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Bashar al-Assad feels safe, won’t quit

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It is by far clear now that Syrian president al Assad, under Russian shield, feels secure now and he is more firm than ever not to quit presidency. Russian strongman Putin who became president for third term now defends Assad who never faced – and is scared of – an election to stay in power. Possibly Putin, who promotes Russian variety of Soviet era democracy in Russian federation, feels there is hardly any difference between dynasty and democracy.

After pushing for the removal of President Assad for years, now USA, under pressure from Russia which withdrew troops from Syria possibly on agreement with Washington, seems stopped asking him to quit. This makes Assad to be firm in stay8in gin power. Russian military intervention made Assad’s stay in power fairly easy.

The main opposition, along with the United States and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include the departure of Assad from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.

The UN mediated third indirect peace talks between Syrian opposition and the Syrian government in Geneva on March 20 has not made even tentative resolution to end the war in Syria or Assad’s fate. Arguments over Assad’s fate were a major cause of the failure of previous UN peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 to end a civil war that has now lasted five years, killed more than 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis. The peace meeting in Geneva, owing to divergent opinions, also did not make any headway n revolving the political transition in Syria. The Syrian opposition assesses whether to continue indirect peace talks with the Syrian government.

The Syrian president looked more secure than ever at the start of the latest round of talks, riding high after a Russian-backed military campaign. But Russia’s surprise withdrawal of most of its forces during the week signaled that Moscow expected its Syrian allies to take the Geneva talks seriously. And de Mistura appointed a Russian expert to sit in the negotiations with him and to advice on political issues.

Russian president Putin has warned that his forces would return to Syria if required.

Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss the fate of President Bashar al-Assad -the issue which is far outside their comfort zone and are doing their best to avoid the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” and, emboldened by the Russian and US muscle that brought the participants to the negotiating table, he refuses to drop the subject. After a week of talks in Geneva, Mistura praised the opposition for the depth of their ideas, but criticised the veteran diplomats on the government side for getting bogged down. “The government is currently focusing very much on principles, which are necessary in any type of common ground on the transition,” he said, “but I hope next week, and I have been saying so to them, that we will get their opinion, their details on how they see the political transition taking place.”

Unlike previous rounds, the talks have run for a week without any hint of collapse, forcing the government delegation led by Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to acknowledge de Mistura’s demands. Ja’afari began by giving de Mistura a document entitled “Basic elements for a political solution”. “Approving these principles will open a serious dialogue under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said in a brief statement after the longest session of the talks so far. But officials and diplomats involved in the talks variously described the document as “very thin”, “bland” and “off the point”. It listed familiar goals such as maintaining a ‘secular state’ and Syria’s territorial integrity and the importance of fighting ‘terrorism’, according to sources who have read it. But it said nothing about a political transition.

In sessions with de Mistura, Ja’afari has approached the negotiations as slowly as possible, reopening UN resolutions and going through them “by the letter”, said a source with knowledge of the process. “Mr Ja’afari is still in a kind of delusion of trying to filibuster his way out of town, or to filibuster the opposition out of town,” said a western diplomat. “He will spend every minute questioning the nature of the opposition, quibbling about the font in the agenda.”

De Mistura said Ja’afari’s team needed to go faster and couldn’t avoid the substantive question forever. “The fact that the government delegation would like to set different rules or play with the terms of this agreement is I think a non-starter,” said opposition delegate Basma Kodmani.

A diplomat involved in the peace process said Assad was not used to having to compromise, and that made Ja’afari’s negotiating position rigid. “He has to have control. If he gives up 1 percent, he loses 100 percent. He’s designed like that,” the diplomat said.

In three meetings with each side during the week, de Mistura quizzed the negotiators about their ideas, and they were also able to put questions to their rivals through him.

The UN mediation team spends the sessions “stripping the papers apart and delving deep into the subject and forcing them to do more homework and forcing them to give answers”, said a source with knowledge of the process.

The negotiators do not meet each other, but face de Mistura in a functional, windowless room with desks arranged in a square. There is space for eight or nine people around each side, but the conditions are slightly cramped, and afford no luxury beyond a plastic bottle of mineral water on each desk. “De Mistura is dragging the regime in with his queries on their position paper, rather than allowing them to talk about what they want,” said the diplomat involved in the peace process. The regime had in the past a bit of space to play and to manoeuvre. He said: “The regime knows it has to come and stay but is not prepared for the idea that it has to engage the opposition.”

Syrian government is so far has refused to engage in detailed negotiations and instead continuing to starve Syrians into submission, its chief negotiator has said.

Mohammed Alloush, the leader of the Syrian opposition delegation at the peace talks, suggested in a interview that little progress has been made in the first week of negotiations and many pitfalls lie ahead. Alloush, a political figure in the Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group, is the senior negotiator for High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the official Syrian opposition delegation at the Geneva peace talks. He is probably the single most important figure in the opposition and through his connections with Jaysh al-Islam, which Damascus and Moscow consider a terrorist group, has credibility with some fighters on the ground.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syrian special envoy, is struggling to persuade the Syrian government to engage in detailed discussions about plans for a transitional body to run Syria over the next 18 months and the role of Bashar al-Assad in such a government. De Mistura is shuttling between the two main delegations in search of common ground but has admitted there are large gaps.

The opposition could not accept the Syrian president as part of the transitional body and added that “those with blood on their hands can have no part in a reconstituted Syrian army”.

The new transitional body, Alloush said, should have the powers of the president, the government, parliament and the courts. He added that those charged with war crimes should be dealt with by Syrian courts and not the International Criminal Court, arguing the ICC has a backlog of 30,000 cases that would delay justice.

Alloush said his team will decide whether to continue with the talks at the end of the week and the whole world can then see clearly who is procrastinating and who is putting obstacles in the way. He said so far the Syrian government had only put forward a very general paper of eight principles that was not relevant to the task of forming a transitional government.

By contrast, he said his team had put forward detailed papers covering justice, security and political transition. “We are ready to answer all questions in detail put to us by the UN. The UN has said our paper is detailed, positive and moderate. The government paper is simply not relevant to what we have come to discuss.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is due to meet Vladimir Putin for talks in Moscow this week that will include Syria. Alloush said “America had a moral duty to increase the pressure” and, in particular, needed to intervene to persuade Russia to require Assad to negotiate seriously, including by ending the use of starvation sieges to force Syrians to abandon the resistance. He also warned European leaders to be more involved in the talks. “More refugees are heading to Europe. The international community has to tackle the root cause of this problem. We cannot just deal with symptoms. The root cause is the one person Assad who has forced millions and millions to leave their homes”. “Take Bashar al-Assad and 1,000 criminals then Syria could take back the refugees. That would be the logical and just solution for this problem. The international community is capable of doing this. More financial measures are not the answer.”

In a further sign of problems ahead for De Mistura, Alloush showed hostility to the idea of the Syrian Kurdish YPG being represented at the talks, describing them as “followers of the Assad regime”. The YPG has been excluded from the talks, partly due to Turkish protests, and the HNC has other Kurds on its delegation. He also reported no progress on the issue of political detainees, saying “we know there are 9,000 women in detention centres and none of them have been released”.

Executions were carried out daily by the Assad regime. Reeling off a list of towns still under siege, Alloush said Russian intelligence was working with Syrian intelligence to blackmail towns especially in rural areas around Damascus by offering to trade food in return for reconciliation agreements and truces. Using food like this is a war crime, according to the UN.

Alloush also challenged claims that Russia had truly announced a military withdrawal last week, and accused Russia of a reckless bombing campaign. By saying they can return to return to Syria within four hours, it is clear it is not really even a partial withdrawal. The Russians were given targets that were not accurate: 90% of the air raids were conducted against citizens. They hit 67 schools, over 40 local markets and over 100 hospitals and medical facilities. Russians said they were targeting terrorists but really they were targeting civilians but even when they target Raqqa, they target civilians. Alloush said a war like this cannot be won from the air. Russia knows that.

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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