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USA and Russia agree to new peace plan for Syria

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At the outset, one point as a clarity should be mentioned straightaway here. The terror wars targeting energy rich Arab world launched by USA and its NATO, jointly or separately have not wound down as USA is seriously considering a permanent war to impose the prowess of its militarism on the world. USA and NATO only used Afghanistan and Pakistan with blessings form Saudi kingdom in order to legitimize its permanent war by extending, as per its plan, the terror wars into Arab world and control oil production and sale.  

Now Syria, where thousands of Muslims lost life, thousands have fled the nation to neighboring nations, is in turmoil for the last 5 long years, has become a safe sanctuary for all anti-Islamic nations and others to target Muslims and reduce Islamic populations in West Asia where most of populations are Muslims. For the first time in years, super powers USA and Russia are cooperating and even coordinating their terror operations as USA does not sincerely wish to end war in Syria and other Arab nations.

USA seeks to remove or replace Assad, a Shiite, who wants to continue to be the president without facing the Sunni people in polls, but Russia bats for the “troubled” man who now has regained some strength after Russian involvement.

Both USA and Russia keep killing Muslims while Turkey, an ally of USA by NATO, helps USA in attacking the minority Syrians.

While it is not yet clear what exactly Moscow has in its mind taking on the anti-Assad Muslims there, but USA cannot even think of a peace deal to end the bloodbath there. Even years of US-Israeli shuttle diplomacy no peace is in sight in Mideast as Palestinians are getting killed by Israeli military with US terror goods.

Recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a new cease-fire agreement that both sides hope will clear the road to peace for a troubled nation that’s been torn apart by a five-year civil war. Kerry and Lavrov met all day in Geneva to work on the deal, which at one point seemed unlikely. Later on Friday the Sept 09, both sides announced the pact during a news conference.

Thank you all for tremendous patience during the course of a very long day,” Kerry said at the start of his remarks. “Today, the United States and Russia are announcing a plan which we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.”

The leaders said that step will be followed by a larger cease-fire, closer to one that was agreed to in February but not effectively implemented. It lasted a few weeks. Members of both governments and the news media were skeptical that an agreement could be reached Friday, especially after Lavrov said during a break that he was about ready to “call it a day.”

The deal agreed to by Kerry and Lavrov calls for a cease-fire between the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as his Russian and Iranian allies. The fighting is being interrupted, Kerry said, to allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid — particularly in the heavily contested city of Aleppo.

As it turns out, Kerry and Lavrov were able to hammer out agreeable terms, which were then communicated to President Barack Obama. “I believe it is important for them to check with Washington,” Lavrov said during the approval process. “I apologize for the delay. We cannot help it.” Friday’s agreement is seen as one step in what both sides hope will be a series of advancements toward the end of the Syrian civil war, which is now in its sixth year.

The agreed-upon cease-fire is scheduled to begin at sunset on Sept. 12. If it holds for a week, the U.S. and Russian militaries would then begin steps to combine operations to eliminate obstacles to peace — including militant groups the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front. The plan also calls for a demilitarized zone and uncontested access for humanitarian aid. “If implemented, if followed, the plan has the ability to provide a turning point,” Kerry added. “The suffering we have witnessed in Syria over the course of five years now is really beyond inhumane. “The United States is going the extra mile here because we believe that Russia, and Lavrov, have the capability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and to come to the table and make peace.”

Earlier, the US President Barack Obama said he is not optimistic about the future success of a possible cease-fire in Syria despite ongoing talks between the United States and Russia. Obama, speaking Sunday at the G20 summit in China, said he does not think any new deal would last long enough for a political resolution in Syria. John Kerry, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the economic summit, said “a couple of tough issues” remain, but did not elaborate. Despite the nearing impasse, Obama said he is committed to continuing efforts. “It is worth trying,” Obama said to reporters. “To the extent that there are children and women and innocent civilians who can get food and medical supplies and, you know, get some relief from the constant terror of bombings, that’s worth the effort. And I think it’s premature for us to say that there is a clear path forward, but there is the possibility at least for us to make some progress on that front.”

Obama said it’s essential for Russia to be involved in a political solution. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to meet Monday. “Our conversations with the Russians are key because, if it were not for the Russians, then [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad and the regime would not be able to sustain its offensive,” he said.

Obama’s relations with Putin are strained now not only because of the Syrian situation but Moscow’s moves in Ukraine and the possibility the Russian leader is trying to help Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump get elected. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters the two sides are close but it is important for the United States to distinguish “the so-called moderate opposition from the terrorists.” Syrian rebel groups have worked alongside al-Nusra Front, which is now known as Jabhat Fateh al-sham or the Syria Conquest Front. “I will say that we are close to reaching a deal with the United States… there are no grounds to expect that everything would collapse.”

Kerry, at a news conference, reiterated the continuing efforts to make a cease-fire work. He did not comment about a July information-sharing proposal that would include coordinating air attacks against Jabhat Fateh al-sham in exchange for Russia pushing to stop offensives by Assad’s government.

Kerry later told reporters: “An awful lot of technical things have been worked out, a lot of things are clear, but there still remain, a couple of tough issues. “We’ve got to figure out how to make certain both of us can be comfortable with the resolution to those issues, so that’s what we’re working on.” Yesterday Obama also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose military has recently clashed with US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.

“We discussed ways in which we can further cooperate in that regard,” Obama said after meeting with Erdogan, who survived a failed military coup Erdogan’s government is unhappy with the United States for not extraditing Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames Gulen for plotting the coup.

USA is supposed to respect the NATO member and help Turkish government and not those who sought to kill President Erdogan and destabilize Turkey, but U.S. officials say they are awaiting sufficient evidence to justify the request to extradite Gulen, who is 75 and says he is in failing health. Erdogan said the United States and Turkey should adopt a “common attitude” against terrorism. Double speak is not good for allies. He noted there is a distinction between “good terrorists or bad,” he said, an indirect reference to Gulen and United States support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

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Middle East

Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.

So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.

Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.

Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.

Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.

By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.

While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.

In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.

The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.

Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.

A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus.

Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”

In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.

RDIF and the kingdom’s counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.

The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.

Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack

Silvia Fornaroli

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The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.

Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.

On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.

It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”

The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and  often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.

Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.

On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States  — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”

Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.

Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.

At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.

In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.

Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.

The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.

On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies:  “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.

Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.

If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.

In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.

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Middle East

Revisiting Saudi-Iranian Rivalry: From A Cold War Perspective

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood

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Middle East considered the “bridge between the East and West” has long grabbed attention of great power policy makers due to its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. After the discovery of oil in the early part of 20th Century, Iran and Saudi Arabia had gained a prominent position at the global international arena. The defining moment in their relation was the year 1968, when the British government announced its withdrawal from the “Persian Gulf,” threatening thereby the balance brought to an equilibrium by more than 150 years of English security guarantees to the sheikdoms. The international community largely sees the conflict in terms of sectarian and on religious grounds which is an inadequate approach and one that rules out other detrimental factor. There have been little analysis and studies undertaken on the conflict from a “Cold war” perspective, which can significantly help other states in maintaining a viable balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The conflict dubbed as the “New Middle East Cold War” or “Saudi-Iranian Cold War” is not the first event termed as “Cold war” in the Middle Eastern history. Malcolm Kerr writing in his acclaimed book Arab Cold War 1958-67 termed the growing rivalry and quest for leadership in the Middle East at the aftermath of British and French withdrawal between Republican Egypt and conservative Arab monarchies as a regional equivalent of Cold war. The present relations of Saudi Arabia and Iran are short of war, a condition where although the contenders do not engage in open battlefields face to face, it is a ‘battle’ nevertheless fought on different fronts including the media. Daniel Serwer of John Hopkins writes that Saudi-Iran conflict is regional equivalent of20th century US-Soviet Cold war.

Characteristics of Cold War

The term ‘cold war’ had been in use before 1945 to describe period of extreme tensions between states that were just short of war. In the year 1893, German socialist Eduard Bernstein described the arms race between Germany and its neighbors as a kind of ‘cold war’ where “there is no shooting but bleeding.” The term rapidly came back into use when United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) faced each other eyeball to eyeball. British writer George Orwell remarked on the significance of the moment foreseeing “a peace that is no peace” where the two mighty powers were to be “unconquerable and in a permanent state of cold war.”Anders Stephanson has defined the essence of a Cold War as consisting of characteristics whereby both sides deny each other the legitimacy as a regime, attempting to attack each other by all means short of war. This is in the view of the author, followed by an intense military buildup with a prolonged arms race.

Cold War since then has exclusively referred to as the ‘sustained state of political and military tensions’ between the 20th century superpowers. Although the rivalry had ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the term and subject-matter has remained ever relevant to an extent that the study of grand strategy and security is considered incomplete without the former’s inclusion. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to contain conflict and to ensure; that it ends up being short and as shallow as possible, need to revitalize the lessons of the ‘original Cold War.’ United States and Soviet Union despite their sustained rivalry developed a variety of mechanism for escalation and risk management. This was undertaken without foregoing their core national interests and ideologies. The leadership understood that there was ‘wisdom in engaging’ rather than isolating the other. The approach is more relevant today in the era of globalization than it was in those years. “Geo-economics must replace geopolitics” as the focal Saudi-Iranian approach in order to reach a ‘non-zero sum situation.’

Religious and political ideology plays an important role in the foreign policy between Riyadh and Tehran. The two offer competing ideologies and political model with a strong desire for strategic and geopolitical supremacy. The standoff, experts believe is also the result of the desire and aspirations of the two, for political leadership in the Islamic world. The conflict is not the result of alleged schism between Shia and Sunni school of Islam, but is rather a byproduct of centuries’ political and religious contestation that existed between empires and is now manifested into politics of these modern states.

Diplomacy is integral to the Middle East cold war. Since establishing relations in 1929, the two have had their ups and downs. In the years of the Shah, relations began to take the turn for worse when Shah’s ‘hegemonic desires’ and Saudi Arabia’s desire not to accept Iran predominant role in the Gulf and beyond. Nevertheless, relations remained intact at least diplomatically despite severity of incidents such as Gunboat coercion and the oil wars.

Conclusion

Wars have recognizable beginnings and they comprise of direct fighting between the adversaries with armistices and peace treaties as their conclusive ends. However, a Cold war has none of these characteristics, in words of Walter Lippman, “it brings neither peace nor honour to those who wage it.” The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has “spillover effects” and repercussions beyond the region. States such as those in the West, and Pakistan in particular close in proximity to the two have had a tough time “balancing” their relations. A careful, delicate and pragmatic approach needs to be adopted on part of statesmen, taking into account the opportunities and challenges arising from a “Cold War” need to be taken into account. Media on both sides has an important role to play in patching up the hostilities by upholding ethical standards and avoiding propagandist contest to avoid further aggravation of the conflict. 

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