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The Lebanese crisis

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On November 4 last, during the great “purge” within the Saudi elite, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri,  resigned claiming that his life was in danger. He was paying a visit to Riyadh and the interview released made us implicitly understand that some change was possible.

 Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, the politician and businessman linked to Saudi Arabia – who had been assassinated with a high-potential bomb on February 14, 2005, along with 21 other people – rose to power last year in the framework of an agreement envisaging Michel Aoun, a Christian liked by Hezbollah and Syria, as President of the Republic.

 Just on November 4, in his abovementioned interview with the Saudi television, Hariri had harshly criticized Iran and President Aoun had called him by phone to “ask for his resignation”.

 However, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, had been elected with the consent of Saudi Arabia.

 It should be noted that on the same day, the Houthi – namely the  Yemen’s Shiite rebels – launched a long-range missile targeted to Riyadh.

 The Houthi Shiite rebels had already fired approximately 120 missiles against Saudi Arabia, but so far no one had yet reached the capital city.

 Saad Hariri has a complex relationship with both the Saudi and the Iranian and Shiite universe.

 In 2010, when he had first been appointed Lebanese Prime Minister – before some US leaders – he had often criticized the Saudi pressures  designed to put an end to the Lebanese dispute with the Syrian regime.

 Saad Hariri seemed to be very independent from Saudi Arabia and Iran. He probably thought that the latter might be useful to rebalance the Saudi influence on the Lebanon.

  Hence everything seemed obvious: Saudi Arabia did not want to trigger the fuse in Syria and wanted to avoid  destabilization in the Lebanon – inevitable after the destabilization of the Syrian regime. Finally Saudi Arabia did not accept Iran’s expansion among the Houthi and, however, deemed that all those points of tension could be easily controllable if kept separate one another.

 It is by no mere coincidence that in January 2011 – just in the year of “Arab Springs” – Saad Hariri was removed from office a few minutes after a photo opportunity with Barack Obama.

 Hariri resigned on November 4 last, in view of political elections scheduled for next May.

 Saad Hariri’s political party can win on the basis of a fundamental criterion – namely the refusal to accept Hezbollah further expansion in the Lebanon, which is increasingly widespread among Sunni voters – while currently Hariri seems to be ever closer to the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God”.

 Nor should we forget about Saad’s scarce personal and political resources, now used up in years of election, propaganda and party welfare.

 It is hence evident that, currently, Saudi Arabia no longer needs a buffer State such as the Lebanon, where to create large-coalition governments with Iranian agents but, if anything, it wants the political and territorial collapse of the Lebanon and its fragmentation between pro-Saudi areas and Shiite-controlled areas.

 Furthermore Saudi Arabia has softly let it know that it wants to replace Saad Hariri with his brother Bahaa, who – in a mix of business and politics – is closer to the new equilibrium imposed by the Crown Prince on the Saudi power elite.

Hence we are faced with a cold regional war between Shiites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which both major contenders move their minor allies on the Middle East chessboard, with the United States supporting Saudi Arabia – without realizing what is really happening – and Russia, the new actual global player in the region, having stable relations with Iran, winning in Syria, maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia and dealing with Turkey to solve the Kurdish issue.

 Nevertheless if Iran has also to deal with tensions in the Lebanon, defending the political and military power of Hezbollah – “Imam Khomeini’s beloved creature” – it cannot maintain the same economic and military standing in Syria, nor even support the Houthi rebellion with the same forces as in the past.

 It is a proxy war – hence the strategic equation is based on the possibility of consuming the opponent’s resources by  diverting them from the true targets they intend to hit.

 Iran wants Yemen because it is a way for strategically controlling – on the same territory of the Arabian  peninsula – the Sunni Kingdom and the commercial lines going to the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.

 Saudi Arabia wants Lebanon, or part of it, to put pressures  on the Syrian borders and disrupt the line Iran is  building to connect – south of Syria – the Iranian borders with those between Syria and the Lebanon.

 It is a connection that – under the supervision of the Russian Federation – enables Iran to reach the Mediterranean safely and control its indirect borders with the Sunni Kingdom.

 That is the reason why Saudi Arabia wants Saad Hariri to pay the bill just now: a few days ago the Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs said that the Lebanese Sunni leader “did not do enough” to “drive Hezbollah back into the caves”.

 Furthermore the “Party of God” has no intention of clashing directly with Saudi Arabia but, over the next few weeks, it could repeat the action against Israel which, in 2006, won wide consensus for Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

 In this case, the elections should be won with a war, forcing also Hariri and the other small Sunni political parties to come to terms with the Shiites of Southern Lebanon, who now hold and control the Armed Forces and most of bureaucracy.

 Looking to the tendencies of those who vote for Hariri’s “Future Movement” political party -Tayyar Al Mustaqbal  -it can be noted that there is an anti-Shiite polarization and an explicit rejection of Saudi’s “protection” for the Lebanon.

 The May elections in the Lebanon will be won by those who will be able to emphasize national independence and a new welfare State project.

 Ironically, according to what ascertained in 2014 by the Hague International Tribunal, it was precisely Hezbollah to organize the attack on Rafik Hariri, the first real destabilization act in the Lebanon.

 However, as said by the Russian nobleman who, after the destruction of his family by the Bolsheviks – agreed to work as Head of the Russian Protocol at the Versailles Conference: “If your mother dies knocked down by a tramcar, this does not mean that you should stop catching  it”.

 Meanwhile, after Saad’s resignation – obviously forced by a Saudi Kingdom that could not accept that in the most stable Saudi-friendly government in the Lebanon there were two  Hezbollah ministers – the Lebanese political offer is distorted and made more complex.

 Obviously the Shiite group will try to form a new government, which will have an unstable majority.

 In this case, Saudi Arabia will force the Shiite group to unintentionally destabilize its own country.

 Unless the “Party of God” starts a campaign against the Jewish State, which would distract attention from the internal political equilibria and shift it to external warfare  and would enable the Shiite group to be supported by the great majority of Lebanese people.

 Hence, while Syria is now part of the Iranian axis, Saudi Arabia wants Lebanon – possibly the whole of it – to seal the Shiite hegemony in the Syrian cul de sac between Turkey, Israel and, precisely, Saudi Arabia.

 The French President, Macron, discussed the Lebanese issue carefully in his visit to Dubai on November 9 last.

On the one hand, he underlined the French effort for achieving the Lebanon’s unity and stability while, on the other, he fears Iran’s ballistic missile program.

 They should have thought about it before, when the P5 + 1 signed the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, considering that the ICBMs – although not having nuclear warheads – may be fatal in a war confrontation.

 The US nuclear weapon psychosis has prevented from thinking about other threats, not less serious than the nuclear  ones.

 Obviously any Western country confining itself to the rhetoric of “dialogue” or trivial equidistance and renouncing to claim its specific national interest, is doomed to “come to ruin”, as the disarmed prophets described by Machiavelli.

 What could we do instead?

  For example, we could define a series of points on the Persian Gulf coast where to deploy an International Force, which should regionalize and curb the conflicts in the area,  up to making them become irrelevant.

 Moreover, with his resignation, Hariri could reaffirm his allegiance to the new course of the Saudi monarchy inaugurated by the Crown Prince while, as already noted in a previous article, Saad’s company – namely Saudi Oger – was harshly hit by Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s recent sanctions.

 Accepting the Saudi dictates to rescue himself and his “property” – just to use again  Machiavelli’s language – is a rational and understandable choice, also considering that  elections in the Lebanon are very costly.

 Nor can we rule out that, by putting pressure on the Lebanese Shiites, Saudi Arabia wants to create the conditions for an agreement with Iran in an area that is for them much more useful than the Lebanon, namely Iraq, a necessary ally for oil and an inevitable bulwark in the regionalization of Bashar el Assad’ Syria.

  Regionalization that could also be useful to Iran.

 Therefore the “Party of God” may choose to accept a compromise on the Lebanese government to defuse the confrontation with Saudi Arabia or it may create a broad front with other religious-social minorities and relegate Saad and hence the Saudis to the opposition. It may also accept a “technocratic” government that would bring the Lebanon to the May elections in a situation where everyone is hands-free – hence also Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 Nor can we rule out that Hezbollah wants to continue the alliance with Saad, thus putting the Saudi political operations in the Lebanon in difficulty.

 Meanwhile – and by no mere coincidence – this year the Lebanese government has adopted the State budget for the first time since 2005.

 A budget which is not the budget of a country undergoing an immediate financial crisis.

 The public deficit is supposed to be 5.2 billion US dollars and it should be recalled that the Lebanese lira is pegged to the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate.

 A projected deficit of 9.54% of GDP, while the GDP is expected to grow by 2.2% in 2017 with a still tragic debt / GDP ratio of 149%.

 Both the crisis of migrants from the Syrian border (so far a million and a half people) and the clash for the distribution of resources among the various political and religious areas are the reasons why public spending has sky-rocketed over the last four years.

 This makes us think that, in the future, Iran or Saudi Arabia will be interested in funding the Lebanese public debt in exchange for political and military favours.

 Finally there is a ridiculous absence of the European Union, which now thinks that foreign policy is a luxury.

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. “

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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Middle East

First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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