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Assad’s North Korean Connection

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Reports have emerged this week indicating the presence of North Korean military personnel in Syria. They note that 15 North Korean helicopter pilots are operating on behalf of the Assad regime within the country.

The reports have been validated by the pro-rebel but usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights . They are also not the first evidence that Pyongyang is actively involved on the ground in the Assad regime’s war effort.

Earlier this year, the Saudi-based regional newspaper Sharq al-Awsat carried eyewitness reports revealing the presence of North Korean officers among the Syrian regime’s ground forces in the city of Aleppo. On this occasion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was itself the source of the report.

Sharq al Awsat detailed the presence of between 11 and 15 North Korean officers in the city. Rami Abdul Rahman of the Observatory said that the men were artillery officers. They were not, he said, taking part directly in the fighting. Rather, the men were engaged in providing ‘logistical support in addition to the development plans of military operations.”

These sightings are the latest confirmation of the long, close and cooperative relationship maintained between Pyongyang and the regime of the Assads. The connection precedes the current Syrian war. It forms part of North Korea’s broader network of relationships in the Middle East.

Most famously, of course the plutonium reactor under construction at the Al-Kibar facility near Deir ez-Zor, destroyed by Israel in September 2007, was built under North Korean supervision. North Korean participation in the reactor’s construction was confirmed by a high-level Iranian defector, Ali Reza Asghari. According to Der Spiegel, North Korean scientists were present at the site at the time of the bombing.

But Assad’s fledgling nuclear program was not the only project in which Damascus was aided by Pyongyang. Cooperation also took place both in the field of conventional weapons, and in that of non-nuclear WMD.

In an interview on October 3rd with Radio Free Asia, former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol noted that North Korea has been supplying weaponry, including chemical weapons, to Syria since the early 1990s.

According to Bechtol, North Korea provides the Syrians with the ability to ‘marry up’ chemical weapons with missile systems. He notes that the North Koreans constructed two chemical weapons facilities for the Syrians, which remain in operation today.

In terms of conventional weapons, North Korea has played a vital part in Syria’s missile program. The North Koreans are acknowledged experts in the process whereby weapons are smuggled. They have continued to transport spare parts for Assad’s missiles into the country throughout the war, by air and by sea, coolly dismissive of the supposed international arms embargo.

According to a 2012 report prepared for the UN Security Council the South Koreans intercepted one shipment in May, 2012, which was carrying graphite cylinders en route to Syria for Assad’s missiles.

The Iraqi authorities claim to have diverted a plane carrying North Korean materiel to Syria, last September.

Bechtol, the former DIA man notes that ‘in the past few months there’s been an uptick in the number of North Korean advisors and logistics personnel on the ground that are helping Syrians resupply themselves’ and in the maintenance of weapons systems earlier supplied by Pyongyang. Such maintenance and resupply, of course, is vital for a country engaged in a long war, in which systems are in daily use.

Why are the North Koreans doing this? The answer lies not in the realm of ideology. The North Koreans are isolated and subject to sanctions. They need money, and will sell to whoever pays them.

So who is paying them? In the case of Syria, the answer is – almost certainly the Iranians. As with Russia, Syria does not get free handouts of arms from its sponsors outside of the region. Rather, it gets free cash handouts from its regional patron, Iran, for whom the survival of the Assad regime is most vital.

This money is then used to pay for Pyongyang’s and Moscow’s hardware and expertise.

Of course, Iran is North Korea’s main customer in the Middle East. So Pyongyang’s evident involvement in the Syrian war is also a matter of long standing alliances, as well as monetary gain.

Most intriguing in the latest development is the involvement of North Korean pilots. It is not clear if these men are actually engaged in combat on behalf of Assad, or in other tasks. But their presence appears to suggest that the dictator’s problems with manpower extend also to his air force. The lack of trustworthy fighters has been the main problem facing the regime since the outbreak of the war.

Iran has sought to solve it through the insertion of large numbers of Hizballah fighters, Iraqi Shia volunteers and also Iranian Revolutionary Guards into the fighting lines. If Pyongyang is now supplying pilots to the regime, then appears it can no longer rely even on its own airmen.

This is quite plausible. On the one hand, the Assad regime is, among other things, an ‘air force’ regime. Hafez Assad was himself a pilot and a commander of the Syrian Air Force. But as with other parts of the armed forces, the most loyal men in the air force are to be found in the most politically sensitive positions, not the most dangerous ones.

So while the very powerful Syrian Air Force Intelligence (Mukhabarat al-Jawiya) is largely officered by Syrian Alawis, the majority of the pilots are Sunnis.

As such, it is perfectly possible that the same problems of trust apply to Assad’s aircrews as those which afflict his ground forces.

The evidence suggesting the presence of North Korean soldiers and aviators in Syria ultimately is further testimony to the determined and effective effort underway from the very start of the war by Assad’s allies to keep him in place. It may also be assumed that the North Koreans have noted and enjoyed the rudderless, wavering US policy toward the same issue over the same period.

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Middle East

The Khashoggi crisis: Saudi Arabia braces for tougher post-election US attitude

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia is bracing itself for a potentially more strained relationship with the United States in the wake of Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives in this week’s mid-term elections and mounting Turkish efforts to corner the kingdom in the Khashoggi crisis.

To counter possible US pressure, the kingdom is exploring opportunities to diversify its arms suppliers and build a domestic defense industry. It is also rallying the wagons at home with financial handouts and new development projects in a bid to bolster domestic support for crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Democrats’ election victory has strengthened Saudi concerns that the Trump administration may pressure the kingdom to back down on key issues like the Yemen war that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two and the 17-month old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar.

US officials have argued that Saudi policies complicate their efforts to isolate and economically cripple Iran.

The officials assert that the boycott of Qatar and the fallout of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul constitute obstacles to the creation of a Sunni Muslim alliance against the Islamic republic, dubbed an Arab NATO, as well as the achievement of other US goals in the Middle East, including countering political violence and ensuring the free flow of oil.

Going a step further, senior Israelis say they have given up on the notion of a Sunni Muslim alliance whose interests would be aligned with those of the Jewish state and see their budding relations with Gulf states increasingly in transactional terms.

The Trump administration signalled its concerns even before the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.

“Our regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, entering into outright competition to the detriment of American interests and to the benefit of Iran, Russia and China,” National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a letter late summer, according to Reuters.

With the House expected to be tougher on arms sales to the kingdom and possibly go as far as imposing an arms embargo because of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen caused by Saudi and UAE military operations, Saudi Arabia has wasted no time in casting around for alternative weapons suppliers.

In apparent recognition that the Saudi military, reliant on US and European arms acquisitions, would find it difficult to quickly shift to Russian or Chinese systems, Saudi Arabia appears for now to be focussing on alternative Western suppliers.

That could prove to be risky with anti-Saudi sentiment because of the Yemen war also running high in European parliaments and countries like Spain and Germany either teetering on the brink of sanctions or having toyed with restrictions on weapons sales to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, nonetheless, has in recent days contracted Spanish shipbuilder Navantia to jointly build five corvettes for the Saudi navy and offered South African state-owned defense group Denel $1 billion to help the kingdom build a domestic defense industry.

The partnership with Denel would involve Saudi Arabia taking a minority stake in German defense contractor Rheinmetall, which designs armoured fighting vehicles and howitzers.

With sale of the US-made precision-guided munitions bogged down in Congress, Spain has stepped in to address Saudi Arabia’s immediate need. The question is however whether Spain can fully meet Saudi demand.

A US refusal already before the Gulf crisis and the Khashoggi incident to share with Saudi Arabia its most advanced drone technology, paved the way for Chinese agreement to open its first overseas defense production facility in the kingdom.

State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) will manufacture its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone, as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Saudi Arabia also fears that Democratic control of the House could strengthen opposition to a nuclear energy agreement with the kingdom. Five Republican senators called on President Donald J. Trump days before the mid-term election to suspend talks with Saudi Arabia.

Development of a defense industry would over time serve Prince Mohammed’s efforts to diversify the Saudi economy and create jobs.

So would  King Salman’s inauguration this week of 259 development projects worth US$6.13 billion ranging from tourism, electricity, environment, water, agriculture, housing, and transport to energy.  King Salman launched the projects during a curtailed visit to Saudi provinces designed to bolster support for his regime as well as his son, Prince Mohammed

On the other hand, the government’s most recent decision to restore annual bonuses and allowances for civil servants and military personnel without linking them to performance constitutes an attempt to curry public favour that runs contrary to Prince Mohammed’s intention to streamline the bureaucracy and stimulate competition.

Bonuses were cut in 2016 as part of austerity measures. They were restored last year and linked in May to job performance.

In a further populist move, King Salman also pardoned prisoners serving time on financial charges and promised to pay the debts up to US$267,000 of each one of them.

King Salman’s moves appear designed to lessen Saudi dependence on US arms sales and project a united front against any attempt to implicate Prince Mohammed in the death of Mr. Khashoggi.

The moves come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that the order to kill the journalist came “from the highest levels of the Saudi government” and the Trump administration demands Saudi action against the perpetrators and those responsible for the murder.

Failure to be seen to be taking credible action may not undermine King Salman’s rallying of the wagons at home but will do little to weaken calls in Washington as well as European capitals for tougher action in a bid to force Saudi Arabia to come clean on the Khashoggi case and adopt a more conciliatory approach towards ending the Yemen war and resolving the Gulf crisis.

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Middle East

The murder of Khashoggi and a start for the project of passing from Saudi Arabia

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Khashoggi murder and its widespread reflection throughout the world has hit Saudi Arabia to one of the toughest crises in its contemporary history. Of course, this is not the first time the Al Saud regime has committed a crime against its opponents, but in the last cases Western countries usually hide the regime’s anti-humanitarian actions because of their dependence on Saudi Arabia oil, or their Billions dollar sale of weapons or generous offers of the ruling regime and considered them as minor. However, the review of the European approach to the ban on the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia or the boycott of the Saudi investment conference by the world’s largest companies and even Trump ambiguous statements in this regard and the emphasis on the immediate ceasefire in Yemen suggests that a new process is emerging, the process that can be considered as a start for the project of passing from Saudi Arabia. In fact, it seems that oil and the lucrative Al Saud consumption market are no longer attractive to Western countries, and the murder of the Khashoggi also provided an excuse to end the alliance with one of the most reactionary and barbaric governments in the world.

Various analyzes have been made on the future of US-Saudi relations. In this regard, a group of experts believe that the only reason that the United States supports the Saudi government is oil and ensuring energy flow to the largest economy in the world. Meanwhile, with shale oil production and US self-sufficiency in oil production, there remains practically no reason to support Saudi Arabia and Tramp’s remarks on Saudi Arabia’s obligation to pay for their security costs precisely means that the U.S. should not jeopardize more the credibility and interests of the United States for such a costly alliance.

Referring to the Great Middle East Plan and the need to break up the powers of the region into smaller countries, the experts believe that the United States should provide the necessary ground for the balkanization of the region as soon as possible by cutting back from Saudi Arabia.

The scenarios that western thinkers have drawn for the future of West Asia over the period 2010 to 2020 are based on this region, along with China and Russia, should be submerged in insecurity and civil wars, and finally, out of the ashes of war provide ground for the consolidation of the US global empire and the realization of its desired new order as well as security of Israel, and interestingly, the emergence of ISIS, either wittingly or unwittingly, served most to realize this American scenario.

Under this plan, all countries in the region should be divided into smaller countries based on linguistic, ethnic, religious, and racial divisions and there are no exceptions in this area even for close allies. Therefore, although the use of Saudi leverage to curb Iran’s power in the region is necessary, but ultimately this regime, just like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan and other countries of the region, also must be fragmented without any consideration so that by formation of small, bankrupt and weak states virtually Israel emerges as the most powerful actor in the West Asia.

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Middle East

Arab NATO against Iran, an unfulfilled dream

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Washington will face defeat in the formation of a united Arab front against Iran, as Arab states are still struggling with many regional and domestic challenges and Iran will remain a strong actor in the region.

The largest military drill- land, naval, air and special forces kicked off in Egypt on Sunday with participation of the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan, and the observers Morocco and Lebanon.

The drill is held at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Egypt’s north-western governorate of Marsa Matrouh until November 16.

The exercise, dubbed Arab Shield 1, claims to come in the framework of strengthening joint military cooperation between Egypt and Arab countries, to build the combat capabilities of the armed forces, and achieve common objectives.

This is a military campaign that has long been the subject of talks and statements from the rise of the Arab NATO. Interestingly, Qatar and Oman did not participate in this exercise, and the location of the drill, shows that Egypt, with the largest Arab army is likely to be the headquarters of the Arab NATO.

The objective of this NATO surely is not to confront the Zionist regime, since the Arab states are moving towards normalization of their relations with Tel Aviv, which has intensified recently. In fact, the US government seeks to end the step-by-step implementation of the century deal and unveil it in the latest plan to form a new security and military order in the region. Hence, the ultimate goal of this military-security organization is to confront opposition of the new order, and at the head of them lay Iran, and the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance forces.

The military exercise comes only a month after the meeting of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the foreign ministers of Arab states in New York. Earlier, Persian Gulf military commanders held a meeting in Kuwait at the invitation of US military commanders in the region.

US President Donald Trump’s government is pursuing to launch a so-called Arabic version of the NATO coalition to confront Iran by putting subtle pressure on the Persian Gulf Arab States along with Egypt and Jordan. Of course, this coalition will be formed partly under the name of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), but it is also known as the Arab NATO. Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Saturday at the IISS Manama Dialogue, the annual Middle East’s security summit, that the coalition would be formed by the start of the New Year, a claim that many analysts are skeptical of.

The Arab NATO is a transformed plan that was first initiated at the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), an initiative launched during NATO’s 2004 Istanbul summit. The plan was to expand NATO to the Persian Gulf region. Proposed by Ahmed al-Sabah and approved by NATO Secretary General, the NATO office was launched in Kuwait in 2011.
The plan, however, has seen a few changes since:

Removal of Turkey and Qatar, Arab NATO will continue to work independently of the NATO, Expansion of the Arab NATO from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, particularly to Egypt, has the US support, counters Iran’s influence in the Middle East region, and coordination of operational intelligence with Israel.

The ICC is an offer to engage in practical security cooperation activities with states throughout the Greater Middle East. The initiative offers practical cooperation with interested nations in the Greater Middle East in such areas as: The ICC counter-WMD; counterterrorism; training and education; participation in NATO exercises; promoting military interoperability; disaster preparedness and civil emergency planning; tailored advice on defense reform and civil-military relations; cooperation on border security to help prevent illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people.

In fact, NATO seeks to confront new threats, including Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, and so on, to ensure the security of regional partners, prevent the non-proliferation regime gaining access to nuclear weapons, ensure the sources of energy and its transit lines, and provide a model of regional order with regional countries except Iran and Iraq.
The plan to form a new regional coalition was supposed to reach a very large circle, and the Arab NATO was going to confront the so-called hostile regional forces, but following the crisis between Qatar and Arab states in the Persian Gulf region in June 2017, it seems the coalition cannot stand united against Iran.

Many analysts believe that formation of the coalition will be postponed to 2019, particularly now that the Saudis are grappling with Jamal Khashoggi’s murder case in their consulate in Istanbul.

Perhaps the US is waiting to observe the impact of its political and economic sanctions on Iran prior to joining the regional coalition against Iran so are the Arab states in the region.

In addition, the Arab countries need more time to form this coalition, as they are struggling with many challenges in the political and military arena of the region, including Qatar’s crisis, the Yemeni War, Jamal Khashoggi’s case, and Arab differences in regional issues, especially over Palestine.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have different interpretation of terrorism. While Saudi Arabia cooperates with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and Syria, Egypt considers the Sunni Islamist organization a terrorist group. Saudi Arabia and Qatar also hold different views over the organization.

Iran’s influence in Arab countries, including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, creates further obstacles to the formation of the coalition. According to reports, Trump is scheduled to hold a meeting in Washington, where he will announce the launch of the regional coalition.

The US has placed a number of conditions on the Arab countries, including the need to fulfill Saudi military objectives in Yemen and the withdrawal of the strategic harbor of al-Hudaydah and reconciliation with Qatar.

Amidst all these, Trump is seeking an opportunity to announce the so called the “deal of the century” to resolve the issue of Palestine, and for that Arab countries need to have an integrated stance.

The other side of the deal is Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran is, too, promoting its position in the region by strengthening its strategic alliance.

Thus, Washington will face defeat in the formation of a united Arab front against Iran, as Arab states are still struggling with many regional and domestic challenges and Iran will remain a strong actor in the region.

First published in our partner MNA

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