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An Entanglement of Enemies: What Russia’s Presence in Syria Truly Reveals

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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Authors: Dr.Matthew Crosston, Nenad Drca

Over the years America has made little progress in Iraq and Syria, something Russia is determined to change apparently.

The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s departure, but facing Russian military involvement, Iranian ground troops, Hezbollah military units, many armed jihadists groups, and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is facing a very convoluted and unclear situation that it seems unable to overcome on its own. NATO is concerned with the recent Russian creation of an A2/AD zone (anti access/area denial system) in Syria. This anti access/area denial strategy could severely hinder the ability of the Western alliance to use its military assets in Syria. Moscow’s military moves in the Middle East and its geopolitical positioning around the globe strive to embarrass America’s image as a reliable and confident player when it comes geopolitics and fighting terror. For the most part, this is just Russia employing a ‘turnabout is fair play’ principle, after what it feels is American harassment of Russia on many fronts. What is clear, after a subtle analysis of the consequences of Russia’s entrance into Syria, is an entanglement of enemies that might signal much more chaos before any substantive coordination.

The new U.S. strategy against DAESH in Syria will be backed by special operations forces in Erbil, Northern Iraq, and meant to be strengthened by cooperation with the Iraqi military in retaking key cities, with expanded security assistance by Jordan and Lebanon. This was done to counter the sudden Russian military expansion into the region. Iraqi Shiite politicians were calling for Russians to conduct airstrikes against DAESH in Iraq as well. Following intensive talks between Iraqi and U.S. officials, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the Iraqi government had promised it would not request any Russian airstrikes or military support for operations against DAESH. The United States is trying to engage in very demanding diplomatic talks which include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, firm supporters of Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are opposed to the Syrian Assad regime. Of course, it would have been better if these diplomatic talks took place earlier with more intensity, because it is hard to overestimate just how difficult getting all of these disparate players to cooperate at the negotiating table is.

The complexity of these current diplomatic talks is evident by the fact that are still no agreements to establish areas of collaboration in various air campaigns or even to share intelligence and target information in Syria. The lack of military and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the United States is pushing both sides to resort to Cold War-style tactics of proxy war. In addition, Russian cooperation in the region with Iran could imply proxy conflict that could create tension with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait. The United States is walking a fine line by attempting to court multiple sides while ensuring certain relationships do not escalate into something much worse. Indeed, it is proving quite difficult to wage war when ‘allies’ do not agree on the ‘enemy.’

Before Russia’s entrance, America’s Persian Gulf allies wanted to fight the Syrian government but refuse to attack radical Islamic groups. Turkey was against the Syrian regime and DAESH but in reality it wanted to fight and weaken the Kurds, which so far have been one of the few good American allies and effective fighters against DAESH. Another U.S. ally, Israel, is cautiously observing the landscape and seems to be ready to act if any threat materializes against its interests. But other than that, Israel seems intent on remaining outside the fight. In all this it is fair to describe the fight against DAESH not so much a coalition but as a competing potpourri: it is more chaos than coordination. Then Russia arrives with a lean but clear objective of assisting its old Arab ally, Assad, while restoring its national prestige in the Middle East. Russia has received full endorsement to stay in the region from both Syria and Iran. A third party, Iraq, is considering the same. By comparison, U.S. diplomats are facing the very difficult task of appeasing many different allies whose demands seem non-negotiable and not compatible with each other.

Asking Russia to stop its air campaign would play into the propaganda that the U.S. is not interested in defeating DAESH if someone else does it. If Russia is allowed to weaken DAESH in Syria and Iraq then that would be a major blow for the U.S. If the United States chooses to follow Turkey’s example of arming certain militant groups, then the risk is that it could find itself with a group of jihadists who are impossible to control at the end of the conflict. Ironically, this is the original criticism Russia made against the U.S. back when the first opposition groups fought against Assad. Another choice is to join Russia in its fight but that will make the U.S. look like it is endorsing a leader it has accused of dictatorship and oppression. So far, America simply seems incapable of cooperating openly with Russia, even with the terror fight.

Are there any real options for this conflict in terms of diplomatic negotiations and concessions? Realistic electoral transition in Syria cannot take place without advanced talks and a lasting ceasefire, in addition to international observers. Only the combined pressure from Russia and the United States can realistically force those conditions on Syria. Russia can use massive debt to pressure Syria to comply and to promise economic relief once Assad is replaced. The alternative for Moscow is to indefinitely support the Syrian regime and military. That could be something economically unpalatable to Putin. In a show of good will, Europe and the U.S. could suspend their sanctions against Russia and encourage Turkey to remind Russia of its plans to expand trade there from $32 billion to $100 billion dollars in the next five years. The EU can assure the Russians that they will support cutting the weapons flow to jihadist groups throughout the area that often include Chechens. Reassurance from the EU and Turkey about stopping the weapons flow would make Russia feel better about militant groups such as Jaish Al-Muhajireen and Jaish Al Fatah, in addition to DAESH, which all include Chechen fighters. Russia is worried that hardened Chechen jihadists will always return from Middle East battlefields to Southern Russia and launch terrorist attacks against Russian citizens, something that has already played out in the past with both the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

These diplomatic discussions could potentially bring some militants and government representatives into direct negotiations, which Geneva talks have always failed to accomplish. To this end aid could be provided only to non-Salafist militants who promise a protection of religious minorities. The role of YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit) will have to be carefully negotiated with Turkey. In short, there are far more questions than answers involving far more players than most Western media reports seem to realize. This entanglement of enemies is far more complex than a simple reduction to Cold War proxies. Indeed, the world should be afraid when we look longingly at the prospect of Cold War proxy conflicts as an improvement over the current state of affairs.

MD Executive Vice Chairman Dr. Matthew Crosston is Director over all Intelligence Programs at the American Military University and Professor of Global Security and Strategic Intelligence. His work in full can be accessed at: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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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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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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