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The Syrian Congress in Sochi: Too Much Too Soon

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The Syrian National Congress was held in Sochi on January 30 and reportedly gathered close to 1,500 Syrians to kick-start the national dialogue by giving platform to the broader Syrian community. The Congress, it seems, had an ambition to become an umbrella platform that would bring together Syrians who participate in existing negotiating tracks, such as Geneva and Astana, as well give agency to those who have not had a chance to become part of any existing negotiating rounds and thus have no say in defining the future of the country. Participation of a large number of Syrian figures in the Congress perfectly matches up with the idea expressed in the UN Resolution 2254 that Syrians should be the ones deciding the future of the country and gives greater legitimization to the process of political settlement of the conflict.

Despite the fact that the conditions were seemingly in place for a successful discussion, the Congress was taken hostage by its own agenda. It seems that it was designed to meet too many objectives, both in Russia’s Syria policy as well as in its domestic politics ahead of the Presidential election. The work on the constitution is something that is called for in the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, so there is nothing controversial in that Russia is proposing a mechanism to kick-start that work.

Moscow first proposed a project of the Syrian Constitution in January 2017, which was rejected by the Syrian opposition, and most surprisingly was not taken positively by Russia’s allies. The project came after the signing of the Syria ceasefire agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran in December 2016, as Moscow was hoping to incentivize political resolution of the conflict. The ceasefire was ultimately derailed and Moscow took a lot of blows from the international community for alleged attempts to sabotage the Geneva process by unilaterally launching the drafting of the constitution.

The unsuccessful, albeit honest, attempt to revive political resolution led Russia to a realization that constitution drafting needs to be institutionalized. At the same time Moscow could not go about it by coercing political opposition into accepting the Russia-led constitution drafting process in the same way it has done in forcing the armed rebel groups into accepting the new status quo on the ground in Syria. There is a certain disconnect between Russia’s hard power instruments and its ability to spearhead political dialogue. These are the faultiness that Russia tried to overcome in Sochi by institutionalizing the process of constitution drafting.

Foreign governments as well as the Syrian opposition and the UN itself had fears that by holding Sochi Russia was going to marginalize the Geneva track of negotiations and all parties that take part in these talks. In reality, however, the opposite happened: By looking to deliver on Vladimir Putin’s promise to hold the Syrian Congress as a logical conclusion of the Syrian war Moscow had to try to secure the backing of all concerned parties. Russia, however, faced a dilemma from the very outset because by looking to hold the constitution drafting process as a parallel track to Geneva (something that loyalist opposition figures were insisting on), much like Astana, it was causing its outright rejection by the international community. Similarly, by seeking its inclusion in Geneva Russia was ultimately agreeing that the Moscow-initiated effort would fall under the control of the UN. As a result, the Russian government opted for a mix of both approaches that will hardly be conducive to the Geneva track of negotiations.

There is no doubt that the Syrian constitution will need to change drastically due to the war and as a means to end the war. The project of the constitution proposed by Russia in 2017 united the opposition and the loyalists in rejecting it. However, in private conversations a lot of opposition figures acknowledge that this project was an acceptable point of reference for a national debate on the future constitution. However, being an externally-imposed document, it immediately became a non-starter for many Syrians. What is more, some opposition figures argue that Syria does not need a new constitution and could do with an amended 2012 document. But for all of them the bottom line is that the work on the constitution is an issue of internal Syrian deliberation.

It seems that Russia learnt its lesson the hard way in January 2017 having had its project dismissed by virtually all sides to the Syrian conflict and decided to give Syrians a platform in Sochi to launch the discussion on the constitution. However, the political actors who are expected to play a role in the shaping of the transitional period in Syria, namely the High Negotiations Committee that represents the opposition and the Democratic Union Party that represents the Kurdish minority, did not attend the Congress. The participation in the Sochi Congress implied no institutional presence, meaning that neither the Syrian government nor the HNC were there in institutional capacity. The HNC did send three representatives to Sochi, including head of the so-called Moscow group of the opposition Qadri Jamil, which might help secure acceptance of the Sochi process by the opposition. However, the absence of Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition groups in Sochi might spell troubles for the Congress’ mission down the road.

Dropping the Kurds from the list of participants was Russia’s price to pay for Turkey’s backing the Congress. Turkey arguably played a key role in legitimizing the Congress but HNC low-key participation and complete absence of the Kurds at the end of the day may threaten the Russia-Turkey axis with Ankara not doing enough to secure high-level HNC participation in Sochi and doing all it could to bar the Kurds from participation.

There is a lot of skepticism as to how the results of the Sochi Congress could feed into the Geneva process. UN envoy for Syria Stefan De Mistura acknowledged the results of the Congress but expressed no obligation to follow them, only stating that he is intended to indicate how he is willing to proceed on the task mandated under the Congress declaration. The language of this statement is diplomatic enough to give a due credit to the Sochi effort and vague enough so as not to commit to the implementation of its results.

It is not only the hesitation of the Syria envoy to get the Sochi results on board of the Geneva process, but also the refusal of the Assad government to discuss the constitution outside Syria as well as conditions on the ground in Syria that may inhibit the establishment of the Constitutional Committee. In the run-up to the Sochi Congress the fighting in Syria significantly escalated not least due to the Assad government’s expansion into the Idlib de-escalation zone and Turkey’s incursion in Afrin. These developments have a distinct Aleppo taste to them, which may deter the Syrian opposition from entering into any substantive political talks for the time being. While this may be an acceptable outcome for Ankara that for the time being only seeks a military advance against the Kurds as a way of marketing its victory in Syria for the Turkish public, it is certainly bad news for Russia that bet its prestige on the success of the Sochi Congress.

The unintended consequence of opposition’s low-key representation at the Sochi Congress is arguably a blow to Russia’s position as a chief negotiator on Syria. The Astana process that propelled Moscow to the title of a leading mediator on military issues and showcased its ability to engage armed opposition and the government in diplomatic talks may have also led Russia to believe that it can equally as easily spearhead complex political negotiations. However, Moscow appeared less predisposed to exercising political clout when it comes to issues not involving hard power, just as it fails to rally support for its cause. This sets a potentially dangerous precedent for Russia and may impact its positioning vis-a-vis other international negotiators. In fact a new political plan to solve the Syrian conflict introduced by the United States, France, Jordan and the UK on the sidelines of a Paris meeting on chemical weapons in January that called for radical changes to the Syrian constitution may surprisingly gain traction.

There has been a lot of talk prior to the Sochi Congress as to whether it undermines the Geneva process. The results of this gathering unequivocally demonstrate that it is no threat to Geneva, but so is it unlikely to give a much needed boost to the political settlement. Rival sidekick tracks to the Geneva process that have started appearing lately are only indicative of the fact that the progress in military de-escalation in Syria has failed to facilitate political progress. It increasingly looks that the Syrian conflict has been pushed back to a year ago when fighting was the key defining element of the political process, the circumstances in which the drafting of the constitution is an untimely step.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Why US not trustworthy ally for Turkey

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Just weeks after failure of the ISIL terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, the United States announced that it is going to create a security belt from Erbil to Mediterranean Sea under the pretext of avoiding ISIL return.

To this end, Washington announced the US-led coalition is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 personnel, a move that has added to Turkish anger over US support for Kurdish-dominated forces in Syria.

More than 50 percent of the mentioned forces would be Syrian Kurd militia which Turkey says they are offshoot of PKK terrorist group and considers them a major threat to its security, while Washington considers them the most effective ally on the ground in Syria.

Supporting Kurdish separatist forces in Northern Syria, the US is after its own geopolitical goals in the country and the region which some of them are:

-To prolong the conflicts and crises in Syria in order to pave the way for breaking and disintegration of the country which can be a beginning of more breakings in the regional countries, while the US hypocritically defends territorial integrity of the Syria and other regional countries like Iraq.

-To boost its military presence in Syria by building military bases in order to decrease its dependence on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

– Playing with Kurdish card, the US intends to pressure and contain Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

-To provide  Security for Tel Aviv by destabilizing the security of the region.

-Dominating the energy rich region and the future energy routes.

Turkey began its military operation in Afrin to thwart some parts of the US organized plots against itself.

Facing obstacles on the way of its goals in the region due to cooperation between Russia and regional countries including Iran and Turkey, the US state secretary Rex Tillerson arrived in Turkey with new promises couple of days ago.

The regional countries should learn lessons from the past that the US is not a trustworthy ally and it is just following up its own geopolitical ambitions by empty promises and instrumental use from allies.

Turkish President in April 2017 in an interview with Aljazeera said, “With President Obama, we had a mutual agreement about the PKK – but Obama deceived us. I don’t believe the Trump administration will do the same.” But during Trump administration not only the US didn’t remove Turkey’s concerns but also intensified its support to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The only way to foil the US separatist plan in the region which is a direct threat to the all regional countries is close cooperation between Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with the help of Russia. We have been witnessing the fruits of this cooperation over the past several months including in foiling Erbil independence referendum and creating de-escalation zones in Syria.

It is noteworthy that the US in line with Samuel Huntington’s advice is cooperating with some grade 2 regional powers like Saudi Arabia to confront and weaken regional grade 1 powers like Iran and Turkey.

First published in our partner Mehr News Agency

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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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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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