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John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov to finalize Syria deal

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The war in Arab Syria, still going on for years, is a sort of world war as many powers are killing Muslims there as part of America’s permanent war project following 9/11. The war has become intense with Russian forces joining the party in Damascus. As in the case of Palestine issue, USA maintains it wants to find a credible solution to the crisis and end war in Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Aug. 26 to try to finalize a deal on Syria, after an initial US-Russian understanding reached at meetings in Moscow on July 15 was upended by intensified fighting in Aleppo. “We want to be very measured in our expectations as we go forward … but we believe this meeting is worth having,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told journalists on Aug. 24 about the upcoming Kerry-Lavrov meeting in Geneva. When asked if the scheduling of the meeting was a sign a deal was imminent she said: “We still have issues that need to be resolved. However, we are meeting. We are going to put Secretary Kerry and the foreign minister in a face-to-face meeting to try to resolve some of the issues that remain. I don’t know where we will be after this. … We are committed to this … advancing.”

Kerry, speaking to reporters in Kenya on Aug. 22, said he hoped that meetings between US and Russian technical teams in Geneva this week would make sufficient progress on a plan to expand a cessation of hostilities in Syria nationwide so that a deal could be announced by the end of the month. “Foreign Minister Lavrov and I would meet,” Kerry told reporters in Kenya. “But I wouldn’t be surprised, if they are positive and constructive, that we do get together sooner rather than later. And, therefore, it is possible that something could be agreed … upon before the end of the month. … I wouldn’t express optimism; I would express hope.” “This has to end — this Syrian travesty,” Kerry added. “It has gone on far too long. It has cost too many lives.” A resumption of intra-Syrian political talks “has to be empowered by a legitimate cessation of hostilities and that is what we’re working to achieve,” he added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Kerry and Lavrov spoke by phone Aug. 24. They “discussed the situation in Syria, including in Aleppo … as well as possibilities for coordinating Russian and US efforts to combat terrorism, building on earlier agreements, including the need to draw a clear line between pro-American Syrian opposition groups and terrorist groups using them as cover, and to whom the cease-fire provisions do not apply,” the ministry said in a press release.

Earlier, diplomatic sources in Geneva had said that a Kerry-Lavrov meeting was tentatively planned, but that whether one materialized depended on whether there was sufficient progress on Aleppo discussions. “It depends on how the talks progress,” a diplomat in Geneva, speaking not for attribution, said on Aug. 24. “Clearly, both sides want a deal … but there is so much mistrust.”

Syrian war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The Syrian civil war is an ongoing multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war is now being fought among several factions: the Syrian Government, a loose alliance of Syrian Arab rebel groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the rebels, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.

Syrian opposition groups formed the Free Syrian Army and seized control of the area surrounding Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Over time, factions of the Syrian opposition split from their original moderate position to pursue an Islamist vision for Syria as al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).In the north, Syrian government forces largely withdrew to fight the FSA, allowing the Kurdish YPG to move in and claim de facto autonomy. In 2015 the YPG joined forces with Arab, Assyrian, and Armenian and Turkmen groups forming the Syrian Democratic Forces.

As of February 2016 the government held 40% of Syria, ISIL held around 20-40%, Arab rebel groups (including al-Nusra Front) 20%, and 15-20% is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Both the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Army have made recent gains against ISIL.

International organizations have accused the Syrian government, ISIL and other opposition forces of severe human rights violations and of multiple massacres. The conflict has caused a considerable displacement of population. On 1 February 2016,a formal start of the UN-mediated Geneva Syria peace talks was announced by the UN but fighting continues unabated.[

Syria became an independent republic in 1946, although democratic rule ended with a coup in March 1949, followed by two more coups the same year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 saw the army transfer power to civilians. From 1958 to 1961, a brief union with Egypt replaced Syria’s parliamentary system with a highly centralized presidential regime. The secular Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power through a successful coup d’état in 1963. The next several years Syria went through additional coups and changes in leadership. In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000.

The Assad government opposed the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration undertook to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicizing Syrian repression of radical Kurdish and Sunni groups and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences; the opposition supported by the Obama administration was dominated by jihadist elements.

In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assads death. He and his wife Asma al-Assad, a Sunni Muslim born and educated in Britain,[110] initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001. The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.[112] In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.]

Syrian President Assad continues to be adamant, refusing to step down, allowing the situation to calm down especially after Russia, on pretext of supporting Assad, also began attacking the Syrians. Meanwhile, in September 2015, an announcement was made about the formation of the New Syrian Army (NSA), which would initially begin its operations by fighting the Islamic State (IS), without any mention about it possibly confronting Bashar al-Assad’s forces. This is despite the fact that the NSA commander, Khazal al-Sarhan, told various media outlets that Assad and IS were but two sides of the same coin, and that his army would fight Assad once IS is defeated.

Russia said Aug. 18 that it would be willing to consider cease-fires that would last 48 hours for Aleppo on a weekly basis, provided there could be security guarantees that would enable aid to reach both government-held western Aleppo as well as rebel-held eastern Aleppo. But follow-up meetings on how to implement the plan only resumed in Geneva on Aug. 23 and have been complicated, the diplomatic source said.

US officials said Russian actions had served to bolster popular support for al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (recently renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), which played a key role in breaking an attempted Syrian regime besiegement of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. “The recent escalation in airstrikes and ground fighting in Aleppo is of deep concern to the United States,” a US official, speaking not for attribution, said on Aug. 23. “The Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, are driving this escalation that is bringing more suffering to an already deplorable humanitarian crisis and complicates efforts to get Syrian parties to the negotiating table. “Russia has pledged to focus its military actions against ISIL (new name given by the CIA to Islamic State) and al-Qaeda in Syria.

The US official said instead of degrading these terrorist organizations, however, Russia’s actions have empowered the Syrian regime — which uses barrel bombs and, reportedly, toxic chemicals, like chlorine, on its own people. These actions threaten to galvanize popular support for extremists like al-Qaeda, which claim to defend the population suffering under the rule of a brutal dictator and his allies.” “By intervening militarily in this civil war, Russia assumed enormous responsibility for Syria’s future,” the US official said. “It is long past time for Russia to take the necessary steps to reduce violence against civilians, guarantee open access for humanitarian agencies and create conditions conducive for a political transition.”

Meanwhile, Turkey launched its most ambitious operation of the Syrian conflict on Wednesday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying it targeted the double threat from Islamic State extremists and Syrian Kurdish militias. Turkey says the air and ground operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield” will clear jihadists from the Syrian town of Jarabulus, which lies directly opposite the Turkish town of Karkamis.

The operation was launched just days after Ankara appeared to soften its often-confrontational line on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Turkey wants to see removed. Turkey views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it has denounced as a terror organisation along with the EU and the USA. The Syrian Kurds “already occupy a large strip of that border but there is this part in the middle that is still held by ISIS.

At the weekend, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim for the first time acknowledged that Assad was one of the “actors” in Syria, saying he may need to remain as part of any transition. Turkey is also working more closely with Iran and Russia, Assad’s last remaining major allies. So far, no world power has objected to the Turkish operation, which began just hours before US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Ankara.

There have also been signs of a less confrontational Turkish foreign policy since Yildirim took over from Ahmet Davutoglu as premier in May. Stopping Kurdish advances in the north was now Ankara’s primary goal in Syria rather than Assad’s removal. “Following the ouster of Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy in the last decade, Ankara has recalibrated its Syria policy.”Blocking PYD Kurdish advances in Syria, previously Ankara’s secondary goal, now trumps Turkey’s erstwhile policy of ousting the Assad regime.”

The Kerry-Lavrov Geneva discussions “will be the big meeting,” Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat now with the Syrian opposition High Negotiating Committee, told Al-Monitor on Aug. 23. “Now I think it is very difficult to talk about a cessation of hostilities,” Barabandi said. Rebel gains in Aleppo in recent weeks are “very difficult to use as leverage, because part of them are Nusra, so I don’t see how Kerry can leverage that” in his discussions with the Russians, Barabandi said.

Even as Kerry expressed hope that a US-Russia deal on Syria could be finalized this month, the Pentagon pushed back on reports a deal was imminent. “Contrary to recent claims, we have not finalized plans with Russia on potential coordinated efforts,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told journalists Aug. 22. “Serious issues must first be resolved before we can implement the steps Kerry and Lavrov discussed in Moscow last month…We are not there yet, and the regime and Russian’s recent actions only make it harder to consider any potential coordination,” Cook added.

Whether or not the Kerry-Lavrov talks on Syrian war would put an end to war and other forms of hostilities in the country and whether or not Assad would step aside at least now when thousands of Syrians have lost their valuable lives because of him and Syria is in shatters.

It would take years for Syria to revive its economy and trade even if a deal is struck by the top powers of the world.

Once destabilized by US led terror forces, chances of revival is a difficult talks as we have seen in Afghanistan and Libya.

Pakistan is perhaps destabilized once for all.

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Middle East

Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait

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IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.

For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.

Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.

Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’

Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.

But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’. 

These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.

But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’

What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.

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Middle East

Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.

Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.

Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.

Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.

The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.

In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.

With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.

By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.

China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.

Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.

To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.

Author’s note: first published in Firstpost

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