally and regionally, is viewed as a symbol of moderation. The kingdom is the most committed state to international obligations and a very good example of inter-cooperation. The Middle East has been, until this moment, a zone of influence for the great powers. In Jordan, when talking about politics, the focus is on the character of the king who formulates this policy and decision making. Furthermore, Jordanian foreign policy is governed by a combination of internal and external factors that interact with each other. Thus, Jordan is governed by a set of objectives. First, maintaining stability for the country is a priority. Second, the balance of policies with other Arab states to be able to respond to every change, movement or transformation. Third, respect for the sovereignty of all states in the world, the inadmissibility of interfering in internal affairs, and also full compliance to all treaties and conventions. 

Article published in Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/01/28/Jordan-s-foreign-policy-message-from-Davos-.html

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