So far the United States and their coalition have conducted 12,199 aerial bombing operations in Syria and Iraq – exactly 8,322 in Iraq and 3,877 in Syria. Hence Inherent Resolve, the operation of said US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, has not at all been irrelevant at militarily level. If anything, it lacked a “war aim”, just to quote Von Clausewitz.
For the time being, the Inherent Resolve operation has destroyed 139 tanks; 374 Humvee, the specific armed self-propelled units produced by the United States and spread among all the warring factions; 1,162 Command and Control areas, especially ISIS ones and, more recently, areas of the Al Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda “branch” in Syria and in the Iraqi Shiite “Green Zone” around Baghdad; 5,894 buildings and 7,118 ISIS combat areas; 1,272 oil infrastructure units, including both wells and connecting lines, as well as 6,820 other unspecified “targets”.
But the central issue of the Syrian war is still centred on Aleppo: on May 7, 2016 Turkey sent its Special Forces to the Northern Syrian town, which is the real “centre of gravity” of this great and original proxy war, with a view to identifying the position of the ISIS missile launchers.
Moreover, Turkey also wanted to detect and follow the Kurdish movement lines in the areas east of Aleppo, so as to ban any YGP collaboration with the forces of the US-led Coalition and of the coalition coordinated by the Russian Federation.
As always happens, immediately after the “cease-fire”, clashes started around the town in order to reposition the forces, soon after the diplomatic-political balances portraying the existing situation.
During the “ceasefire”, the side forces of Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, with support from Iran and the Hezbollah, tried to conquer the Handarat district, north of Aleppo, precisely while both the United States and Russia were about to close the negotiations.
Negotiations which they both need to definitively clarify the balance of power in their respective coalitions, as well as to refine the selection of future goals and to better observe the opponents’ strategy and tactics.
Handarat is the last ring of Bashar’s encirclement of Aleppo and we must not forget that very recently the Alawi regime has gained the support of a new pro-Assad force created among the Palestinians, namely “the Leopards of Homs”.
Even before, the Palestinian movement had shown its new pro-Alawi (and pro-Iranian) configuration with the creation of the “volunteer” militias for Bashar, called “the Khaybar Brigade” and Quwat al-Ridha, namely “the al-Ridha Forces”, integrated into the Hezbollah units in Syria.
Where there is no more Saudi support, no longer interested in Israel’s encirclement, there is the new Iranian geopolitics, interested in managing a dual war, the one against the ”Zionist Entity” and the other against what we might call the Sunni International.
And it is precisely on May 7, 2016 that Iran announced it had lost – in an ambush by the “Al Nusra Front” and the “Brown Berets” of the Turkish Special Forces – over 30 “military advisers” killed by a battery of MILAN anti-tank missiles bought and distributed by the Turkish intelligence services to the Al Qaeda section in Syria..
Hence Assad’s army difficulty in regaining full control of Aleppo, which is also the contact point between Syria and Turkey, as well as the hub of ISIS’ illegal trade, the point of friction between the Kurds and the other warring factions and hence the real goal of the current Syrian proxy war in the North.
This adds to the rebellion in the Hama prisons, another failure for the Syrian Arab Army.
Too many open fronts are the sign of imminent defeat.
In essence, Russia is realizing it can no longer sustain – on its own – the operations in the region without a collaborative relationship with the Unite States, while it has no interest in exploiting Bashar el Assad and especially the Iranians, who may have greater ambitions for the new Alawi Syria and even endanger the autonomy of the Russian bases in Latakia and Tartus, by surrounding them with Pasdaran cells to support Assad’s future regime – if ever any for the whole Syria.
Nor Moscow wants to increase costs and engagements in the Syrian region, already too expensive and anyway oversized compared to Russia’s real interests on the field.
Furthermore, the assassination of the Supreme Commander of the Lebanese “Party of God” in Syria, which took place on May 13, 2016 at Damascus International Airport, where the Hezbollah had their Supreme Command, is further evidence of the jihadist Sunni forces’ resilience in Syria, as well as of the structural weakness of Iran’s engagement in the region and the difficulties still incurred by Bashar el Assad in fully controlling his territory.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah in the Lebanon, is sure that this operation is the seal of a new unity of action between the United States and Russia in Syria, while the Lebanese victim was reprogramming the dislocation of the “Party of God” along the border between Syria and the Lebanon, which certainly neither Assad nor Russia likes.
Until few days ago, the latest Russian aircraft sorties hit east of Idlib, directly in the Aleppo area, then south of Hama, the area still held by the so-called “rebels” and finally Deir el Zour, in the West of the country.
Upon US request, however, both the United States and Russia immediately included Aleppo in the region of the current truce, which means that also Assad’s army has decided it would certainly opt for a “regime of calm” around that city.
Nevertheless Russia emphasizes that the Syrian Arab Army is still waging and fighting “a wide jihadist offensive in Aleppo”, implicitly backed by Turkey which, obviously, does not want a change of the US strategy and, above all, does not want to miss the strategic axis of the town where the soap was invented – a city which is the real gateway to Syria and its hub vis-à-vis the large Sunni jihad system.
Strangely Turkey – which is the second NATO armed force in terms of size – has not been reprimanded by the Alliance for its behaviour in Syria, but probably the Atlantic forces must face two long-term geopolitical problems: the increasingly evident US disengagement from the Greater Middle East, as well as the impossibility for the Alliance’s “EU pillar” to militarily take charge of the Syrian issue on its own.
Therefore we confine ourselves to a business as usual strategy and to paying lip service to humanitarian goals.
Currently the French and German Ministers for Foreign Affairs want an impossible long truce in Aleppo, so as to renew the Geneva and Vienna “peace talks” of the International Syrian Support Group, a diplomatic organization which met for the last time on May 17 (the day when the US offensive began) with the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the United Nations, always supporting the cessation of hostilities.
The operational, and still tacit, agreement between the United States and Russia might not go along the lines of the national cessation of hostilities – as precisely called for in Vienna as from May 17, but along the lines of a new distribution of costs and future areas of influence in Syria.
The “tacit agreement” in the region of a huge proxy war between Russia and the United States is supported even by Bashar el Assad, although we do not know until when.
So far it is supposed to be based on the fact that the United States are convinced that the Russian Federation has “a deep and unique knowledge of the ground”, which they still lack, while Russia still states it wants to military support the Alawi “legitimate government”.
Against this background, however, the real card to play is the Israeli one.
Last Monday, President Putin met secretly with the Head of the Israeli government, Netanyahu, both for an “exchange of information ad views” on the Syrian issue and for Israel’ support to the effective and definitive contact between the United States and Russia.
Hence the US allegations of a Russian “military intervention” in the region are soon dispelled, but covert and secret operations increase, also with the Jewish State’s brokerage, so as to unite the forces of the two major States involved in the Syrian region.
As we saw earlier, we cannot even maintain that the large US-led coalition has stood idle faced with the war operations in favour of the “moderate rebels”, at first – an odd invention of the US propaganda – and later, more decisively, against the Al Nusra Front and the huge jihadist Sunni system – which could be seen as a sort of acknowledgment of previous faults and mistakes.
Probably the United States do not even trust too much the autonomous and significant Saudi presence in Syria, and do not even want to provide – through the deterioration of the situation in the Syrian region – the opportunity for a full scale confrontation between Iran and the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia.
President Obama has well tried and tested the irrationality of the current Wahhabi ruling class.
And this is President Putin’s real victory.
The Head of the Kremlin who, even in the case of the Russian military aircraft shot down by Turkey, showed a strategic balanced and rational attitude which, however, will not be for free for Turkey when the dust settles and the situation gets back to normal.
Most importantly, President Putin has clearly calculated that the Russian direct and ongoing engagement would immediately call for equivalent American support, thus leading to Russia’s real goal of the war in Syria: to force the United States to hold talks on an equal footing, which Russia may also focus on the Ukrainian issue and the NATO and US actions along the new borders of the old Cold War in Europe.
President Putin’s strength and decision blocked the first US operations in Syria, designed to tacitly stop the expansion of Russia’s engagement.
During that phase the US goal was that the Russian troops could increase the Russian Federation’s weight at the final negotiating table.
Moreover, the United States have realized that it is not possible to contain Russia’s expansion in Western Syria and to fight ISIS at the same time, by possibly using the jihadist groups calling themselves “moderates”, sometimes trained – at the beginning of hostilities – by CIA before their moving to Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.
The less naïve or incapable Europeans, however, have always denied there was a realistic plan to reduce the Russian clout in the Syrian region and have also stated that the cost of sanctions (and Russian counter-sanctions) is really too high, even compared to a final reasonable bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia.
The EU economy must not be killed to shape a bilateral deal which, however, could not occur.
Hence, precisely after the elimination of the Hezbollah leader in Syria, the United States decided to increase their military engagement in the country and, for the first time, again on May 17, the US F-16 aircraft bombed the jihadist forces around Aleppo, without hitting directly – as far as we know – the Iranian positions and the positions of the Lebanese “Party of God”, as well as the positions of the Afghan Shiites “volunteers” and the other 13 groups supporting the Pasdaran in Iran.
According to the data provided by our intelligence sources, the targets of the US air strikes were troops, bases and transport infrastructure used by ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, which, sensing the change in the US strategy, had already begun to fight even against the “moderate” jihad.
It is US sound support also for Bashar el Assad, but now we have got accustomed to these US sudden changes of strategy in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.
In this case, the primary issue for President Obama is obviously to quickly settle the Syrian issue, by recognizing Russia’s right to be present in Tartus and Latakia and in the whole local system, at least to prevent the Iranian expansion and to stabilize the presence – which could become dangerous – of Saudi Arabia, south and east of the State that the French colonizers wanted to be led by the Alawi minority, becoming officially Shiite only after the decision of the Lebanese Imam, Mussa Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.
The US F-16 aircraft took off from the Turkish base of Incirlik, which could lead us to think that also Turkey is not interested in an endless extreme radicalization of the Syrian “proxy war”.
Probably the United States have ensured to President Erdogan his droit de regard, namely some scrutiny on the Sunni majority in Syria, in discordant harmony with Saudi Arabia.
The F-16 aircraft hit Aleppo and Idlib, another difficult position for the axis between Assad and Russia.
The Turkish scrutiny will be curbed and restrained by the Russian presence on the territory, so as to avoid Turkish adventures in Central Asia which would do much harm also to the United States, thus calling them again into the region for a confrontation which could not but finally affect also China.
The US air strikes, however, have always been coordinated with the Russian command of the Humaynim base and “mediated” by the information available to the Russian and American officers in Jordan.
Hence, today, the contenders in the Syrian skies are ten: USA, Russia, Israel, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Syria, Turkey and Jordan.
Moreover, the US CENTCOM, namely the structure which commands and controls all American forces in the Middle East, has repositioned some of the Special Forces units at the Remalan base, in northern Syria, near the Kurdish town of Hassakeh.
Therefore some support of the US Special Forces is expected for the final taking of Aleppo, which is and will be the real turning point of the war in Syria.
But what will happen afterwards?
President Putin will sit at the negotiating table in Vienna or Geneva with the winner’s hard, but relaxed, look.
He will be in a position to keep his vital Mediterranean region, an ever more inevitable strategic counterweight as against the Western penetration in Ukraine, as well as an essential bargaining chip for negotiations both in the Middle East and in the Don region.
Conversely President Obama will be ensured an important role and place for the United States in Syria – at a time when the US-led Coalition forces become strategically irrelevant, despite the large number of operations carried out successfully – and will be in a position to have a right of direct strategic brokerage even with Bashar al-Assad, as in the good old days of his father Hafez.
Turkey will be in a position to have a controlled system of influence on the Sunni areas, with the guarantee – carefully monitored – it will break any relations with the local jihad.
Furthermore Saudi Arabia will not directly clash with Iran, at a time of economic difficulties for the Kingdom and of slow internal destabilization.
Iran will avoid radicalising the clash in its Shiite system that it has also shown to be unable to fully control, at least in an exclusively military way.
Moreover Israel will prove to be able to play its new role as great power broker in the Greater Middle East, as well as genuine regional and international power, by balancing itself with Russia and maintaining its old relations with the United States, thus playing a future role as “maverick” that currently nobody can fully predict.
Saudi sports diplomacy: A mirror image of the kingdom’s already challenged policies
Saudi sports diplomacy is proving to be a mirror image of the kingdom’s challenged domestic, regional and foreign policies.
Overlorded by sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, Saudi sports diplomacy, like the kingdom’s broader policies, has produced at best mixed results, suggesting that financial muscle coupled with varying degrees of coercion does not guarantee success.
Mr. Al-Sheikh, a 37-year old brash and often blunt former honorary president of Saudi soccer club Al Taawoun based in Buraidah, a stronghold of religious ultra-conservatism, and a former bodyguard of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is together with Saud al-Qahtani among the king-in-waiting’s closest associates.
Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s wealthiest investors, acknowledged Mr. Al-Sheikh’s ranking in the Saudi hierarchy when he made a donation of more than a half-million dollars to Saudi soccer club Al Hilal FC weeks after having been released from detention.
Prince al-Waleed was one of the more recalcitrant detainees among the scores of members of the ruling family, prominent businessmen and senior officials who were detained a year ago in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel as part of Prince Mohammed’s power and asset grab.
Prince Al-Waleed said on Twitter at the time that he was “responding to the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh.”
Mr. Al-Qahtani, who was recently fired as Prince Mohammed’s menacing information czar in connection with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was banned this week from travelling outside the kingdom. Mr. Al-Sheikh has not been linked to the Khashoggi murder.
Nevertheless, his sports diplomacy, exhibiting some of the brashness that has characterized Prince Mohammed as well as Mr Al-Qahtani’s approach, has largely failed to achieve its goals. If anything, it appears to have contributed to the kingdom’s growing list of setbacks.
Those goals included establishing Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse in regional and global soccer governance; countering Qatari sports diplomacy crowned by its hosting of the 2022 World Cup; projecting the kingdom in a more favourable light by hosting international sporting events; becoming a powerhouse in soccer-crazy Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation; and using the competition for the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to bully Morocco into supporting the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar.
To be sure, with the exception of a cancelled tennis exhibition match in Jeddah between stars Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, most scheduled sporting events, including this season’s opening Formula E race in December and the Italian Supercoppa between Juventus and AC Milan in January, are going ahead as planned despite a six-week old crisis sparked by the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
Yet, if last month’s friendly soccer match in Jeddah between Brazil and Argentina and this month’s World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) Crown Jewel showpiece are anything to go by, major sporting events are doing little to polish the kingdom’s image tarnished not only by the Khashoggi killing but also the war in Yemen that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. The sports events have so far failed to push Mr. Khashoggi and Yemen out of the headlines of major independent media.
Mainstream media coverage of Saudi sports has, moreover, focussed primarily on Saudi sports diplomacy’s struggle to make its mark internationally. One focus been the fact that Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer body FIFA, has run into opposition from the group’s European affiliate, UEFA, to his plan to endorse a US$25 billion plan for a new club tournament funded by the Saudi and UAE-backed Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
If adopted, the plan would enhance Saudi and Emirati influence in global soccer governance to the potential detriment of Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia and the UAE spearhead a 17-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar designed to force it to surrender its right to chart an independent course rather than align its policies with those of its Gulf brothers.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to engineer a situation in which Qatar is either deprived of its hosting rights or forced to share them with other states in the region, a possibility Mr. Infantino has said he was exploring.
Mr. Infantino has also said he was looking into implementing an expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams already in 2022 rather than only in 2026. An expansion of the Qatari World Cup would probably involve including others in the Gulf as hosts of the tournament. Qatari officials have all but ruled out sharing their hosting rights.
Another media focus has been alleged Saudi piracy aimed at undermining Qatar-owned BeIN Corp, the world’s biggest sports rights holder, including the rights to broadcast last summer’s Russia World Cup in the Arab world.
Mr. Al-Qahtani reportedly played a key role in the sudden emergence of BeoutQ, a bootleg operation beamed from Riyadh-based Arabsat that ripped live events from BeIN’s feed and broadcast the games without paying for rights. The Saudi government has denied any relationship to the pirate network.
The piracy has sparked international lawsuits, including international arbitration in which BeIN is seeking US1 billion in damages from Saudi Arabia. The company has also filed a case with the World Trade Organization.
FIFA has said it has taken steps to prepare for legal action in Saudi Arabia and is working alongside other sports rights owners that have been affected to protect their interests.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s effort to create with funds widely believed to have been provided by Prince Mohammed an international Saudi sports portfolio that would project the kingdom as a regional power broker collapsed with fans, players and club executives in Egypt furious at the Saudi officials buying influence and using it to benefit Saudi rather than Egyptian clubs.
“No one, no one at all — with all due respect to Turki or no Turki … will be allowed to interfere in the club’s affairs,” said Mahmoud el-Khatib, chairman of Egyptian club Al Ahli SC, one of the Middle East’s most popular clubs with an estimated 50 million fans. Mr. Al-Sheikh had unsuccessfully tried to use his recently acquired honorary chairmanship of Al Ahli to take control of the club.
Al Ahli’s rejection of his power grab persuaded Mr. Al-Sheikh to resign in May and instead bankroll Al Ahli rival Pyramid FC. He invested US$33 million to acquire three top Brazilian players and launch a sports channel dedicated to the team.
The club’s fans, like their Al Ahli counterparts, nonetheless, denounced Mr. Al-Sheikh and the kingdom and insulted the Saudi official’s mother in crass terms during a match in September. Mr. Al-Sheikh decided to abandon his Egyptian adventure after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ignored his request to intervene. “Strange attacks from everywhere, and a new story every day. Why the headache?” Mr Al-Sheikh said on Facebook.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s attempt to form a regional powerbase by creating a breakaway group of South Asian and Middle Eastern soccer federations beyond the confines of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) collapsed five months after the formation of the South-West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) when seven South Asian nations pulled out with immediate effect.
The collapse of SWAFF and Mr. Al-Sheikh’s withdrawal from Egypt were preceded by his backing of the US-Canadian-Mexican bid for the 2026 World Cup against Morocco after he failed to bully the North Africans into supporting the boycott of Qatar.
Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
That was Mr. Al-Sheikh’s position six months ago. Today, men like Prince Mohammed and Messrs. Al-Sheikh and Al-Qahtani are seething. US President Donald J. Trump is proving to be an unreliable ally. Not only is he pressuring the kingdom to come up with a credible explanation for Mr. Khashoggis’ killing, Mr. Trump is also seemingly backtracking on his promise to bring Iran to its knees by imposing crippling economic sanctions.
Saudi distrust is fuelled by the fact that Mr. Trump first asked the kingdom to raise oil production to compensate for lower crude exports from Iran and then without informing it made a 180-degree turn by offering buyers generous waivers that keep Iranian crude in the market instead of drive exports from Riyadh’s arch-rival down to zero.
Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh, drew his pro-American definition of Saudi Arabia First from the crown prince’s focus on the United States. Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh and other senior Saudi officials may be considering whether putting the kingdom’s eggs primarily in one basket remains the best strategy.
Whatever the case, Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sweep through regional and global sports has left Saudi leaders with little to leverage in the kingdom’s bid to pick up the pieces and improve its image tarnished first and foremost by Mr. Khashoggi’s killing but also by the trail the sports czar has left behind.
Paris Peace Forum: A missed opportunity for the Middle East
Timed to coincide with the centennial of the World War I armistice, the Paris Peace Forum (PPF) launched by French president Emmanuel Macron adopted a welcome approach to the root causes of contemporary conflict, including climate change and the double-edged sword represented by new technologies.
The forum, which took place from November 11-13, showcased projects that spoke to the innovation and collaboration critical to improving lives and reducing tensions across the globe.
Conspicuous by their absence
Even though the summit saw 65 heads of state from all over the world come together to launch the event, precious few of those leaders came from the Middle East – even though the region could benefit as much as any other part of the world from this “Davos for democracy.” While this first peace summit represented a promising start, any future editions need to find a way to make inroads with citizens in the countries where they are needed most. Of course, this is a two-way street, with leaders in those countries needing to participate in and draw lessons from such gatherings.
The Middle East’s most notable representatives at the event were Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Their presence was fitting: while so many of their neighbors jostle with each other to secure their own geopolitical ends, Qatar and Lebanon have faced down the instability surrounding them to protect themselves from dangerous regional currents. Unfortunately, the leaders who could have really used reminding of the importance of peace were absent from the stage.
An “island” of stability
Qatar, for its part, has been the subject of a regional blockade for the best part of 18 months. A coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all severed ties with the country since June 2017 for its alleged “support for terrorism” but more realistically for its willingness to deal with Iran against a backdrop of acrimony between the two sides of the Gulf. The Saudis, for their part, have gone so far as planning to cut Qatar off from the mainland with a new canal.
Far from buckling, however, Qatar has proven remarkably resilient and stuck firmly to a strategy of de-escalation with both sides of the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Events since have rewarded that cool-headedness. Global markets nervous about the turbulence in Riyadh are now looking to Qatar as a regional investment driver instead. Ironically enough, none other than Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman praised the performance of the Qatari economy last month.
Delicate peace in Beirut
Lebanon has had greater difficulty insulating itself from the instability across its border with Syria, but Saad Hariri has nonetheless maintained a fragile domestic peace even after an apparent kidnapping and forced resignation (later rescinded) orchestrated by bin Salman in November of last year. Hariri was detained for two weeks and only released on the back of intense international pressure, apparently out of Saudi anger with the Lebanese premier for cooperating with his Shi’a Hezbollah rivals in Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s torturous system of confessional politics, however, difficult compromises are the nature of the game. Hariri and his Sunni-led political movement have no choice but to negotiate with Hezbollah’s Shi’a faction over the balance of political power on an ongoing basis to keep the country stable. Hariri’s resistance to Saudi demands for aggression has helped keep the peace between Lebanese Sunnis and Shi’a, preventing the sectarian fires that have torn Syria apart from jumping across the border.
External actors have key roles to play
Of course, none of the crises in the Middle East can be viewed in a vacuum. One key part of the program at the Paris Peace Forum summit – entitled Global Powers and the Middle East – focused on the responsibility of outside powers like the United States, Russia, China, Europe and India to find common ground and address the causes of Middle Eastern instability. Left unsaid: these same countries are often deeply involved in perpetuating these crises.
If American, European, or Russian leaders truly want to prevent conflicts in the Middle East, their first step should probably be a sort of Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” The arms trade is a notable case in point. The Middle East is responsible for 32% of global arms imports. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are three of the five largest customers; their primary suppliers are the US, UK, France, Italy, and Russia.
Rather than encourage stability, this supply of weapons has fed a volatile arms race. Much of that equipment has been used by the Saudi coalition’s intervention in Yemen, which has left eight million Yemenis are the brink of starvation and the country confronting the fastest growing cholera epidemic the world has ever seen. Russia has openly used the civil war in Syria as a venue for showing off its military hardware to potential customers worldwide, even as Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to massacre civilians.
Instead of helping their local allies arm themselves to the teeth, these outside powers should push Middle Eastern governments to change their damaging patterns of behavior and undertake the kinds of social reforms that are instrumental in easing tensions. Otherwise, systemic inequality and unaccountable leadership will continue to lay the groundwork for conflicts and crises. That might enrich weapons manufacturers, but it will do nothing to achieve the goals pursued in Paris this week.
The sanctions of a split
The tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran have aggravated conflict between Washington and its close allies. The European Union, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have expressed regret over measures taken by American President Donald Trump and signaled the need to protect their companies. Simultaneously, eight countries have received a six-month “sanctions delay” from the United States, which produced a further negative effect on the balance of strength and set the scene for a further escalation of tension.
The United States announced the resumption of anti-Iranian sanctions, which ban the purchase of Iranian oil and oil products, on November 5. The US Treasury Department pointed out that they were the “toughest” in history: “These are the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed on Iran, and will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as the energy, shipping and shipbuilding, and financial sectors. The United States is engaged in a campaign of maximum financial pressure on the Iranian regime and intends to enforce aggressively these sanctions that have come back into effect.”
“The unprecedented financial pressure exerted by the US Treasury Department on Iran should make it clear to the Iranian regime that it will face ever-increasing financial isolation and economic stagnation until it radically changes its destabilizing behavior. From now on, the maximum pressure exerted by the United States will only increase,” – emphasizes US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin. Washington makes it no secret that the ultimate goal of the sanctions is to reduce oil exports from Iran “to zero.”
Over 700 individuals and legal entities have been put on the sanctions list, including the Iranian national air company Iran Air, more than 65 aircraft it owns, and several dozen ships of the merchant fleet. The sanctions prohibit the purchase of Iranian oil and are directed against port operators, shipping and shipbuilding companies, the financial sector, – primarily tanker insurance companies, – and also restrict operations with Iran’s banks and Central Bank.
Fines will be imposed on anyone who trades oil with Iran and works with its banking system. Secondary sanctions (fines and shutout from the dollar system) may be imposed on companies of third countries. The US also demanded that Iran should be cut off from the SWIFT international payment system. According to reports, on November 5 SWIFT suspended access of some Iranian banks to its system, but without reference to the US sanctions.
This step followed President Trump’s announcement in May this year about Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action on the Iranian nuclear program. Adopted in 2015 with the participation of Iran, the USA, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the document envisages easing sanctions against Tehran in exchange for its measures to wrap up its nuclear program under the control of the IAEA. The US president dubbed it “the worst deal ever,” saying that it does nothing to stop Iran from pursing its nuclear and missile programs. After Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the other participants expressed their commitment to this document.
Two days before the sanctions package was put into effect, US President Donald Trump made it clear that the United States was ready to conclude a new agreement with Iran on more stringent conditions. “Our objective is to force the regime into a clear choice: either abandon its destructive behavior, or continue down the path toward economic disaster”, – the US president said on November 3: “The sanctions will target revenues the Iranian regime uses to fund its nuclear program, development and proliferation of ballistic missiles, fuel regional conflict, support terrorism and enrich its leaders”. At the same time, according to Donald Trump, “the United States remains open to reaching a new, more comprehensive deal with Iran that forever blocks its path to a nuclear weapon, addresses the entire range of its malign actions, and is worthy of the Iranian people. Until then, our historic sanctions will remain in full force”.
Having introduced “unprecedentedly tough” sanctions against Tehran, Donald Trump, as part of his business approach to international affairs, left substantial “windows of opportunity” for the subsequent bargaining on a wider range of issues of the international agenda. The USA made an exception for eight states. China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and South Korea were allowed to buy Iranian oil temporarily. According to the London-based Financial Times, these countries will be able to import a limited amount of Iranian oil over the next six months.
Simultaneously, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that more than 20 countries have already cut down on oil exports from Iran, reducing purchases by more than 1 million barrels per day. Independent sources indicate that average daily oil production in Iran fell from 3.8 million barrels in May to 3.3 million barrels in early October. This is quite a lot: because of the reduction, Iran loses about 1 billion dollars a month.
Given that the above exemptions from the sanctions list are temporary, the United States will likely resume political and economic bargaining with the eight countries in spring, with a view to preserve a favorable regime for these countries. In the first place, it concerns China. President Donald Trump will try to use the “Iranian factor” in order to achieve maximum concessions on trade and economic issues from Beijing. Among other things, he will probably make an attempt to force the Chinese side to reconsider joint energy projects with Russia. In the meantime, China’s response to the US decision to resume the anti-Iranian sanctions has been markedly restrained. A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called on Washington to respect China’s trade rights and expressed “regret” that the United States relaunched sanctions against Iran.
A much more resolute response came from the European Union – whose trade and economic interests are affected by anti-Iranian sanctions first. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, as well as the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement in which they promised to protect their companies from restrictive US measures. “Our goal is to protect the subjects of the European economy that have legal commercial ties with Iran,” the document states.
In the meantime, the European Union is confronted with the problem of creating a specific structure that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran without risking falling under Washington’s sanctions. Brussels reported in October that a new mechanism of payment for Iranian oil exports should be legally ready by November 4, and would go into operation in early 2019. However, according to The Financial Times, by the time the current sanctions were introduced, the Europeans did not have even a legal foundation for the defense mechanism and had not come to agreement on the location of the corresponding “special purpose structure” (SPV). “Now we are actively discussing where the SPV will be located, who will participate in it, and are launching the process of registering it. Time is short, and given the complexity and sensitivity of this issue in the light of its geopolitical consequences, we see very rapid and effective progress,” – said a representative of the French Finance Ministry.
For Europeans, sensitivity of this issue lies in their unwillingness to come under tough Washington’s sanctions themselves – especially in the context of deepening trade and economic differences between the US and the EU. “The US authorities are demonstrating that they will act aggressively towards violators of sanctions, which boosts the effect,” warns partner of law firm Morrison & Foerster and former director of the Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury John Smith. “When the United States threatens to punish violators and does it in practice, examples of punished companies force others to think seriously,” he said in an interview published by the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal.
Without waiting for the sanctions regime to come into effect, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated that Tehran would be able to overcome it. “America wants to bring down Iran’s oil sales, but we will continue to sell oil to break through the sanctions,” he said.
Tehran could not but point out the fact that the resumption of the US sanctions package against Iran coincided with the anniversary of the capture of the US embassy during the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. Addressing his compatriots, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The goal of American sanctions is to cripple and restrain the Iranian economy, but the result we obtained in reality was the country’s striving for self-sufficiency.” “The main objective of the United States in all this is to regain the supremacy it had in the period of tyranny. But this will not happen,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.
Meanwhile, Tehran does not attach any fundamental significance to the exclusion of eight states from the sanctions regime. “The Islamic Republic could sell its oil even if these eight countries were not excluded, we would still sell our oil,” said Hassan Rouhani in this regard.
The anti-Iranian sanctions imposed by Washington have not yet had a direct impact on Russia. The sanctions list published by the US Treasury contains only the Russian “daughter” of the Iranian Bank Melli – the Mir Business Bank, registered in Moscow (MB Bank). Its shareholder is Bank Melli Iran, which, according to the United States, provides multi-billion financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “Bank Melli enabled the IRGC and its related parties to transfer funds both inside and outside Iran,” the statement of the US Treasury said. JSC Mir Business Bank was registered in Moscow in 2002. Bank Melli Iran is its sole shareholder.
According to reports, the Trump administration has decided not to pursue the Russian direction in its pressure on Iran ahead of a new meeting of the presidents of Russia and the United States due to take place at the end of this year. The meeting could be held on November 11 in Paris, at events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, or — more likely — at the G-20 summit in Argentina in late November – early December this year. However, regardless of the outcome of this meeting, Russia should bear it in mind that its trade and economic ties with Iran, and in a broader context – relations with OPEC – will become the target of a new round of global games of the US administration.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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