The new relationship for the exchange of intelligence data, which had been established between Russia and Israel, is currently in danger. The most clear sign of this bilateral crisis can be seen in the mild reaction to the Israeli protests concerning the Russian sales or transfers to the Hezbollah of military equipment (often advanced one). The polemic was also rekindled in the last telephone conversation between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin, last Saturday, July 23.
During the phone call between the two leaders another very sensitive issue was discussed, namely the case of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which managed to enter and penetrate the Israeli airspace in the area of the Golan Heights directly from Syria.
The UAV had to take pictures of some Israeli equipment and special operations in the region. As many as three F-16-launched Israeli missiles failed to hit the UAV, which returned to Syria unscathed. Russia detected it on its radars, but it did nothing to report it to others or to strike it on its own. Obviously Russia has no interest in losing Iran for Israel.
Iran is a stable ally in oil equilibria and it is now pushing up sales after signing the JCPOA. It is an effective bulwark against the Sunni Islam, which sides almost fully with the United States, and it is Russia’s mainstay in the Greater Middle East – and it could not be otherwise.
In fact Russia is very useful to Syria, since it is the inevitable primary protector of Bashar al-Assad. Russia, however, has no reason to change the war balances within Syria and the Middle East during the war against Daesh-Isis, which has reaffirmed the Russian stable hegemony over the region.
An hegemony which, according to the Russian Presidency, not even Israel can avoid, neither as a partner, nor as a satellite, after the geopolitical disaster caused by President Barack Obama which has left the Middle East without any global player, except for Russia.
After the coup Turkey has turned away from NATO and the United States. The European Union is paying Turkey to be fooled on migrants. Saudi Arabia is negotiating with Russia for it to loosen its ties with Iran. Iraq is turning to Russia after the recent power void. A complete strategic success for Russia.
Nevertheless Israel must and can have some other reliable and stable partners in the Middle East, now that the United States are no longer present in the region, either as Saudi Arabia’s “old cronies” or as idealistic organizers of “liberation struggles” from the usual “tyrants”.
Obviously the drone is primarily the sign of the Hezbollah technological power against Israel, if attacked. Who did supply the UAV technology to the “Party of God”? Russia? Or Iran, which has a wide and advanced fleet of drones, particularly the medium-long range armed drones? Or are technologies stolen from opponents, as often happens during the now numerous “small wars” in the Middle East?
We do not know, but now Israel is aware of the fact that Hezbollah can reach its territory with an UAV and hit it.
And above all it knows that Russia will not lay a finger on its Iranian-Lebanese ally, at least until Israel is bound stably to the Russian system and military interests in the region which, however, do not coincide with Israel’s – whatever happens in current negotiations. After all, Israel was reminded of the fact that the Golan Heights are an open front, and that the Jewish State’s interest in a Syria shattered by war cannot last forever.
In other words, the Lebanese group’s UAV means that Israel cannot think, in the short term, of encompassing the Golan Heights which, however, are essential to its defense northwards.
Furthermore, after President Erdogan’s countercoup following the attempted rebellion of the Turkish Armed Forces, there are already Turkish “liaison officers” at Assad’s government in Damascus.
This still implies that Turkey may cease any direct or indirect military action against Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, but only in exchange for a complete ban on a new Kurdistan which could emerge with the US tacit support – support granted even by Israel.
Moreover, without Turkey’s help, no Sunni geopolitical actor can think of supporting the jihad against Assad’s Alawites and his allies.
Hence, if Syria stabilizes itself, Saudi Arabia will no longer have its jihadi proxies to fight Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia – possibly on the Syrian territory, as happened so far – and Turkey may no longer have to face the “nuisance” of the Kurdish State on its border, and possibly even inside it – something that not even Iraq and Iran want. Finally Israel should deal with the Golan Heights issue, without any reliable ally (the United States or the ridiculous Europe) and only with its own forces which, at that juncture, should simultaneously face an Iranian, Syrian, Hezbollah attack – and possibly a Turkish or Iraqi one – without the US support, but with the stoic and detached attitude by Russia, which would ultimately act as a mediator.
And certainly the losing country will see its role diminished.
In fact the Russian weapons not going directly to Bashar al-Assad are heading to the Hezbollah, and currently the Lebanese and Iranian group has already recreated – again with Russian weapons – at least one battalion, which is already training in Southern Lebanon.
What could Israel do at this juncture? In our opinion the Jewish State could: a) maintain its good relations with Russia, which also play and intelligence role; 2) strategically avoid the link between the attack eastwards and northwards, which could anyway take place due to the current presence of Sunni Palestinian militants among Bashar al-Assad’s forces; 3) rebuild an international support network with India, China and other Central Asian SCO countries, with a view to counterbalancing any Russian support to new Shia or Sunni Middle East actors. However, we shall see the new US foreign policy and, in particular, the strategic dangerousness of the anti-Semitic madness in the current European ruling class.
Furthermore, the new relationship between Turkey and the Russian Federation has been shown by the Russian warning and reporting to Ankara of the Turkish Armed Forces’ coup before its start.
Russia wants a powerful Turkey, not making it be isolated only in the Shiite front – a united Turkey and, above all, ever less tied to NATO, which is President Putin’s primary strategic goal. Hence the coup in Turkey was a geopolitical blessing for Russia.
Currently President Erdogan is furious with the United States, which protect the political and religious leader, Fathihullah Gulen, accused by President Erdogan of being the instigator of the military coup, and there is little the United States can do in the Middle East without making peace with Turkey.
Moreover, NATO has been de facto deprived of any power in the Greater Middle East – and this is another achievement by President Putin.
It will become either an umbrella for “operations of the willing”, like any UN organization, an entity to issue humanitarian and pacifist statements or even an organization for managing local crises – a tool of the US-German or, more often, US-British relationship.
And Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty on collective responsibility will be put to an end as, indeed, has already happened silently.
Hence what can be done? A Conference for the Middle East should be organized immediately, reaffirming a role for Russia and enabling the countries of the region, obviously including Israel, to negotiate a partial demilitarization of the traditional confrontation areas, having reliable brokers and mediators.
As was the case with the Madrid Conference of 1991. And as it could happen today in a Rome Conference in which it is decided that Israel is entitled to maintain and defend its current borders and that the security of the border areas is delegated to buffer military structures formed by Russian, Chinese, US, German, Italian and Central Asian forces.
And finally it could be decided to organize a Peace Conference between Israel and the Arab League, on behalf of its members, managed and led by Russia and by the United States, if they want or can do so.
For Europe, obviously, nothing to do and no role to play.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.
The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.
“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”
Scandal of Al Hol’s children
Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.
“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”
Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
Blockades and bombardment
The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.
“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.
In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.
Living in fear
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.
At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.
Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.
Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.
The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”
Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants
The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.
“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya
With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday.
Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December.
They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year.
At the crossroads
“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš. “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.”
He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.
Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation.
Foreign fighter threat
The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline.
“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.
“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.”
Young voters eager
The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results.
He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country.
So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women. Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots.
“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš.
He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.
“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned. “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”
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