Thursday, 15 March 2018 23:16

Major powers step up battle for Africa

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article published in Arab News:

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article published in Arab News:

Published in Tribune

On March 18, Russians will go through the process of (re)electing their president Vladimir Putin for a fourth term as recent polls forecast. This foreseeable victory is not only affecting Russia but rather the world including the Middle East region which is close geographically to Russia.

Russian-Arab relations are one of the most important pillars of the Kremlin’s foreign policy which hinges on political, economic and military instruments. The Middle East has become the base from which the rules of the new world order will be launched pursuant to the major powers’ interests, and the race between these supremacies to play the most prominent role in the Arab region will shape the Russian coming role in the next six years.

To achieve Russian goals in the region, the Kremlin will focus on strategically exhausting Washington in the Middle East by dragging it into proxy wars and demonstrations in various places that affect its world reputation. Though Moscow realizes that the Americans regard the Russian army as second in power to their forces; nevertheless, Russia refuses to remain a second class world force and insists on the necessity to reshape the world’s balance of power.

Russian presidential elections, unlike US elections, do not receive wide attention at the official and popular levels in the Arab world. This can be understood in light of the concerns of Arab peoples in general as most of the Middle East countries are western-oriented.

However, the Russian elections are very important for the rest of the world as the winner in the coming elections will shape the relations not only between Moscow and Washington but also between Russia and other regional powers including China.

At present, the Kremlin is giving due importance to the Middle East as it gives to Europe, the US and China in terms of foreign policy. Moscow’s pullout from the Middle East in 1991 marked the demise of the Soviet Union, as a superpower, which has taken Putin more than a decade to restore political and military status of his country back on track.

Russia’s comeback as a pivotal player in the Middle East will target restoring Moscow’s position as a prodigious supremacy coming to the region which the Mideast has already witnessed with Russian army’s intervention in Syria in September 2015. When the Arab Spring erupted, the region has become a testing ground for Russia to return to the global arena through the Middle East gate.

Thus, the coming victory of Putin will help establish Russian influence outside the Russian frontiers to extend to the world’s most capricious regions. The Kremlin will proceed with containing and diminishing extremism and fanaticism in the Middle East that would, had Russia not intervened, expand into its territories and even to former republics in Central Asia and in the Caucasus.

Middle East has become the base from which the rules of the new world order will be launched pursuant to the major powers’ interests

– Shehab Al-Makahleh

Cementing partnerships with the Middle East

The Kremlin again views Russia as a great power on a global scale, and as such it cannot ignore a region so close geographically, so rich in hydrocarbons, and so insecure socially and politically as the Middle East.

The new Russian tactic will be to support friendly regimes in the region and set up long-term geopolitical coalitions with endeavours to have a military presence in the region with new bases that would include Lebanon, Algeria, Mauritania and Sudan.

The strategy of Russia in the coming era will boost the sales of conventional arms, nuclear agreements for peaceful purposes, and oil and gas deals. Moscow will strive to attract foreign investments from China and the Middle East.

Russia between 2018-2024

Unlike the Soviet era in which Moscow was in support of all revolutions and national liberation movements in the world, Russia did not openly support the revolutions and the revolutionaries in any Arab country. Moscow has remained silent about the Arab Spring until the political scene has become clear. By then, Russia has expressed support for the Syrian regime after four years of civil war.

However, the Kremlin has been keen to maintain open channels of communication with the rebels in a bid to achieve the greatest possible balance, voicing concern for the internal and regional stability of the Arab states. In the coming era, Putin will engineer a Syrian peace deal, expand relations with Tehran and bolster ties with Iraq, Qatar, Oman, Sudan, Algeria, Mauritania, and Tunisia. 

However, Moscow will also benefit from its rapprochement with Turkey and Iran and build on its strong ties with Jordan as a key player to the Syrian conflict. The Kremlin will improve relations with Egypt and the Kurds to craft an alignment of partners vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia.

In 2011, the Gulf states and a number of other Arab countries welcomed the Russian stand regarding the Arab Spring. The differences in perspectives with Russians were only in the Syrian case where the Arab and Russian positions differed in light of Russian support for the Assad regime. In all cases, there was no official Arab condemnation of the Russian stand as Russia has been rejecting external interference in Syrian internal affairs.

Over the terms of Putin’s presidency, he is slated to re-launch new forms of cooperation with Moscow’s traditional partners in the Arab world on new bases, and the forefront of these countries will be Syria, Iraq and Lebanon as they are very close to Russian boundaries. Furthermore, he will set up plans to improve conditional Russian-Gulf relations.

Traditionally Russia hasn’t had a special policy toward the Gulf states. The main determinant has been the strategic interest and the pragmatic approach because the Russian influence in the Gulf is determined by American impact in the same region as the Kremlin deals with the Gulf States separately, without considering them as one bloc.

The Russian approach in the Arab region is not restricted to political gains or to play a security or military roles to compete with the Americans, but rather Moscow is seeking strategic economic and technical partnership that secures direct economic returns to Russia in fields such as energy sector and military cooperation. The Russian president seeks to guarantee a minimum price for oil and gas and to increase sales of Russian arms to the Middle East.

The Russian political administration would seek to open up to various countries, especially the countries of the Middle East to boost its trilateral axis (Russia, China, India) with a new diplomacy based on enhancing its role as a mediator acceptable to all parties in resolving international and regional conflicts and crises.

Because the Middle East represents a belt that surrounds the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, which Russia considers a vital area, Kremlin has been driven to do the utmost to prevent any threat from the Mideast region by launching preventive measures and pre-emptive procedures.

Article published in Al Arabiya:

Published in Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

 – Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

Article published in Arab News:

Published in Tribune

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:

Published in Tribune
Monday, 19 February 2018 21:33

Russia plays kingmaker in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article published in Arab News:

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 07 February 2018 18:23

Russia and Israel: trust despite disagreements

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

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 “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:


Published in Tribune

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Maria Dubovikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, held in Sochi on January 29-30, showed that the Syrian society is ready for reconciliation, says Valdai Club expert Academician Vitaly Naumkin,  research director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. According to him, the Congress, which has been recognized by the UN, reinforces the negotiation process in Geneva and gives it a new impetus.

For the first time the idea to hold the National Dialogue Congress of the Syrian people, where all ethnic and religious groups of the country, representatives of the government and the opposition would take part, was voiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2017. According to Vitaly Naumkin, this event, unprecedented in its scope, summed up the results of the successful military campaign that culminated by the defeat of terrorists in Syria and marked the launch of a national dialogue.

"There is a hope that this national dialogue will continue in Syria itself and those people, who came to Sochi and for the first time sat next to each other in the same hall, will continue to maintain contacts," he said in a telephone interview with on January 30. – “They demonstrated, and this is, perhaps, the main result, that the Syrian society is ready for reconciliation. And Russia did it! Properly Russia was able to gather in one hall people who are in an acute conflict among themselves ".

At the same time Naumkin stressed the importance of coordinated efforts of the three guarantor states of the Astana peace process. "It is very important that the triumvirate of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the guarantor countries, succeeded and ensured the successful holding of the Congress," he said.

According to Naumkin, the discussion was stormy, tense, but nevertheless there were no serious clashes, which allowed to achieve the set of goals and objectives. "There was a lot of controversy - especially on the decisions that Congress ultimately took after all," the expert said. - This is primarily the Final Document and the Address of the Congress to the world community. It is shorter than the Final Document and concerns the problems of Syria's reconstruction, the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria and so on. But the most important thing is, of course, the confirmation of all the obligations undertaken by the organizers to hold this fateful, unusual phenomenon in the history of Russia, in the history of our peacekeeping, our diplomatic and military activities."

One of the main results of the Congress, according to Vitaly Naumkin, is the creation of the Constitutional Committee. "The work on the next steps to launch the process of constitutional reform, as well as work on the final formation of the Constitutional Committee will continue through the United Nations," he stressed.

Of particular importance is the fact that the Congress gained legitimacy by the international community through the participation of Staffan De Mistura, special envoy of the UN Secretary-General. In his address to the Congress De Mistura thanked the Russian Federation for the invitation and noted the importance of the elections of the Constitutional Committee. He promised to inform about the next steps to be taken by the United Nations and its general secretary, Naumkin said. "Most importantly, the National Dialogue Congress in Sochi reinforces the negotiation process in Geneva, gives it a new impetus," the expert said. "There is a hope that, as the UN special envoy said, this process will be successful and that the Syrian society will move along the path of national reconciliation."

According to Naumkin, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress caused great resonance in the world. This is evidenced by the wide presence of the media and representatives of interested states. "Judging by what we hear right now, everyone marks the significance of the Congress and the fact that it really took place. Of course, there are ill-wishers who question the achieved progress, but their voice is not dominant.  Today, no one can deny that the Congress will contribute to the settlement of the Syrian crisis," the expert concluded.

Article published in Valdai Club:

Photo credit: Sputnik/Mikhail Voskresensky

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