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How the E.U Can Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has almost but disappeared from headlines. Only a bloody war in Gaza or a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv grabs the world’s attention. Supporters of a peace-deal have grown frustrated at the lack of diplomatic progress, both on the ground and internationally.

Since the spectacularly failed effort of U.S. Secretary Kerry in 2013, a somber mood hangs over the conflict. In Israel a surreal status-quo has settled in: life goes on as normal, as if one of the most intractable conflicts was not happening right in their midst. Indeed, peace in the region has never seemed so out of reach.

But this week, Al-Monitor reported that unnamed European officials where busy with a policy review that planned for an eventual E.U. diplomatic push for peace. This would be a first for the Union, who until now has never dared to venture in the region’s politics. One explanation was its utter lack of leverage over Israel, creating an utterly irrelevant mediating position. In the coming weeks, the E.U. will vote on imposing an embargo on Israeli goods coming from settlements, showing a more assertive approach to the Palestinian conflict. But invariably, while creating some sort of leverage, it is a position that chooses sides as well. Meanwhile, expect some diplomatic initiatives coming from the External Action Service. Should and can the E.U. achieve peace? Is it a Mission Impossible doomed from the start? Let us investigate the obstacles to peace the E.U. will face, and how to overcome them.

Assessing Positions of Strength, the Kissinger Way

Henry Kissinger, writing in his seminal ‘Diplomacy’, offers a lucid insight into what makes negotiations fail or succeed: bringing North Vietnam to the negotiating table proved impossible for years as the North Vietnamese had the upper hand on the battlefield, creating a formidable position of strength, which in effect meant that a diplomatic deal for them was utterly meaningless. The ensuing strategy of president Nixon and secretary Nixon was to significantly weaken Hanoi, until the parties were somewhat more equal. Only then could a negotiation work. As Kissinger taught, positions of strength need to be assessed if one does not want a diplomatic effort spectacularly failed from the start.

That is something Mr. Kerry could have taken note of when he started his diplomatic Middle East shuttle in 2012. Israel’s militarily superiority is clear, which is one obvious position of strength: the Palestinians do not pose a credible conventional threat. However, a more important position of strength for Israel is its economic blockade it imposed on Gaza and the West Bank, creating a stranglehold on the Palestinian economy. The Palestinian economy stands or falls with Israel’s approval. There is nothing to balance this position of strength.

And while the state of Israel is a fully functioning one, Palestine is mired in severe underdevelopment, corruption, and nepotism, according to international reports. Israel’s superior infrastructure, its sound economy, its institutional strength, its military superiority and its veto over the Palestinian economy make for the most unequal of state relationships. Israel has strong positions of strength. Another core strength is its political leverage in the United States. No U.S. president has been capable of withstanding the pressures of a powerful pro-Israel lobby excelling in the art of influencing Congress. (As a result, the U.S. can and is not a neutral mediator, even if it is desperate to present itself as such.)

We can be very short on Palestine’s positions of strength. Apart from terrorist threats and rocket attacks, there is no single position of strength. The sole leverage that remains for Palestinians is the framing of the conflict in human rights: their right to self-determination, dignity, an end to occupation. Although largely a successful strategy in Europe, it has only created the occasional PR headache for Israel. Nothing more. It is a framing strategy that has no impact on the ground. As long as Israel feels strong, the argument that a situation is unjust will by itself change nothing.

What does this all mean to the E.U.’s External Action Service? If you want an genuine peace deal that holds, make sure the parties become more equal, or any talks will prove meaningless.

Search For Internal Incentives

However positive or negative the strength assessment, the critical driver for any negotiation is an incentive for both parties to reach a settlement. Let this be clear: we are talking about internal incentives, not a stick-and-carrot approach. Do the parties possess internal incentives that drive them towards finding a solution? Is a deal less costly than the current situation? If so, good news for the E.U.’s mediator: it will not be too difficult to get talks started.

When one visits Israel, one notices how ordinary, calm and efficient everything goes. It could be Switzerland, only hotter. Indeed, today’s status-quo is perfectly livable for Israelis. The Palestinian issue does not hamper its functions as a state; its citizens are able to build a decent life; the economy is doing pretty fine. Best of all for the right-wing government, the Palestinian issue does not figure prominently in the Israeli media. Housing shortages and internal government squabbles do. A recent Al-Monitor report cited a survey that showed Israelis had never been happier. Costs of maintaining the status-quo? Nil, apart from the occasional international condemnation. Political costs of a peace-deal for Israel? Considerable, given the concessions needed. Incentives to answer an invitation for a round of peace talks? None, except courtesy.

For Palestine, incentives are high: official recognition of a state; a stronger economy; a future for the young; an end to sometimes devastating hostilities. However, the political costs of a peace-deal are high for its leadership: the concessions reached at the table might be too much for a suffering, poor population to bear. What about the right of return for the refugees, a demand certainly to be watered down significantly in viable negotiations? The economy will not boom overnight. Only the next generation of leaders will bear the fruits peace, creating a paradox: while there is every incentive for the Palestinian people to reach a peace deal, there are high costs for its political leadership. Convincing Mr. Abbas that he will enter the history books might be difficult, even for a sympathetic E.U. mediator. Thus, rule number 2 explains Israel’s current inertia. For the E.U. it will be key to raise the cost of a status-quo. A limited economic embargo might create such an internal driver in Israel, although a creative approach will be needed in finding additional drivers.

The Core: At the table, finally

Expect some nice photo-op’s at this stage, with smiling delegates and a beaming E.U. mediator. The though work is finally there: delving into the core issues.

For a starter, negotiators and mediators will need to distinguish between symbolical issues such as the refugee question, and on-the-ground issues such as the territorial definition of a state and of Jerusalem. But a first pitfall presents itself in the guise of a time-table. Should the parties commit to a deadline? The recent Iran negotiations proved that a deadline is self-defeating: parties can use it to exert pressure on the opponent and on the mediator, who does not want to loose his or her face. With other words: drop the timetable.

If the negotiations get serious, expect a good dose of shouting matches, bruised ego’s, threats and manipulations. It will take a seasoned team to wade through one of the most difficult conflicts of modern history, fraught with historical and cultural sensibilities. To the External Action Service: assemble a team of diplomatic wolfs, genre Richard Holbrooke.

A two-layered approach will work best: first design a constitutional framework; secondly, build on that to resolve the real issues such as territory and population.

Easier said than done, of course. First up is the military aspect. Israel will insist, as it has done in the past, that any future state does not have a standing army that can threaten it. As one might imagine, not only a practical but also a symbolical issue for Palestine. A state with no military is in effect at the mercy of its neighbors, or with other words: a surrogate state. A compromise is possible here, one were Israel receives security guarantees, such as a buffer zone between the West Bank and Jordan, patrolled by an international force. There would be limits on what material Palestine can acquire. A most importantly, an explicit and detailed security guarantee from Jordan should be a cornerstone in this approach; Israel needs a defensible Western flank. It is crucial that Jordan participates rather than obstructs this demand. An insightful diplomatic approach will have a team shuttling back and forth between Amman.

The more difficult layer now needs to be applied: the territorial demarcation and application of this new constitutional entity. A phenomenal hurdle exists in the form of the settlements scattered around the West Bank. Currently, these zones are administered by the Israeli authorities, as are its main roads. Israeli law applies here, ordered in three zones (A,B,C). A look at the map makes it clear: if all settlements remain part of Israel, there would not be much left for a Palestinian state, less than 50 percent of the West Bank. That is unacceptable for Palestinians. Land swaps alone will not be sufficient, as the remaining patch-work would make any state unworkable.

A starting point should be roads an entry-points. Free movement should be crucial. While Israel could retain control over the highway bordering the Jordan Valley, it should cede control of all the other highways in the West Bank. It is highly improbable that Israel is willing to cede large settlements such as Ariel – which even has its own university – to the Palestinian Authority. Ehud Olmert’s land-swap proposal of 2011 will be the road to follow: the large settlements along the Green Line (sometimes, as Ariel, a little bit further away from it) would be absorbed by Israel; the smaller settlements in the heart of the West Bank evacuated. That would mean the evacuation of 56.000 settlers; 413.000 could stay in the larger settlements, in 2015 numbers. To make up for the lost territory, there are land swaps, mostly desert. Although politically painful for both leaders – Israeli media will be awash with images of settlers being forcefully evicted, something that almost toppled former PM Sharon when he did just that in Gaza, on a far smaller scale – it is the only way out. It is crucial that the E.U. possesses the same realism and does not press purely legalistic, historical or moral convictions. An absolute impartial mediation is certainly at this point crucial.

Expect endless nightly sessions to be the new norm by now. Next issue up: Jerusalem. No other issue mixes all controversial ingredients of the conflict as the old capital. Territory, religion, right to exist, statehood and history all come together. Enough to overwhelm any mediator. The essentials: have in mind how Israelis feel about Jerusalem. That is, apart from the Western Wall, not very special (‘To see the past, you go to Jerusalem; to see the future, you go to Tel Aviv’ as once an Israeli remarked to the author). Then, new Jerusalem, built by Israel, is not the same as the Old City, which since ancient times has always been shared, and is not East Jerusalem either, which is mainly Arab. Designating the latter as the capital of Palestine should not be too difficult, with compromise in the wording. The Old City will be neither from Israel or Palestine; it will have a special statute. Joint patrols, assisted by an international peacekeeping force, are the only way out here. The current situation in which Israeli soldiers rule the Old City is unworkable in any peace agreement. The mediator will have to take care of constructing a thorough statute for Jerusalem, with a good conflict-resolution mechanism. (Note that Israel will have to cede sovereignty here; diplomatic leverage will be essential).

Two thorny issues remain, each on its own formidable, but certainly not unexpected. Does a Palestinian state have to state explicitly Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? Every right-wing government has insisted on it; only a left-wing government will be able to drop the ‘Jewish’ before ‘state’ thus avoiding an explicit betrayal by Palestine of its Arab co-citizens who possess Israeli nationality. Don’t expect Netanyahu to make a concession on this; and neither expect the Palestine leadership to be able to swallow such a bitter bill. A mediator who would insist on just that would be creating a catastrophic failure. Therefore, the mediator needs a very clear picture of Israeli politics: it is up to them to concede on this point, political timing (read: a left-wing government) will be the main guide in this effort.

Next concession up, this time for the Palestinian leadership: the right of refugees to return. There are according to UNWRA around 5 million Palestinian refugees, displaced in 1948 and 1967. The majority live in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Two million live in the West Bank and Gaza. Letting 3 million refugees return to homes that are now in Israel will be impossible. A compromise will need to be worked out: refugees can return back to the state of Palestine, but not to Israel. All of them would receive a financial compensation from Israel. Those who left behind property receive extra compensation. That is a deal that makes sense; but one that for the Palestinian leadership will be a though sell, as it goes to the heart of the Palestinian struggle. It will be essential that Palestinian refugees in third countries do not feel betrayed by this compromise; they should be encouraged to return, enjoy full citizenship, and be able to count on support. (note that the plight of these refugees has been a very sad one: for over 50 years they have been in essence stateless, as the host-countries do not award them any nationality, and as a result, often cannot find employment).

Yes, now is the time to finally uncork that bottle of Champagne, if it hasn’t yet been emptied in a previous, despairing moment. Celebrations ensue, with signing ceremonies in Brussels.

The last act: implementation

While the External Action Service heaves a sigh of relief and Europe has scored a diplomatic triumph, now the real work starts: implementation. The good news first: media attention will fade, bringing some much-needed respite. The bad news: left to each other, the parties are wholly incapable of implementing a deal; tension would immediately rise, as neither party would move first.

International oversight will be crucial, with a peacekeeping force. A large troop commitment by nations is not needed; rather, a small, capable, understanding force that can navigate subtle cultural sensibilities. They would jointly patrol buffer zones such as the security zone in the Jordan valley; they would assist in keeping the calm in the Old City of Jerusalem; in the first years the force would man the border crossings between Israel and Palestine; and provide for accessible roads throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The OESO could have a role in overseeing democratic elections in Palestine, while the World Bank and the U.N. would assist in strengthening principles of good governance in the new state. An international oversight committee would meet on a regular basis, with a special representative submitting yearly reports on progress. A note of caution though: it should not become a second Bosnia and Herzegovina: there should be a clear date when the international oversight would end. Political elites in Palestine would then need to take full ownership. That will be the primary task of the international community. Donor aid should be in proportion to GDP, so as not to inflate the Palestine economy and create an unsustainable dependency.

Europe’s Finest Hour

It is doubtful that the European Union has the capacity to lead one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations imaginable. The External Action Service has too often seemed to be the External Inaction Service. A united diplomatic front amongst all E.U. leaders will be difficult to maintain. And for the time being, it does not look as if the European Council is ready to give the High Representative a broad, authoritative mandate. Too many times, history has judged the E.U. harshly for inertia, and for a lack of vision and courage. The Balkan Wars are tragic examples; the current response to the refugee crisis does not give much hope. If the E.U. can achieve a Israeli-Palestinian deal, it will be truly Europe’s finest hour and worthy of a Noble Prize. Let’s hope Brussels knows what it is getting into. Peace is both urgent; arduous; and possible.

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Middle East

The war in the Golan Heights and in the Lebanon

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The framework of the clash on the borders between Israel, the Lebanon and Syria is currently much more complicated than it appears.

Recently, namely in mid-January, a senior officer of the Israeli Defence Forces has publicly announced that Iran is organizing a peripheral command in the Lebanon, precisely in the Southern area – a region traditionally controlled by Hezbollah and now by most of the Lebanese regular army, which is traditionally funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The Lebanese Armed Forces are backed by the United States to the tune of over 1.5 billion dollars, but also by  Saudi Arabia (3.5 billion US dollars), which operates also with funding for security, intelligence andterritorial police.

Iran will grant additional funds to the Lebanese forces with a view to creating a stable link between Iran and the Mediterranean coast, which is also one of the grand strategy targets of the Shiite leadership in the Syrian war.

This will certainly change the Saudi and US attitude towards the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The Iranian strategic goals are designed to avoid being conditioned by Hezbollah’s tactical interests.

Said interests are not only against Israel. The excess of Iranian efforts and resources for the Lebanon and the clash with the “Zionist entity” – as they call Israel – does not absorb all Iranian strategic goals.

Iran wants to gain hegemony in a region stretching from the Lebanese Mediterranean coast to the Shiite areas of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless Iran’s operations in Syria are designed to  creating the conditions for a simultaneous dual attack on  Israel, starting from the Golan Heights and the Litani area, with or even without the “Party of God”of the Lebanese Shiites.

Suffice they avoid the anti-Iranian actions within the Lebanese State.

Hence the air clash, which occurred in Syria and in Israel on February 10, resulted in the loss of an Israeli F-16C aircraft belonging to the 110th Squadron,  which had taken off from the Ramat David base. It also led to the loss of an F-15I aircraft hit, but not destroyed, by Bashar al-Assad’s air defence and damaged some jets hit by the Syrian anti-aircraft, as well as an Israeli helicopter hit in the skies of the Shebaa Farms. Finally an Iranian-made attack drone was shot down.

Obviously the Israeli pilots had received the explicit order of avoiding any Russian jetsand the Israeli government is extremely careful not to hurt the feelings and undermine the strategic sensitivity of Russia, the new global leader in the Middle East.

Israel’s aircrafts were aSufaF-16I and aBaaz F-15I.

The air defences of Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have also the Russian long-range S-125 and S-200 systems available.

The S-125 (NATO reporting name SA-3 GOA) is an old design missile with a range of 25 kilometres which, when  modified – as happened during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s – can hit aircraft capable of reaching very high speed at various altitudes.

Conversely, the S-200 (NATO reporting name SA-5 Gammon) is a long-range missile (200-350 kilometres), but both types of Russian surface-to-air missiles are semi-automatically driven. Currently most batteries are equipped with systems for Airborne Early Warning and Control Defence (AEW).

The speed of both surface-to-air systems is still considerable.

It is therefore evident that, since the Russian Intelligence Services control both the single launching batteries of surface-to-air missiles and all the e-control networks of the Syrian, South Turkish, Lebanese and North Israeli space,  Russia has given the green light for actions against the Israeli aircrafts and helicopters.

Hence it has decided – or possibly accepted others’  decision – to hit the Jewish aircrafts.

What is Israel’s and the other regional and global players’  strategic rationale in Syria?

The shooting down of the Israeli aircraft is a factor not to be neglected both tactically and geopolitically.

Two aircrafts lost are certainly a problem, but not an unresolvable one.

This is an operational and strategic factor to be studied carefully, a probable game-changer in the whole Syrian-Lebanese system.

Based on an initial assessment of facts, Israel lost air superiority in the Lebanese-Syrian region just when the Russian Federation sold or transferred to Bashar al-Assad’Syria a system of S-400 surface-to-air missiles at the end of November 2015.

The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler), with a maximum range of 400 kilometres, can launch its missiles at a speed of 4.8 kilometres per second and can detect up to 36 or even 80 targets simultaneously – hence it is hard to be saturated.

It is also a weapon system that has already been sold to China in 2014 and to Saudi Arabia in October 2017.

Hence considering its full and unrestricted control over the Syrian airspace and Syria’s broad strategic region, evidently Russia has de factoendorsed the Israeli raids on targets located both in Syrian areas and in the Lebanon.

The Israeli raids are already significant.

Let us think about the Israeli air attack in early  September 2017, with an operation in Masyaf, Western Syria – a mission carried out by Israel shortly after the United Nationshad accused Bashar al-Assad’s government  of the chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheykhoun, which had taken place in April 2017.

At the time, both the Russians and the Syrians of Assad’s government had reassured the United Nations and the other players that no one had ever used forbidden weapons.

However, those who were poisoned and unable to breathe  were still in hospitals, so as to demonstrate the opposite of what had officially been declared by the Syrian-Russian military connection.

The ease with which the Syrian allies put Russia in difficultiesvis-à-vis the West and the other global powers is a burden for it.

Hence what did Israel want and what does it want to demonstrate with these raids, the last of which was  unsuccessful  for  “David’ slingshot”?

Firstly, it wants to make it clear to all regional players that the “red line” between the territory of the Jewish State and the territory of the Syrian-Lebanese State is still fully in force.

Secondly – but this is a strategically primary issue – Israel wants to show how dangerous it is for Iran to try and build its new forward bases in the border area between the Golan Heights and the Litani River in the Lebanon. Finally, Israel wants to ever more perfect its air attacks to avoid or postpone a ground attack.

The technologies for air attacks have already been largely developed.

As far as we know, they would be a mix of micro-intelligence on the ground and of new remotely-controlled, but high-precision weapons,  as well as a new distribution of defence systems, built and deployed on the ground in such a way as to hit several thousand targets within one hour at most.

Certainly, in all likelihood, there is a new Iranian base south of Damascus.

A station mainly equipped with air forces, but fully managed and controlled by the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with the high probability of adding submarines in the coastal areas controlled by Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

Hence either a scenario of attack on Israel from a unified front in the North, between Syria, Golan and the Lebanese Litani area, or another even more dangerous scenario for Israel, in which the Jewish State would be attacked from the North and the South at the same time.

The first attack would take place according to the model already tested by Hezbollah in 2006, and also in 2004, but this time together with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The second attack could take place when movements modelled on Hezbollah will be active and dangerous also  in the Palestinian area east and south of Jerusalem, like the recently-established Al Sabiroun in the Gaza Strip.

Also the Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian organization founded in Gaza in 1979 from a previous network of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been based with its leaders in Damascus since 1988.

Currently, however, Iran’s funding is scarce for this Sunni organization that, since the very beginning, accepted and supported the 1979 Ayatollah Revolution, as also Yasser Arafat did.

It is always worth remembering it.

Indeed, there isclose continuity between the “secular” and Marxist Palestinian uprising, which is still very much liked by the EU finest spirits, and the “radical” jihadist and Islamist twist that,for the amateurs of Middle East politics, appears to be a novelty with respect to the para-Soviet model of Yasser Arafat’s PLO and its many internal groups.

Iran’s relations with HAMAS are rhapsodic, precisely considering the close link – strengthened from 2011 onwards – between this Palestinian military structure, which also originated from a cell of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia.

In all likelihood, however, the timing of the combined attack from the South will be connected to the development and military preparation of Al Sabiroon, which shall be at least equal to Hezbollah’s.

According to some sources, however, Iran has already long arranged as many as 70,000 missiles in Syria, all targeted  or targetable to Israel.

The Al Quds Force has also already deployed 5,000 soldiers in the area around Damascus and about 50 kilometres from the border with Israel.

Then there are the Shiite military groups, who often approach the border with Israel and sometimes cross it.

Furthermore, in Syria, Iran arms and trains Shiite battalions  from the various regions of that country, such as Al Baqr and the Battalion 313.

The latter Syrian Shiite unit reminds of the number of Muhammad’s fighters in the Battle of Al-Badr, but it is actually called “The Great Apostle’s Brigade”, while it is worth recalling that the number 313 also regards the  esoteric eschatology connected to the final coming of the Mahdi, He who will put an end to the world.

According to our sources, the Brigade 313 is still in the region of ​​Homs where jihadists still operate in its Southern area.

Currently, however, the number of brigades or battalions of Syrian-origin Shiite militants, all trained by the Pasdaran, is equal to five units, all located between Central and Southern Syria and all with autonomous commands, but actually directed by Iranian officials of the Al Quds Force.

The operations of camouflage and strategic deception of the many Iranian missiles were all directly authorized by Bashar al-Assad and conducted by Iran and Hezbollah with the active support of the Syrian Arab Army.

Again according to said sources, within a year from now,  the number of small or large missiles is expected to reach over 500,000 (according to Iranian and Lebanese programmers).

A saturation of airspace that, according to Iran experts, is supposed to block the reactions of the Israeli’s space protection system.

During the Israeli State visit to Russia of January 29, 2018,Netanyahu officially asked Vladimir Putin to containIran’s anti-Israeli operations in Syria.

It is also very likely that the Israeli leader provided to Vladimir Putin also a good amount of intelligence on the Iranian threat to the Jewish State from within Syria.

Furthermore, the strategic divergence between Russia and Iran on the Syrian territory is already quite evident and  essentially unresolvable, considering the current situation on the ground.

But certainly Russia has no interest in creating further tension with Israel.

Hence probably the Russian authorization for the Syrian (and possibly Iranian) anti-aircraft operations is the last act of a sequence of strategic signals between Russia and the United States on the Syrian issue.

In fact, while it is true that Iran is absolutely essential in Syria for the Russian Federation, with a view to avoidingRussia’s too heavy engagement in favour of Assad, certainly Russia does not want to create a political and strategic system in which Bashar al-Assad is subjected solely to Iran’s will.

Once finished the clashes on the ground, Russia will redesign the Syrian map, thus preventing the country from splitting – also implicitly and subtly – into various regions, all with a different padrinage.

Russia does not certainly want to guarantee to Iran a Shiite context going from Iraq to Syria, so as to arrive without interruption up to the Mediterranean coast.

Moreover Russia wants the strengthening and final success of the Astana talks – a decompression system of the Syrian conflict inevitably involving two other players besides Russia, namely Iran and Turkey.

Turkey against Iran, despite the recent good relations between the two countries sanctioned by the meeting held in early October 2017.

A visit which significantly took place while the Saudi leadership was paying an official visit to Russia.

Hence, from now on, the Russian Federation will play Turkey against Iran and viceversa, so as to avoid losing the role of main actor in Syria and, at least for the time being, in the rest of the Middle East.

Yet good relations between Russia and Israel are still needed.

Hence this is the reason why, on the one hand, Bashar al- Assad is ever less interested in supporting Iran’s post-war ambitions and he does not directly operate – at least for the time being – against the Turkish forces that entered Idlib.

This happens while Syria operates – now explicitly – in favour of the Kurds, traditionally fought by Turkey and currently de factoabandoned by the United States.

However, we have just been informed of a new agreement between the United States and the Kurdish leadership in Syria.

Besides Russia, Tukey and Syria have every interest in preventing the Kurds from changing the complex ethnic composition of the areas under their control – but here the only possible broker and mediator is the Russian Federation.

And this is also a primary Israeli strategic interest.

Moreover, all Syrian richest oil and water areas are now under the direct control of the Kurdish YPD, which will create further conditions for Russian mediation.

This happens while the United States is now ambiguously avoiding supporting the Kurds, whom it has armed and trained so far.

Moreover, currently the United States has problematic  relations also with Turkey, which has never appreciated the US strategic double standard in Syria.

But today, after Putin’s phone call to Netanyahu on October 18, 2017- designed to avoiding military climax in Syria and particularly to protecting his forces, distributed throughout the Iranian and Hezbollah networks – we need to look at some other variables of this complex equation.

Israel’s operations could also hit the Russian  base of Tiyas, i.e. the T4 near Palmira, the base from which the Iranian drone – copied from an old US drone lost by the Americans many years ago – is supposed to have left.

The base currently hosts four air squadrons.

In other words, Russia’s message to Israel is simply the following: dear Israeli friends, accept the new Russian hegemony over Syria and the Middle East and nothing will happen to you – neither by Irannor by others.

The Russian message, however, also entails as follows:  Israel should stop putting the lives and operations of the Russian soldiers present in the region in severe danger.

It should also stop putting the Russian forces in difficulties in their relations with the Iranian and Syrian forces that could put Russia in trouble precisely because of its friendship with Israel.

Israel cannot do without the alliance with the Russian Federation, while Russia cannot forget the number and importance of the Russian Jews who emigrated to the Jewish State.

It cannot forget how close the Russian-Israeli cooperation is in the technological, military, intelligence and cultural sectors.

For Israel the Russian military presence in Syria represents two strategic variables: on the one hand, it avoids the clash  in the Golan Heights – and also in Lebanon, considering  the tested system of terrestrial passage into Syria between Iran and the Lebanon -being massively targeted to Israel, that is not at all a Russian enemy.

On the other hand, the Russian military presence in Syria prevents the Jewish State from striking – surgically or not – the Iranian and Hezbollah forces operating on the ground.

Furthermore, Russia knows all too well that – by reaction – the operations in Syria have created a strong Sunni alliance, signed early June last with the exclusion of Qatar.

Israel hasnow excellent, but confidential relations with the new Sunni political universe.

Finally Russia has no intention of breaking all ties with the world dominated by Saudi Arabia and by the other Gulf powers because of their alliance with Iran in Syria.

Too much business is already underway, but above all what is at stake is Russia’ strategic wisdom in proposing itself as a global broker and mediator for the Middle East region, without ever forgetting anyone.

Moreover, the Russian Federation is well aware that, without Hezbollah’s and Iran’ support, it could certainly not have afforded a solitary war against ISIS and its allies in Syria – terrorists and Caliphate’s jihadists also backed by many Western powers and their Middle East points of reference, as Putin correctly stated in October 2015.

Thanks to its new dominance in Syria, the Russian Federation also wants to achieve a project of strong relations with the United States, thus re-establishing a new “strategic parity” with it.

It is precisely through the war in Syria that Russia wants to get out of its old post-1989 role of “regional power” in order to be once again a global player.

But how can it reach this goal without Israel’s regional support?

It is worth recalling, however, that Iran is absolutely necessary for the Russian Federation both for the creation of the Eurasian bloc – the future central axis of Putin’s geopolitics – and also for the essential oil connection  between Russia and Iran.

Last August there were also secret contacts between Israel, Russia and the United States in Amman.

Jordan and the Jewish State pointed out – especially to Russia – that the “de-escalation zones”,envisaged in the Astana agreements and later reaffirmed by the Geneva Peace Conference, had apositioning that would enable the  Iranian and Hezbollah forces to attack the Israeli positions, and obviously the Jordanian ones, more easily.

It is worth recalling that the “de-escalation zones” in Syria are the following : 1) the Idlib province, as well as the Northeastern  areas of ​​Latakia province, Western areas of Aleppo and Northern areas of Hama; 2) the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in Northern  Homsprovince; 3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside; 4) the rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

Again in that secret meeting Jordan and Israeli added that  it would be preferable for them to have Russia’s direct control over the border between Syria and Jordan.

Russia and the United States – this time united – only wanted to reach, as soon as possible, an agreement on the cease-fire in Southern Syria, unavoidable to successfully attack the areas still held by Daesh-Isis.

This was the strategic sense of the Amman meeting.

At that time Israel also asked – but only to the Russian Federation – to create an area of ​​at least 20 kilometres away from the Israeli border with Syria completely devoid of Iranian or Hezbollah positions.

There was also the possibility that Israel would ask Russia and the United States to expel all Iran’s and its allies’ forces from Syria.

Obviously this is inconceivable. Neither of the two major global players, namely Russia and the United States, is interested in expelling Iran from Syria.

Russia cannot do without it, as we have already seen.

The United States, however, has no intention of being  directly involved in the Syrian chaos, with many boots on the ground, since it rather prefers a military and geopolitical balance between its various client groups.

Furthermore, the visit paid by the Russian Defence Minister, Shoigu,to Israel in mid-October 2017 has not solved the primary issue, i.e. the excessive presence of  Iranian weapons and soldiers – or connected to Iran – near the Golan Heights border.

In fact, Israel saw the emergence of ISIS in Syria as an excellent opportunity to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – an enemy if considered on his own and also Iran’s loyal supporter.

Netanyahu, however, reiterated to Minister Shoigu the concept we have already mentioned, i.e. that the de-escalation zones do not guarantee at all the absence of Shiite militias on the Syrian-Israeli border.

Probably they favour their transfer to the Golan Heights and to the Lebanon.

A possible solution is that, after destroying the last Isis-Daesh pockets of resistance, Russia is really ending its operations in Syria.

This will soon imply also the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the other Shiite militias.

A return back home that, according to our sources, will be controlled by the Russian Federation and by other regional and global players – none of them particularly interested in favouring Iran.

Hence if Israel persuades the Russian Federation to carry out a parallel credibleand geographically verifiable withdrawal from Syria – also of the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces – the tension on borders, but also the line of direct connection between Iran and the Lebanon could be interrupted or damaged.

But certainly the Jewish State cannot fail to keep on monitoring its borders carefully. It will check with other actions, but not necessarily with the air force, Russia’s willingness to defend Iranian positions to the bitter end.

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Middle East

Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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