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Russia’s new Middle Eastern role

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Russia has thrown a monkey wrench into Western plans for Syria by promising to deliver its top-of-the-line S300 surface-to-air missile system to the Bashar al-Assad government. Exactly when the missiles might arrive remains unclear; the last word from Moscow is that the missiles are not yet in place, which means the matter is up for bargaining.

It is humiliating for the West to trip over a game-changing Russian technology nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The larger scandal is that the West lacks countermeasures against the Russian system, the result of misguided defense priorities over the past dozen years. If the United States had spent a fraction of the resources it wasted in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan on anti-missile technology, Russia would lack the bargaining chip in the first place. That’s spilt milk, however, and the pressing question is: what should the West do now?

The questions to ask are:

1. Is Russia a rational actor?
2. If the answer to the first question is affirmative (as the overwhelming majority of analysts believe), what does it have to be rational about?
3. Can the United States do anything in the foreseeable future to change the present regime in Russia?
4. If the answer to the third question is affirmative, then what do we want to negotiate with Vladimir Putin?

The right way to go about this, I believe, is to draw a bright line between Russia’s opportunistic meddling in Middle Eastern affairs and existential issues for the Russian state. Much as we may dislike the way the Russians manage their affairs, it isn’t within the power of the West to change the character of the Russian regime.

What does Moscow want in the Middle East? It has taken a more active interest in the region’s malefactors of late. Jean Aziz of Al-Monitor argues that Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s April 28 meeting with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon marks a turn in Russia’s relationship with the Hezbollah. Russia’s new alliance-that seems to be the right word-with the Lebanese terrorist organization implies a Russian commitment to carving out a sphere of influence.

On the other hand, Russia does not seem to want a full-blown alliance with the Iranian regime and its Syrian satrap. Iran is present suing Russia for failing to deliver the promised S300 system at the same time that Russia claims that it is sending the same system to Syria. Russia’s refusal to honor its contract with Tehran is a signal that the Putin regime would not be heartbroken if someone were to obliterate Iran’s nuclear bomb-making capacity. Russia has no interest in helping a fanatical regime deploy nuclear weapons on its southern flank.

On the other hand, Russia’s support for the Assad regime is a fact of life. Russia may enjoy the paralysis of the West in the region and seek to embarrass the United States and its allies, but that is a secondary matter. It also may want to demonstrate to the world that it doesn’t abandon allies the way that the United States abandoned former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Again, that is a minor matter. Russia’s interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war stems from two critical interests.

The lesser of these is the naval supply station at Tartus, which supports the expansion of Russia’s naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. The more important concern is Russia’s fear of the Sunni jihadists who dominate the rebel opposition.

Russia has been fighting a brutal war against jihadists in the northern Caucasus for 20 years, punctuated by some of the most horrendous terrorist acts ever perpetrated, including the 2004 slaughter of 380 hostages on North Ossetia, mainly small schoolchildren. The term “paranoid Russian” may be a pleonasm, but in this case Russia has a great deal to be paranoid about. Caucasus terrorism spilled over into the United States with the Boston marathon bombing.

“In Russia, most analysts, politicians and ordinary citizens believe in the unlimited might of America, and thus reject the notion that the US has made, and continues to make, mistakes in the [Middle East]. Instead, they assume it’s all a part of a complex plan to restructure the world and to spread global domination,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov on the Al Monitor website March 19.

Lukyanov, who chairs Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, dismisses this sort of thinking as a “conspiracy theory”. But he is quite serious in his account of the Putin government’s frame of mind. The Russian elite really think that the United States is creating chaos in the Middle East as a matter of geopolitical intent. Lukyanov wrote:

From Russian leadership’s point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order. Everything that’s happened since – including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, US policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria – serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.

It is impossible to persuade Vladimir Putin that the Middle East policies of the past two American administrations were merely stupid, because Putin doesn’t believe that stupid people rule great powers. All the stupid people he met are dead. From the Obama administration’s vantage point, chaos in the Middle East is a matter for hand-wringing by the likes of anti-genocide crusader Samantha Power, now the designated ambassador to the United Nations. From the Russian point of view, it is an existential threat.

The ethnic Russian population is declining, and Russia well may have a Muslim majority by mid-century. If chaos envelops the Muslim world on its southern border, it may spread to Russia via the northern Caucasus. During the Cold War, America supported jihadis in Afghanistan and elsewhere to make trouble for the Soviet Empire (and properly so, because the Soviet threat to American security outweighed any inconvenience the US might suffer at the hands of jihadists). Russia is convinced that America still intends to promote jihad in order to destabilize its old Cold War opponent.

How should America respond?

First, the US should back the partition of Syria into a Sunni majority state and an Alawite rump state in the northwestern quadrant of the country, where the Russian navy station happens to be located. The Kurds should get autonomy, just like their Iraqi compatriots.

Turkey will object vociferously because it would advance Kurdish independence, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan views the way Captain Hook viewed the crocodile. Too bad for the Turks: someone has to lose here, and it might as well be they. Partition is the only way to stop the civil war and avoid mass murder in its wake. Total victory by either side would be followed by massacres. The most humane solution is a breakup on the precedent of the former Yugoslavia. Assad can remain in power in a rump state where the Alawites will be safe from Sunni reprisals, and the Russians can keep their fueling station. One wonders why the “responsibility to protect” crowd in Washington hasn’t considered that.

Second, the US should use its influence with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to clean out the nastier jihadist elements among Syria’s Sunni rebels. It should also make clear to the Russians that it will not interfere with their counter-terrorist operations in the Caucasus, grisly as these might be.

Third, the US should attack Iran and destroy its nuclear weapons capability and key Revolutionary Guard bases (and perhaps a few other things; various American flag officers have they own list of druthers).

Neutralizing Iran is the key: it eliminates the pipeline of support from Iran to Assad and various terrorist organizations, and reduces them to obnoxious but strategically unemployed local players.

Russia evidently has fewer objections to an American air strike on Iran than on Damascus. It has signaled this as clearly as it can by refusing to deliver the S300 system to the Iranian regime while promising to deliver it to the Syrian regime. The bad news is that we cannot extract Russia from the region; America has made too many blunders in the region to turn the clock back.

The good news is that the problems occasioned by Russia’s enhanced role can be localized and contained. Basher al-Assad and his Alawite army bottled up in a redoubt would be an annoyance, not a strategic threat. A Sunni regime with a Kurdish autonomy zone in the remainder of the country would be susceptible to Western pressure to purge the more dangerous jihadists.

In fact, Russia has fewer objections to an American attack on Iran’s nuclear program and foreign subversion capacity than does the Obama administration. It is painful to read American conservative Jeremiads against the resurgence of Russian influence in the Middle East, when few American conservatives openly propose a strike against Iran. They are afraid that voters don’t trust them with guns after the poor results of the Iraq and Afghanistan nation-building campaigns.

It is much easier to rally the troops by shouting “The Russians are coming!” than to point out that the Obama administration’s ideological aversion to using force against Iran is the core problem. In fact, Putin’s position is more amenable to America’s strategic requirements than Obama’s, counterintuitive as that might sound.

More broadly, the US should draw a bright line between areas of the world where it has inviolable interests and areas subject to bargaining. It was a supreme act of stupidity to abandon the deployment of anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as the Obama administration did in September 2009. Russia didn’t like it, but Russia is not supposed to like it. Showing weakness to the Russians merely elicits contempt. The US should make clear that ties of culture and blood link the Poles and Czechs to the American people, and that we will stand behind them no matter what.

Ukraine is a different matter. Russians comprise half the population of Ukraine, and Russia cannot walk away from them, nor from the rest of the 22 million Russians left outside the Federation in the so-called near abroad after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

As I reported in a 2008 essay (Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess, Asia Times Online, August 19, 2008), “The desire of a few hundred thousand Abkhazians and South Ossetians to remain in the Russian Federation rather than Georgia may seem trivial, but Moscow is setting a precedent that will apply to tens of millions of prospective citizens of the Federation – most controversially in Ukraine.”

America has no strategic interest in Ukraine. Nine years after the so-called Orange Revolution, the pro-Moscow Party of the Regions remains firmly in charge. The opposition is tainted with an ugly strain of anti-Semitism, as Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center of Democracy, reported May 30.

The nationalists whom Washington backed in the heady days after the invasion of Iraq are not exactly the good guys. What we have learned from a decade of bumbling is that Russia can have Ukraine if it wants it badly enough, and that we really don’t want it anyway. Except for Hungary, Ukraine has the lowest fertility rate of any country in Europe. Its strategic importance will deteriorate along with its demographics.

The proposals above are stopgap measures to limit damage in a deteriorating situation. If the US really want to get Russia’s attention, it needs to do precisely what Ronald Reagan and his team set out to do in 1981: convince the Russians that America would leapfrog them in military technology. That means aggressive funding of basic research on model of the old DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). If Putin is persuaded that his residual advantage in surface-to-air missile technology has reached its best-used-by-date, he will be far more flexible on a range of negotiating issues.

I am painfully aware that the political environment is not conducive to this approach. That does not change the fact that it is what needs to be done.

Middle East

The secret behind Trump’s moves in eastern Deir ez-Zur

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Trump’s desire for Syrian oil has led observers to consider it as the beginning of occupying oil wells in other countries, including Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states.

The obsession of the U.S. president with money and oil is obvious for everyone and that is why U.S. military commanders have used this temptation by Trump to persuade him to keep some troops in Syria.

On October 28, Trump said, “We are keeping the oil — remember that. Forty-five million dollars a month?  We have secured the oil”.

Last week, news sources reported that the U.S. president has agreed to develop military missions to protect oilfields in eastern Syria.

The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that the U.S. has established a new military base in the oil-rich parts of Deir ez-Zur in Syria.

In this regard, Trump announced the settlement of some U.S. companies in Syria’s east to invest in and exploit oilfields. It was a move that drew Russian backlash.

Russian opposition to Trump’s oil ambitions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement in late October that the Syrian oil is the focus of U.S. attention. In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Lavrov said it was important to refrain from “steps undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov also said, “This, what Washington is doing now — capturing and maintaining control through the use of arms over oil fields in eastern Syria — that is, to put it simply, international, state-sponsored banditry,” DW reported on October 26.

Konashenkov said tank trucks guarded by U.S. military servicemen and private military companies smuggle oil from fields in eastern Syria to other countries.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin also pointed to U.S. efforts to reinforce its presence in Syrian oil-rich lands, calling it an illegal act by Washington. Vershinin also said that Moscow will never accept the policy that the U.S. is pursuing in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry in recent weeks has also released satellite images of some areas in Syria showing that U.S. troops have created security guard to smuggle Syria’s oil. Earlier, images of eastern Syria were released documenting oil trucks were traveling across Syria-Turkey borders, an action which reveals the goals of those countries which support terrorism in Syria.

 Syria’s oil reserves

In terms of oil reserves, Syria is in 32nd place after Malaysia and ahead of Argentina, with 2,500,000,000 barrels. Syria’s known oil reserves are mainly in the eastern part of the country in Deir ez-Zor, the second largest Syrian province after Homs. The rest of reserves are in other provinces such as Hama, Ar Raqqah and Homs.

Before the beginning of civil war in 2011, Syria was extracting 385,000 barrels of light crude oil with an approximate value of €3 billion, which were being transferred to Homs via pipeline. 89,000 barrels of the extracted oil were being refined and used for domestic uses. The rest was being exported through port of Baniyas.

Lebanon has uncovered some oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean. Syria can also explore some of these reserves as it has long coasts along the Mediterranean if it invests in its territorial waters.  

U.S. actions in eastern Euphrates

Now that the defeat of terrorists is clear to everyone, the U.S. is seeking to create an economic crisis in Syria by using oil as a tool against Damascus. This is the reason why it is seizing the country’s oil reserves and also pressures Damascus to accept Washington’s conditions.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

Middle Eastern protests: A tug of war over who has the longer breath

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Mass anti-government protests in several Arab countries are turning into competitions to determine who has the longer breath, the protesters or the government.

In Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, countries in which the leader was either forced to resign or has agreed to step down, authorities appear to be dragging their feet on handovers of power or agreed transitional power sharing arrangements in the hope that protesters, determined to hold on to their street power until a political transition process is firmly in place, either lose their momentum or are racked by internal differences.

So far, protesters are holding their ground, having learnt the lesson that their achievements are likely to be rolled back if they vacate the street before having cemented an agreement on the rules of the transitional game and process.

Algerians remain on the streets, seven months after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down, in demand of a complete change of the political system.

Scores of recent arrests on charges that include “harming national unity” and “undermining the morale of the army” have failed to deter Algerians who refuse to accept the military’s proposed December 12 date for elections.

Lebanon enters its second months of protests with the government going through the motions but ultimately failing to respond to demands for a technocratic government, a new non-sectarian electoral law and early elections.

An effort to replace prime minister Saad Hariri with another member of the elite, Mohammad Safadi, a billionaire businessman and former finance minister, was rejected by the protesters.

We are staying here. We don’t know how long – maybe one or two months or one or two years. Maybe it will take 10 years to get the state we are dreaming of, but everything starts with a first step.” said filmmaker Perla Joe Maalouli.

Weeks after agreeing to resign in response to popular pressure, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mehdi appears to be increasingly firm in his saddle.

Much like what prompted US President George H.W.. Bush to first call in 1991 for a popular revolt against Saddam Hussein and then give the Iraqi strongman the tools to crush the uprising, Mr. Mehdi is holding on to power in the absence of a credible candidate acceptable to the political elite to replace him.

Mr. Mehdi’s position is strengthened by the fact that neither the United States nor Iran wants a power vacuum to emerge in Baghdad.

Backtracking on Mr. Mehdi’s resignation and refraining from appointing a prime minister who credibly holds out the promise of real change is likely to harden the battle lines between the protesters and the government.

The tugs of war highlight the pitfalls protesters and governments need to manoeuvre in what amounts to a complex game with governments seeking to pacify demonstrators by seemingly entertaining their demands yet plotting to maintain fundamental political structures that anti-government activists want to uproot.

The risk of a tug of war is that protests turn violent as happened in Hong Kong or in Lebanon where cars of parliamentarians were attacked as they drove this week towards the assembly.

Meeting protesters’ demands and aspirations that drive the demonstrations and figure across the Middle East and North Africa, irrespective of whether grievances have spilled into streets, is what makes economic and social reform tricky business for the region’s autocrats.

Its where what is needed for sustainable reforms bounces up against ever more repressive security states intent on exercising increasingly tight control.

Sustainable reform requires capable and effective institutions rather than bloated, bureaucratic job banks and decentralisation with greater authorities granted to municipalities and regions.

Altering social contracts by introducing or increasing taxes, reducing subsidies for basic goods and narrowing opportunities for government employment will have to be buffered by greater transparency that provides the public insight into how the government ensures that it benefits from the still evolving new social contract.

To many protesters, Sudan has validated protesters’ resolve to retain street power until transitional arrangements are put in place.

It took five months after the toppling of president Omar al-Bashir and a short-lived security force crackdown in which some 100 people were killed before the military, the protesters and political groups agreed and put in place a transitional power-sharing process.

The process involved the creation of a sovereign council made up of civilians and military officers that is governing the country and managing its democratic transition.

Even so, transitional experiences have yet to prove their mettle. Protesters may have learnt lessons from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Yet, this time round, protesters lack the broad-based international empathy that 2011 uprisings enjoyed and are up against more than domestic forces backed by conservative Gulf states.

Powers like Russia and China make no bones about their rejection of protest as an expression of popular political will.

So has Iran that has much at stake in Iraq and Lebanon, countries where anti-sectarian sentiment is strong among protesters, even if the Islamic republic was born in one of the 20th century’s epic popular revolts and is confronting protests of its own against fuel price hikes.

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Middle East

Iran’s next parliamentary election hinges on economic problems, US sanctions effective

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It seems any faction focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections.

The eleventh elections of the Islamic Parliament in Iran will be on Feb 21, 2020 across the country. Seyed Salaman Samani spokesman of Interior Ministry said in an interview that has published on the official website of the ministry.

About 4 months have remained to the elections, but the politicians and parties have started to organize their campaigns and planning for victory.

The current parliament was formed from 41 percent Reformers and Moderates, 29 percent Principlists, 28 percent Independents and 2 percent Minorities, according to the ISNA News Agency.

In Tehran, capital of the country, all seats were gained by the Reformers, but some important cities such as Mashhad as the second city in the country, the Principlists were decisive winners.

But the majority of people and political activists are serious dissatisfactions concerning the function of the parliament, even some experts have emphasized on the famous slogan that says: “Reformer, Principlist, the story is over.”

This situation has formed, while Iran`s Parliament has been under control between two parties in the past years. So, some experts seek up the third faction for improving the country’s position, but so far the third faction has had not a leader and specific structure.

Due to the Reformers supporting of President Hassan Rouhani in the last presidential elections and lack of his rhetoric realization, the position of the Reformers has weakened increasingly. For example, Rouhani said during the contests of the presidential elections about 2 years ago in Iran television that If Iranians reelect me, all sanctions even non-nuclear sanctions will be lifted. But now, the sanctions against Iran have increased and the economic situation of the people has hurt extremely.

But recently, many celebrities of Iran have regretted concerning supporting Rouhani like Ali Karimi the former football player and Reza Sadeghi the famous singer, they demonstrated their regret on social media. So, some suggested that the victory of Principlists in the elections is certain.

“The Principlists need not do anything; they are comfortably the winner of the next parliamentary elections.” Sadegh Zibakalam, an Iranian academic reformist said in an interview with Shargh Newspaper.

“We have no chance for parliamentary elections and next presidential elections unless a miracle happens,” he added.

The Iranian Principlists are closer to Iran`s supreme leader and guard corps than the Reformers. A political face in the right-wing like, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf with the slogans “New Parliament ” and “Neo-Principlism ” has recalled young people to receive their ability to provide the elections list. Ghalibaf launched his third presidential campaign for the Iranian presidency on April 15, 2017, but on May 15, 2017, Ghalibaf withdrew, but he supported Ebrahim Raisi who is the current chief of Iran`s judiciary.

Another face is the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Some experts say Ahmadinezhad has a great plan for the next elections but so far he has not spoken about it. Recently he criticized toughly from the government of Rouhani and Iran’s Judiciary. Recently, some of his close activists arrested by Iran’s Judiciary, and they are in Evin Prison now. Some analyzers say Ahmadinezhad has high popularity, just as the people have welcomed warmly lately on his travels across the country.

JAMNA or “Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces” is another chance for Principlists in the next elections. JAMNA founded in late 2016 by ten figures from different spectrum of conservative factions, in the end, the party elected Ebrahim Raisi as a candidate for the presidential election but Raeisi defeated.

But Reformers are not hopeless, Mohammad Khatami as the leader of the Reformers, who served as the fifth President of Iran from 1997 to 2005 has said statements recently. He has wanted from the government to qualify the Reformers candidates for participation in the political event.

One of the Reformer’s big problems in the history of Iran `s elections has been the disqualification by the Guardian Council. According to Iran constitution, all candidates of parliamentary or presidential elections, as well as candidates for the Assembly of Experts, have to be qualified by the Guardian Council to run in the elections.

Some Reformers in reformist newspapers state that they will take part in the parliament elections on this condition the majority of Reformers’ candidates will be qualified by the Guardian Council.

Some analysts said the Iran parliament has not enough power in order to improve the country’s situation. Just as the parliament has approved the bill of “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime” by a 126 vote in last year, but the Guardian Council has disagreed with it and its fate shall determine by Expediency Discernment Council, while the government has frequently emphasized on the bill. The government believes the approving the bill will cause to reducing the bans about the economic transaction with the world.

Generally, Iran`s economic position is very critical currently, tough sanctions by Trump administration and the defeat of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) has caused that Iranians to be under serious problems. The stuff prices and inflation are at the highest level since Iran`s revolution in 1979. So, it seems any faction that focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections. Also, the more important issue is the participation rate of people. If dissatisfactions about economic problems will be continued, hope and joy between people would reduce the rate of Participation in the next elections. Some experts say based on experiences in Iran, when the rate of participation in the elections is reduced, the Principlists has a more chance for the victory, because the gray spectrum that is not black or white, usually has a willing to the Reformers. the spectrum includes younger people even teenagers in the urban society.

Some political observers say the gray spectrum has not very willing to participate in the next elections. Some suggested that the future situation, especially in the economic field is very important to make the willingness about the gray spectrum to participate.

Analysts said the winner of the presidential elections 2 years later is the winner of the parliamentary elections on Feb 21, 2020. The majority of the next parliament will affect the political space across the country. This procedure in Iran has precedent. Like the victory of the Reformers in the last parliamentary elections that it caused the Rouhani victory about 2 years ago.

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