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State of confusion on the edge of total collapse

Teja Palko

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Four years of fighting and no concrete solutions coming from regional, international actors or organizations, not a single action and agreement reached so far that would lead to the end of the conflict.

The collapse of the whole country’s system, rising number of ISIS fighters, hunger, chaos and human suffering, the suppression, the stagnation, slaughter, bleeding and deteriorating state and living standards are taking Syria further into the cycle of violence, poverty, misery and no unity in sight. Syria’s education, health and social welfare systems are also in a state of collapse. Life is hard in a country where every four of five Syrians live in poverty.

According to United Nations (UN) since the war began in Syria in 2011, an estimated 220.000 Syrians, mostly citizens have been killed. It all began with Arab spring and anti-governmental demonstration in March 2011. Protests against Bashar al-Assad that has been president since the July 2000 and where before him his father ruled Syria from 1970-200, quickly escalated into violent fighting with forming the Free Syrian Army. After security forces opened fire on a demonstration, and killing several, even more people went on the streets. In 2011 a state of emergency was declared and the High State Security Court was abolished. The same year United States imposed economic sanctions against president Bashar al-Assad and European Union banned the import of Syrian oil. Furthermore the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and also imposed sanctions against the Syrian regime. The next year, in the year 2012 we have seen many resolutions by UN than were not signed and were vetoed by different countries. With no peace in sight foreign countries have pulled their ambassadors from the country in war. Since the conflict escalated both the government and the rebels have been accused of war crimes, causing of civilian suffering, blocking the access to food, water and health services and even use of chemical attacks. First reports of usage of chemical weapon sarin came in the year 2013 and with it more international support to the rebels. Syria agreed to a plan to eliminate chemical weapons and stance that Syria is not in a civil war but the war on terror. In 2014 president Bashar al-Assad was reelected receiving 88.7% of the vote in the country’s first elections since 2011. The same year USA and allies launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

Conflict is further complicated because of opposing ethnic groups and the division between secular and Islamist fighters. The patterns of fighting are blear because of numerous fighting groups and many fronts. We have Kurds in the northeastern part of the county, regime forces with allies and opposition so called rebellion composed of mainly Sunnis, ISSIS fighters with al-Qaida presence but unfortunately no side is heading towards victory.

The situation is worsening from one day to another. In March this year, more than 3.9 million refugees from Syria were residing in neighboring countries. In Turkey there are as many as 1.700.000, in Lebanon 1.200.000, in Jordan 625.000, in Iraq 245.000 and in Egypt 137.000 based on reports of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR). A further 7.6 million have been internally displaced (IDPS) within the country, bringing the total number forced to flee their homes to more than 11 million which is half of the country’s pre-population crisis. In the last four years more than 11 million Syrians have been forced to leave from their homes. In the light of recent events and with the reports of the Assad regime used chlorine gas as part of an attack many calls have come from the international community for an investigation into the allegations but exodus continues.

Many regional and international actors play important role in the crisis. The regime has support of Iran with financial aid, some combat groups and technical support. Assad has also Hezbollah on his side with its members fighting on behalf of government troops. Further on Russia military supports and supplies Assad’s government in arms. Among the many supporters also Venezuela is helping the country in need with diesel import. Assad’s regime has also other supporters such as Iraq, Algeria and others. In ever shifting battlefield environment United States (US) led coalition airstrikes against IS continued from March further. Supporters of Anti-Assad movement compose of major Sunni states in the Middle East among others Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Arab League has also recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. European countries, Britain and France did also political, military and logistic supported the opposition. We have also seen diplomatic isolation of the Syrian government by numerous countries.

With neither side able to win only diplomatic solution is possible to end the war in the country. Many attempts to try to reach the peace were seen, among others Arab League peace plans from 2011-2012, Russian peace initiatives, Kofi Anan peace plan 2012, Eid al-Adha cease fire attempt and then UN convened conference in Switzerland with 2012 Geneva Communique that broke down after two rounds, where Syrian government refused to describe the opposition as rebel group instead they called them terrorists. We will see by the end of this month if the new UN effort to find a path to peace in Syria in Geneva with meeting and talking with more than 40 Syrian groups and 20 nations, including Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will bring any solutions.

Teja Palko is a Slovenian writer. She finished studies on Master’s Degree programme in Defense Science at the Faculty of Social Science at University in Ljubljana.

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Middle East

Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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Middle East

The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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