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Not Just About Assad: Explaining the Russian-Iranian Axis in Syria

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Russia and Iran – both members of the Caspian Five – believe they have acted as a main force for stability in the Caspian region and the Caucasus. Hidden under the waters of the Caspian Sea is a treasure trove of immense natural wealth, which both countries wish to protect at any cost for themselves.

While these riches are a potential source of conflict, both countries recognize that their efforts to cooperate must begin in the Caspian region because it gives them leverage economically and may even be the key to bolster their negotiating position in the international community writ large. For Russia, this could mean ensuring its geopolitical survival by maintaining its “sphere of special interests” across the former republics of the Soviet Union. For Iran, it could mean strengthening its respective international position and even help it progress towards being a regional kingpin, despite its unique non-Arab ‘outsider’ status.

Thus, both Iran and Russia have a keen interest in keeping the region – particularly Syria – stable and intact along a benign status quo axis. The situation in the Levant is so convoluted that it would take a long time to explain all of the different components. To stay focused on the Iranian-Russian alliance, however, it is important to understand why it is in the interest of the two countries to prop up the Assad regime. To understand why the destabilization of Syria would be devastating to the region, one only has to look at DAESH, which formed in the power vacuum left behind after Saddam’s Baathist government was dismantled. If Syria follows the same trajectory and the Bashar al-Assad regime is ousted, there will be nothing left to stop terrorist groups like al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and DAESH from consuming what is left of Syria and expanding beyond the region. If they spread their influence and ideology to other parts of the world, more countries may find themselves subjected to the same fate. While most of the West is at least peripherally concerned by this danger, countries like Iran and Russia see this in a much more direct and visceral way: to them Syria is not some far away province but a country right in their respective backyards and certainly a major component of their projected spheres of national security interests.

Within the Russian Federation, there are areas with a non-Russian and largely Muslim population in the North Caucasus – like Chechnya and Dagestan. The January 2011 suicide bombing in Moscow’s major commercial airport is evidence of the growing threat these terrorist organizations represent to Russia’s existence and have represented since the early 1990s. Iran also fears terrorist threats that lurk just outside its porous border. However, enigmatic Iran faces an additional two-pronged threat: they are a non-Arab Shiite Persian theocracy with what some consider the most Islamist, militant government in the Middle East. This not only puts them at odds with Sunni terrorist organizations, but with the governments of Iran’s Sunni neighbors that do not appreciate Tehran’s evangelistic efforts to encourage their own Shiite populations to rise up with local insurrections. Additionally, Iran is not popular among the more moderate regimes in surrounding Arab countries.

Clearly, under these circumstances, Russia and Iran believe they must strengthen their relations with each other and with other members of the anti-DAESH coalition, whoever they happen to be. These include Syria, Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. To further exacerbate the problem, the Iranian-Russian axis believes the United States has deliberately nurtured and encouraged the growth of DAESH in both Syria and Iraq, at least by its overemphasized focus on supporting groups trying to overthrow Assad. Rightly or wrongly, both Iran and Russia feel DAESH exists today as such a problem because America took its eye off the more important global security ball, instead wanting to play ‘democratizer’ in Damascus. Even China has expressed concern over this problem and many believe it could even become the next member of the coalition in Syria.

As Russia and Iran continue to intervene in Syria, many have questioned the true intentions of this alliance. In its airstrike campaigns, Russia has been accused of targeting moderate Syrian rebels – insurgents who have no affiliation with DAESH and in fact rebelled long before the Islamic State came into being. Among the areas that have been hit by Russian airstrikes are supposedly ones that accommodate groups supported by the United States and its allies. Furthermore, Russia skirted around Turkey – which is an ally of the United States and a firm opponent of Assad – to send its military equipment to Syria over the Caspian Sea (rather than the Caucasus isthmus), where the airspace rules are unclear.

While there are many theories surrounding this mystery, one thing is obvious. Relations within this triangle have been strained for a very long time. Until the 1980s, Syria was among Russia’s closest allies in the region and in fact the Baathist regime was more socialist in orientation than most Arab regimes. Syria also provided Russia its only naval base on the Mediterranean – one of its most geostrategic assets. Things got a bit more intense when Vladimir Putin came to power and insisted on maintaining good relations with Israel. But this is in keeping with Putin’s personal foreign policy of cultivating assets that can benefit Russia regardless of how those assets interact with each other. He wryly noted the United States was the other major power in the world that commonly does this.

The alliance between Syria’s pan-Arab secular regime and Iran’s Islamic theocracy was suspicious from the start. It began when Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad chose to support the Iranian revolution as a sign of protest against the US-imposed world order. While Syria and Iran did cooperate with one another on several issues, both countries knew there was a deep, conflicting divergence in their ideological characteristics and regional aspirations. They both knew there would come a time when their divergent political goals would clash with one another. For example, Syria was not impressed with Iran’s backdoor dealings with the Americans and Iran was offended by Syria’s participation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its willingness to make concessions in regards to its territorial stability.

While Russia and Iran are clearly busy building the foundation of a new geostrategic bloc in the region, what is not evident is why Syria – despite the fact that its very survival depends on it – refuses to let go of its attitude of defiance towards the United States and its allies. It appears that Assad believes that this stance will guarantee the support of the Syrian people and ensure the survival of his regime. Unfortunately, the same tactics Assad used to build up his corrupted legitimacy within his own country is working against him now. Because Assad does not have much more than hereditary custom to offer his people as to why he should remain in power, his country has devolved into chaos. One thing is certain: Assad should not assume the Russian-Iranian axis is about propping his regime up personally. In all likelihood, it is much more about maintaining a Syrian territorial space that is open to Russian and Iranian interests and policies. WHO happens to be leading the country doesn’t really matter to these two regional giants, as long as said leader is willing to be a strategic and close partner. For now, that is Assad and Assad only. But that doesn’t mean it can only be Assad moving forward into the future.

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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