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The “ceasefire” in Syria

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The previous two Syrian “ceasefires” of February and September last were substantial failures. Mediated by too diverging interests, they were bogged down in a zero-sum game among the irregularities committed by all the groups involved.

At strategic and geopolitical levels, many sources still speak of a “tripartite” option for Syria’s future, which could be based precisely on the three agreements of December 30, 2016.

One of them is between the Syrian government and the jihadist “rebels”; then there is a list of mechanisms to monitor the agreement and finally the Astana agreement ends with a letter of intent between the parties so as to begin – after the “ceasefire” – the negotiations which will lead to the end of the conflict.

The agreement signed in the Kazakh capital comes after Assad’ Syrian Arab Army maintaining and sometimes expanding its recent positions, while the jihadists have lost control of half of Aleppo, by also losing the suburbs of Damascus and some large areas in the Idlib province.

The first and most evident political goals are that the Russian Federation wants to capitalize on its new role as Middle East power broker, graciously presented to it by the foolishness of the United States and its European allies, and that Assad also aims at keeping and strengthening his recent positions to soon achieve peace and, above all, the unity of his country.

The maps of the Syrian Chiefs of Staff show that, after this truce, the Syrian attacks will go deep into the centre of the areas still in the hands of the various rebel groups and Daesh, starting from the Mediterranean coast and the border areas between Syria and the Lebanon.

Turkey, which has signed the “ceasefire” along with Russia and Iran, wants to limit the great damage caused to it by the conflict, with the masses of refugees – as many as 2 million people – who are already in Turkey with the other Syrian populations.

Those who would come after Assad’s regime conquering Idlib – as is likely.

Obviously, Turkey hopes that its new role in Syria will be noticed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and that hence the Kurdish issue will not materialize in a State built by the YPG between Syria and Iraq, which can lap the Turkish Kurdish areas to its border.

On the other hand, an autonomous and independent Kurdistan in Northern Syria could become a sort of geopolitical buffer that would enable Russia, Iran and other powers to have a right of way in the great Middle East region, which would certainly change all the games we have so far experienced in that area and in the Mediterranean.

An essay of the ”Russian National Institute for Research on Global Security” works on the assumption that there is a US primary interest in a great “Sunnistan” at the core of future Syria and Western Iraq.

With a corresponding “Shiite State” in Southern Syria.

It is still the old attempt to extend the pipeline going from Qatar up to Turkey’s Mediterranean border, without touching the Iranian-Shiite areas.

It is the old ethnic federalism, detrimentally experienced for the Balkans, which still inspires the US “line” in the region.

A model derived from the analyses – far more refined than we may think – developed at the time by Samuel Huntington.

Russian, Syria and Turkey do not want this – albeit up to a certain extent.

Russia does not want to military ruin itself for a united Syria; Turkey does not want insecure borders in Northern Syria, while Iran only wants to cover its area of influence to the border with Syria.

If the Syrian war became too long or too expensive, or strategically useless, the Three Powers of Astana’s last “ceasefire” may also accept “federalism” in the region of Bashar al-Assad’s current regime.

Federalism, however, designed by them – certainly not from the United States, which would not even have a proxy State to do the dirty work.

At that juncture, the United States could resort to the strategy of “bloody borders” – as the US analyst Ralph Peters called them – to reshape the local strategic potentials according to its interest.

And hence manage its competitors’ resources with a “long war”.

The confidential documents quoted by our sources speculate that – according to US plans – Bashar may be replaced by a “less polarizing” Alawite presidential candidate and that Iran – given the new and scarcely friendly Trump’s Presidency in the offing – may want to immediately solve the Syrian issue, by gaining control of its border areas and its ethno-religious enclaves.

It is worth recalling, however, that currently at least 70% of the Syrian people want Bashar al-Assad’s regime and only 30%, including Kurds, show they like other options.

Let us revert to the “ceasefire” of December 30, 2016, to be mostly considered a sort of Putin’s personal initiative.

If it holds for the month of formal validity, Turkey and Russia will sponsor the peace talks between Bashar al-Assad’s government and the seven major Syrian jihad organizations, except for Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front – that is Al Qaeda – which have already signed the “ceasefire” in Astana, the Kazakh capital.

The signatory organizations are relevant, even militarily.

They include Feilak al Sham, a jihadist organization sponsored by Turkey, with 19 detachments and 4,000 operational militants.

The second jihadist group is Ahrar al-Sham, or Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, with 80 hit squads and a potential of 16,000 jihadists active in all the strategic sites of the Syrian war: Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama, Daraa and Idlib.

The signatories to the “ceasefire” in Astana also include Jaish al-Islam, with as many as 64 hit squads and a total of 12,000 armed jihadists.

There is also the jihadist group of Tuwar al-Sham, with eight battalions totaling about 3,000 militants operating in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia.

Another group that has signed the ceasefire is Jaish al-Mujahideen, with 13 operating centers and 9,000 active militants.

Then there is also Jaish Idlib, obviously operating mainly in the Idlib region, with three great battalions totaling 6,000 fighters.

Finally, in Astana there were also the plenipotentiaries of Jabhat al-Shamiya, a group with 5 battalions in Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus and an estimated force of 3,200 operational militants.

Hence if Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is really supported by its citizens, should think of some sort of territorial autonomies, Russia and even Turkey would recommend quiet local autonomism as opposed to US-style “federalism”.

A system in which also the small and large groups which have signed the ceasefire in Astana may reinvent themselves as local militias, while their old funders leave with their tail between their legs.

For the record, during negotiations Turkey asked to remove the Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the Syrian territory, that obviously denied to the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, that free favour to Turkey and, indirectly, to Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, Ahrar al-Sham, belongs to Al Qaeda – hence to the al-Nusra Front – and initially Turkey did not agree to include the group among the signatories to the Astana ceasefire.

Nevertheless it was precisely Saudi Arabia to directly oblige Ahrar al-Sham to adhere to the Astana Agreement.

The agreement envisages, inter alia, the stop of the Syrian Air Force’s raids against the Syrian “rebels” – air war actions which, where necessary, may be carried out only by Russia.

The signatory groups are required to leave their positions – indicated in the text of the Agreement – which allows to more easily identify and neutralize the Daesh and Al-Nusra Front emplacements.

The text of the Agreement includes a statement providing support by the powers present in Syria to a strong territorial unity of the Syrian government – so that Turkey will not have the Kurdish State, in which not even Russia is interested, and this will remain one of the many US broken promises in the region.

None of the signatories can try to gain more territory while the “ceasefire” is in force.

Finally none of the signatories has insisted on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, all signatories shall permit the delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the part of Syria not controlled by the groups excluded from the “ceasefire”.

It is explicitly written in the text of the “ceasefire” agreement that all forces shall withdraw from Aleppo’s Castle Street.

Hence the Turkish attack on Kurds has only been postponed, with or without the naive support of the United States, which will certainly leave that glorious Indo-European tribe to its fate.

The jihadist groups, hit in their Saudi and Qatari “leadership”, will not be as dangerous as they are today.

Not even Saudi Arabia wants to die for Syria.

If Saudi Arabia and Qatar have some territorial or financial reason to cease support for the Syrian jihadists, they will slacken off and loosen their grip.

Russia has won across the board. It has wiped the United States out of the Middle East and it has put together two historical opponents, namely Turkey and Iran, into a credible geopolitical project.

Iran is another winner of the Astana Agreement.

Once ensured the security of its borders, it can fully play the new game of the gas pipelines it will operate after the end of the conflict.

The Iraqi army is already at the gates of Raqqa – the eradication of Daesh is only a matter of time.

In short, if the “ceasefire” holds, the whole Syrian and Middle East strategic scenario will change completely.

Also the Kurds are taking Raqqa, with the usual and effective harshness.

Assad’s Army has conquered the outskirts of Wadi Barada, previously held by the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

The remaining pockets in Homs and Aleppo will be reduced and later Assad’s Army will conquer the primary areas of the territory, currently held by Daesh.

If, as is likely, the truce works and the jihad that signed the Astana Agreement is reduced significantly, for Syria the fight will only be against Daesh, with the help of its strategic supporters.

In this case there will be no escape, no way out.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Powershift in Knesset: A Paradigm of Israel’s Political Instability

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The dynamics of the Middle East are changing faster than anyone ever expected. For instance, no sage mind ever expected Iran to undergo a series of talks with the US and European nations to negotiate sanctions and curb its nuclear potential. And certainly, no political pundit could have predicted a normalization of diplomacy between Israel and a handful of Arab countries. The shocker apparently doesn’t end there. The recent shift in Israeli politics is a historic turnaround; a peculiar outcome of the 11-day clash. To probe, early June, a pack of eight opposition parties reached a coalition agreement to establish Israel’s 36th government and oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. While the political impasse has partly subsided, neither the 12-year prime minister is feeble nor is the fragile opposition strong enough to uphold an equilibrium.

Mr. Netanyahu currently serves as the caretaker prime minister of Israel. While the charges of corruption inhibited his drive in the office, he was responsible to bring notable achievements for Israel in the global diplomatic missions. Mr. Netanyahu, since assuming office in 2009, has bagged several diplomatic victories; primarily in reference to the long-standing conflict with Palestine and by extension, the Arab world. He managed to persuade former US President Donald J. Trump to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the contentious city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, he managed to strike off the Palestinian mission in Washington whilst gaining success in severing US from the nuclear agreement with Iran. To the right-wing political gurus, Mr. Netanyahu stood as a symbolic figure to project the aspirations of the entire rightest fraction.

However, the pegs turned when Mr. Netanyahu refused to leave the office while facing a corruption trial. What he deemed as a ‘Backdoor Coup Attempt’ was rather criticized by his own base as a ruse of denial. By denying the charges and desecrating the judges hearing his case, Mr. Netanyahu started to undercut the supremacy of law. While he still had enough support to float above water, he lost the whelming support of the rightest faction which resulted in the most unstable government and four inconclusive elections in the past two years.

While Mr. Netanyahu was given the baton earlier by President Reuven Rivlin, he failed to convince his bedfellow politicians to join the rightest agenda. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu probably hoped to regain support by inciting a head-on collision with the Palestinians. The scheme backfired as along with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the tremors overtook Israel’s own Arab-Jewish cities resulting in mass chaos. The burning of Mosques and local Synagogues was hardly the expectation. Thus, both the raucous sentiment pervading the streets of Israel as well as the unstable nature of the Netanyahu-government led the rightest parties to switch sides.

As Mr. Netanyahu failed to convince a coalition government, the task was handed to Mr. Yair Lapid, a centrist politician. While the ideologies conflicted in the coalition he tried to forge, his counterparts, much like him, preferred to sideline the disputes in favor of dethroning Netanyahu. Mr. Lapid joined hands with a pool of political ideologies, the odd one being the conservative Yamina party led by the veteran politician, Mr. Naftali Bennett. While Mr. Lapid has been a standard-bearer for secular Israelis, Mr. Bennett has been a stout nationalist, being the standard-bearer for the rightest strata. To add oil to the fire, the 8-party coalition also includes an Arab Islamist party, Raam. A major conflict of beliefs and motivations.

Although the coalition has agreed to focus on technocratic issues and compromise on the ideological facets, for the time being, both the rightest and the leftish parties would be under scrutiny to justify the actions of the coalition as a whole. Mr. Bennett would be enquired about his take on the annexation of occupied West Bank, an agenda vocalized by him during his alliance with Mr. Netanyahu. However, as much as he opposes the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, he would have to dim his narrative to avoid a fissure in the already fragile coalition. Similarly, while the first independent Arab group is likely to assume decision-making in the government for the first time, the mere idea of infuriating Mr. Bennett strikes off any hope of representation and voice of the Arabs in Israel.

Now Mr. Netanyahu faces a choice to defer the imminent vote of confidence in Knesset whilst actively persuading the rightest politicians to abandon the coalition camp. His drive has already picked momentum as he recently deemed the election as the ‘Biggest Fraud in the History of Israeli Politics’. Furthermore, he warned the conservatives of a forthcoming leftist regime, taking a hit on Naftali colluding with a wide array of leftist ideologies. The coalition is indeed fragile, yet survival of coalition would put an end to Netanyahu and his legacy while putting Naftali and then Lapid in the office. However, the irony of the situation is quite obvious – a move from one rightest to the other. A move from one unstable government to a lasting political instability in Israel.

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The Gaza War

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Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike in May 2021. UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

On May 22, 2021, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei’s website, posted a congratulatory message from one of the Hamas group’s leaders, Ziad Nakhaleh. In his message, Ziad Nakhaleh addresses Khamenei and says, “Qasem Soleimani’s friends and brothers, especially Ismail Ghani (Iran’s IRGC commander) and his colleagues, led this battle and were present with us during our recent conflict with Israel. … We pray for the preservation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its brave soldiers.”

Since the regime’s establishment 42 years ago, Iran has been instrumental in inflicting war and chaos regionally. When Iran finds itself cornered and entangled with its internal problems or facing an impasse, a war or bloody conflict gets ignited by the regime to divert the Iranian people’s attention. This undeclared policy of the Iranian regime frees itself from the most pressing internal issues, even temporarily.

Today’s Iranian society is like a barrel of gunpowder ready to ignite. Last year, the Iranian parliament declared that more than 60 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. According to the media close to the regime, close to 80% of the population below the poverty line this year. It is worth mentioning that Iran is one of the top 10 wealthiest countries globally, despite the challenges of the current sanctions.

This poverty is mainly the result of rampant institutionalized government corruption. According to Qalibaf, the current speaker of Iran’s parliament, only 4 percent of the population is prosperous, and the rest are poor and hungry. The two uprisings of 2017 and mid-November 2019 that surprised the regime were caused mainly by extreme poverty and high inflation. The regime survived the above widespread uprisings by opening direct fire at the innocent protestors, killing more than 1500 people. There is no longer any legitimacy for the regime domestically and internationally.

The explosive barrel of the Iranian discontent is about to burst at any given moment. To delay such social eruption, Khamenei banned the import of COVID-19 vaccines from the US, Britain, and France, hoping the people will be occupied with the virus and forget about their miserable living conditions.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime is in the midst of new negotiations with the western countries regarding its nuclear program. These negotiations may force the regime to abandon its nuclear plans that have cost billions of dollars, its terrorist activities in the region, and its ballistic missiles stockpile. This retreat will inevitably facilitate the growth and spread of the uprisings and social unrest across Iran.

The Deadlock of the Regime

The regime is facing an election that could ignite the barrel of gunpowder of the Iranian society. In 1988, when Khamenei wanted to announce Ahmadinejad as the winner of the presidential ballot boxes but faced opposition from former Prime Minister Mousavi. Widespread demonstrations were ignited. The same scenario is repeating itself in this year’s presidential election, where Khamenei intends to announce Raisi as the next president of Iran. There is a legitimate fear that demonstrations will ignite once again.

To avoid the happening of the same experience, Khamenei is forced to make an important decision. Like any other dictator, he pursues a policy of contraction during these challenging and crucial times, deciding to favor those loyal to him and his policies. Khamenei needs a uniform and decisive government to exert maximum repression on the Iranian people.

By disqualifying the former president (Ahmadinejad), the current vice president (Jahangiri), and most importantly, his current adviser and speaker of the two parliaments (Larijani), he has cut loose a large part of his regime. One way or another, Khamenei’s contraction policy is going to weaken his grip on power.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime must comply with the West’s demand for nuclear talks. In 2021, the political landscape is entirely different from 2015 in the balance of regional and global forces. The regime’s regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria has been severely weakened.

There is an explosive situation inside Iran. The resistance units spread throughout Iran after the 2019 uprising and have rapidly increased in recent months. They are spreading the message of separation of religion from the government, plus equality between men and women in a society where women do not have the right to be elected as president or a minister. The resistance units call themselves supporters of Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian regime’s sworn enemy. These units can direct a massive flood of people’s anger towards the Supreme Leader’s establishments with every spark and explosion.

Khamenei wanted to force the West to lift all sanctions and demonstrate a show of force within Iran and the region by initiating the Gaza war. The Gaza war was intended to divert the attention from Khamenei’s decisions on Iran’s presidential election. In this situation, the regime wanted to break its presidential deadlock by firing rockets through Hamas and carrying out a massacre in Israel and Palestine.

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